A treasure hunt, a revenge vow, a noble sacrifice, unrequited love and more than a passing nod to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise – we were promised a swashbuckling Easter special, and it partially delivered. You don’t often get to see the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) sword fighting, we’ve never seen the Tardis open her doors like that underwater before, and there was a satisfyingly huge sea beast for good measure. But it all ended up slightly less exciting than that sounds on paper.
It was easier to warm to this episode from the second act onwards, once they had boarded the ships. The opening sequence in the village seemed very disjointed. It was raining in the village, but not on the beach, and there didn’t seem to be any set-up for the part with the Tardis crew trapping the Sea Devil in a net, Scooby-Doo style. It was as if five minutes of the episode was missing.
Dan (John Bishop) was once again the main source of comic relief, from his ludicrous pirate costume to his customary wisecracking in difficult situations. We know he’d had practice against the Sontarans with his deadly wok, but it was still surprising how brutally efficient he was at despatching Sea Devils in the final battle scenes.
Much of the pre-publicity had focused on the fact we would meet legendary real-life pirate Madam Ching (Crystal Yu), but we learned relatively little about her life. Actually, it was Arthur Lee’s Ji-Hun who provided more of an emotional focus and leadership role. His sacrifice at the end seemed on the cards from the moment we knew he had been held captive by the “Ocean Demons” for centuries, and was now a man out of time.
Sum it up in one sentence?
The Sea Devils have a flying pirate ship, an underwater prehistoric monster, and a plan to change the surface of the Earth for ever – if they can just find that one magical lost treasure.
Life on board the Tardis
Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill) and the Doctor had “the chat”. And as many expected, it looks like heartbreak for Gill’s character, with the Doctor mentioning her wife for the first time – essentially putting Yaz into the I-would-but-I-can’t friendzone.
The scenes didn’t necessarily ring true. The Doctor said that Yaz was “one of the greatest people I’ve ever known”, but as much as Gill has contributed to the series both on- and off-screen, the character of Yaz has never really had enough development to warrant the Doctor saying that. “I wish this would go on for ever,” said the Doctor, skimming her wishing stone at the end of the episode. We very much know it won’t.
On a possibly happier note, it was lovely to see Dan speaking to Diane (Nadia Albina) again, with the hope that he might get back to Liverpool one day. It must have been down to trauma, but the way she seemed to be blaming him for her experiences at the end of Flux last year always felt like too much of a sour note for their story to end on.
The scenes of the Sea Devil mercilessly slaughtering everyone in the village upped the ante for them as villains right at the beginning. It instantly undercut anything comedic about the faithful adherence to their 1970s appearance. In the past, we’ve seen them rely more on stealth and menace than sword fighting, but they worked well retooled as prehistoric aquatic samurai.
They seemed far more technologically advanced than in their previous appearances, though, and now have a device that could switch the polarity of Earth’s magnetic core, plus the ability to teleport as a green mist – which suited an episode that was visually at its most powerful in the murky green-lit underwater base scenes.
Mysteries and questions
We are one episode away from the end of Whittaker’s Tardis tenure, and it was hardly the time to be setting up new puzzles. So the biggest mystery was why you would cast Craig Els as Chief Sea Devil, rather than have him back as Dan’s disgruntled but adorable Lupari protector Karvanista – which he played so brilliantly last year. Marlowe Chan-Reeves’ Ying Ki acted as sideman to Dan here, and the show missed Els’ big grumpy walking-talking-outer-space-dog.
Deeper into the vortex
Sea Devils first appeared 50 years ago in a well-received eponymous 1972 Jon Pertwee story shot mostly on location on the Hampshire coast, featuring an iconic scene of them walking out of the sea.
They returned in a less well-received 1984 Peter Davison story Warriors of the Deep, where they teamed up with the Silurians and – I kid you not – a creature called the Myrka, which was a pantomime horse painted green with some seaweed glued to it. Times, and budgets, were very different then.
In the extended Doctor Who universe the “proper” species name of the Sea Devils has been given in books and audios as either Aquatic Silurians or Reptilia Sapiens.
The 13th Doctor got to use the 11th Doctor’s catchphrase of “Geronimo!” as she swung from pirate ship to pirate ship.
At just 47 minutes long, Legend of the Sea Devils is the shortest episode billed as a “special” since the show was revived in 2005.
If you need more Doctor Who, the BBC today launched a new 10-part audio story – Doctor Who: Redacted – from the pen of Juno Dawson. It tells the story of The Blue Box Files, a paranormal conspiracy podcast about … well, you can guess. It features cameos from Whittaker as well as several other characters reprising their TV roles.
Daleks! Cybermen! Sacha Dhawan’s hot camp Master! Companions back from the 80s! For a man who started his first season in charge of Doctor Who promising no old monsters and no convoluted back-story, showrunner Chris Chibnall certainly seems to have thrown everything and the kitchen sink at the finale of his and Whittaker’s era, which will air later this year to coincide with the BBC’s centenary. And by then we might know who the returning Russell T Davies has cast as the 14th Doctor. I can’t wait. Until then, allons-y!