When the histories are written about this period of DOCTOR WHO, while they may differ on their analyses of the strengths and weaknesses of the program during this time, one thing that they will all be able to agree upon is the fact that this production team really loved doing historical stories, probably more so than anything else. Not since the days of William Hartnell has the Doctor so steadily encountered a string of historic figures from years past. So it makes a lot of sense that, as the final foray for Jodie Whittaker in the role before her swan song, the team would feature her in another historical. And to its credit, LEGEND OF THE SEA DEVILS is slight, but it’s solid, a decent run-the-bases outing, as I had anticipated that it would be.
Yes, there are occasional weird choices along the way–the Doctor taking off and leaving Dan behind cavorting with Madame Ching being especially inexplicable.–but the episode is largely absent the sort of dumb, slipshod, no-dots-connect storytelling style that it had employed for much of the Flux season.
The main players were all in solid form, with Yaz sadly once again drawing the short straw and contributing the least to the episode. If not for her interactions with the Doctor concerning her unrequited love, she was virtually wallpaper in this. Dan fared better, in that he got to be a bit more involved with the plot and has been given the freedom to both play the buffoon (being dressed up in comical pirate gear by Yaz) as well as a bit of quipster. I do think it was a bit of a cheat to have him cut down a dozen Sea Devils in the final fight and then to have absolutely no reaction to having done so whatsoever–that’s still a lot of killing, more than he’s ever been involved with before. Though perhaps his episode-ending call to Diane was meant to have been a reaction to having done this; if so, the connection wasn’t made overtly enough for my liking.
All of the guest cast was reasonably entertaining, even though their parts were remarkably thin. After so much promotion around Madame Ching as a key historical figure, her role amounted to very little.. Similarly, both Ji-Hun and Ying Ki never quite became characters so much as simple types. And the Sea Devils themselves were also pretty thinly developed, falling back into playing as generic alien villains (despite the fact that they aren’t alien at all, but rather indigenous creatures who predate mankind.)
It’s sort of a sucker’s bet to talk about shoddy special effects in an episode of DOCTOR WHO, given that they represent the history of the show, but there were a number of times in the episode where they seemed to be undercooked–in particular, any time anybody would skim a rock across the surface of the water, which is a dumb thing to fixate onto, but it looked notably fake. Similarly, the eponymous Sea Devils fluctuated between being pretty convincing and not very convincing at all.
The adventure itself was a by-the-numbers affair, but given that it’s the penultimate go for this iteration of the Tardis crew, that’s probably what was required. And it did have a few lovely moments–Yaz and the Doctor opening up the Tardis doors at the bottom of the ocean and peering out into the depths was some wonderful imagery, for example.
The big bit of forward momentum we got in Yaz’s relationship with the Doctor and vice versa was fine, and played out a bit as expected. But it also did bring some of the flaws in the approach of the writing to light. That same moment in Russell T. Davies hands would have been far more emotional and far more earned. One of the difficulties that Chris Chibnall seems to have is in connecting the dots of his ideas. So here, the Doctor simply begins addressing Yaz’s feelings despite there having been no overt set-up for her to do so. It wasn’t a bad scene per se, but it was a lot more slight than it could have been. I also find it difficult to believe that Yaz is “one of the greatest people” the Doctor has ever known, especially given what a nonentity she’s been for the past three years. That isn’t the fault of the performers, they are consistently making the most of what they’re given with the characters. But the writing isn’t consistent enough, isn’t nuanced enough, and sometimes forgets to square its own circle. If you want to have the Doctor make such a proclamation to Yaz, it’s best if she does so after Yaz has just done something to warrant that kind of reaction. And while it’s likely to be followed up on in the finale, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if it isn’t brushed to the side completely and treated as though it’s been resolved already by this episode’s set of exchanges.
I spoke a little bit about Weaponized Nostalgia in my Newsletter entry for today ( https://tombrevoort.substack.com/p/after-the-pilot-the-grind-begins?s=w ) and the Coming Attractions trailer is a good example of what I was taking about. it seems that, not only will we be seeing the Daleks, the Cybermen and Sacha Dhawan’s Master in Jodie’s finale, but also the return of at least two former DOCTOR WHO companions from the original series as well. I will confess that their brief appearance gave me a sudden thrill–the most thrilling part of the episode if I’m being honest. But it also feels a bit like a stunt, like a way of piggy-backing on the work of those who came before to earn the audience’s buy-in. I can’t say that it didn’t work, though–in particular, Sophie Aldred was a welcome sight. She really was the precursor to the modern DOCTOR WHO companion in her day, so it is lovely to think of her coming back to do one more.
I really hate to jump on the current bandwagon, because I understand at least in some respects just how difficult it is to do a show like DOCTOR WHO, and because I think that there are a lot of naysayers who are more upset or outraged about the politics of the series at the current time than about its content. But I have to say, like just about everybody else, I’m more than ready to see the show fall back under the guidance of a new team at this point–and the fact that it will be Russell at the helm is cause for some celebration. You seem like a good person, Chris Chibnall, and you put in your share of the work, well done. But this current iteration of DOCTOR WHO has never quite risen above the level of mediocre–to the point where even a basic episode like tonight’s feels frustrating and lacking, akin to having a large meal of empty air. We need a little bit more meat here.