Monday 18 April 2022

Reviews in Time & Space: Doctor Who 2022 Easter Special - Legend of the Sea Devils

Doctor Who 2022 Easter Special - Legend of the Sea Devils

It's another one of those strange years with no full Doctor Who series, but at least this time fans aren't going completely without. The Easter weekend saw the show return with the second of its 2022 specials (following on from Eve of the Daleks on New Year's Day), featuring the long-awaited return of a popular monster from the classic era. Legend of the Sea Devils marks the third appearance of the Silurians' water-dwelling cousins, following on from their debut in 1972's The Sea Devils and then subsequent appearance in 1984's Warriors of the Deep. The episode was written by Ella Road and show runner Chris Chibnall, and directed by Haolu Wang. It is also the penultimate story for the Thirteenth Doctor, with her prophesied end drawing ever closer.

Madam ChingThe Doctor, Dan and Yaz

In early 19th century China, pirate queen Madam Ching inadvertently releases a Sea Devil from its stone prison whilst attempting to steal a clue to the lost treasure of Ji-Hun. The Doctor attempts to intervene, discovering that the Sea Devil is the captain of its own technologically-advanced ship.

As Dan follows Ying Ki, a local boy who blames Ching for the murder of his father, the Doctor and Yaz race back to 16th century to uncover what happened to Ji-Hun and his ship the Flor de la Mar. What they discover is a Sea Devil plot that's been centuries in the making, and with their captain now free they begin to make their move to retake the planet from humanity.

Ji-HunThe Sea Devils

If there's one thing that Legend of the Sea Devils can't be faulted for, it's the episode's ambition. As a high-seas adventure that primarily takes place either on the ocean or below its depths, it is an episode with a heavily reliance on both physical sets and CGI backdrops to illustrate the vastness of the ocean. Even in modern times Doctor Who's handling of CGI elements can be quite hit and miss, but if previous miniseries Flux proved anything it's that Chibnall-era Who is really gunning for a cinematic quality that the show hasn't quite managed before. While there are certainly some missteps along the way (some terrible stone-skimming and the Sea Devil captain's Mario-jump to his ship immediately spring to mind), Legend of the Sea Devils continues this high standard of visuals and is a truly epic-looking adventure worthy of its name. 

Sadly however this is where most of the praise for the episode ends, with the story itself proving a nightmare of bad plotting and forgettable/inconsequential characters. At 48 minutes long the story is just as condensed as any other average Who episode, but unlike those Legend of the Sea Devils actually feels like it's had significant chunks cut out of it. The opening act is a complete mess in terms of editing, with key scenes barely flowing together and extremely choppy action sequences. With the special being filmed back in 2021 it's reasonable to assume that COVID restrictions still had some hand in the latter element, however if that is the case then Flux was able to hide it far more succinctly. This era of Doctor Who has also had a particularly bad habit of feeling the need to explain everything going on screen even when the visuals are self-explanatory, which is a pitfall the episode regularly falls into. Yaz and the Doctor's travel back in time to find out what happened to Ji-Hun plays out more like an audio commentary than a scene, with both characters narrating every single thing they see as if the other isn't watching it happen. 

The Sea Devils' shipThe leviathan

It's also easy to forget that Legend of the Sea Devils has some historical element to it as well, with both Madam Ching (aka Zheng Yi Sao) and the shipwreck of the Flor de la Mar being points in real-world history. However both feel like window-dressing at best, which is surprising given that Chibnall-Who has previously been very good at educating in its historically-grounded episodes. Crystal Yu gives a good performance as Madam Ching but it's one with very little substance behind it, particularly when her prominence in the story is quickly supplanted by Ji-Hun. But in turn his place in the story doesn't sit quite right either, since there's no good reason given why exactly the Sea Devils would choose to keep him in stasis for centuries. In the end he serves the same purpose as Ko Sharmus did in The Timeless Child - a throwaway character that allows the Doctor to escape what would otherwise be an inescapable situation.

Thankfully the Sea Devils themselves to not disappoint, at least as far as their appearance is concerned anyway. Little has been done to alter their physical appearance from how the monsters originally appeared in 1973, and the episode is all the better for it. The masks are sharper and there's some augmentation to make the faces move and emote, but they are undeniably the same Sea Devils that mesmerised fans all those decades ago. The new costumes are also fantastic, fitting both with the time the episode is set and giving the Sea Devils themselves something a little more elegant to work with. It's a shame that the captain (named Marsissus) was the only one that was given anything to do in story (or even talk), but he certainly managed to make an impression nonetheless. His plot to plunge the world into chaos however was a bit all over the place - simple enough in its explanation but muddied in the poor plotting of the episode itself. Much like the giant sea creature summoned to seek out the keystone needed for their plan, which has a few brief appearances but didn't actually do all that much in the grand scheme of things. It's understandable that the show's CGI budget must have been pretty stretched, but to present a giant sea monster and then do nothing of value with it is just criminal.

MarsissusDan and Ying Ki

But at the centre of this episode wasn't the Sea Devils' evil scheme, or even Madam Ching's pirate adventures - it was Yaz's increasingly developing feelings for the Doctor and just how the Doctor would reciprocate them. Though it's fair to say this is a plot point that's taken far too long to get going given how little time on screen these characters have left, but at least something is actually being done. Debate about whether or not these two characters have any real chemistry aside, there's a real sense that Chibnall is trying to please all sides with this pairing - validating Yaz's feelings and having the Doctor reciprocate them, but at the same time having the Doctor turning her down out of fear that their happiness won't last. It's a speech that's practically surrounded by red flags given that we know 13's "death" is imminent, but now it becomes a question of whether Yaz is going to escape these events unscathed as well. 

With so much of the focus going to the Doctor and Yaz you'd be forgiven for forgetting that Dan was even there, because that's what the episode itself seems to do for the most part. It's almost as though Dan needed to be dressed up as a costume shop pirate just so that he had any chance of standing out, because after that introductory note he's suddenly whisked off to help Ying Ki with his revenge plot - with only a few lines about "wandering off" to segue into the secondary plot thread. From there it's just a series of comic relief lines, which wouldn't be so bad if it felt like Dan had any other purpose beyond there being a "main" character with the episodic cast at all-times. What's even more egregious however is Dan's seemingly casual murder of multiple Sea Devils in one sword slash, which isn't just treated as a comedy moment but also comes moments after the Doctor scolded Ji-Hun for exactly the same thing. The episode tries to bring it back right at the end when Dan leaves a voicemail for Diane (and is immediately called back), but at this point everything about the character feels so inconsequential. There's only one episode left and then the show will be effectively starting with a clean slate, and with everything else that needs to happen in 13's finale there really isn't going to be that much time to do anything worthwhile with Dan. Flux proved the character as extremely likeable, but bringing him in at a point where the overarching story was already getting stuffed with "important" plot points perhaps wasn't the right move to make.

Yaz and the DoctorDan

After the sheer fun of Eve of the Daleks and the promise of a fan-favourite monster returning to screens after decades away, expectations were at an all-time high for Legend of the Sea Devils. But while the episode had plenty to offer in terms of ambition those hopes were quickly dashed through the story being largely unremarkable at best, and poorly paced and edited at its worst. The Sea Devils themselves have never looked better, but that was sadly not enough to raise it from the depths of mediocrity. Doctor Who will return later this year to celebrate the BBC's centenary, and as the final stand of the 13th Doctor there's an awful lot to get through. As well as the lingering plot threads of the Timeless Child and her relationship with Yaz, the next episode preview revealed that the Master, the Daleks and the Cybermen (with Ashad in tow) will all be making an appearance, as will classic companions Tegan and Ace. Will the episode be crushed under its own weight? Only time will tell, but it is telling that more fans seem to be talking about that preview than they are about Legend of the Sea Devils.

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