Doctor Who: Legend Of The Sea Devils is a quintessentially underwhelming Chibnall special

***SPOILERS***

Penultimate adventures are a curious thing in DOCTOR WHO. Sometimes they’re entirely disconnected from the upcoming regeneration and sometimes they only reveal their true purpose retrospectively (such as THE KEEPER OF TRAKEN or PLANET OF FIRE where new companions were introduced to accompany the incoming Doctor). Occasionally they demonstrate why the change is coming not a moment too soon (THE WATERS OF MARS). LEGEND OF THE SEA DEVILS is notable, then, for being the second time that Chibnall’s inadequacies have compromised a Doctor’s penultimate adventure, after his inability to come up with an idea for a Christmas Special forced Steven Moffat to alter the ending of THE DOCTOR FALLS and come up with TWICE UPON A TIME at short notice.

At least this time, Chibnall has logistical figleaves to hide his shame behind as the coronavirus pandemic hits the production and post-production hard. In many ways it’s a wonder such a lacklustre production era managed to get anything on the screen but in many other ways, DOCTOR WHO hasn’t looked this cheap for decades.

Arriving in early nineteenth-century China, The Doctor, Yaz and Dan find themselves caught up in piratical shenanigans as legendary privateer Madam Ching quests for the legendary lost treasure of the Flor de la Mar to pay a ransom for her kidnapped crew. The only problem is she’s freed a Sea Devil who was trapped in a statue and the Sea Devils are once again somewhat peeved to find their one-time home world overrun with hairless monkeys.

DOCTOR WHO, of course, has a long and illustrious tradition of invoking real historical events and wrapping them up in some sci-fi macguffinry to entertaining effect but recently it’s all been a bit tokenistic, an attempt to borrow the superficial trappings without making the effort to articulate the source events and personalities in depth. It’s a form of narrative stolen valour that the current era has often used to lend credibility to otherwise insubstantial stories of which LEGEND OF THE SEA DEVILS is a prime example.

There’s a remarkably contradictory quality in Chibnall’s writing. Expository to a fault about his characters’ thoughts and feelings, for everything else he’s content for you to hit Google or Wikipedia to fill in the blanks after the show has finished or, let’s be honest, while it’s still on. What happened to the Flor de la Mar? Who was Madame Ching and why is she significant? The episode’s not going to tell you, because again Chibnall wants to show how clever he is – cleverer than you, dear viewer – and there’s a sneering condescension in the assumption that onscreen worldbuilding is unwarranted that traces its roots all the way back to his defining TV appearance on OPEN AIR back in 1986.

Compounding LEGEND OF THE SEA DEVILS’ plot problems are another of the Chibnall Era’s hallmarks: wildly variable characterisation. Jodie Whittaker’s 13th Doctor still feels frustratingly ill-defined and inconsistent. Far from being troubled by her supposed duty of care to her companions, she’s content here to let Dan wander off on his own, treating him much the same way as the episode does: a superfluous and inconvenient distraction. None of the main character motivations ring true and even the Sea Devil’s diabolical plan feels forced, petty and – ultimately unnecessary. After all, if the Sea Devils were determined to melt the polar ice caps and flood the earth why didn’t The Doctor just mention that the humans are perfectly capable of doing that themselves if you just give ‘em a couple more centuries.

Relationships, too, are given short shrift despite them often being the one laudable factor of the 13th Doctor’s era. Dan’s abrupt decision to call his [sort-of?] ex, Diane, smacks of giving Dan something to do while the clumsy ineptitude with which LEGEND OF THE SEA DEVILS attempts to take the non-existent subtext of Yaz and the Doctor and make it text cements the air of too-little-too-late desperation for a legacy that will outlive the general relief of the Chibnall-era’s end.

If DOCTOR WHO feels cheap in LEGEND OF THE SEA DEVILS, it’s not because there wasn’t any money to spend, because for all the episodes other flaws, the actual Sea Devil costume and make-up itself is sensational and if the episode is to have a legacy, it’s in bequeathing the eras to follow it with a fantastically updated classic DOCTOR WHO villain. It’s a zero-sum game though because everything else, sets, staging, direction and effects, bears the scars of cost-cutting to pay for the gorgeous creature work.

Riddled with narrative problems, poor writing and poorer production values, DOCTOR WHO: LEGEND OF THE SEA DEVILS is a damp and underwhelming waste of potential. It could be said to epitomise Jodie Whittaker’s era as The Doctor, though, because her Doctor – and the audience – deserved so much better than this.

Doctor Who Legend Of The Sea Devils

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