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Reviewed: Doctor Who – Legend of the Sea Devils

Depending on your religious and cultural persuasion, Easter Sunday is either about the resurrection of something that’s believed to be dead forever, or the overindulgence of Easter eggs. Sadly, Legend of the Sea Devils falls squarely in the latter. Sad, because I genuinely felt excited after seeing the preview and trailer, and hoped that Doctor Who had fully come back to life…

As a Doctor Who fan writing for a Doctor Who fansite (albeit the very best one there is), I fall squarely in the category of ‘being excited about the return of the Sea Devils’ – something I previously experienced back in 1984 with Warriors of the Deep. And we all know how that turned out. History has been kinder to that much-maligned adventure. But the ‘Sea Devils’ still come out of the story with little glory. So it’s really the spirit of the 1972’s The Sea Devils that I was hoping would be recaptured in the latest Doctor Who special. But for most of the viewing population, the ‘Sea Devil’s’ appearance at the end of Eve of the Daleks probably enlisted very little excitement. It possibly prompted a few to seek out online what all the fuss was about, only to discover they are turtle-faced rubbery monsters of 50-years vintage. Is that it?

Much attention to detail and respect for their history is evident in the updated design of the ‘Sea Devils’. Deliberately a practical effect not CGI (but subtly enhanced by computer trickery), the race – I’m deliberately choosing not to call them creatures or monsters – are faithful (possibly to a fault) to their first appearance. At least to look at. There is little of the moral question possessed by them and their reptile cousins the ‘Silurians’, that was core to their creator, Malcolm Hulke’s conception. The question being, whether they are, in fact, the rightful owners of planet Earth. And if humans won’t give the planet back over to their rule, how should we go about sharing it with them?

The Doctor’s main aim in 1970’s The Silurians, The Sea Devils, and 2010’s The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood (written by Chris Chibnall, and one of his better efforts) was to negotiate peace between the humans and the earth’s former dominant species, if at all possible. In Legend… reference to this key aspect of the race’s backstory is given scant attention:

Yaz: So you know them, these Sea Devils?

Doctor: Crossed paths once or twice.

Yaz: Where do they come from?

Doctor: Slight wrinkle there. Earth. They were here before humans. They regard Earth as their own planet.

Yaz: That’s not good.

Firstly, the Doctor seems happy to keep referring to them by an insulting, derogatory term for a ‘noble ancient’ race, and secondly, there is no suggestion in this exchange that their claim to the planet is in any way legitimate or worth considering. Something that the Time Lord has asserted during every previous televised encounter with them. The Doctor even regards one of the race, Madame Vastra, as a good friend and ally. Here it’s just an inconvenient ‘slight wrinkle’, not a history-shattering revelation about the Earth’s past. Yaz, who often acts as the Thirteenth Doctor’s better moral compass, merely dismisses it as a bit of an annoyance.

With only 40-minutes of (a lot of mangled) plot to deal with the ‘Sea Devil’ threat (the final five minutes are given over to relationship business with the TARDIS crew), there is no space in this adventure for nuance about the morality of who has the greater claim to the earth. Instead, the ‘Sea Devils’ are treated as rather generic evil monsters who may just as well have crash-landed from a different planet.

What sets the earth reptiles and their aquatic cousins apart from your typical alien threats to the planet is the uniqueness of their origin story. So, if this is completely sidelined, what is the point of bringing them back? They certainly don’t have the mass cultural appeal to draw in a massive audience, as the feeble 2.2 million overnight figures testify. I know that the audience will grow with people who recorded or will stream on iPlayer, but for it to shift into anywhere near a respectable audience, it needs word-of-mouth enthusiasm from those who have seen it relayed to those that haven’t. From the unappreciative reviews and disparaging comments I’ve seen online, I really can’t see that happening.

So, back to the point. They could easily have been a Sontaran naval fleet, an undersea-stranded Zygon crew, or a new threat altogether. But alongside the backstory, what made the ‘Sea Devils’ creepy in the first place was also ignored. They were kept in the shadows, a threat from the deep, not a bunch of sword-wielding warriors in full view from the outset. The rest of the ‘Sea Devils’ are simply sword-fodder, with no individuality or personality in evidence, just an unquestioning devotion to their deranged leader. Who gets more sympathy in the script when killed than the half-a-dozen that Dan despatches with an unbelievable single sabre swipe. Followed by a lame quip about his mum.

All of these things would be easier to overlook if the story were intended to be an all-action romp. But the final five minutes try to present the episode as a character-driven drama about real people experiencing real emotions. Earlier in the episode, Dan lamely says, “Listen… I’m sorry about your dad”, to Ying Ki, whose father was brutally killed and his body left disfigured only a short time before. The tone of Dan throughout highlights the discrepancy in the emotional journey of the TARDIS crew. He poignantly phones his could-be girlfriend Diane, not to seek support after witnessing so much death and destruction – even perpetrating much himself – but because he’s “been having all these mad adventures” but has no one to regale them to. So, it’s not like he wants to come home and settle down. Sorry, Di. Maybe you were right to unexpectedly end it with Dan after the Flux.

So we come to that whole “Thasmin” thing. I am not opposed to the Doctor having romantic (or other) feelings towards the companions, vice versa or sharing mutual attraction. It just never seems convincing in this instance. For the first two series, I thought that Yaz was just along for the ride. The attraction appears to have all been cooked up in the minds of a few fans out of scant evidence, who wanted it confirmed in the programme.

Rose was always portrayed as being a little bit too fond of the Tenth Doctor, to his mutual consent. Martha’s unrequited crush on him was trumpeted loudly and Amy clearly wanted to get into Eleven’s breeches. I just don’t quite get it with Yaz and Thirteen. Even here, Mandip Gill is forced to do more through looks and expressions than is ever delivered in the script. Why doesn’t a frustrated Yaz rage a little at the Doctor for such a pathetic response? Take this exchange:

Doctor: Yaz… I can’t fix myself… to anything… anywhere… or anyone. I’ve never been able to. That’s what my life is.

Yaz: Yeah, of course.

Have the writers never been in love? If so, do they really think Yaz’s response would be, “Yeah, of course” after the Doctor basically gave her the ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ excuse? While still teasing Yaz with the cruel hope that she does have the same feelings in return. The Doctor says she just doesn’t want to act on them.

Are we expected to believe that Yaz is so passive that she wouldn’t call the Doctor out for such a badly-expressed reason? Oh, the actual reason is sound. A near-immortal who changes their whole appearance and personality regularly, who has command of a time-space machine, whose chosen life is one of constant danger, showing no desire to settle down, having a relationship with a one-short-lifetime fragile human who will age before their eyes while they remain the same. Or turn into someone else. That’s understandable. But Yaz doesn’t seem to know about the Doctor’s massively extended lifetime, her many incarnations, and gender-switching. Without that information, wouldn’t Yaz put up a bit more of a fight? Even with it…

Of course, there is much more to say about this Easter special, its characters, performances, direction, and realisation. Superficially, apart from some obvious green-screen CGI, the Covid-conditions restricting the cast, and overseas location filming, it was entertaining enough. If it was a mid-season adventure story with another one following next week, it would be perfectly respectable, if a little underwhelming. But it’s supposed to be a blockbuster for the Easter holidays, leading up to the Thirteenth Doctor’s final adventure: a last hurrah before she hurrahs her last. Shame it wasn’t.

It’s telling that the most thrilling moments happened in the preview at the end. The glimpses of the latest Master, lone Cyberman, and other returnees from the Thirteen’s era. Plus Tegan and Ace. Yes, that probably means something to you. But the general viewing public? Do they know, or more importantly, care? Sarah Jane Smith was brought back from the classic series in School Reunion, an episode that didn’t simply feed on nostalgia; it introduced the character to a whole new generation, who embraced her. There was a real point to her return, to show Rose what happens when the adventures end, and it forced the Tenth Doctor to face up to his past and the people he leaves behind.

With so much to conclude, so many returning elements, what hope do Tegan and Ace have in the centenary special? Will their characters be more than unconvincing cameos? In Tegan’s final scene in Resurrection of the Daleks, she states this as her reason for leaving the Doctor: “A lot of good people have died today. I think I’m sick of it… It’s just that I don’t think I can go on.” In the centenary trailer, we see her wielding a huge weapon, shooting at some kind of being or beings, presumably. I dearly hope that Chibnall hasn’t turned her and Ace into soldiers.

I remember as a child being excited by more and more Easter eggs. But feeling sick when gorging on too much, and finding it unsatisfying. My mother would tell me not to eat too many and spoil my dinner. We don’t need a diet of treats and sweets (cameos and fan-pleasing relationships); we need substance, flavour, and nourishment. A well-prepared meal. Chibnall, you’ve got one last chance…

Peter Shaw

Reviewed: Doctor Who – Legend of the Sea Devils

by Peter Shaw time to read: 7 min
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