The year: 1807. The place: a small village on the coast of China. The situation: the feared pirate queen Madame Ching descends upon the village. Her interest: a mysterious statue of a “sea demon” guarded by Ying Wai and his son Ying Ki. After slaying Ying Wai, the pirate unwittingly awakens the creature trapped within the statue.
And then the Doctor, Yaz and Dan arrive.
The fam just defeated the Daleks in contemporary Manchester (in “Eve of the Daleks”) and decided to follow that adventure up with a jaunt in 19th-century China in search of the lost pirate treasure of Flor de la Mar. This gives them the chance to dress in period garb, with Dan in particular getting in the spirit:
Not pictured: the hook that replaces Dan’s right hand.
The Doctor immediately recognizes the monster as Sea Devil. Like their landborne “cousins” the Silurians, the Sea Devils ruled the planet before the human species and think of the Earth as rightfully belonging to them. This particular Sea Devil (apparently named Marsissus, although I don’t remember it ever being spoken in the episode; the credits only refer to him as “Chief Sea Devil”) has an overly complicated plan to wipe the “land crawlers” from the face of the planet. He also has a three-hundred-year-old Chinese pirate in suspended animation, said pirate’s ship (modified so it can fly), and a ginormous sea monster called a “Hua-Sen.”
That’s just some of what’s going on in “The Legend of the Sea Devils.”
The Sea Devils are one of my favorite classic Doctor Who monsters and I was stoked for their first appearance in the series since 1984. On the other hand, I have been less than impressed with the Chris Chibnall era. So I was optimistic, but cautiously so.
First off, let’s look at the Sea Devils. These things are frickin’ beautiful! They’re creepy and menacing, and remain faithful to the classic series design while still looking like a modern special effect. (Compare this to the Silurian redesign, which takes another striking monster from the same era and turns it into something that looks like it belongs on Star Trek.) It’s a good thing that they look so good because the characterization is severely lacking, at least for the one Sea Devil we actually get to know. Marsissus your typical monstrous megalomaniac, he only wants one thing and that’s the entire destruction of the human race. Their one-dimensionality is not entirely out of sync with their portrayals in the classic series, but I couldn’t help but be disappointed, especially considering the Doctor gets a speech about how the Sea Devils are supposedly honorable and avoid violence. Overall, the Sea Devils come off as a generic Doctor Who monster here and I never got the feeling that this story needed to feature them; any old aquatic monster would have worked.
Another thing I don’t feel the episode needed was a huge world-ending plot. In fact I felt the particulars of the production were at odds with the desire for an epic scope: if anything, a bit of a more intimate vibe might be more desirable between the drama of the Daleks’ return and Whittaker’s final bow in the upcoming centenary special. This would also fit the reduced number of speaking roles (doubtless a side-effect of having to produce the show during the height of the pandemic) which give the village, and the production as a whole, a bit of a depopulated feel. Oh well, at least the swashbuckling is proper exciting.
Turning to the cast and characters, Jodie Whittaker and Mandip Gill are fantastic as ever. They even manage to make the newfound romantic tension between the Doctor and Yaz, which seemingly came out of nowhere in “Eve of the Daleks,” work, although I’m still not sold on the necessity of said tension. John Bishop doesn’t annoy me as much as he usually does, but that’s largely because Dan doesn’t have a whole lot to do here except be comic relief. The guest is excellent, with Crystal Yu stealing the show as Madame Ching, and Marlowe Chan-Reeves’s Ying Ki forming a decent double act with Dan. I do wish, however, the episode would have examined the pirate “heroes” and their use of violence with a bit more detail. In particular, I felt that Ying Ki forgave his father’s murderer much too quickly.
Overall, even if it’s hard to be mad at “Legend of the Sea Devils” it’s also hard to really love it. But hey, look at the bright side: at least it’s better than “Warriors of the Deep”.
Next month: Lackey reviews the stories of classic season 17, recently released on Blu Ray as Doctor Who: Tom Baker—Complete Season 6.