Doctor Who: “Legend of the Sea Devils” never quite gets its sea legs…

****TARDIS-SIZED SPOILERS!!****

I really wanted to like this one. So help me, I was genuinely enthused at the prospect of seeing the Sea Devils (one of the coolest looking Doctor Who adversaries) back in action for the first time since the Jon Pertwee and Peter Davison eras (“The Sea Devils” and “Warriors of the Deep”, respectively). Sea Devils are an offshoot of the more popular Silurian race; an aquatic reptilian species that evolved on Earth, making their legitimate grievance against humans a lot harder to dismiss than some random alien invader from outer space. Indeed, the Sea Devils’ story is more akin to the tragedy of Colonial India, or the Native Americans. These were essentially noble creatures fighting only to preserve their way of life in Earth’s ocean depths.

Jon Pertwee’s Doctor first encountered “the Sea Devils” in the same-named serial of 1972 which led to a nuclear standoff.

Marking 50 years since their initial appearance, “Legend of the Sea Devils” hyped the return of these sympathetic creatures, as well as a rollicking high-seas adventure involving 19th and 16th century Chinese pirates. The final product didn’t quite turn out so well, I’m afraid.

Written by soon-to-be-departing series’ showrunner Chris Chibnall, cowritten by Ella Road, and directed by Haolu Wang, “Legend of the Sea Devils” takes the TARDIS on a voyage to the bottom of the barrel–er, sea

“Legend of the Sea Devils” (2022).

Marauding Madame Ching (right) stands near the corpse of Ying Kei’s father.
The famed 19th century Chinese pirate doubts the intentions of the Doctor, Yaz and Dan, freshly arrived from the TARDIS.

The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) lands the TARDIS on a Chinese beach in 1807, along with her mates Dan (John Bishop) and Yaz (Mandip Gill), who is still nursing feelings for the Doctor (more on that later). We also see famed Chinese pirate Madame Ching (Crystal Yu, giving the episode’s best performance), plundering the local fishing village to find a statue of a large Sea Devil. The statue bears an artifact that can give her the location of lost treasure from 16th century pirate/legend, Ji-Hun (Arthur Lee). The statue is being guarded by the father of Ying Kei (Marlowe Chan-Reeves).

Recently freed Sea Devil “Marsissus” (Craige Els); surprisingly faithful to the original 1972 design.

This statue of the large, recognizable Sea Devil is actually a living Sea Devil, Marsissus (Craige Els), who was locked in a kind of magical stasis (think Han Solo’s carbonite) after being defeated in battle by the villagers. Once Madame Ching accidentally releases Marsissus from stasis searching for its artifact, the renegade Sea Devil kills Ying’s father.

Note: The Sea Devils still speak in the same amplified whispers they spoke with in the original series. In fact, their overall redesign is surprisingly faithful to the 1972 look, with minor variations. The greatest (and arguably least welcome) change is their sudden malevolent demeanor. This makes their destruction somewhat less tragic than it was when we last saw them slaughtered on a human base in “Warriors of the Deep”).

Chinese pirate Madame Ching is played by Crystal Yu, who gives the role a 1990s-Michelle Yeoh attitude.
One of the best performances in an otherwise lackluster outing.

Madame Ching is after the lost treasure of Ji-Hun in order to repay some debts and see the return of her ransomed young children (whom we never see in the story). Meanwhile, Dan ‘wanders off’ with Kei, winding up on Ching’s pirate ship, where, after an interrogation, her curiously uncrewed vessel (probably a result of COVID-era filming or budget or both) sets off in search of the lost treasure of Ji-Hun and the Sea Devils, with her former captives now willing to serve as her crew…

Note: While this story takes place in China, the three main Chinese characters, Madame Ching (Crystal Yu), Ying Kei (Marlowe Chan-Reeves) and Ji-Hun (Arthur Lee) are little more than cyphers, with only Crystal Yu standing out to any degree. Yu’s Madame Ching has a 1990s Michelle Yeoh-vibe about her, particularly her combination of strength and sensitivity. Sadly, we don’t see nearly enough of her (or any of the other Chinese characters) in this episode. Even Ying Kei seems to get over his loss pretty quickly, eagerly joining the woman whose very recklessness killed his father.

“I wanna come with you to Alderaan…”
Ying Kei (Marlowe Chan-Reeves) is about to have a Luke Skywalker-ish adventure away from his fishing village…

Seemingly not too concerned with Dan’s whereabouts, the Doctor and Yaz also ‘wander off’ in the TARDIS, taking it back in time the 16th century, where they hope to solve the mystery of what happened to pirate Ji-Hun’s treasure–thus learning the location of his lost fortune, which should contain a glowing amber gemstone that the Sea Devils require as well. The Sea Devils’ plan is to accelerate climate change by altering local spacetime–turning the entire Earth into a water-world more suitable for their species than ours.

Note: A sad irony; if only the Sea Devils waited a few centuries longer, humans would do most of the heavy lifting for them...

In the junk’s trunk.
The Doctor’s TARDIS arrives in the cargo hold of famed 16th century Chinese pirate, Ji-Hun…

Arriving in the 16th century, the TARDIS materializes inside the cargo hold of Ji-Hun’s ship. Making their way above deck, they observe as Ji-Hun seems to be ordering his men to jump overboard. This apparent act of cruelty is actually to save their lives from an undersea leviathan threatening their ship (the sea monster looks like something straight out of a Star Wars prequel). The ship and treasure are then captured by the Sea Devils, operating from an airtight base at the ocean floor.

Note: Another vessel, conveniently under-crewed pirate ship–this time with the captain ordering the last of his crew to abandon ship. I realize this story was produced during the height of the COVID pandemic, and I’m grateful for the measures taken to ensure the safety of the cast and crew, but it’s a shame this episode doesn’t work smartly within its limitations, like the more clever “Eve of the Daleks.” Instead it tries to be “Pirates of the Caribbean” with a few fog machines, green-screens and a handful of characters to crew a ‘pirate adventure.’ I realize all involved gave it their best under trying circumstances, but the end result looks like someone shooting a lower-budget remake of 1996’s “Cabin Boy.”

The Doctor and Yaz work out their feelings for each other in-between spying on 16th century pirate Ji-Hun and avoiding death.

Returning to the 19th century, the Doctor and Yaz arrive at the ocean floor and discover the Sea Devil base, where the Doctor immediately bluffs her way into learning of their plans for Aqua-Earth. The Doctor also discovers that Marsissus is after a glowing artifact that she pretends to have in her possession until Marsissus calls her bluff. Much to her horror, the Doctor also learns that the Sea Devils have been holding Captain Ji-Hun in electrical stasis as their prisoner for the past 300-plus years.

Note: As usual of late, the best moments of this cluttered, overstuffed story are the relatively calm, quiet moments between the characters. At the ocean bottom, the Doctor opens the TARDIS doors, where, protected by the TARDIS’ air bubble, the two of them enjoy a moment of serenity watching the sea floor, which is more beautiful than many alien planets. It’s also where Yaz and the Doctor get a quick moment to touch on Yaz’s feelings for the Doctormore on that after the synopsis.

Okay, the sonic screwdriver has basically been a Star Trek tricorder now for what, a decade or two?

Upon releasing the legendary pirate, the Doctor and Yaz are reunited with Madame Ching, Dan and Ying. The Doctor recognizes that Ying is wearing the glowing artifact sought by the Sea Devils around his neck as an amulet. Ji-Hun recognizes that Ying is a direct descendant of one of his long lost crew, who were forced to jump overboard and make their way ashore before their vessel (and the treasure) were lost to the Sea Devils. One of Ji-Hun’s crew took the artifact with him, where it was still a valued heirloom in Ying’s family, over three centuries later.

High Sea Devils.
How to do a high-seas adventure with a few creature suits, a couple of sets, and a lot of fog machines…

After lots of perfunctory sword fights with the Sea Devils (who wield some kind of half-hearted lightsabers), the Doctor and her mates eventually defeat this rogue faction of Sea Devils, trapping them at the sea floor by imploding their base with high density–but at a price. The cable needed to deliver the energy for the implosion is severed, meaning that someone has to physically hold the cable together as the others’ escape. All-too conveniently, the legendary Ji-Hun realizes he is now a man out of time, and volunteers to hold the cable together, allowing the others to flee at the cost of his own life.

Note: The need to simply destroy the Sea Devil base eliminates any depth and dimension we saw in these creatures in their classic series’ adventures. In “The Sea Devils” (1972), Jon Pertwee recognized them as an intelligent species that could be reasoned with, once away from the influence of the Master. In “Warriors of the Deep” (1984), the destruction of the Sea Devils (along with the humans of the undersea base) was seen as a great tragedy, which ended that story on a melancholy note. Sadly, there is no such depth or even pity for these creatures to be found in this exceedingly rote and frothy outing.

Do or Di.
Dan makes a call to his on-again/off-again love interest Di, whilst still wearing that goofy pirate getup.

The 19th century Sea Devils’ plan to Waterworld Earth are thwarted, Madame Ching is able to use the recovered treasure to pay the ransom on her captive children, and the Doctor and companions return to 2022. Still dressed in pirate garb, Dan leaves a phone message for his long-deserted would-be girlfriend Di (Nadia Albina), who then surprises him with a returned call. He tries to explain the mad adventures he’s been on (but can’t talk about) and ends the call by promising to see her as soon as possible. Without reservation, Di takes him at his word.

Note: Nice (literal) callback to Di (Nadia Albina). Kudos to Bishop and Albina. The call scene sounded like middle-aged Dan is also getting a little tired of his life on the run aboard the Doctor’s TARDIS. With Chris Chibnall leaving after this year, I assume his Doctor’s companions will be leaving with him.

Arguably the most interesting, if predictable moment of the story is saved for the very end.

Meanwhile, the Doctor and Yaz finally have a moment to discuss the growing attraction-tension between them. The Doctor tells Yaz that she is one of the most amazing people she’s ever met, but that she can’t commit herself to any one person. Yaz tries to understand, but is clearly hurt. The Doctor then asks if they can just enjoy their moments together, however long as they last. Yaz agrees.

Note: So Yaz gets politely friend-zoned, in a well-written but sadly predictable moment; the Doctor has said some version of this to nearly all of her companions–including Martha and Rose. Still the best moment of an otherwise by-the-numbers outing.

The End.

Summing It Up.

As much as I looked forward to this return of the Sea Devils, the end result was unfortunate in many ways. Admittedly, I cut some slack for the production problems automatically inherent with filming under heavy COVID-era safety precautions (two pirate ships with almost no crews, for example). Last January’s “Eve of the Daleks” was able to craft its story around a nearly deserted locale (a storage facility on New Year’s Eve), thus smartly and invisibly integrating COVID-restrictions into the story. I salute the moxie of “Legend of the Sea Devils” in trying to go epic with those restrictions, but it simply doesn’t work. All the same, I could forgive an ambitious story biting off more than it could chew, but the disappointments I had with “Legend of the Sea Devils” went much deeper than that.

US Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell left the chamber without comment…

Yes, the Sea Devils return, and they are very close to their classic look. Even their translator pendants and loud-whisper voices remain intact. What I didn’t appreciate was that nearly everything else about them was changed. They are no longer displaced fellow Earth natives with a legitimate grievance against the human race. Now, they’re just renegades who want to flood the land masses of Earth into a more Sea Devil-friendly environment. What could’ve been a powerful metaphor for the dangers of human-induced climate change is instead relegated to a Bond villain plot with no greater meaning.

Yaz, the Doctor and Dan in yet another overstuffed, yet oddly empty episode.

The once-sympathetic Sea Devils are now treated as simple bad guys for this story. Dan even slaughters several of them at once with one of their own energy-swords, yet it’s treated as just fun and games, and not the senseless tragedy as it was seen in “Warriors of the Deep” (1984). There is no attempt at a truce with the Sea Devils (as we saw in their first outing), or mourning following their deaths. This is one of the greatest problems I’ve had with Chris Chibnall’s era with Doctor Who; it’s all hyperkinetic action, but little else. Most episodes, with few exceptions, have been overstuffed with frenetically-paced dialogue and bits of business, but very little resonance.

All of this is particularly maddening, since I’ve long wanted a woman Doctor in “Doctor Who.” Yet have been, with few exceptions, largely disappointed with most of the Chibnall-era offerings to date. My dream would’ve been to place Jo Martin’s Doctor (“Fugitive of the Judoon”) back in the TARDIS following Russell T. Davies’ return to the producer’s chair next year. Sadly, I’m sure they won’t bring Jo Martin back. Such a shame… she was perfect.

“You and I travel to the beat of a different drum; Oh, can’t you tell by the way I run; every time you make eyes at me?”

On a positive note, “Legend of the Sea Devils” ends on a well-played, if predictable moment as the Doctor has “the talk” with Yaz, who’s been obviously infatuated with the Time Lord since the end of their first year together. That attraction has only grown, forcing the Doctor to give Yaz a variation of the same speech her former selves gave to both Rose and Martha, who also grew a little too fond of the immortal Time Lord. The Doctor tells Yaz the honest truth; she cannot be tied to any one human for too long, since her very nature means it’ll end in pain–like a human falling in love with a sentient, intelligent butterfly. It’s hopeless, no matter how much the Doctor might even reciprocate those feelings. At the end, the Doctor asks that they both choose to live for the moment, wherever that may take them. Best advice yet.

Both Jodie Whittaker and Mandip Gill are in fine form for this scene, and even though their characters’ time together grows shorter, I’d love to see more quiet, heartfelt moments like these instead of more uninspiring action for its own sake.

Where To Watch/Stay Safe.

“Doctor Who” can be viewed on BBC, BBC-America and on the streaming service AMC+.  With the recent invasion of Ukraine, here’s hoping the courageous Ukrainian people will someday see daylight from this nightmare. Wishing the people of Ukraine perseverence, and that this hideous invasion ends sooner than later.  Meanwhile, the current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is over 1 million (and over six million worldwide) as of this writing. Please use caution and good judgment when it comes to masking and safe distancing, as many states are now easing prior COVID restrictions due to decreasing numbers of infections.  In these challenging times, be safe and stay strong.

Images: BBC-TV, BBC-America.

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