‘Doctor Who: Legend of the Sea Devils’ review: The Doctor attempts love in her penultimate episode [B-]
Fresh off of the revelation in Eve of the Daleks that Yaz is in love with the Doctor, Doctor Who’s latest special, Legend of the Sea Devils is a hotly anticipated episode – to say the least. Not only was it burned with the task of navigating Yaz and the Doctor’s blossoming relationship in the wake of New Years, but it also marks the penultimate outing in Jodie Whittaker’s run as the Thirteenth Doctor – now, the regeneration special is all that remains of her time in the TARDIS. With so much on its plate, Legend of the Sea Devils remains a remarkably concise and self-contained story that harkens back to classic Who – even if the character beats and overarching story leave something to be desired with so much ground left to cover before Thirteen is gone for good.
Starring Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, and John Bishop, Legend of the Sea Devils follows the Doctor, Yaz, and Dan as the TARDIS veers off course to take them to 19th century China, where the Sea Devils (in their first Doctor Who appearance in over 20 years) are wreaking havoc on a quiet coastal village. Together with the help of fearsome Pirate Queen Madame Ching (guest star Crystal Yu), the trio of intrepid travelers race to stop the Sea Devils from turning the Earth into their own watery home planet – all while the Doctor and Yaz navigate their romantic tension along the way.
Ever since the Doctor received a cryptic warning that her time is coming to an end, the Thirteenth Doctor’s remaining episodes have all been tinged with a sort of melancholy dread – the knowledge that this is one of just a few remaining new installments we have before she’s gone for good. Sea Devils takes this somewhat meta feeling and contextualizes it into the narrative of the episode as well – although the Doctor and co. spend a majority of their time in time-traveling sci-fi hijinks with pirates and sea devils, the entire episode is tinged with reminders of the Doctor’s fear of regeneration, and her reluctance to let Yaz in and get her heart broken again.
After nearly a season and a half of watching the Doctor push any sort of romantic attachments away and play dumb when asked point-blank about her feelings, it’s refreshing to see her (finally) woman up and confess to Yaz that not only a) she cares about her but b) she’s afraid of pursuing romance for fear of getting hurt. Despite her cheery exterior, Whittaker’s Doctor has always been tinged by a sort of unspoken sadness and guarded heart, so watching her open up to Yaz, even just a bit, is incredibly gratifying.
As always, Whittaker knocks the heavier emotional moments out of the park – particularly when she and Yaz (Mandip Gill) finally get their moment on the beach, and lay all their emotional cards out on the table, so to speak. It’s a scene that’s been built up for so long, and although the execution felt somewhat anticlimactic – they didn’t exactly resolve much about how they’ll interact with each other going forward, nor did the episode truly emphasize the significance of the moment or how it marks a turning point in their relationship – the organic, grounded tone of the conversation helps to not make the scene feel overdone.
Also helping to add to the achingly cautious nature of Yaz and the Doctor’s blossoming relationship is Mandip Gill who, yet again, delivers a top-shelf performance. It’s incredible to think about how far Yaz as a character has come since series 11, and Sea Devils is a testament to the fact that she’s now the show’s strongest, most independent and capable character, especially in the hands of a masterful actress like Gill. Whether she’s playing wonderfully off of John Bishop’s Dan in the more lighthearted moments, or sending longing glances the Doctor’s way, Gill brings endless personality and vibrance to Yaz, making the character a delight to watch, and making it all the more anxiety-inducing that the ‘next episode’ teaser shows the Doctor regenerating while screaming Yaz’s name.
The two have always had chemistry, but while previous episodes have never explored their romantic connection beyond Yaz pining and the Doctor being reluctant to make a move, Sea Devils is a refreshing change of pace as we get the chance to see Yaz and the Doctor flirt – almost like a taste of what they could have if the Doctor wasn’t afraid. As frustratingly inconclusive as the episode is towards the future of their romance or where they’ll go from here, the combination of their little flirtatious moments and their culminating conversation on the beach makes Sea Devils without question one of the most interesting episodes for both the ‘Thasmin’ relationship and the Doctor as a character – considering this is the first time we’ve truly seen her in a romantic light.
Not as compelling, though, is the return of the Sea Devils, who function as this episode’s ‘villain of the week’. Though the practical makeup effects are wonderfully charming and harken back to the cheesy low budget monsters of classic Who, the storyline about Madame Ching accidentally unleashing the Sea Devils felt unoriginal and lacking in any sort of emotional attachment. In the past, one of Chibnall’s tendencies as showrunner was to heavily develop the supporting one-off characters for the episode, but here, Madame Ching as well as the two other guest stars (Marlow Chan-Reeves as villager Ying Ki, and Arthur Lee as ill-fated pirate Ji-Hun) have remarkably little to do in terms of both narrative significance and character beats – save for an impressively choreographed final battle with the Sea Devils.
The saving grace of the pirate plot is, of course, John Bishop as the big-hearted and endearingly clueless Dan, who is once again the comedic scene stealer as he fumbles around in his panto pirate costume and attempts to make himself useful while Yaz and the Doctor are off trying to sort out their feelings. Eve of the Daleks saw Dan playing wingman for Yaz (a thread which is partially continued here) but he spends most of the episode separate from her and the Doctor, instead holding down the team TARDIS fort on the pirate side of the story.
Though at times it’s frustrating that Dan is unceremoniously sidelined from the rest of the TARDIS team, John Bishop’s consistently charming turn as Dan makes it easy to forgive whatever direction they take the character, so long as he’s around to crack jokes and encourage his two traveling companions to kiss and make up. His supporting role in the episode, though, does bring into question how he’ll exit the series once Whittaker and Gill depart – while it isn’t confirmed that Bishop is leaving, his fate seems to be rather up in the air, leaving yet another plot point for the regeneration special to resolve on top of everything else.
Between The Master, the Fugitive Doctor, the Timeless Child, and the Thirteenth Doctor’s regeneration, Jodie Whittaker’s final episode as the Doctor has no shortage of plotlines it needs to cover, which makes it increasingly curious that Chibnall and the rest of the writers addressed virtually none of those plot points in Legend of the Sea Devils. Even if it means that they’ve got a lot on their plate for next time, though, it’s refreshing to see Doctor Who recognize that it needs to slow down and savor the Doctor’s last solo adventure before she says goodbye for good. Though the Thirteenth Doctor’s eleventh hour is underwhelming in terms of major narrative revelations or high-stakes drama, the impressive action in combination with Yaz and the Doctor (finally) putting their cards on the table makes for a bittersweet penultimate episode – and a swashbuckling adventure that harkens back to Who of the past.
Grade = B-
Photo: James Pardon/BBC Studios/BBC America