2 out of 5 stars

The Sea Devils are the only beloved classic enemy left to be updated in modern Doctor Who, so their return in “Legend of the Sea Devils” will have delighted older fans that remember their first appearance in 1972’s “The Sea Devils”, or last appearance in 1984’s “Warriors of the Deep”. The 2022 redesign included some VFX enhancements, but is still fundamentally actors wearing big rubber heads… only now those rubber heads can blink realistically. I suppose one should be grateful the Sea Devils don’t suddenly wear helmets to spare the make-up department too much work, although scenes with dozens of Sea Devils were few and far between anyway. But whatever your reaction to how this aquatic foe has been modernised, the real problem was the absence of the eeriness and suspense their classic appearances had. Doctor Who was instead back in swashbuckling high-seas adventure mode for this Easter special.

The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Yaz (Mandip Gill), and Dan (John Bishop) arrived in 1807, where a town on the coast of the South China Sea is being terrorised by the aforementioned aliens—although they’re technically earthly creatures who predate mankind, much like the subterranean Silurians. The reason is that pirate queen Madame Ching (Crystal Yu) has inadvertently freed the Sea Devils’ leader Marsissus from hibernation while trying to find a lost treasure. Sadly, the story has little time to focus on Ching as an interesting historical character I’m sure most people know next to nothing about, as the priority’s on fast-paced plotting over letting us get to know the characters in the story and become emotionally invested in their motivations. It’s always a tall order for episodic TV to create fleshed-out emotional arcs, but when it fails you’re often left with hollow entertainment with nothing to sustain interest. It was also a mistake to introduce fictional pirate Ji-Hun (Arthur Lee), of the real-life ship Flor de le Mar, whose role overshadowed Madame Ching in what should have been her story. He even made the noble sacrifice to further reduce Ching’s value to the narrative.

“Legend of the Sea Devils” fared better with its visual ideas, like the Sea Devils’ flying pirate ship (which these marine creatures use for entirely psychological reasons, they unconvincingly explain), a gorgeous moment with the TARDIS on the sea bed surrounding by fish and rays, and a decent underwater leviathan spitting cannonballs back at ships (although I don’t think ships used cannon against whales and suchlike, it was to blast holes in enemy vessels to sink them). It’s just a shame a lot of the action felt disjointed with weak choreography—especially the opening sequence with the Sea Devils attacking villagers (not helped by having to keep the violence family-friendly), and a comically bad sequence with The Doctor and friends got into a frenetic scrap on deck.

This marks the penultimate adventure for the Thirteenth Doctor and the end of the Chris Chibnall era I’ve had little time for. It was a bold move to introduce a female Doctor and Chibnall has made plenty of progressive changes behind-the-scenes (this episode being directed by Chinese writer-director Haolu Wang a notable example), but his big swings to revitalise Who’s lore was met with widespread condemnation. And more importantly, the writing just hasn’t been as strong. The show misses the clever plotting of Steven Moffat and the emotional truth Russell T. Davies brought to the characters, and all Chibnall has done is try to replicate the work of the men he replaced.

Jodie Whittaker is the biggest casualty of Chibnall’s time as showrunner because her Doctor will consequently go down as most people’s least favourite since the show returned in 2005, and it’s almost entirely down to the material she was given. In every episode, including this one, all Whittaker can do is attack her lines with puppy-dog enthusiasm and try to look like she’s having fun going through the motions… but doing so gives her Doctor a feeling of superficiality. There’s rarely a sense anything complex is happening in Thirteen’s mind, she just rambles exposition and occasionally gets an amusing line (“no ship, Sherlock!”)

But when there are moments of quiet introspection when Whittaker can play a scene with a bit of substance, it’s often relegated to the denouement when events are being tied up. In this Easter special, it was the moment The Doctor explained to Yaz why they can’t have a relationship; a sudden backtracking on the recent decision to make an online theory that Yaz fancies The Doctor canonical. Moments like that are appreciated even if they undo interesting developments because there’s no time left to address them properly. I just wish episodes like this found time to breathe, but “Legend of the Sea Devils” was yet another adventure that simply wanted to zip through its bag of ideas concerning Chinese pirates and throw in a familiar villain to appeal to the older fans. It didn’t even feel particularly “special”, in the sense it was a regular-length episode and could easily have formed part of a normal series. And most people are excitedly talking about the trailer for the BBC’s centenary special, starring Classic Who companions Ace and Tegan from the 1980s, so “Legend of the Sea Devils” seems forgotten about already.

UK | 2022 | 45 MINUTES | 16:9 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writers: Chris Chibnall & Ella Road.
director: Haolu Wang.
starring: Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, John Bishop, Crystal Yu & Arthur Lee.