Image Credit: BBC (Fair Use)
Image Description: Ji Hun and Madam Ching prepare to fight on deck
Avast me hearties! You be warned of spoilers as John Salway reviews a tale of nautical nonsense.
The second Doctor Who special of the year, Legend of the Sea Devils, takes the Doctor, Yaz and Dan to nineteenth century China for what was promised to be a rousing pirate adventure. Unfortunately, the episode fails to capitalise on either its historical setting or its titular enemies in the finished product.
Visually, the Sea Devils are halfway to greatness. The masks look great when still, presenting an updated but still very faithful version of their classic series look. But they’re hampered by a lack of face and mouth movement that could really bring them to life. This is unfortunate, as beyond their appearance, the Sea Devils in this adventure could be any generic monster. They are presented as an implacable menace with no deeper motivations than conquering the world and killing all the “land parasites” upon it. They use swords now, seemingly just to contribute to the pirate aesthetic, and display the hitherto unknown power of teleporting through patches of green mist. In one unintentionally hilarious moment, the lead Sea Devil (who I don’t think even gets a name) performs an incredible backwards, momentumless leap onto his departing ship that would put any video-game hero to shame. In an era that has thus far done a good job of refreshing returning villains, this feels like a misfire.
Our supporting cast are also disappointingly generic, with real-life historical figure Madame Ching in particular unexpectedly sidelined for much of the episode, despite the trailer promising more. Each character gets a little hint at an emotional plot, from Madam Ching’s need to find the lost treasure to save her sons and crew, to Ying Ki’s wish to avenge his father and fulfil his family’s duty. But these are very by-the-numbers motivations that have really very little to do with the Sea Devil plot. Finally, we have Ji-Hun, a character from even further back in history who seems to exist purely for plotting purposes. After a villain fake-out that allows us to discover his true motivations, he gets a couple of scenes before a tacked-on moment of redemption as he ‘pulls a Ko Sharmus’ and sacrifices himself so the Doctor doesn’t have to.
With the main plot something of a washout, a lot of my enjoyment of this episode comes down to its handling of the ongoing Doctor/Yaz storyline. As in Eve of the Daleks, I was pleasantly surprised by some thoughtful, honest writing. It’s clear immediately that this is not territory this Doctor feels comfortable exploring, and she sends Yaz some very mixed messages in her attempts to let her down gently, in a way that seems very human, yet humorous. First seeming to declare she doesn’t do romantic relationships, before immediately mentioning her wife River, the Doctor’s clear hypocrisy here seems more a symptom of this incarnation’s social anxiety and fear of what’s coming in the near future than an innate wish to shut down Yaz. It’s certainly the latter who shows more maturity here, quoting her nan that “courage is knowing something will hurt, and doing it anyway”. While the episode ends with the Doctor attempting to put the issue to bed, there is a real sense that Yaz has exposed something here, and that the Doctor is not being entirely truthful in trying to downplay her own feelings. I’m hopeful that Chris Chibnall is playing a long game here, with this trilogy of specials leading to the Doctor finally showing that courage and releasing some of the emotions she seems to be suppressing.
Legend of the Sea Devils just about scrapes a passing grade by continuing to serve Jodie Whitaker and Mandip Gill with solid material, and a developing relationship I’m invested in. The standalone aspects of the episode, however, do little to inspire. It’s just as well then, that the ‘Next Time’ trailer directly after the episode provoked an intense bout of excited yelling from my direction – while I don’t think Legend of the Sea Devils will ever be a favourite of mine, I will always look back fondly on the experience of watching it live.