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Doctor Who: Legend of the Sea Devils (Review)

“Sea Devil!”

“Land Parasite!”

Well, to be fair, Legend of the Sea Devils is at least a worthy sequel to Warriors of the Deep.

The Sea Devil you know.

Legend of the Sea Devils marks a somewhat underwhelming penultimate chapter to the Chibnall era. To be fair, the stakes for a story like this tend to be quite low. These sorts of specials are largely constructed as an excuse for the production team to have a little bit of fun before drawing down the shutters on the larger era. Legend of the Sea Devils isn’t necessarily competing with something like Midnight or Heaven Sent. It is clearly aspiring to the quality of an adventure like The Next Doctor or Planet of the Dead.

Legend of the Sea Devils just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work on just about every level it is possible for an episode to fail to work on. To be entirely fair, some of this is understandable. Legend of the Sea Devils was produced in the middle of a global pandemic, which put tremendous constraints upon film and television production. Doctor Who has never had a particularly extravagant television budget, so it makes sense that these limitations would hit it hard. It is very obvious that Legend of the Sea Devils was produced under a very serious set of restrictions.

Stone-cold monsters.

This is a shame. To give the Chibnall era some much-deserved credit, Chibnall has done a decent job managing the logistics of the show. Chibnall’s era of Doctor Who generally looks quite good, certainly more expensive than it actually was. Chibnall has been very clever in pushing the show towards anamorphic lenses, and in cleverly employing location shooting to expand the scope of stories like The Ghost Monument or Demons of the Punjab. Under Chibnall, Doctor Who has felt much more global than it did under Davies or Moffat.

Indeed, Legend of the Sea Devils is clearly designed to play to those strengths. It is a period piece set outside the United Kingdom and the United States, like Demons of the Punjab. Like Rosa and Spyfall, Part II, it is a historical that is built around a female figure. In its attempt to construct an East Asian adventure built around the “pirate queen” Madame Ching, it feels like a very calculated attempt to play to aspects of the Chibnall era that have largely worked with critics and audiences. It is one last attempt to “play the hits” before drawing the curtain down for the big epic finale.

Not a patch on what came before.

Of course, stories like Rosa and Demons of the Punjab were not produced in the middle of a pandemic. The production team could fly the cast and crew to international locations to give the production a sense of scale. They could employ sizable casts, including significant numbers of extras, who could interact with one another in closed spaces. Demons of the Punjab is a very strong script on its own terms, possibly the best of the Chibnall era, but a large part of the episode’s success was also down to Chibnall’s skill at logistics and management.

To put it simply, Legend of the Sea Devils has none of that. It is quite clear that the episode had to be shot in the United Kingdom. Its primary locations are a small village and a beach. The rest of the episode takes place on soundstages. To convey a sense of majesty and scale, Legend of the Sea Devils is heavily reliant on postproduction, on green screen effects and compositing. More than that, it is very clear that the show is limited in the number of actors that it can safely place in a single location.

Not as sharp as it once was.

To be fair, although there has been no official confirmation of this, it seems likely that Legend of the Sea Devils was intended as part of Chibnall’s hypothetical third season, which transformed into Doctor Who: Flux. It makes a certain amount of sense, as Survivors of the Flux is missing a female-centric historical like Rosa, Spyfall, Part II or The Haunting of Villa Diodata. Given that the Sontarans proved to be fairly instrumental to the larger arc of Flux, it is possible that Chibnall had planned to sneak the Sea Devils in as a “classic returning monster” for a one-off story, like Village of the Angels.

This might even explain some of the stranger and more incongruous elements of Legend of the Sea Devils, such as the warping of the night sky. It’s a phenomenon that is explained in a line of throwaway dialogue within the episode itself, but which would make more sense in the context of a massive universe-sprawling epic like Flux. Still, even if Legend of the Sea Devils wasn’t originally conceived as part of Chibnall’s third season and then cut for time, the episode doesn’t feel like one that was written with pandemic limitations in mind.

Get shipwrecked.

This causes a number of problems with Legend of the Sea Devils. The most obvious is that the episode feels eerie and empty. It seems like it is taking place in a world that is curiously quiet. There have always been production constraints on Doctor Who, but this type of story is particularly affected by these limits. The other problem is that the special effects for Legends of the Sea Devils look absolutely terrible. The computer-generated imagery look surprisingly cheap and goofy, and are not deployed for maximum effect. (Marsissus leaping on to his pirate ship like Super Mario is the least of it.)

To be clear, Doctor Who has always required a certain suspension of disbelief. However, this has never really been an issue for the show, because it was never a show that relied heavily on special effects as its primary selling point. The show’s best stories treated the special effects as something of a side dish rather than the main course. It was easy to excuse an unconvincing wide shot or a questionable creature when the script was more interested in the characters or the direction was more interested in the performance.

Shore thing.

Again, Legend of the Sea Devils fails at something that Chibnall’s largely been pretty good at. One of the more consistent aspects of the Chibnall era has been the sense that, in terms of production, Chibnall and the production team wanted Doctor Who to be taken seriously. While it is debatable whether Chibnall is correct in the argument advanced by Ascension of the Cybermen that modern Doctor Who should aspire to look like Earthshock on a Star Wars budget, there is no denying that the show has often managed to deliver impressively on scale; consider the armies of Daleks, Cybermen and Sontarans in Once, Upon Time.

In contrast, Legend of the Sea Devils just looks bad. This wouldn’t be a problem, but the episode leans so heavily on the idea of scale and spectacle that its disappointing special effects wind up making the whole exercise look embarrassing. Ironically, this is similar to the problem that faced the show during the tenure of Eric Saward, which appears to have been a formative period for Chibnall’s fandom. Stories like Warriors of the Deep and Attack of the Cybermen were embarrassing because they were so committed to being taken seriously as “epic” adventures.

Don’t leave them hanging.

It isn’t just the special effects. The direction in Legend of the Sea Devils is also very clumsy. The episode’s rhythm and editing feels very much off. There is a lot of frantic cutting, as if trying to emulate the style of modern blockbusters, but it doesn’t work with the slow and lumbering form of the eponymous monsters. At various points, the action stops dead so that characters can just deliver lines, even though it seems like there should more stuff happening simultaneously.

To pick an obvious example, there is a moment in the episode when the Doctor and Yaz are staring out the door of the TARDIS. They are on the ocean floor. Most of what they can see is the ocean floor. However, the ocean floor starts crumbling and falling away. It isn’t just cracking. Whole chunks of it are collapsing into itself, like the shell of an egg. “You know the ocean floor?” the Doctor observes. “It’s kinda not there anymore.” However, because of how the actors are positioned, the scale of the effects shot, and the fact that Yaz is in the frame with the Doctor, it is very obvious that Yaz can already see the ocean floor is gone.

Killer Queen.

There are other similar problems. The daytime sequences on Madame Ching’s ship look distractingly artificial and over-saturated, as if rendered inside a computer. This would be forgivable or understandable if the show didn’t demonstrate that these sequences could look a lot better. When the Doctor and Yaz journey back to Ji-Han’s ship, the same sets are lit much more atmospherically and have a much more stylised aesthetic. It doesn’t look naturalistic, that but that’s not a problem. It looks good, particularly when compared to the overlit sequences with Dan and Ying Ki.

To put it simply, Legend of the Sea Devils is dysfunctional in ways that Chibnall’s Doctor Who is rarely dysfunctional. It is an episode that seems consciously designed to play to the production strengths of Chibnall’s tenure, but which somehow bungles all of the stuff that the show usually takes for granted. Episodes like The Ghost Monument and The Tsuranga Conundrum do not really work dramatically, but they are put together with a basic level of competence that is sorely missing from Legend of the Sea Devils.

Not quite ship shape.

It might be tempting to excuse Legend of the Sea Devils. After all, this was a pandemic production. However, the truth is that Doctor Who: Flux looked a lot better and more professional. More than that, Chibnall has demonstrated that he is a canny line producer. For all the narrative and thematic issues with Eve of the Daleks, that was an episode built around the understanding that the production team was working with a limited cast in a few locations, and so played to those strengths. Chibnall was canny in producing Eve of the Daleks, so it is frustrating that he was so sloppy with Legend of the Sea Devils.

These problems are compounded by the usual narrative issues with the Chibnall era. The script is packed with exposition that over-complicates a relatively simple and linear plot, assuming that having characters speak more dialogue at a greater speed will make the episode seem smarter. “Since when do Sea Devils have a ship?” the Doctor asks at one point, in what seems like a nice reference to Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. However, Marsisuss replies, “Since me!” It is nonsense.

The Devil’s in the details.

Of course, it’s worth asking whether Doctor Who really needed to bring the Sea Devils back. After all, the Sea Devils were always just a version of the Silurians that the Doctor didn’t have to feel too ethically conflicted about. They were a copy of a much more interesting species, one that Chibnall resurrected more than a decade earlier in The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood. It feels like an extension of the nostalgia that informs so much of Chibnall’s tenure, particularly stories like Fugitive of the Judoon. The Sea Devils are an alien that fans might recognise, so they should be brought back.

This was obvious from the way in which Legend of the Sea Devils was announced at the end of Eve of the Daleks. The entire trailer was built around the idea that the return of the Sea Devils was an event – that they were creatures of “legend.” The episode title was announced slowly, with words “legend”, “of” and “the” fading into view, before paying off with a money shot of the aliens. There was a clear sense that Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who thinks that the words “Sea Devils” and that familiar face should be enough alone to drive the audience into a nostalgic feeding frenzy.

Now you sea me.

It is very similar to Chibnall’s efforts to establish the Sontarans as a credible threat in War of the Sontarans, to bump those aliens up several rungs on the hierarchy of Doctor Who villains purely because they have been around long enough. Truth be told, Davies managed to bring back most of the truly iconic Doctor Who aliens with cultural capital: the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Master, even the Autons and the Sontarans. It’s almost quaint to remember when Steven Moffat had to be convinced to bring back the Ice Warriors in Cold War, insisting that Mark Gatiss at least have something new or interesting to say about the aliens.

There is no sense that Chibnall really has anything of value to say about the Sea Devils. There is no fresh angle here. There is an interesting moment early in the episode, when the Doctor calls Marsisuss a “Sea Devil”, and Marsisuss responds by branding her a “Land Parasite.” It is a moment that acknowledges just how loaded the term “Sea Devil” is, like the conversation about calling a horror movie Alien in Last Christmas. However, instead of using that as an opportunity to develop the Sea Devils into a multifaceted culture, by allowing them to state their own name, the episode just uses it for a cheap joke and moves on.

There is something in the water.

This is frustrating, because there is certainly fertile ground to mine here. As Danny Nichol notes in Doctor Who: A British Alien?, the Sea Devils have historically been coded in terms that evoke the racist clichés of “yellow peril”:

The tale contains an array of Cold War signifiers: brain control; secret agents; the oriental costumes of the Sea Devils (and mention of “triads”), which codes them as the Chinese cousins of the presumably Soviet Silurians; a weapon of mass destruction in the form of the Myrka, an electrocuting dinosaur; a missile which destroys organis tissue but leaves property intact; a successful bid by the Doctor at unilateral disarmament (he earns trust by surrendering his firearm); and at the end (unusually in a Doctor WHo adventure) everyone dies, reptiles and humans like, aapart from the Doctor and his two companions.

As such, given the East Asian setting of the story, it feels like a missed opportunity that Legend of the Sea Devils never bothers to develop its aquatic menace beyond the stock clichés that appeared in The Sea Devils and Warriors of the Deep.

The measure of a monster.

There is nothing especially interesting or fresh about the Sea Devils in Legend of the Sea Devils, outside of the fact that they are aliens that first appeared in The Sea Devils and so have some continuity cachet. Indeed, they seem fairly generic. They pull their victims underground, like the Silurians in The Hungry Earth and Cold War. There are vibes of Ashad the Last Cybermen in some of Marsisuss’ villainous monologuing. “I was betrayed!” he tells his followers. “The call went out and you awoke, and now our time has returned!”

Marsisuss is evil for the sake of being evil. “You want to create chaos,” the Doctor helpfully states, establishing him as pretty much a stock Chibnall era villain. Like the Flux, Marisisuss is defined not by his willingness to commit mass murder, but by the challenge that he represents to the existing status quo. His plan is some vaguely defined threat that plays as a broad metaphor for climate change, planning to raise the ocean level “until the whole Earth is flooded.” There is no nuance here, no complexity. He is a bad guy doing bad things, and the audience shouldn’t worry too much about his motivations.

He’s quite (p)irate, if you ask me.

This is a shame, because the prosthetics are really good. The costumes look great. The masks are delightful creature effects. Marsisuss is a surprisingly effective monster, and the decision to bring him to life using practical effects helps to give the character a physical presence. Marsisuss is perhaps the one element of the episode where Chibnall’s strengths as a producer are evident. He looks great, and it would be fantastic to see those effects used in service of a more interesting character in a more compelling story.

That said, there is surprisingly little substance in Legend of the Sea Devils. There seems to be no subtext or metaphor, no strong central character arc, no particularly engaging theme. It is hard to explain what Legend of the Sea Devils is about, beyond being “about forty-eight minutes.” The episode just plods along. It almost feels like a cynical attempt to cash-in on the popularity of nautical adventures like Pirates of the Caribbean or Master and Commander: Far Side of the World, but even that reference feels curiously dated. Do kids like pirates at the moment?

A stone-cold killer.

It doesn’t help matters that Legend of the Sea Devils falls back on recognisable clichés of the larger Chibnall era. Chibnall shares a co-writing credit with Ella Road, but a lot of the episode’s structure is familiar. This is most notable in the massively hypocritical attitude towards violence. “You didn’t have to kill him!” the Doctor chastises Madame Ching after she kills a Sea Devil, but the episode then goes on to celebrate Dan’s ability to murder Sea Devils en masse. “Where did you learn to deal with your enemies like that?” Ji-Hun asks. “You should meet me mum,” Dan replies. There is no self-awareness here.

Similarly, like The Timeless Children and The Vanquishers, Legend of the Sea Devils builds to a completely unnecessary sacrifice of a guest character. It’s a really underwhelming attempt at pathos, particularly given that Ji-Hun isn’t even the tertiary guest character in a fifty-minute episode; the script is more interested in Madame Ching, Marsissus and even Ying Ki than it is in him. This is a hallmark of the Chibnall era, a facsimile or a simulacrum of real drama, something that worked really well in another story or script, but which is repeated without any substance or meaning.

Another kind of ship.

That said, it is worth acknowledging that Legend of the Sea Devils at least returns to the implied relationship between the Doctor and Yaz. The show acknowledged Yaz’s attraction and the Doctor’s awareness of that attraction in Eve of the Daleks, and the characters admit it to one another in Legend of the Sea Devils. However, the result is frustratingly cliché and noncommittal. As with a lot of Chibnall’s run, Legend of the Sea Devils feels incredibly self-satisfied for approaching big ideas that the show actually explored and developed under showrunner Steven Moffat.

Most obviously, Legend of the Sea Devils falls back on the familiar angst of the Doctor being an immortal wanderer who is incapable of maintaining relationships with her companions. This was a big theme during the Russell T. Davies era, particularly in stories like The Girl in the Fireplace or School Reunion. It was in some ways a concession to the structure of the show, which required the companions to be regularly written out. It was also a piece of character drama extrapolated from the internal logic of a show where one of the leads was thousands of years old.

Barrelling along.

Davies mined this premise for interesting drama. However, Moffat made a point to push past it, acknowledging that the show couldn’t keep recycling old character beats over and over again. Much of the Moffat era was built around the Doctor realising that this attitude towards companions was emotionally reckless, and caused real harm. Much of the Eleventh Doctor’s arc was given over to trying to heal the harm that he caused to Amy, trying to figure out how to stay in one place. The Eleventh Doctor’s arc culminated in becoming “the man who stayed for Christmas” in The Time of the Doctor.

Similarly, the Twelfth Doctor took his “duty of care” to Clara seriously. He acknowledged the responsibility that he owed to his companions. A large part of his relationship with Clara was built around the idea of acknowledging the companion’s autonomy and equality in the relationship. Similarly, the Twelfth Doctor makes a decision to spend twenty-four years with River in The Husbands of River Song, and vows to dedicate his life to guarding Missy in Extremis. Moffat’s tenure was largely about the Doctor recognising toxic patterns in his behaviour and trying to fix them. He might occasionally fail, but the effort mattered.

Yaz we can.

As such, there is something deeply cynical in how Chibnall returns to the dynamice that informed The Girl in the Fireplace and School Reunion more than fifteen years earlier, as if the Doctor has learned absolutely nothing in the intervening years and as if the show itself is incapable of actually growing and changing. “Yaz, I can’t fix myself… to anything, anywhere, or anyone,” the Doctor tells Yaz. “I’ve never been able to. It’s what my life is.” It feels very overwrought, very calculated, very reductive.

More than that, it ties awkwardly back into the larger themes of Chibnall’s run, particularly the idea in Survivors of the Flux that the entire Doctor-companion relationship is the Doctor unconsciously replicating and perpetuating the abusive dynamic that she had with Tecteun. There is something really bleak and cynical in all this, which would seem to poison the relationship at the heart of Doctor Who. It seems to argue that victims of abuse are destined to perpetuate that cycle of abuse, and that healing and growth are impossible, that these people with these dysfunctional habits cannot “fix” themselves, so why bother trying?

Taking another stab at it.

It is a deeply unsettling way of approaching the relationship between the Doctor and Yaz, suggesting that the show has learned nothing from the tenures of the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors, and in fact actively rejected the more humanist and optimistic themes underpinning those character arcs. Legend of the Sea Devils seems to suggest that the Doctor is broken, and will always be broken, and that any attempt to try to be healthier is doomed to fail, so why even bother trying? It renders the Twelfth Doctor’s care for Clara, River and Missy completely pointless.

More fundamentally, it demonstrates the toxicity of the nostalgia that underpins so much of the Chibnall era, the idea that perhaps Doctor Who cannot really change or grow, that the best that it can aspire towards is a delivery mechanism for nostalgia. The Thirteenth Doctor’s relationship to Yaz invites the viewer to remember the Tenth Doctor’s relationship to Rose and Martha, because that was one of the most popular eras in the show’s history. The Sea Devils similarly tickle the nostalgia receptors of fans who like to see things that they recognise.

Leaving the door open.

It’s deeply frustrating that, as the era comes to a close, Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who feels like nothing more than that.

17 Responses

  1. Well done on this review, Darren. It’s pretty late over there, isn’t it? I’m glad you’re still here writing these even as you’ve gotten yourself a more steady source of income.

    This didn’t work for me on any level. I think it was actually worse than Planet of the Dead or a Knock Knock. At least The Curse of the Black Spot had the excuse of the 2011 budget. This was poorly paced, poorly structured, and with absolutely no substance.

    1 episode to go.

    • Yep. This may have… worn me down would be the polite way to put it. I don’t mind the… less than stellar production, even if it robs the Chibnall era of the one strength that it has. It’s the really trite “broken people are and always will be broken, and there’s no point in trying to fix them, just as there’s no point in trying to fix the world” stuff that really beats me down.

      But look, it’ll be over soon. I am so very tired.

      • Are you prepared to admit now that this is worse than Saward? I think we’re at that point.

  2. I decided a few days ago to wait for the reviews before giving this episode 48 minutes of my life. I’m glad I did.

    This era cannot end soon enough.

  3. I wish the last four and a half years of Doctor Who were erased. It has been excruciating to watch the show I’ve loved all my life be systematically taken apart, so called ‘re-invented’, littered with pantomime characters (The Master top of the list), scripts that have not deserved to have got past a child let alone educated executives. Roll on August – I want this whole period to become just a bad memory as quickly as possible – Chibnall should never have been employed – please, please, never let him near the series again.

    • Ah, it is what it is. I don’t mind this era existing. There are people who enjoy it and all that.

      That said, I do hope the show learns the right lessons from this. Trying to turn Doctor Who into generic Netflix content doesn’t work.

  4. All the Chibnall episodes leave me cold. It’s like I’m introduced to good ideas that have no build up to attach me to them. Yaz is not amazing but the doctor tells her she is, but it’s not based on anything that we feel when we hear the declaration, you end up just remembering other incarnations that pulled at your heart. The big story should have been the father and son we meet at the beginning but nothing in what’s shown of their relationship pulls you in, the fact that they’ve guarded the statue for ever but someone just comes along and cracks it open, I want to care but I just don’t. I think the cast are all great actors made unremarkable by the stories.

  5. As much praise as Chibnall has gotten for his production chops, Flux and these past two specials (this one in particular), have seemed pretty haphazardly put together.

    I understand the pandemic has made things difficult, especially when one of the main draws of series 11 and 12 was the beautiful location work, but at what point do covid restrictions stop being an excuse for shotty editing and bland direction?

    • I am perhaps kinder on this. I think that, for all its narrative and thematic issues, Eve of the Daleks is a canny piece of production. It realises that it has certain constraints and works within them. However, Legend of the Sea Devils shows none of that consideration, and is just all the worse for it.

  6. Totally crap actually watched it when it came on in oz 7am fell 😴 after 15 minutes bring back russell

  7. I believe this episode would have been better if The Doctor & co, and The Sea Devils, just stood around and did nothing. Wait, that is what they did. Through no fault of the actors in the series but the writing, the characters don’t do or say anything which creates empathy. This has been a consistent issue through the current iteration of the series.

  8. When this episode was coming up, one aspect I started thinking about was the show confronting a superpower.

    Not every episode with a US connection features it, but, y’know, this American acknowledges that the mad(wo)man in a police box can’t let the US play global policeman in an episode.

    So RTD vaporizes the US prez, Moffat helps us laugh at Nixon, and Chibnall misses no chance to make the white population of Montgomery, Alabama, or fake-Trump, look downright horrible.

    And that’s okay.

    So I wondered, given that I’m sure the BBC would rather not lose the China market, how Chibnall would treat China, a less-forgiving world power than the US.

    And he retreated into the past, and didn’t do it. Understandable, I suppose. I mean, I don’t blame him. Just feels like a missed opportunity somehow.

    Darren, any thoughts? Or am I just wasting time in more pleasant cogitation than the ep is worth?

  9. The worst aspect of the Chibnall Era for me is that it’s all so mind numbingly bad that it takes reviews like this to actually help me understand why an episode doesn’t sit right with me. I could watch a Moffat era episode for the first time and have a strong negative reaction to it and know why I hated it because I had good stories to contrast it with.

    This is an era that has made me expect and even accept mediocrity and the bare minimum; to the point where I can watch an absolute shitshow like the character-regressing Thasmin resolution here and be okay with it on first viewing, because I’m so desperate for something, _anything,_ that resembles character drama.

  10. I just finally watched it. That was really boring. It is sad really because the vision of the ship and the sets were cool. I really found the Doctor too smarmy and flippant for the entire show. It felt wrong. At the end of it all. It was just boring as heck.

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