Doctor Who: Legend of the Sea Devils assures us that Chibnall has run out of steam ahead of the BBC Centenary special.
Doctor Who returned on 17 April for an Easter Sunday special with the episode Legend of the Sea Devils.
Yet even in a chocolate induced coma, anyone could see this episode was struggling.
The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) lands in early 19th century China to discover that historical figure Madame Ching (Crystal Yu) had unleashed an imprisoned Sea Devil from its stone statued form.
With the assistance of Yas (Mandip Gill) the two-dimensional sidekick, and Dan (John Bishop), a Liverpudlian with a history infatuation, the “fam” try to decipher the mystery of why the Sea Devils are returning to the ocean’s surface, and more importantly, why they’re now flying a ship ominously similar to the Flying Dutchman from pirate folklore.
Though, unfortunately, as exampled in Doctor Who: Flux concluding late 2021 and Eve of the Daleks from 2022’s New Year’s Day, the show is suffering from a lack of cohesion due to showrunner Chris Chibnall struggling to make ground with the limited time he has left to make his mark on the show.
As such, we have a forced queer-baiting from Chibnall, as Yas and the Doctor speak in love-insinuated hypotheticals as they hop back in time to rescue a random pirate from the mid-16th century.
All the while, Dan is ditched in 1802 dressed as Smee from Peter Pan to fend for himself with a historic person of influence Madame Ching, which despite being a history nerd, and tour guide, doesn’t find himself amazed at history unfolding in front of him.
However, to be fair to the man, he is probably still reeling in post-traumatic stress, Dan has admittedly gone through a lot all in the space of a week. After being placed inside a kennel by Karvanista; watching the universe itself dissolve; facing off Sontarans in the Crimea War; and fended against Weeping Angel assassins, with his house miniaturised to the size of a Polly Pocket, I can’t blame him for not giving a second look at yet another historical figure.
Similarly, we as an audience would also be forgiven for thinking the show wants us to care about this historic person of importance either, unlike episodes pulling on history in the past: Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Rosa Parks, or Nikola Tesla, in Legends of the Sea Devils, we as an audience learn nothing about Madame Ching aside from her pirate lifestyle.
We don’t understand her motives, her beliefs, her morals, her ideologies, or her flaws. Instead, she’s just a treasure-seeking pirate, given the same poor treatment to history as Queen Nefertiti was given in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, another episode previously written by Chris Chibnall.
Further to this, the story of the Legend of the Sea Devils in the first act sets up already answered problems. For instance, where has a specific missing ship gone that is hundreds of years old, despite moments earlier watching a ship that looked ancient and barnacle-covered fly overhead the characters.
And then when the episode isn’t answering questions it had already given you the answer to, as if it were some awful version of the memory game from Generation Game, the show then rushes the final act of Legend of the Sea Devils, so it can spend longer queer baiting the two female leads for a ‘will they, won’t they’ moment that anyone with a brain could see would become the crux of the BBC Centenary special later this year.
It is a shame, ultimately, that after the show resolved all tension of the Legend of the Sea Devils, this could have provided an oppurtunity for Chibnall, and co-writer Ella Road to work on building up character moments, beats, and personal conflicts that would have played into Chibnall’s strengths after being the showrunner for Broadchurch.
Speaking of working with Ella Road, Chibnall said, that he “had been intending to do a pirate story during Flux and we didn’t manage to make it work for all sorts of reasons.
“Ella (Road) then came to us with the idea of Madam Ching – this incredible character from history – and it all knitted together thanks to her.”
Instead, the episode sputtered and chugged its way over the finish line, with fatigue and nihilism, hoping to wake audiences as it teased the forthcoming finale in the fall, or hoping to ruffle feathers amongst viewers about the Doctor once again having a love interest, this time over Yas.
When questioned about the relationship, Chibnall said:
“I think really, in Eve of the Daleks, both Yaz and the Doctor have hinted that they have feelings that they are suppressing and keeping quiet about.”
However, in the episode, the Doctor states that she has never felt so strongly about someone before as she does for Yas, which audiences would be remiss to presume the Doctor, in their infinite lifespan, has forgotten the heartbreaking tale of how Rose became trapped in a parallel world.
Though, to give credit, the prosthetics, costume design, and in-camera effects are well achieved. The Sea Devils, similar in the backstory to the Silurians, were menacing, and the blinkering eyes, facial expressions and grandeur were frightening.
Even if when shot in high definition you can see the outline of the performer attempting to deliver their lines through the costume, I was still amazed by the level of quality of the Sea Devils’ costume, and it added to the ominous role they played for the first time in several decades.
Further to this, the Sea Devils’ motive was clear from the beginning. Flood the Earth for the oppurtunity to take back what was theirs before mankind developed and habited the land.
On the back of this, I was therefore curious as to why the full Legend of the Sea Devils episode was set in the 16th and 19th centuries, as the episode could easily have been set in the future, becoming a tongue in cheek message about global warming becoming an ever-present threat, and the Sea Devils were just causing havoc against us, humans, for trying to revert the damage already made.
Why flood the Earth in the 19th century when in the 21st century, we’re doing it all by ourselves.
But, in an episode designed to be a teaser for Jodie Whittaker’s finale episode later this year, we would be insane to expect greatness from consistent mediocrity. And Doctor Who: Legend of the Sea Devils definitely delivers mediocrity.
Doctor Who: One Last Hurrah
It seems for this reason, that the show is putting all its easter eggs in one basket for the Centenary episode.
With the Master (Sacha Dhawan), Cybermen, and the Daleks all appearing for the first time ever in the episode, it will be Chibnall and Whittaker’s last foray into the science-fiction show.
The trailer for the feature-film length episode will also see the return of two former companions, Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding) and Ace (Sophie Aldred) as well as Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) and the return of Vinder (Jacob Anderson).
Fan-favourite Ace, who was the companion to Slyvester McCoy’s seventh Doctor between 1987 and 1989 when the show was pulled from the air, will be most memorable to audiences as the companion who struck a Dalek with a baseball bat in true anarchistic mode.
Sophie Aldred performed as Ace in promotional material for a Doctor Who DVD collection in 2019, as well as authored a book based on her character, At Childhood’s End, and during her role as Ace fought against the Master, Daleks, Sea Devils, Cybermen, and bad writing.
Speaking of her return, Aldred said, “It’s been quite a challenge to have such a big secret to keep, even from my family, and I couldn’t be more thrilled and excited to have been asked back.
I hope everyone enjoys it as much as I adored being part of the TARDIS team again.”
Doctor Who will air later this autumn with a feature-length episode to celebrate the BBC having its centenary.
It is expected that Jodie Whittaker’s replacement as the Doctor will be announced in the coming weeks ahead of showrunner Russel T. Davies returning alongside Bad Wolf Productions.
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