Doctor Who: Legend of the Sea Devils review – maritime mediocrity

A star rating of 3 out of 5.

I feel a bit sorry for today’s young viewers. I grew up watching Doctor Who in the 1970s and, while it might not have been immense every single week, we could rely on a fairly steady stream of classics – and scares and chills agogo. Sitting through Legend of the Sea Devils is like watching seaweed dry.

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The 50-minute Easter special has a problem in common with so much modern Doctor Who in that, while it abounds in action, CGI spectacle and bombastic music, there’s a dearth of tension and suspense, there’s no time for a slow build, no eeriness, no real appetite for proper frights or even the mildest stab at the macabre. Doctor Who can be, and is well-known for being, behind-the-sofa or edge-of-the-seat viewing but making that is almost a forgotten art. The closest this era has come to it was Village of the Angels in last year’s Flux.

Kudos to Chris Chibnall, though, for bothering to bring back the Sea Devils. They are legendary Doctor Who monsters – first emerging from the Solent half a century ago – and their resurrection is long overdue. Apart from fleeting glimpses since (and a mask used out of context in a 1981 Blake’s 7), there was one dismal rematch 38 years ago (alongside their lizard cousins, the Silurians) in Warriors of the Deep. Otherwise, flap all to write home about.

Perhaps mindful of the design compromises of the Silurians’ return in The Hungry Earth (2010), Chibnall has steered costume designer Ray Holman and the monster-making team to honour faithfully the 1970s Sea Devil look – in particular, the turtle-like head with gills sculpted by John Friedlander in 1971. They’ve clothed the creatures in more appropriate garb than the originals’ ragged blue fish-nets, and there’s now moderate animation around their eyes and mouth – more than the rigid '70s masks could muster.

That said, these Sea Devils still don’t enjoy a Big Moment, a major chill, a mass emergence from the waves that their predecessors enjoyed 50 years ago, searing themselves into the memories and nightmares of the nation’s children. It wasn’t Jaws but the first airing of The Sea Devils and its two repeats that made nippers think twice about wading into the sea in the 1970s.

The South China Sea is an unusual setting for the series and for the most part laudably realised, because of course the cast and crew couldn’t actually go anywhere near the Far East but were stuck filming in studios and at a farm and harbourside in Wales.

The costumes look beautiful but also as though they were sewn together yesterday, not clothes worn day in day out by poor folk living in 19th-century conditions. Madame Ching (Crystal Yu) is remarkably well-appointed and muck-free for a desperado who spends her life at sea. Conveniently (or perhaps COVID-driven), she is crewless yet manages to navigate and control an entire sailing ship as a one-woman captain plying the South China Sea. Ludicrous. Ying Kei (Marlowe Chan Reeves), the young villager whose father is slain, cleaves to the pirate queen like a lovestruck companion. More should have been made of Ching’s similarity in spirit to the female Doctor. They missed the boat on that, too.

It’s lovely to see the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and Yaz (Mandip Gill) dressing for the occasion in fine, flattering silks from the moment they step outside the TARDIS. John Bishop is visibly enjoying Dan’s absurd panto-pirate drag but is a spare part, except to provide lighter moments and prod at the embers of the Doctor/Yaz love match.

Even in this day and age it seems bold to be venturing down this path with the Time Lord but it can only be a positive step and, as the Doctor alludes, they once had a wife (River Song), and that was a keenly felt and persuasive union. Let it not be forgotten that the first three Doctors showed flickers of interest in women they encountered, and Doctor Who has long discarded the vogue for ascetic, cosmic eunuchs portrayed by Tom Baker and Peter Davison.

Surely, Chibnall’s co-writer Ella Road was brought in to fine-tune the touching heart-to-hearts between the two women. Nearing the end of this era, it’s a happy pay-off for viewers who have invested in this burgeoning romance and for Whittaker and Gill, who’ve formed a close bond in real life over the past four years.

This progressive attitude is the most refreshing aspect of this maritime mediocrity. Hopefully, the Sea Devils will be put into storage and rise again soon with less wishy-washy material. Just the so-called Centenary Special to come now, concluding the Chibnall/Whittaker era later this year. Let’s hope it is what it promises: something special.

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