“A big standalone bank holiday action romp for all the family,” is how outgoing Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall talked up this second of Jodie Whittaker’s last lap run of specials. And yes, in many ways, he’s bang-on, as Legend of the Sea Devils was indeed a rollicking, Hollywood-chasing swashbuckler with just the right dusting of colour and bombast.
If the episode felt a tad throwaway, then maybe that’s what we needed after the brain-melting gloom of Eve of the Daleks. And if that New Year’s Day special sometimes felt like a sweet echo from the Steven Moffat era with its baroque, puzzle box plotting, this one was much more inclusive, a simple, straight-shooting Doctor Who adventure that wasn’t just playing to the swots.
Doctor Who has paddled in pirate waters before, of course, with 2011’s Hugh Bonneville-starrer The Curse of the Black Spot. This episode, however, has a more frolicsome tone, and visually adhered closer to the movies that inspired it. Though Madam Ching’s ship was an entirely Roath Lock Studios construction, skilful lighting and some deft CGI work (or should that be sea-GI?) give the episode a breezy aura that the dingy-looking Black Spot sorely lacked.
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Of course, for all its piratey trimmings, this episode’s USP is the return, after 38 years, of the Sea Devils. They’ve been one of Doctor Who’s pin-up monsters for 50 years, despite only appearing in two stories, first in 1972 and then again in 1984, buddied up with their land-lubbing cousins the Silurians.
It’s a testament to monster maestro John Friedlander’s iconic design that not only are they so affectionately remembered but that, in 2022, they need so little updating. Aside from a lick of digital work on their eyes (these ones blink so much you’d think they were suffering from blepharospasm) and mouths, they’re absolutely the same critters that rose out of the sea and onto that Portsmouth beach 50 years ago.
Quite why the Doctor refers to them as Sea Devils, however, is a head-scratcher. The ‘Sea Devil’ epithet originally came, back in their debut story, from the mouth of a seaman to describe the creatures that were terrorising the SS Pevensey Castle. Okay, so the Silurians referred to them as ‘our Sea Devil brothers’ in 1984’s Warriors of the Deep, but that never made any sense either.
Surely the Doctor addressing them as Sea Devils is kinda, well… racist? This was a perfect opportunity for Chibnall to add something meaningful to the Who canon and dignify their race with a proper name. I mean, the Doctor doesn’t call humans ‘land crawlers’ like the Sea Devils do, in their own casually xenophobic way.
Missed opportunities aside, the episode did take Doctor Who back to a country it hadn’t visited since 1964’s Marco Polo. Okay, so, like that William Hartnell story, the budget didn’t quite allow for the show to lens on real Chinese soil, but, unlike the ‘yellowface’-burdened Marco Polo, it did provide some beefy roles for actual Asian actors. Crystal Yu and Arthur Lee both give full-throated performances as Madame Ching and Ji-Hun respectively, while Marlowe Chan-Reeves’ Ying Ki is another name to add to the open-ended ‘companions we’d like to see’ list.
Of the companions we do have, Jon Bishop continues to underwhelm as Dan. As an actor, he’s less of a black belt than the similarly light ent-reared Bradley Walsh, and often seems lost at sea — metaphorically and literally — in Legend of the Sea Devils.
Mandip Gill fares better, but she’s still burdened with a profoundly bland character. The so-termed ‘Thasmin’ attraction between her and the Doctor has never felt even vaguely plausible, given the character’s crushing vapidity.
“You’re one of the greatest people I’ve ever known,” the Doctor tells her, which, given she’s met Elizabeth I, Charles Dickens, Rosa Parks, Queen Nefertiti and William Shakespeare, sounds crazy. If the Doctor could fall in love with Yaz, why not the infinitely more interesting Tegan, Turlough, Donna or Amy? After the blindingly smart and bewitchingly impish River Song, it’s like following a mint Viscount with a water biscuit.
After the occasionally mazy plotting of the Flux season and the Moffat-like dazzle of Eve of the Daleks, Legend of the Sea Devils serves very much as a palate-cleanser, a candied treat before the inevitable poignancy of Whittaker’s finale.
“I wish this could go on forever,” the Doctor tells Yaz in those closing seconds and it’s the most heartbreaking moment in the episode. Because, as every viewer knows, it absolutely won’t – the 13th Doctor’s time is nearly up.
Doctor Who: Legend of the Sea Devils is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.