Doctor Who’s had a bit of event exhaustion lately, thanks to a schedule more dictated by the chaos of the past two years than of its own particular volition. Between Flux and the special episodes closing out Jodie Whittaker’s time as the Doctor, we’ve been taught to expect big things, exciting things, because this is all the Doctor Who you’re getting for months at a time. So what happens when the excitement forgets to show up?
That’s kind of what “Legend of the Sea Devils” is: an episode of Doctor Who that would perhaps be a perfectly fine adventure in a full season of the show, rather than being sold as the next big special. You know, that sort of backbone every season of Who is built on — an Aggressively Fine story you watch once and then forget about entirely because of much more exciting things going on elsewhere in that chunk of episodes until you revisit that season and forget it all over again. It’s got all the makings of something fun: the return of a classic monster in the Sea Devils, 50 years after their debut; a cool historical setting in the form of the seas around 19th century China; and, perhaps arguably most important of all, pirate ships! Two pirate ships, one of which is flying and ostensibly full of Sea Devils!
And yet, none of it really works beyond the cursory idea that it was, ultimately, an episode of television that got made. There’s little build up or tension around the Sea Devils that dampens (sorry, not sorry) their threat — they appear, they say they want to take over the world to the Doctor, and then they just… kind of sit there doing that until they’re stopped. They’re great looking monsters (perhaps one of the best in Who’s recent history in terms of redesigning a familiar look) but not particularly monstrous, so there’s little of that classic fear outside of a short, sharp dose near at the start of the episode. The tiny smattering of guest characters — Crystal Yu and Arthur Lee as the piratical Madame Ching and Ji-Hun, respectively, and Marlowe Chan-Reeves as the excitable young villager Ying Kei, who loses his family in the first Sea Devil attack — don’t get much in the way of background or even base motivation beyond awkwardly delivered exposition that is then largely left untouched. Ying Kei wants vengeance, until he doesn’t! Madame Ching wants to pay off debts holding her children hostage, and then gets the goods to do that. Ji-Hun… wants to die because the Sea Devils have kept him in suspended animation for a few hundred years, and that’s rude of them.
Everything about “Legend of the Sea Devils” feels like that: perfunctory. The lack of real tension means you never really care about the Sea Devils and their threat. The lack of time with Ching, Ji-Hun, and Ying Kei means that beyond their initial motivations, you don’t get to see them go on satisfying arcs. By the time everything’s meant to crescendo in the third act, it feels like the audience is counting down the clock, and everything putters out beyond a bit of emotional resolution for the Doctor and her friends (more on that later). It’s also not hard to feel the constraints of shooting an episode like this at the height of mid-pandemic safe production rules, because what doesn’t help “Legend of the Sea Devils” and its lack of energy is how empty it feels.
From wide open shots of empty boat decks to very awkward transitions to avoid showing how the Doctor and friends leap from one ship to the next, everything about “Legend” feels somehow even more limited than Doctor Who usually does. The primary cast beyond the Doctor and her friends is small, and that’s about it for actual people in the episode that aren’t covered under layers of Sea Devil prosthetics — and even then, there’s not many of them at a time, so scenes just feel bereft. There’s no real stakes to what the Sea Devils want to do outside of the initial village attack, so it’s hard to care about, well, the thing Doctor Who is about: the Doctor racing to stop the monsters from their evil plans.
And it’s not like Doctor Who can’t do cheap-feeling, small-stake bottle episode style adventures. It’s Doctor Who, it’s literally about 60% that and has been for nearly 60 years. Hell, the last episode of the show was just that. “Eve of the Daleks” was a story that played to the strengths of its obvious limitations, a tight timeloop tale that could unfold on a limited number of sets with a limited amount of cast that could be in a room together for a given length of time with purpose. It gave us a chance to actually care about not just the Doctor, Yaz, and Dan, but the new characters introduced, because it knew it was all it had. “Legend of the Sea Devils” wanted to be a big, sweeping high-seas adventure, but just… wasn’t, and trundled along hoping for the best anyway. It’s telling when the trailer for the next episode at the end had more excitement in it than anything in “Legend” itself.
Aside from the hum-drum nature of the adventure itself though, “Legend” got one thing right: thanks to its guest stars largely existing to give Dan someone to talk to now and then, its actual strength comes in giving the Doctor and Yaz time to be with each other, and talk through their complicated feelings about each other at last. It might have to condense a little given the nature of this not just being a one-off episode, but the penultimate entry before Whittaker’s Doctor is out of the show entirely, but finally letting Yaz and the Doctor awkwardly dance around their obvious affection for each other gave “Legend” an emotional core it lacked elsewhere, even if most of that core is entirely separate from the main thrust of the episode.
Even if the idea of the Doctor and Yaz entering a romantic relationship is doomed — both textually, from the Doctor’s warnings that their nature as a Time Lord means that any relationship with a human, romantic or otherwise, is doomed to end in heartbreak, and metatextually, with the rapidly impending end of Whittaker and Chibnall’s time on the show — getting to see both characters pushed out of their comfort zones with each other, it’s important to at least have those moments out in the open. If only for the stakes of making the next episode actually matter even more now, it’s an important evolution for both Yaz and the 13th Doctor alike — especially the latter, whose darker impulses have pushed her down a path of being dishonest with her closest friends time and time again. Making herself vulnerable to Yaz, even if it’s to tell her just how much she cannot afford to face the heartbreak of being truly vulnerable with her, is a step toward healing some of that pain and darkness she’s been contending with since her trials on Gallifrey.
But we know further heartbreak is on the way for the 13th Doctor now — her final days, and a battle full of old friends and older enemies to end this current era of Doctor Who. As befitting a show about time travel, it’s always the future that’s the most exciting and full of potential… even if Doctor Who had to trade quite a bit of excitement in the present to set the stage for it.