Legend of the Sea Devils is only the second Easter special for Doctor Who, which is an oddity since it seems even more suited to that holiday than to Christmas. The last three regenerations have aired on Christmas, yet surely the day marking death and resurrection would be more appropriate?
The last Easter special, 2009's Planet of the Dead starring David Tennant, was an enjoyable but unremarkable adventure that boasted a fun central concept and some lovely location shooting. Legend of the Sea Devils leaves a similar impression, and like Planet of the Dead it is rather overshadowed by the impending climactic regeneration story it foreshadows.
It stands out more thanks to its returning monster. The Sea Devils, making only their third appearance on the programme and fifty years since they first appeared in the appropriately named The Sea Devils. That serial, starring Jon Pertwee, was a contemporary(ish) story, while the belated follow-up Warriors of the Deep (starring Peter Davison and broadcast in 1984) had a futuristic setting. It seems quite right, then, that the aquatic creatures return for a historical adventure, and it suits them well. Warriors of the Deep reworked them as a samurai-like warrior caste, and this seems to have inspired the Eastern setting of this new adventure.
They look fantastic. Like the Zygons and the Ice Warriors before them, the Sea Devils have been updated but kept fundamentally in line with their original appearance. Of course, they look faintly ridiculous, with their bulbous eyes and too-long necks, but if you can't handle a bit of ridiculousness then Doctor Who probably isn't the show for you. Their new outfits are perfect. They combine the pseudo-orientalist look of their eighties reworking with the string vests of their seventies originals, and make them into something actually feasible, while griming them up with an encrustation of barnacles. These old-but-new Sea Devils are gorgeous.
There's not much in the way of character for the Sea Devils, though. Their leader (referred to by IMDB as Marsissus, but nowhere in the episode itself) gets to be suitably scheming and nefarious, but otherwise the reptiles are little more than generic monsters there to swish swords then fall down. They also seem significantly more technologically advanced than the previous clans we've seen, with the macguffin doing all sorts of near-magical things, but then neither the Sea Devils nor Silurians have ever been very consistent in their background or abilities. I did love how they refer to the humans as “land crawlers,” but it was a bit daft that the Chinese was translated as “ocean demon,” which really means exactly the same as Sea Devil.
The human characters fare better, but even there we're a bit short-changed. Crystal Yu is excellent as Madame Ching, the pirate queen who dominated the seas around China in 1807. She's convincingly confident and ambitious, yet has a humility and quiet thoughtfulness as well. She's, quite correctly, devoted to her family, but the real Ching Shih was also the de facto commander of a huge pirate confederation. There's no mention of her husband Zheng Yi, so this is presumably late in 1807 after he died and she'd taken his place as leader. It was only a few short years before pirate dominance in the region was ended, but at this time she was at the height of her powers. Fine, her crew has been captured before this story, but where are the other crews?
Of course, I assume the budget (and Covid conditions) precluded a huge army of Chinese pirates, but in that case why isn't there more focus on Madame Ching herself? She deserves to dominate the plot more than she does. In reality Ching was a formidable and ruthless opponent, and we just don't see enough of that. There just doesn't seem much point using her in a story if it's not going to use her to the fullest extent.
There's the impression that the episode has been cut down from a much longer edit. Some things are minor, but nigglingly missing: where exactly were the TARDIS team going dressed up like in Chinese clothing or, in Dan's case, a pirate costume, in the first place? Others are more significant. When the episode jumps back to 1533 for no reason than to fill in a bit of the plot that could have been covered in the show's usual heavy-handed exposition, there's the impression that this side trip was originally longer and added more to the story. Still, it's a lot more fun seeing Ji-Hun battling a Sea Devil than having him turn up in the main section and explain it all. There are other points where it looks like a scene has been chopped out to streamline things, which makes it pacey but not always entirely clear what's going on.
The floating ship looks fantastic and, pleasingly, even the Chief Devil himself admits it serves no purpose other than to look menacing and impress people. As for the gigantic sea serpent, the huasen, it certainly puts the myrka to shame, but that's another element left outstanding: is that thing still swimming around out there?
Where the episode works best, other than spectacle, is the personal drama between its characters. While I'm not so convinced by the pseudo-parental relationship between Madame Ching and Ying-Ki, the young warrior is well played by Marlowe Chan-Reeves and actually has some decent chemistry with John Bishop. Ying-Chi and Dan make a fun double act and, again, really deserved a little more time on screen. However, it's pretty hard to believe in Dan's sword-fighting skills. Arthur Lee brings gravitas to the out-of-time warrior Ji Hun and works well alongside the Doctor in a touchy but respectful alliance.
However, it's the quiet moments between the Doctor and Yaz that really stick in the memory. The feelings that Yaz openly admitted to, and the Doctor merely hinted at in Eve of the Daleks are thankfully not forgotten. The Doctor, at first, is her usual awkward self, but this passes and there are some honest and tender moments between them. The Doctor's reluctance to allow herself to become that close to someone again is perfectly understandable and in character, and now that we've seen her shoulder some of the stories her impression of Yaz makes sense. Whittaker gives a strong performance in this scenes, but Mandip Gill really stands out.
Although not without its flaws, Legend of the Sea Devils is a fun romp with real heart. It's never going to appear on a list of the series' classics, but it's a decently entertaining way to spend fifty minutes.
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