In a swashbuckling special adventure, the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Dan (John Bishop) come face to fin with one of the Doctor’s oldest adversaries: the Sea Devils. Why has legendary pirate queen Madam Ching come searching for a lost treasure? What terrifying forces lurk beneath the oceans of the nineteenth century? And did Yaz really have to dress Dan up as a pirate?
Review by Tim Robins
On Easter Sunday, Doctor Who laid an egg with Legend of the Sea Devils, a glossy enough affair that fell apart in the editing room and, probably, the script department.
The premise was positive enough – some of Doctor Who’s 1970s’ “monsters” return from the sea with a villainous plan to flood the world, unveiled in a time-hopping romp, during which The Doctor reveals that she would totally be with Yaz.
Firstly, well done to script writers Ella Road and Chris Chibnall for whisking interesting historical figures into the mix. Set in 1807 (and, briefly, in 1533), the plot revolves around real world pirate woman Ching Shih (Crystal Yu) who, so the Radio Times tells me, rose from a life of poverty to the command of over 300 pirate ships and 20,000 pirates, before forging alliances with other pirate leaders and creating a naval force of over 1500 ships. As a CV, that is hard to beat.
Yu was a regular in the BBC drama Casualty, and brought much needed energy to the Easter Who adventure. Her Madame Ching was given a character arc of sorts, changing from a ruthless pirate Queen to a charismatic, principled Captain, although that was more of a change in perspective because the actual Ching was both of these and, by 1807, her career as a pirate was almost over.
Apparently, the missing 16th century ship, the Flor de la Mar, actually existed. It sank, laden with plundered treasure from Portugal, in a storm off the coast of Sumatra. News that the ship had been sunk by the Sea Devils and that a powerful, orange stone was among the treasures on board was an interesting enough reveal, even though the quest to find it was delivered in what has become wearing, garbled dialogue that often seems designed to remind audiences that there actually is a plot. Usually, such information arrives just in time for a bout of renewed action, but unfortunately quite a bit too late for me to care.
The scrambled story also saw Liverpudlian companion Dan (John Bishop) team up with Ying Ki (Marlowe Chan-Reeves), who has been orphaned by Ching and seeks revenge for the death of his father. Dan and Ki are poached by Ching to serve on her ship and help rescue her crew, who have been kidnapped by rival pirates. Then, as if by magic, a sea monster appears; not the lurid green, panto-horse Myrka used by the Sea Devils in Warriors of the Deep (1984) but a wonderfully menacing CGI affair, seen cresting above the waves.
The return of the so-called “Sea Devils” was, of course, eagerly awaited by fans including those of us who remember them from The Sea Devils (1972), a comparatively oft-repeated story that cemented them in the minds of audiences. The Sea Devils and their scaly cousins, The Silurians, were imaginatively released back in the day by John Friedlander, who managed to give many of his creations a glistening, fleshy quality missing from later incarnations.
I wasn’t best pleased to see the Silurians revived as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine style humanoid folk in The Hungry Earth in 2010. But one of Chibnall’s great contributions to Doctor Who as showrunner has been insisting on creature designs that stand up to 4K reproduction and have a fidelity to the original costumes – if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Unfortunately, for me, the actual dramatisation of the characters suffered from the current mode for garbled, rapidly delivered dialogue.
What was needed was time and space to involve me with the characters and their fate. Telling me you’re going to flood the Earth by using energy to reverse its magnetic poles just doesn’t cut it. This is where a climate change plot would have been entirely appropriate, but instead, with a title that gestured to Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings, and a plot revolving around an energy stone, I have a horrible feeling that Chibnall not only wanted to channel the production values of Netflix series but seriously had his sights on rivalling the Marvel Comics Universe.
The romantic relationship between The Doctor and Yaz was incredibly awkward and more than a little immature. There was zero chance of the couple going legs-over-easy. But the wistful scene of the pair looking out to sea and The Doctor’s inkling of trouble ahead was well handled considering that there is very little chemistry between the pair.
The trouble with Legend of the Sea Devils is that it worked as a series of holiday snap-like scenes. The reveal of the Sea Devil statue was excellent, the sight of the ship locked in an undersea cave was fine, and the arrival of the Sea Devils’ monster was suitably ominous. However, it was as if the director and editor had picked up the scenes and cut them to bits with a pair of scissors.
Action scenes don’t require frenetic cutting, they need to provide a sense of where characters physically are to make sure the audience can read what’s going on. These days, you just can’t fake action through editing. Doctor Who needs to be able to afford and give time to action – more Ambassadors of Death and less Tom Baker’s lackluster sword play in The Androids of Tara.
There were many good things about Legend of the Sea Devils, including excellent post-production colour processing, an inventive story and some involving character moments. I totally approve of seeing the TARDIS materializing on an ominous or eerie landscape. At last, someone remembers a Doctor Who trope that has kept viewers hooked since the end of the very first episode in 1963.
Alas “Doctor Who” and “hooking viewers” is a contradiction in terms, at least for this episode. Overnight audience figures were pegged at 2.2 million viewers, placing Doctor Who as the 11th most watched programme on Easter Sunday. That figure is in line with some of BBC’s headline drama series, including His Dark Materials and Easter Sunday is hardly a night for sitting at home watching TV. Inevitably, the number one slot was taken by a reality talent show.
While it is hard to look sunny-side-up at the rating, I’m not convinced that the audience were responding to the actual story content of Legend of the Sea Devils. However, some fans have reported feeling bored and disinterested with the episode. I think this stems from rushed dialogue, confused direction and an over abundance of plot twists. Certainly, after all the time-hopping and hand waving exposition, I found myself thoroughly at sea!
Dear reader a review is an opinion, not a statement of fact – other opinions are available, including yours
The Doctor – Jodie Whittaker
Yasmin Khan – Mandip Gill
Dan Lewis- John Bishop
Ying Ki – Marlowe Chan-Reeves
Madam Ching – Crystal Yu
Chief Sea Devil – Craige Els
Writers: Chris Chibnall, Ella Road
Director – Haolu Wang
Executive Producer – Matt Strevens
Executive Producer – Nikki Wilson
Executive Producer – Chris Chibnall
“Doctor Who goes all Pirates of the Caribbean, albeit with a flying pirate ship, an underwater prehistoric monster and a lot more angst than laughs”
“The Sea Devils are faithfully resurrected but the adventure on the South China sea is wishy-washy.”
A freelance journalist and Doctor Who fanzine editor since 1978, Tim Robins has written on comics, films, books and TV programmes for a wide range of publications including Starburst, Interzone, Primetime and TV Guide.
His brief flirtation with comics includes ghost inking a 2000AD strip and co-writing a Doctor Who strip with Mike Collins. Since 1990 he worked at the University of Glamorgan where he was a Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Media Studies and the social sciences. Academically, he has published on the animation industry in Wales and approaches to social memory. He claims to be a card carrying member of the Politically Correct, a secret cadre bent on ruling the entire world and all human thought.