‘Doctor Who: Legend of the Sea Devils’

Hoist the jolly roger, because the Doctor, Yaz and Dan are the dandy pirates you’re too scared to mention.

“Time always runs out.”

With Jodie Whittaker’s era as the Doctor due to come to an end later this year, over this sunny Easter holiday I’ve been doing a re-watch. Conclusion: it’s such a shame that her era didn’t start with Spyfall Parts One and Two (2020). Although the story is too ambitious and convoluted, in every other respect it’s a 100% improvement on Jodie’s mediocre debut year. Fast forward a couple of stories, and from Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror onwards, Doctor Who was back on form and delivering every week.

By the time it got to Ascension of the Cybermen and The Timeless Children, the series was the most stunning-looking show on British television, with these two episodes the closest the 21st century iteration of Doctor Who has got to resembling a feature film. So, the idea that a minority of fandom is still peddling, that Jodie’s tenure is the worst the series has ever been, is, frankly, bollocks.

Executive producer Chris Chibnall and actress Ella Road’s Legend of the Sea Devils continued to prove that, due in no small way to director Haolu Wang slamming the pedal to the metal in the pace of the direction. Along the way, there was wit, fun, drama, action, poignant moments and memorable location work (Wales standing in, astoundingly, for South China). Archetypal Doctor Who, in other words.

When the Doctor’s companion Dan (the fabulous John Bishop) revealed his flamboyant pirate costume, I half expected to see Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley and Adam Ant follow him out of the TARDIS. This was a good outing for Bishop, as he got to swash his buckle in style, as well as reveal how sensitive he can be in a phone call to Nadia Albina’s pining Di (last seen dumping him in Flux.)

As pirates, Madame Ching (Crystal Yu, 150 episodes of Casualty (2010-2017), although you’d never know), and Ji-Hun (Arthur Lee, The Batman (2022), no less) were rather honourable, instead of the amoral opportunists of historical record. The returning, lethal Sea Devils, on the other hand, lied, cheated and ruthlessly murdered “land crawlers”.

Sea Devil and Silurian stories are parked in a creative cul-de-sac, as the stories have to end with their destruction/return to suspended animation because they don’t re-inherit the Earth. The twist here, which resonated uncomfortably but satisfyingly with contemporary world events, was that the Sea Devil leader was radicalised into genocide, which the Doctor had no option to stop, at a fatal cost to the sea Silurians. She even described their leader as a “a zealot”, the Collins English Dictionary definition of which is a “fanatic or extreme enthusiast.”

That’s Doctor Who 2022, hitting the political zeitgeist right on the money. If only that zeitgeist was a more reassuring and safer place to be.

Intriguingly, the deck scenes on Madam Ching’s galleon the Flor de la Mar (‘Flower of the Sea’), made no apology for being shot in a studio, but I reckon that was a deliberate, meta allusion to Hollywood pirate films like Errol Flynn’s The Sea Hawk (1940) and Burt Lancaster’s The Crimson Pirate (1952). For budgetary and safety reasons, such vintage epics realised a lot of their deck sequences on sound stages.

Pleasingly, the self awareness didn’t stop there. Dan’s order to leave the talking to him, followed by a cut to him and Ying Ki (Marlowe Chan-Reeves) hanging upside down, was a riff on the same joke in the John Landis film comedy Spies Like Us (1985). Fittingly, Jaws (1975) also got a look in: some of the shots when the Sea Devils’ “leviathan” attacked the Flor de la Mar, were framed in the same way as some of those in the confrontation between the Great White shark and Quint’s boat The Orca in Steven Spielberg’s classic aquatic thriller. The Bible story of Jonah and the whale was even referenced, when the massive creature clamped the TARDIS in its, er, jaws.

Speaking of the leviathan, the gigantic sea monster was obviously the production team’s revenge for years of having to suffer the memory of the panto Myrka in Warriors of the Deep (1984). Very effectively done it was, too.

The only thing that struck me as slightly odd about this episode was the Sea Devil leader using a translator device to talk to its own kind. That’s like me using an interpreter to talk to my postman.

Befitting her penultimate story, Legend of the Sea Devils was a rewarding outing for Jodie as an actor. At the eleventh hour, she was given some impressive action scenes, which it looked like she did without the aid of a stunt double. On a character level, underneath all the Doctor’s gung-ho hyper activity, she’s a dysfunctional loner who can’t form lasting relationships with people, even though in her distant personal past she once had a wife and family. That’s bleak but artistically rather beautiful, and an excellent jumping off point for the feature-length BBC centenary special.

So much was left unsaid in that wonderfully directed exchange on the beach between Yaz and the Doctor, which meant it felt very real. In such an understated scene and with minimal dialogue, Jodie Whittaker conclusively proved her critics wrong once and for all. And what an actress Mandip Gill has matured into: her emotional confusion at the Doctor’s sudden suggestion of “a date” was beautifully and subtly done, and funny and sad too.

This is the first time I’ve reviewed every story (bar the first) of a Doctor, and that’s something I feel really privileged to have done. At times, it’s been a rough ride for both of us, but seeing how much the series recovered between The Woman Who Fell to Earth in 2018 and Legend of the Sea Devils in 2022 has been a real, punch-the-air joy. It’s worth considering, too, that in the latter story, Jodie and John were the only visible ethnic white actors in the cast.

I’m really going to miss them and Mandip.


❉ ‘Doctor Who: Legend of the Sea Devils’ was broadcast on BBC One on Sunday, 17 April 2022, and is available now on BBC iPlayer. Doctor Who is a BBC Studios production for BBC One and a BBC America co-production. BBC Studios are the international distributors for Doctor Who.

❉ Doctor Who is available to stream on BBC iPlayer with episodes of the classic series also available on BritBox – you can sign up for a 7-day free trial here

 Robert Fairclough writes on a variety of subjects, including mental health and popular culture (sometimes both at once). He has written six books, contributes to magazines and websites, and writes regular blogs about projects he’s involved in for The Restoration Trust. He can be contacted on robmay1964@outlook.com, and his website can be viewed at www.robfairclough.co.uk

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