A belated Happy Easter/Passover/Ramadan to all of you, my Doctor Who fam! The return of spring, warmer weather, and allergies that have you playing the “is it allergies or a cold or COVID” game also leads us to our second of three specials that round out Jodie Whittaker’s tenure as the Thirteenth Doctor. This time, it’s an adventure on the high seas in early 19th century China, where some Sea Devils have shown up to cause trouble. Avast ye mateys, it’s time for the “Legend of the Sea Devils!”
And don’t forget, Spoilers!
1. Every Good Legend . . .
. . . starts with a hunt for a treasure that everyone wants. And for Madame Ching in 1807 China, that treasure is of Ji-Hun, whose ship sunk in the 16th century while searching for the lost Flor de la Mar treasure. Find Ji-Hun’s ship, find his treasure, and Madame Ching can get her crew (and her two young sons) back from capture. That’s easy for the Doctor and fam, who find themselves in Madame Ching’s world after another beach adventure derailed by the TARDIS taking a wrong turn at Albuquerque. A little time travel here, a little jumping to the past there, and we can find the ship just where it landed and get Madame Ching her treasure..
It’s too simple to work right out of the gate, right?
Because when the Doctor and Yaz travel back 200 years to find Ji-Hun’s ship, it’s not there. (They also get devoured by a rather large leviathan, to make matters worse.)
In Madame Ching’s village raid earlier, she unleashes the Sea Devil Marsissus from his stone prison and the glowing gem contained within. That stone, which we find out later was on Ji-Hun’s ship, is what the Sea Devils themselves are after. With that stone (the Keystone), the Sea Devils can cause chaos on Earth, recapturing and terraforming it as their own. They’re halfway there with Ji-Hun’s retrofitted ship (that’s why no one could find it!) and its captain in a 200-year suspended stasis, and there’s just one small thing they need: that Keystone, right in their grasp in the hands of young villager Ying Ki, orphaned in Madame Ching’s raid and descendant of one of Ji-Hun’s most trusted crew members that was keeper of the Keystone.
Now all this put together, we have a Legend with a capital L. Sounds great right? Action on the high seas! Swords! Sea monsters! Two pirate ships!
But when put to execution, this had as much aquatic drama as a splash in the bath.
What was a great episode on paper fell flat in execution. Filmed at the same time as Doctor Who: Flux, the effects of COVID filming restrictions and budget limitations from that series are all over. Large empty sets and awkward transitions give a sense of make-do throughout that doesn’t reflect the high quality of past shows. A short run time (47 minutes) kept things moving, but almost too fast that there wasn’t enough time to add in tension and stakes. Where that lack of stakes and tension hurts most is with the Sea Devils, a Who villain that hasn’t been on TV since 1984, and thus not familiar to a majority of viewers. Banter between the Doctor and the Sea Devils certainly hints at a shared unfriendly history, but the viewer does not have the context for that history that they have for villains that have made more frequent appearances (the Master, Daleks, to name a few).
And then there’s our old friend the sound mixing. For the first half of the episode, sound mixing was once again off – – just when a viewer needs to hear critical world and plot-building dialogue the most, it gets drowned out (yes, pun very much intended) by the score.
That stink you smell is not the sea air and the catch of the day. It’s of squandered potential.
3. Pirate Dan
From the moment he stepped off of the TARDIS in his best Seinfeld puffy shirt impersonation, you knew Dan’s principal role here was comic relief. Whether it was completely inappropriate period dressing to his goofy awe at being a pirate, he embraced what he was called to do. And that’s one thing that helped save this episode from its bland dishwater fate: Dan knowing when to be just a bit wisecracking and silly, and when to show he can work a sword. Since he’s joined the TARDIS, we’ve been treated to the range that his dude from Liverpool can do, and I think he’s even surprised himself each time he rises to the occasion. I hope he has a future past Whittaker’s time in the TARDIS – – he’s having a good time, and so are we.Continued below
4. A Vintage Look That Doesn’t Work
While the Sea Devils caught up to 21st century technology (their flying pirate ship is just the right combination of cyberpunk and steampunk cool), their look is very much of 1984. Retro throwbacks have their charm, but when they’re mercilessly executing a village right before your eyes? Not so much. You can’t take your villain all that seriously when they have the wide-eyed Muppet look about them.
5. Affairs of the Heart
The Sea Devils are in a watery grave. Ji-Hun finally finds the eternal rest he’s sought for 200 years. Madame Ching has her treasure to buy the freedom for her crew (and expand it with Ying Ki). And at last the fam finally gets the beach vacation they deserve.
With that time by the sea, there’s also some settling of affairs of the heart. Dan’s love life seems to be on the upswing, as he reconnects with Diane. But for Yaz and the Doctor, it’s romance aborted. The Doctor admits that Yaz is the best of the best that she’s known, but time is just not on their side. For all of space and time at their fingertips, there is one time that is finite: that of the Doctor. She wants to end it before it begins, because then that ending would end up being much worse.
It’s heartbreak for all of us who saw the potential and the representation in what a Doctor-Yaz romance could bring. Those who accuse the writers of queerbaiting with this storyline certainly have the right to do so. It developed too late for anything meaningful to come of it. But I can take some comfort in the fact that the two had The Talk now, when things are calmer, as opposed to during a regeneration where there wasn’t that time to provide a decent sense of closure. One hopes that lessons have been taken from this for future Doctor Who same-sex romance stories.
And with that, we put our ship in port until this fall, where we bid farewell to Jodie Whittaker and perhaps look forward to Doctor Who future. And with a guest cast that brings back Sacha Dhawan’s Master, two classic companions, and a host of other faces from Doctor Who past (as we see in this teaser trailer), it’s going to be a farewell to remember.