What’s The Show? The second-last Jodie Whittaker Doctor Who story, Legend Of The Sea Devils.
What’s It All About, JG? The TARDIS is pulled off course to 19th Century China, where a statue has been
convincingly attacked by Madame Ching (Crystal Yu) who’s searching for treasure, only to reveal… a Sea Devil! Excitement? Er… anyway, Dan encounters Ying Ki (Marlowe Chan-Reeves), whose father was killed by said Sea Devil back in the day aboard the ship Flor de la Mar. They sneak aboard Madame Ching’s pirate ship and are immediately captured. She reveals that she needs the treasure from the selfsame Flor de la Mar to get her crew back – they’ve been kidnapped and are being held to ransom. The Doctor and Yaz slip back in time to the 16th century to try and find the treasure, unsuccessfully, and are taken to the Sea Devils’ underground lair. It turns out the Sea Devils are looking for the Keystone to execute their plans and flood the Earth, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s currently hanging round the neck of Ying Ki, passed down from his father. The captain of the Flor de la Mar, Ji-Hun (Arthur Lee) has been kept alive in stasis by the Sea Devils and had tricked them by getting the Keystone safely away. There’s a battle on the Sea Devil-converted wreck of the Flor de la Mar, and Ji-Hun sacrifices himself so the regular cast can escape and the Sea Devils are foiled. It all wraps up with a scene between the Doctor and Yaz, where the Yaz confesses her feelings and the Doctor gently, but firmly, turns her down. And then we get that trailer…
Why Did You Give It A Go? Go on, guess.
Is It Any Good? It just sort of blandly exists, which is about the worst sin a Doctor Who story can commit. You’d think bringing back the Sea Devils might give things a bit of a shot in the arm, but it seems not. Coming off the rather unexpected triumph of Eve Of The Daleks and the wonky but much-improved Flux, Legend Of The Sea Devils just feels like a complete return to the worst instincts of the Chibnall era – a rough story, something familiar to latch on to, run things for 45 minutes, done. Now, that’s not quite the whole story here, and we’ll get to that, but it’s certainly the bulk of it. It’s extremely frustrating to have this be Jodie Whittaker’s second-last story and have it be so… average. It’s not as aggressively terrible as, say, Planet Of The Dead (little is) but it’s still pretty mediocre given that it’s the big reintroduction of a classic monster.
But then again, the new series has never done particularly well when bringing back monsters from the old show. Putting the Daleks to one side, because they’re very much their own thing (an ontological force of narrative collapse, to be precise), none of them have really fared all that well. The Sontarans have only ever been interesting once – the Jon Pertwee story, The Time Warrior – then went on to be rubbish for the rest of the classic series. And they’re essentially reduced to either a one-note joke (Strax) or the most generic villains possible to get them to work in the new show. The Cybermen have had… two decent stories in the new series, maybe? World Enough And Time / The Doctor Falls and The Haunting of Villa Diodati, with Ashad The Lone Cyberman in the latter being a genuinely fantastic concept. But that’s it. The less said about the Ice Warriors the bette. The Silurians gifted the show with Madame Vastra but their actual return, written by… oh, Chris Chibnall, was blandly unremarkable. Almost all the Master stories have been rubbish, and many of the Missy ones too, though that’s often obfuscated by the brilliance of Michelle Gomez (World Enough And Time / The Doctor Falls again proving to be the good-story exception). When you’re looking at the Macra as your best-case scenario things haven’t gone great. The point of all of this is that, if you’re paying attention, it should be perfectly clear that “classic monster returns” just isn’t enough to hang a story on and you need more, and thus is proves to be here.
Because what even is the story here? That plot summary took ages (and an assist from Wiki) to write, because what we have on screen is just incredibly disjointed and incoherent. The editing is appalling, the story seems scattershot and little of the beats of the Sea Devils’ plan is actually made clear enough to follow. It’s all dreadfully contrived, with the Keystone proving to be a bog-standard McGuffin which… will invert the Earth’s magnetic field and… uh, then water water everywhere? ‘kay. Sure it makes sense, probably, that the Sea Devils want to eliminate the “land crawlers” but the actual plan to do that just feels completely random. Doctor Who plots don’t need to make a great deal of sense as such but they need to be comprehensible or at least easy to follow. And, yes, if you dive into enough detail here all the bits are more or less there, but it’s very badly brought together on screen.
And the Sea Devils could be pretty much any monster for all that they contribute to this story. The Doctor gets one throwaway line about how they’re not invaders but the original occupants of the planet, then we hastily move on. Though it’s an obvious beat and one that’s been played before, as far as the new series goes this really needs to be emphasised because that’s their whole motivation. It’s their planet, we’re the invaders! But no, it’s just skated over and on we go. Oh, and we also get the Doctor mentioning that the Sea Devils are “honourable” – a line also rather thrown away, though Whittaker does her best with it – except there’s no evidence for that at all. They were little more than lumbering bad guys and patsys of the Master in The Sea Devils and they’re reduced to being nothing more than shock troopers for the Silurians in Warriors Of The Deep (the shock, presumably, being how bad they are on screen and how catastrophically misjudged that whole “samurai” look was).
So if the plot isn’t up to much, and if the Sea Devils themselves are a bust, then we can definitely turn to the characters to shore things up, right? Eh. Ish…? Madame Ching – a real-life character brought into the Doctor Who fold – is genuinely fascinating, and it’s great to see the show be a lot less Western in its outlook and actually spend time inside another culture. This is also the rare production where everyone other than the regulars (and, alright, the Sea Devils themselves) are entirely non-white. There’s not a single white face to be seen that doesn’t belong to either Jodie Whittaker or John Bishop. And for all the faults of the Chibnall era, earnestly exploring historical characters and settings is actually one of the things it’s good at – think of Tesla, James VI/I or, yes, Rosa Parks. Or the way we get to spend real time inside history with Demons Of The Punjab or even War Of The Sontarans. They’re not necessarily all great episodes but there’s a real, genuine and sincere commitment to understanding and investigating those characters and settings. So this ought to be something that’s well within the Chibnall era’s wheelhouse.
Why, therefore, is Madame Ching such a non-presence? Crystal Yu does OK in the role, but she’s given practically nothing to work with, no real character beats other than trying to rescue her crew, and just seems to stand there for much of the time. Aargh! This is where one of the few virtues of this era really needs to shine! And as a side-note, 19th century China consists of one beach, one boat and a small village square we spend next to no time in. There’s just no real sense of presence. Again, this should be something the show in this era should have no problem with, but again it falters. Anyway. Marlow Chan-Reeves does fine with the role of Ying Ki, but wide-eyed comic side-kick isn’t the most demanding or exciting role ever. As Chief Sea Devil, Craig Els has a suitable line in hissing out his threats but it’s hardly remarkable either.
Which brings us to our regulars. Let’s get Dan out of the way first here, because he gets bugger all to do and won’t detain us long. John Bishop continues his surprising ability to make Dan work despite the odds and when he’s on screen, which isn’t much, he’s perfectly fine but with not a lot to do he’s a fairly minor presence in all of this. Nice pirate costume, mildly funny that the hook comes in useful in the big climactic battle, that’s about it. He’s a bit wasted, all told, but then again, he’s not really the focus of this story. The Doctor and Yaz on the other hand… Here we see the consequences of Yaz’s admission that she has feelings for the Doctor back in Eve Of The Daleks. There’s any number of ways this could have gone, but at the very least we can be happy that there’s a proper follow-through – it’s not ignored or swept aside.
There’s three key scenes here, the “underwater date”, the Doctor’s admission while trying to save the day, and the episode closer with the two of them on the beach. The first is downright charming, and we’re given an absolutely gorgeous shot of the TARDIS underwater, surrounded by sea-life (including a cuttlefish, which is great because cuttlefish are awesome) as they lean in closer and closer… then the Doctor pulls away and Yaz looks just slightly crestfallen. It’s a lovely beat from both Mandip Gill – who’s really learned how to play this side of Yaz – and Whittaker, who avoids the Doctor’s usual blithe dismissal but also doesn’t move things forward. The second scene – with the Doctor dashing about trying to save the day while also telling Yaz how much she means to her – is less successful. That’s partly because it’s not really the right moment for a hearts-to-heart, but also because the way that the Doctor speaks of Yaz as being brilliant and if it was going to be anyone it would be Yaz and Yaz you’re the most excellent of all (and so on) just doesn’t quite ring true. Again, Gill and Whittaker are not at fault here and they deliver everything as well as they possibly can but there’s just not been enough build-up to this. We haven’t seen the Doctor be that impressed by Yaz. They like each other, clearly, and work well together as part of the TARDIS team, but the feelings have very much been one-way and not the Doctor to Yaz. It’s a clunky bit of writing to try and get the end scene to work. And work it very nearly does! That final scene on the beach is absolutely lovely, it hits absolutely all the right notes, and the Doctor makes Yaz aware, in a kind but unquestionable way, that nothing’s going to happen and that it can’t. And despite that, they still enjoy their moment of quiet stillness on the beach, wishing it could go on forever. It’s completely charming and exactly what we needed more of prior to this to make the whole thing work. It just needs more work done to get to it.
So yeah. Good isn’t the world.
Fair’s fair though, the “no ship, Sherlock” was a fantastic line.
Would You Recommend It? Nah. Find the three key scenes on YouTube, watch them there, and move on with your life. This is just so utterly inconsequential, and a real bust as Our Jodie’s second-last outing in the role. For all that the Yaz/Doctor character moments land, it might actually have been better to have this the other way – have it be “the love that never could” because the Doctor’s regenerating next time out and play that for tragedy and loss. That feels like a more fruitful approach and avoids the nagging feeling that the Doctor’s “Yaz 4 Eva” speech during the climax is just a speedy rewrite of the “you can spend the rest of your life with me but I can’t spend the rest of my life with you” speech the Doctor gives to Rose from School Reunion. As always, it’s impossible not to feel sorry for Whittaker, who just deserves so much better than this. And Gill, finally allowed to play Yaz as a character with depth shortly before she bows out, should have had way more chances to do this from the start. As mentioned, both work hard to make the material sing, and at least there’s some build-up in Flux, so that’s something but it’s just not quite enough. And look – I get that the romance wasn’t a planned development from the start and that it grew from the way Whittaker and Gill played their roles, and it’s great to see a writer leaning into that rather than shying away from it – not everything has to be planned and a natural evolution is perfectly fine. But it also just needs to be a bit more (though it’s a nice moment when the Doctor mentions “my wife” without missing a beat) and it isn’t.
Beyond that, what is there to recommend here? The production is fine as far as it goes, and while the scope is clearly limited things like the ship seems convincingly solid, the secret base looks OK, and the Sea Devils themselves look fine. The string vests of yore have gone, and they look a bit less rubbery than before – though only a bit, it must be said – and they can do things like blink now. Thanks, CGI! As ever there’s little match-up between mouth movement and actual voice, though they have a little flashing box on their chest to cover this obvious shortfall – ah, the classics! They’re still pretty cumbersome though, and while they tower over the human cast quite menacingly in static shots or enclosed spaces the direction has to work hard to make them seems convincingly athletic during the fight sequences. The “twinkletoes” moment early on is laugh-out-loud funny, not necessarily in a bad way it’s just very unexpected, but during the climactic sword-fight there’s a lot of closeups on blades clashing to disguise the fact that even CGI can’t make those costumes look especially mobile. And of course, a special mention to the biggest missed goal of them all – we finally have a massive sea creature, convincingly rendered in CGI, that even manages to get the TARDIS between its teeth, and it’s not the sodding Myrka! For Rassilon’s sake… No panto horse, no comment.
And we can probably leave it there for a story that never stinks up the joint but also nev… oh no. Wait. Wait! We can’t leave it there! Because there’s the tiny matter of that trailer to discuss as well! Now, nobody was assuming that Jodie Whittaker’s departure was going to be a small-scale character piece. There’s lots of things to tie up from this era, after all. There’s the cryptic message the Doctor received at the end of Flux that her time is nearly done, there’s still scads of Timeless Child stuff that needs to be squared away (oh joy), the Doctor herself needs to go out on an appropriate note, Dan and Yaz need to exit stage right (pursued by Sea Devil?) and of course we need the regeneration.
Even given all of that, though, there’s a lot packed into that one little trailer. Daleks! Cybermen led by Ashad, the Lone Cyberman! The Master cackling away like a demented thing! Kate Stewart! And… fuck me! No really, fuck me! Ace! Fucking Tegan! Hooo-fucking-ray! Talk about throwing everything against the wall! And yet.. and yet… this is genuinely exciting! It’s not that there’s a lot of faith left in the writing at this stage in the game – maybe Chibnall will pull off a miracle and get his era to come together in its final moments, but it’s hard to think it likely – but just the sheer buzz of seeing Sophie Aldred and Janet Fielding again was more than enough to make my day. Both companions are top-three of the original series for me (with Barbara rounding out the list, for those who are especially interested in such things) and it’s just completely thrilling to see them there again, back in the Doctor Who saddle once more. So of all the things I’m looking forward to now, what’s going to be done with them is pretty much top of the list. Of course I want Whittaker to have a fantastic story to go out on. Of course I hope Yaz and Dan get suitably appropriate wrap-ups. Of course I can’t wait to find out who the new Doctor is going to be and what RTD is going to do when he returns to the show. But… Ace! And Tegan! That alone has my pulse racing.
Do. Not. Fuck. This. Up.
Scores On The Doors? 5.5/10