Jodie Whittaker’s penultimate, swashbuckling adventure features the return of a long-absent Classic villain and some sweet, intimate moments, but this isn’t enough to redeem the episode
Starring Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, and John Bishop
Time is running out for Jodie Whittaker’s thirteenth incarnation of The Doctor, and for showrunner Chris Chibnall, with “Legend of the Sea Devils” signalling the penultimate adventure for them both. Already fan attention has turned to what lies beyond the pair, with internet speculation rife with who the next performer will be to take up the illustrious mantle of the world famous Time Lord when Russell T Davies steps back into place 13 years after he left. Additionally, “Legend of the Sea Devils” is tasked with continuing the long-anticipated confirmation of the Doctor and Yaz’s romantic feelings following “Eve of the Daleks”‘ revelations.
Reportedly, “Legend of the Sea Devils” was written as an additional episode when the BBC requested a Doctor Who special to celebrate the broadcaster’s centenary. Written by Chris Chibnall along with newcomer Ella Road, this perhaps unfortunately shows in the tale. Despite the reappearance of the Sea Devils, who were first introduced to screens opposite Jon Pertwee’s Doctor in 1972’s story “The Sea Devils” and last appeared facing off against Peter Davison in Season 21’s “Warriors from the Deep” in 1984, the plot is outrageously thin, the resolution clumsy and the pacing overwhelmingly bizarre. It does, however, excel in its quieter moments, especially when it utilises Jodie Whittaker and Mandip Gill’s spectacular chemistry to reflect upon the connection between the two characters.
“Legend of the Sea Devils” sees the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Dan (John Bishop) arrive off course (unsurprisingly) in 19th century China, meeting Madame Ching (Crystal Yu), the pirate queen, and villager Ying Ki (Marlowe Chan-Reeves) after Ching has unwittingly set free a dormant Sea Devil (Craige Els) in order to find the lost treasure of Ji-Hun (Arthur Lee).
Returning to Doctor Who after almost 40 years is no mean feat, but rather than completely redesign the Sea Devils, as had been done with relative species the Silurians in their Series 5 appearance for “The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood”, the Sea Devils retain much of their usual look, using CGI to aid realism. Unfortunately, CGI as a whole for this special was perhaps pushing the realms of believability, with many sequences looking amateurish and cheap, doubtless to make room for the more spectacular sequences involving the Doctor and Yaz looking over the sea basin. Much as CGI sequences do help Doctor Who appear more epic in scope, this only really works if all of it looks spectacular, so perhaps director Haolu Wang, or, equally, scriptwriters Ella Road and Chris Chibnall, should have reduced the number of effects sequences to a more attainable level.
As an antagonist species within Doctor Who, the Sea Devils are somewhat unique. Amphibian counterparts to the Silurians, both the Sea Devils and Silurians are native to Earth and view the planet as their own. This concept was used to great effect in “The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood”, with the Doctor treating the species on a par with humanity. Here, however, it has little bearing to the plot other than a few throwaway lines, and the Sea Devils’ plan, to flood the Earth and claim it for themselves, could have been a plot given to any alien species and just relegates the Sea Devils away from the more reasoned, diplomatic species previously seen to a mere invading race.
Additionally, the pacing is massively off, reducing any sort of tension or suspense. Things just happen suddenly. There’s no sense of reveal, like the Sea Devils emerging from murky waters like in times gone by. The Sea Devils themselves are dwarfed by an apparent leviathan that lurks beneath the sea which already dwarfs their threat. Moreover, characters just seem to jump from location to location. The Doctor, Yaz and Ji-Hun just magically appear back on Madame Ching’s ship mere moments after the Doctor giving some vague technobabble about bringing it to the surface, then somehow manage to get back onto the Sea Devils’ ship (despite it floating some way above them), then escape the Sea Devil ship in the TARDIS, bringing with them the all-important treasure. All of this happens, however, with shoddy editing and confusing camera angles so it’s not entirely sure what’s going on. Additionally, other than the greenish tinge of the Sea Devils’ ship there’s not terribly much to differentiate the two crafts, and with simple one-liners giving lots of plot information, it’s easy for viewers to get lost amongst what is occurring.
While the plot is somewhat lacking, the episode sings when it comes to the emotional component. Whittaker and Gill as the Doctor and Yaz have terrific chemistry, and the quieter moments where the pair just awkwardly look at each other have palpable tension. Where Yaz and the Doctor stand romantically also makes complete sense from a character perspective, and demonstrates an understanding of what being in love with the Doctor is. There cannot be a happy ending for Yaz and the Doctor – not least because Whittaker is due to regenerate in the following episode, but also because the Doctor as a character is doomed to outlive her companions and, barring a rehash of the MetaCrisis Doctor, domesticity is not in the cards for this pairing.
Where this falls down slightly, however, is falling into the trap of Chibnall once again telling the audience how brilliant somebody is instead of showing it. Flux has come a long way in Yaz’s characterisation. For Series 11 and 12 she had little to do except exist in the background, the companions not the focal point of the plot, unlike under previous showrunners. For the Doctor to attest to Yaz that she could be the best person she’s ever met, and “if it was going to be anyone, it’d be you” doesn’t quite feel earned. Yaz and the Doctor just haven’t had that close rapport with each other that the Doctor had with Rose, or Donna, Amy, Clara or even Nardole. The audience haven’t really seen the pair travelling just as a unit, and while Flux did a lot to sell the idea of the connection between the two, it still feels a little convoluted and forced, despite the palpable chemistry between the two. The show still has not invested enough in Yaz as a character for it to feel real or earned.
Since this was likely an additional episode that is merely meant as a stop gap between stories, a lot can be forgiven. Ultimately, it was frothy, diverting entertainment on an Easter Sunday which doesn’t actually make that much sense, or, at least, is not communicated in a clear way to the audience. The continuation of Yaz and the Doctor’s relationship was handled well with brilliant, nuanced performances from both Whittaker and Gill.
However, the real moment that had the audience gasping was the “Next Time” trailer, given audiences a hint at what is coming as Whittaker’s Doctor meets her end. By all accounts, it looks set to be epic, with returning friends and foes alike. As the Doctor faces off against the Daleks, Cybermen and the Master (Sacha Dhawan), former companions Tegan (Janet Fielding) and Ace (Sophie Aldred) are returning, in a move that has set the fandom abuzz since. With a Classic companion not appearing in New Who since Elisabeth Sladen’s appearance in Series 2’s “School Reunion”, this has certainly increased anticipation for Whittaker’s final instalment.
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