I watched the Doctor Who Easter special (BBC One) with my children, nine and 11, and their response to the Sea Devils, the scary monsters du jour, was telling.
“Aww, so cute!” was presumably not what the programme-makers intended when they decided to unleash a malevolent alien master race dead set on ransacking the universe, but the kids had a point: somewhere along the line the Sea Devils had lost their devilry and turned in to this season’s must-have cuddly toy.
This wasn’t the fault of writers Ella Road and Chris Chibnall (unless they’d specifically stipulated a merch deal in the script) but it did undermine that most basic tenet of premium-grade Who: there has to be an element of menace beneath the Gallifreyian gallivanting, and if there isn’t the kids can spot it from a mile off.
Without that creeping dread, The Legend of the Sea Devils was reliant on a potpourri plot as watertight as a colander that featured a legendary pirate queen Madam Ching (Crystal Yu) who’d come to a 19th century Chinese fishing village searching for lost treasure. In between a bit of low level pillaging she smashed up a statue, unwittingly unleashing both the Sea Devils and an army of Whovians diving in to the Tardis Wiki trying to remember where we’d seen the Sea Devils before.
I did the same: the Sea Devils are Doctor Who villains from the prehistoric era – or, as we call it, 1972. Cousins to the reptilian Silurians, they’re seafaring marauders who were the previous inhabitants of the Earth, and now they were coming to take it back. And in my house, we’d have happily given it back for one big squishy snuggle with the lovely bug-eyed tortoise people.
But that wouldn’t have gotten the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) anywhere, so on we surged, to the bottom of the sea and below, then several hundred years back in time to a Chinese warship that had lost its crew, and finally to a 19th century Man O’ War for some buckling of swash.
Frankly, the climactic sword fight, barrelling from the poop deck to the fore deck and every deck in between, was both a culmination and a relief because, as so often in Chibnall-era Who, the preceding plot was garbled beyond recognition. The clarity, therefore, of having the goodies swinging cutlasses at the baddies and the Doctor swinging on a rope felt as though a veil had been lifted.
By some way the best part of The Legend of the Sea Devils, however, had nothing to do with the Sea Devils or their legend. The nascent relationship between the Doctor and Yaz (Mandip Gill, superb) has been the most memorable aspect of the last few Whos and promises to form the crux of Jodie Whittaker’s forthcoming exit.
For sure, they’re stringing it out but watching Whittaker’s Doctor coming to terms with the meaning of commitment for a person who can never remain in one timezone, let alone one place, was genuinely affecting. And the kids liked it too – for the finale let’s hope the writers have the confidence to promote the real story of the last few seasons to the main plot.