Warning: this Doctor Who review contains spoilers.
As the middle child in a run of Doctor Who specials, ‘Legend of the Sea Devils’ finds itself in something of an unenviable position. Much like Easter 2009’s ‘Planet of the Dead’, the episode can’t rely on the star power of foes like the Daleks or Cybermen, and people are already looking past it in anticipation of upheaval and an upcoming regeneration later in the year.
Of course, the same was true of ‘The Waters of Mars’, and that more than earned its place in fans’ hearts thanks to its great premise and performances, so it’s still possible for a stand-alone story to surprise us if it’s told well. ‘Legend of the Sea Devils’, it must be said, is not a surprising story, although the tone it takes is rather unexpected.
When hearing that Doctor Who would be tackling its first pirate adventure since ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’, it was easy to assume that the TARDIS would be heading to the Caribbean at the height of the Golden Age of piracy for seafaring shenanigans of the kind Dan came dressed for. The story chooses to focus on a different era, though, and so Thirteen and Co. find themselves in China in 1807, a few short years before pirate supremacy in the region came to its end.
It’s quite a gloomy episode, full of murk and mist, which may come as a surprise to some. It’s also an episode with a rather confused beginning – the characters insist they’re here by mistake and were expecting a beach holiday, but the Doctor and Yaz are both wearing period-appropriate clothing and Yaz went out of her way to dress Dan up like Captain Pugwash, so it feels like an early chunk of the script may have been snipped at some point.
Either way, after some anachronistic gizmo nearly wrenches the Doctor’s ear off they soon hear the sound of screams, because a Sea Devil is casually massacring the inhabitants of a nearby village. Sea Devils, for the unfamiliar, are aquatic cousins of the Silurians last seen on-screen in 1984’s Fifth Doctor story, ‘Warriors of the Deep’, and possess pretty much the same character traits – an advanced society that evolved long before humans and consider themselves rightful custodians of the Earth. Except they live in the sea, obviously.
In previous reviews, I’ve expressed irritation at the names of major characters getting left out of dialogue during Chris Chibnall’s tenure. This week, it turns out that this episode’s main antagonist doesn’t actually have a name – Craige Els, fresh from his run as Karvanista in Flux, is simply credited as “Chief Sea Devil”. The episode’s IMDb page names him as Marsissus, though, so that’s what I’ll run with here. Marsissus is hunting for something, but is vexed enough by the Doctor’s arrival that he summons his own flying pirate ship, leaps aboard and leaves empty-handed.
When reimagining both the Silurians and the Ice Warriors since its revival, Doctor Who has chosen to pay homage to the rubber suits of its older episodes by explaining that they were suits, allowing the likes of Madame Vastra better makeup and more expressiveness once the armour’s off. There’s no hand-waving the old Sea Devil designs away, though – these are large, chunky prosthetics, driven mostly by practical effects with some post-production touches (like blinking) added in afterwards.
The upside to this is that the lumbering creatures really do feel like they’ve got some weight behind them when swinging a sword or looming over the Doctor, but it comes at the cost of mobility and, frankly, them looking a bit rubbish in promotional images. They’re better in motion, but the results are still mixed, especially when the camera has to cheat moments of athleticism like Marsissus leaping aboard his ship. More generally, they get around this by having Sea Devils step out of a cloud of mist to get where they need to be.
The reason Marsissus is lumbering around at all is because he was freed from life as a statue by Madam Ching, who by rights should be ruling most of the pirates in the region at this point in history. She’s fairly unrepentant despite having unleashed the Sea Devils (and killing the man who tried to stop her), stating only that the statue contained information she needed – the location of the Flor de la Mar, a ship that sank centuries before with a vast wealth of treasure aboard.
Deciding that the best way to a pirate’s heart is through their hoard, the Doctor and Yaz hop back into the TARDIS and go looking for where the vessel went down, arriving in its final hours to find her captain, Ji-Hun, forcing the crew to abandon ship at the behest of… Marsissus. His past self, that is. For a moment it looked like we might get some ‘City of Death’-style antics with the same villain in two time periods, but the Doctor chooses not to stick around.
Their next stop is the sea bed, where the Flor de la Mar is conspicuous by its absence, leading Jodie Whittaker to deliver line-of-the-episode “No ship, Sherlock!” What is here, though, is a hungry leviathan summoned by the Sea Devils, and the TARDIS soon gets chomped and dragged off to their lair.
Dan, meanwhile, has teamed up with Ying Ki, son of the man cut down by Madam Ching, and together they sneak aboard her ship to find that she’s sailing it solo. They’re immediately captured, of course, and Ching reveals that she’s seeking treasure because her crew have been taken hostage by a rival fleet, including her two young sons.
Ching’s ship is an expansive set, and while we only ever see above decks it’s an impressive accomplishment. It is a shame that the lack of a busy pirate crew (a decision doubtlessly influenced by safety concerns when filming in the pandemic) means the actors do feel a bit swamped by their surroundings. Dan and a reluctant Ying Ki agree to serve as shipmates, though, which is just as well, as Marsissus’ megalodon soon makes its presence known… briefly.
A mighty sea battle is not to be, as a single volley of cannon fire seems to drive the creature away (even though it spits the shots right back out again). Instead, the beast turns tail and returns to Marsissus – who now has the Doctor and Yaz prisoner in his undersea base, along with Ji-Hun in stasis – and the Sea Devil Supreme announces that his pet has finally located the keystone, an object ‘of infinite power’ that was used to seal him away in the first place.
Next, we get another of those moments that suggest another chunk of script was excised. One minute the Doctor’s fiddling with the controls that will make the augmented Flor de la Mar return to the surface – the next, she, Yaz and a miraculously freed Ji-Hun are fleeing the ship, swinging from ropes to reunite with Madam Ching and the others. We didn’t see them escape from Marsissus, we just have to presume that they did because, well, here they are. There’s no running down corridors this week.
A moment later, Marsissus vapes in, grabs the keystone from around Ying Ki’s neck (it’s been passed down as a family heirloom ever since Ji-Hun smuggled it off the Flor de la Mar) and the Doctor deduces that with it, he’ll be able to technobabble a way to flood the Earth. Now it’s Team TARDIS’ turn to board, hopping onto the Sea Devil ship too late to stop Marsissus. With more Sea Devils on the way, it’s time for the swashbuckling swordfight we’ve been waiting for.
Does it swash? Somewhat. The choreography of the fight itself is suitably frenetic, and Madam Ching takes the opportunity to save Ying Ki’s life, but Dan defeating a Sea Devil by kicking it onto the floor feels a bit limp. So too does the Doctor disarming Marsissus with – what else – her sonic, but it’s a solid enough brawl given the budget and circumstances.
From here, it’s a straightforward run to the episode’s end. The Doctor engineers a way to destroy the Sea Devils’ base and save the world – one that requires one person to stay behind and die because two cables need holding together. The Doctor is of course willing to sacrifice herself, at least until Ji-Hun volunteers to take her place at which point she’s all too happy to scarper. (If the Doctor carries anything in her Time Lord pockets, it really should be a roll of duct tape.) The last of the Sea Devils are dispatched, everyone escapes in the TARDIS and Ying Ki becomes Madam Ching’s latest crewmember.
Next comes a scene whose presence in this episode is welcome but surprising: the Doctor finally having that talk with Yaz after bruising her feelings earlier in the episode, with none of Thirteen’s usual evasiveness or feigned emotional naivety. Thasmin fans will be a bit gutted to see Yaz being rebuffed not by the Doctor, not because she isn’t “brilliant”, but because the Doctor’s both afraid of being hurt and troubled by what she learned during Flux: her time is running out.
It’s strange and sad to see the Doctor pouring cold water on the idea of romance, but it’s good to see it addressed here, in a moment where Whittaker and Gill can take their time with the material – especially when the upcoming regeneration could easily have been used to end the relationship without ever addressing it directly.
And that about wraps it up for ‘Legend of the Sea Devils’, a moody and oddly melancholic episode wrapped in the trappings of a grand pirate adventure it doesn’t quite have the capacity to live up to. Solid performances from the guest cast and the regulars carry the story along whenever it stumbles, but the moment that will carry us through to Jodie Whittaker’s final outing won’t be Sea Devils, a criminally-underused sea monster or the teased return of the Master. It’ll be the Thirteenth Doctor and Yaz on a beach together, skipping stones.
Doctor Who: Legend of the Sea Devils is available to stream on BBC iPlayer in the UK. Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall’s final episode is due to air this autumn.