Doctor Who: Legend of the Sea Devils Review

by thethreepennyguignol

I awoke this morning, in bed with Scoop (who is a cat), Kevin (who isn’t), and Casper (who is), and my eyes sprang open to greet the day with uncharacteristic joy. Ah! My sleepy brain exclaimed. Today is the day you finally get to see the Sea Devils in New Who!

For as long as this godforsaken blog has been a thing, I’ve been banging my big Sea Devils drum; the flippy-floppy feet of death were one of the first Doctor Who villains I was ever really aware of, given that they were the particular betes noires of the older generation of my family who watched the original run of the show. Yes, I know we’ve had Silurians, and we’ve strolled right up to the idea of having a proper Sea Devils episode, but this? This? The Legend of the Sea Devils? This is about as explicitly sea devilish as you can get. It doesn’t get more oceanically demonic than this, gentlemen, ladies, and non-binary nemeses, and I am here for it.

Especially given that Chris Chibnall’s era, for my money, has seen the most impressive usage of returning classic Who villains – from the Daleks to the Cybermen to the Sontarans, there’s been a consistent balance between paying respects to the original iterations of these bad guys while also exploring new angles (or, indeed, Angels) to keep them fresh. And the premise for this episode – the Sea Devils as part of some alt-history Chinese folklore – seemed like it should have been another knock out of the park. But, well…

Legend of the Sea Devils is just not a very good episode of Doctor Who, much as it pains me to admit it. Now, what I will not admit to is being wrong about the Sea Devils, who I still think have a pretty good outing here: they look great, they sound cool, their underwater aesthetic is pleasingly rendered, and they, in general, feel like they’ve got a decent amount of weight both in the narrative of the episode and the meta-narrative of the show.

But then you’ve got…everything else. Well, almost everything, at least. Maybe if this episode had come somewhere midseason, it might seem a bit more permissable – the daftness, the cut corners, the dodgy editing – but given that this is the lead-in to the last of Jodie Whittaker’s episodes on the series, and holiday special at that, the scrutiny comes down a bit harder. And Legend of the Sea Devils just doesn’t stand up.

We’re back to full panto writing and acting for most of the supporting cast, broad strokes so we can get to the real meat of the story, and it feels deeply unoriginal and even downright lazy. There’s a central fight sequence which is just comically badly put-together, edited to shit in such a way that it underlines just how little the actual actors seem to be doing other than waggling the odd foam sword at each other and trying to remember their fight choreography. The plot is both thin and over-complicated, too much going on that gets in the way of any one story getting the real weight it deserves, while the dialogue features a little too much of the “X person! (insert description of their historical significance here)” for my liking. It’s all just a bit lacking, not in any one specific offensively terrible way, but in lots of half-hearted, unbaked mini-ways that add up to a whole lot of underwhelming.

But what did work, you might ask? And I would reply, oh dear and darling reader, that we got some more movement on the sacred Yas x Doctor plot that I’ve been salivating over since the last special. I think, dealing with a story like this, Doctor Who’s first queer romance actually featuring the Doctor, that there’s a lot of weight on this plot: holding back on it could seem like queerbaiting, whereas diving head-first into it might seem like an undercutting of the Doctor’s often-cautious approach to love and romance. But one thing Legend of the Sea Devils got right, in my eyes, is balancing those two things: Chris Chibnall is not trying to make this ambiguous here, he wants us to understand that these romantic feelings between Yas and the Doctor are very much reciprocated, but that doesn’t undo the Doctor’s fear of the impermanence of her connections with other people. I would have liked to see a bit more of Yas coming to terms with her sexuality over the course of these last few episodes, but I understand that we’re kind of against the clock here and I can forgive it not being a focus.

The chemistry between Mandip Gill and Jodie Whittaker is so right, the uncertainty and yearning and hope and sadness all mixed up into one beautifully messy lesbian love-pile, and there’s a real sense of melancholy to the last few scenes of this episode, as the Doctor admits her love for Yas but acknowledges her inability to commit to something for fear of losing it, or her, in the future. In amongst the sort of half-hearted pantomime nonsense of the Sea Devils, there’s a genuinely touching story about loving despite fear of loss, and it’s one that Gill and Wittaker are near-perfectly equipped for.

Maybe it’s just the misty-eyed queer woman in me, but hearing Whittaker’s Doctor acknowledge her wife and her love for Yas makes me happy. It really does. Doctor Who’s early seasons were a big part of me working out my own sexuality when I was younger, so seeing this kind of representation now feels right.

So, to surmise: Legend of the Sea Devils is a moderately good re-introduction to the titular villains, a relatively bad episode in its own right, and a genuinely lovely exploration of the Yas/Doctor relationship that I’ve found so much joy in during this part of the show’s run. As we close in on the end of Whittaker’s tenure on the show, I’m honestly sad to see her go – but I’m glad, at least, that the show is seeing out her most important relationship with grace.

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(header image via TVfeatures.com)