Doctor Who: LEGEND OF THE SEA DEVILS Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony’s buckle is well and truly swashed.
Best. Televised. Sea Devil story. Ever.

We will be taking no questions at this time.

Oh, alright, since the internet is permanently full of disgruntled fans who swear they can objectively prove that Chris Chibnall is beyond question the worst thing to happen to the universe, ever, maybe answering a few questions shouldn’t be beneath us. It is, but maybe it shouldn’t be.

OK, firstly, there are only three contenders, because the Sea Devils have previously been a delight best enjoyed with at least a decade between their appearances.

The Sea Devils, which included Roger Delgado in a kicky little naval hat, it’s fair to say, was previously widely regarded as their best televised appearance. In that story, they were very much a ‘scary species’ threat, rather than any kind of individual menace. Certainly, when you finally hear them speak in Episode 5 of six, their leader has presence, a creepy sibilant whisper of a voice, and a great moral play to enact, linked into the previous adventure with the Silurians – can mankind ever be trusted to make peace with other sentient Earth-dwelling species?

As it turned out, in the 1970s – notsomuch, no. But to recommend the story, there are plenty of disturbing shots of the big-eyed sea creatures, that impressive voice, the fact that, despite their height and extended-fin heads, the Sea Devils can really shift, Roger Delgado’s Master being both a fake naval officer and the devil on the shoulder of the Sea Devils in stark ethical contrast to the Doctor’s voice of hope and peace, and one of the most… erm… memorable soundtracks in the whole of Who history.

Warriors of the Deep, bless it, really wants to be good. It wants it so much you can practically feel it trying. But it’s manically overlit, the uniforms and eye make-up leave the human crew of Sea Base 4 looking like nothing so much as live action Thunderbird or Stingray puppets, the Myrka, bless it, never stops looking like the haunted pantomime horse it wants to be, and worst of all, neither the Silurians nor the Sea Devils look even vaguely good. The Sea Devil leader at least graduates to having a name – Sauvix – but he might as well not have, because he has the personality of a wet hen, but none of its dynamism.

The Sea Devil heads were redesigned slightly for the ‘Elite Group 1’ look, reducing their head-fins significantly, so they could waddle about in pseudo-Samurai armour, complete with helmets that made them look striking when standing still, and like poorly-held-together bobble-heads whenever they tried to do anything as complicated as moving about.

Legend of the Sea Devils, by contrast, gives us back the nippy Sea Devils who can get about a bit – even performing weird and out-of-species-character superhero jumps(!). It gives us freaky disease-cutlasses, which feel both appropriate for the setting and significantly more badass than their previous press-button firearms.

Yes, it jettisons the classic whispering stutter of a vocal technique that characterises the Sea Devils on their two previous outings, but to be fair, there’s a very logical reason for that.

If they’d used the Classic vocal technique in Legend of the Sea Devils, it would have had to be twice as long, because Legend of the Sea Devils gives us what the Sea Devils have always lacked – a Sea Devil with an individual mission, an individual personality, and enough gob on them to rant about it at length.

In Marsissus (which surely has to be a play on Narcissus, the chief egotist of Greek myth), Legend of the Sea Devils gives us a Sea Devil with CHARACTER, which is a thing that – love ’em though we do – they’ve always, always lacked before.

Now granted, he’s the only one. Craig “Previously Karvanista” Els’s lead Sea Devil does practically all the talking for his species in the episode, and the rest of them do have a tendency to look a bit like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles who’ve been whacked in the face with cricket bats, but it’s actually a joy to have a Sea Devil with ’tude – in a sense, it elevates the species and frees them up for other stories, in the same way Chris Chibnall did for the Silurians in The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood.

But where the humanising Silurian redesign divided fans, the look of the 21st century Sea Devils feels like a return to the best bits of the original design, but with 21st century tech.

OK, enough fanboying about the new Sea Devils. What about the story itself? Mmm, OK, there’s some room for debate there. The idea of a lost piece of Sea Devil tech that manipulates physics is joyful in itself, because throughout their history on screen, they’re always supposed to have been from a highly technologically advanced civilisation. So, let’s see some Sea Devil tech! And in Legend of the Sea Devils we do, and it’s fabulous.

The story of the lost ship of Ji-Hun (Arthur Lee) is as moderately random as many a journey in the history of Doctor Who, and the encounter with Madam Ching (played with strength and alllllmost too much sensitivity by Crystal Yu) goes almost too far in terms of taking a real-life figure and turning them into adventure-fodder.

What keeps it just the right side of the line is that Madam Ching is ALREADY the subject of plenty of myths and legends, so just as, say, Charles Dickens was perfectly suited to be a way in to a story about insubstantial ghosts, and Shakespeare was perfectly suited to being a gateway into a story about alien ‘witches’ using the power of words to change reality, so Madam Ching is a fitting gateway-character for a swashbuckling adventure with incredible sea creatures.

There are a couple of issues with the storytelling that may weary with repeat viewing. Marsissus showing his prisoners around his ship and explaining his plan so easily, with none of the traditional shoot-on-sight or even lock-’em-up-on-sight good sense of the previous Sea Devils we’ve encountered feels a bit weak – and even the Doctor notes that he’s got much more ego than any of the others she’s met. We’ll come back to that point, because there’s a comparison worth making.

The Doctor going into full-on Tenth Doctor gibber-mode feels significantly more noticeable in this episode than in some previous outings, leading to a sense of “this speech is mostly filler” about some of her time on the Sea Devil ship.

The sea monster that wasn’t a Myrka but did HAVE a name, continually lost in the sound balance, is a dangling thread of monumental proportions – but if we’re in the region of salty old sea legends, you could argue that it’s part of what makes the legend so exciting. Does it get sucked into the magnetic density whirlpool at the end, or is it still out there, somewhere, ready to rise from the depths again, like, if you like, the lost treasure of Marsissus? At the end of the episode, we don’t know.

The important and mostly well-done ‘feelings’ talk between Yaz and the Doctor at the end is hampered slightly by the simplicity with which the Doctor’s perspective can be challenged. She’s brave in the face of evil aliens, universe-eating space-time events, and even the revelation that her past is not what she’s always thought it was, but the notion that getting attached to anyone means eventually it will hurt stops her from committing?

In some respects, that’s the same speech as the Tenth Doctor gave relentlessly about ‘the curse of the Time Lords,’ destined to out-live any connections. And the idea of being anchored to one time and place because of one person is certainly something that drove the Third, Tenth, and Eleventh Doctors absolutely spare.

But in the writing of Thirteen’s version of the speech, it feels important that Yaz can easily bring the perspective of a mayfly human life to bear. Love and joy, ending in pain, is what human life IS, and it feels odd that after, say, Eleven’s speech about Vincent Van Gogh, and how the bad bits of life don’t invalidate the good bits, and Twelve’s experiences with River Song and Clara Oswald, Thirteen reverts to a Tenth Doctor whinge about how people ‘break my hearts’ (or how ‘eventually, it’ll hurt’).

It makes us wonder if the fundamentally optimistic, good-humoured Thirteenth Doctor, like the rent-a-gob Tenth, and to some extent the sentimental Eleventh, is actually just flinging experiences at themselves to distract from their inner melancholy – and that feels a little off for the character of this incarnation as she’s been built for us.

But probably the biggest chunk of ‘what-the-hell’ about the story is that it ends so abruptly. Marsissus has been a brilliant, swanky, strutting new Sea Devil presence, redefining what Sea Devils can be and what they can do – and coming up, incidentally, with a plan significantly better than anything in The Sea Devils, and on a par with the ultimately logical plan in Warriors of the Deep. And then, with an ignored instruction of the Doctor’s, wallop, he’s dead on the deck, and the remaining Sea Devils are dispatchable by Dan Lewis (John Bishop) with a swish of a sword and a pleasingly familiar Sea Devil squeal.

Yes, it gives the Doctor the chance to do the now-obligatory “Humans!” face when humans try to deal with the turtles of doom. And yes, it allows time for the MacGuffin to be dealt with, while the Doctor and Yaz share the feels.

But it feels like a deeply underwritten development, having built up Marsissus so well in terms of what he represents – a Sea Devil with a master plan and the nous to carry it out (albeit having been stuck as a statue for a few hundred years). Granted, in real life, big figures are often cut down to size without pomp, ceremony or sufficient build-up. But in fiction, it leaves us feeling short-changed when a leading character is dispatched in quite so cavalier a manner.

For all that, Legends of the Sea Devils surely has to be right up there in terms of the best televised Sea Devil story. Some will claim The Sea Devils still beats it because [Insert personal reasons here].

But in delivering Sea Devils with a classic look, modern innovation, an on-screen show of the technology that’s supposed to elevate their society, and above all, in Craig Els’ Sea Devil with a personality (rather than just a whispering evocation of an ecological dilemma), Legend of the Sea Devils takes the top spot for us.

Oh, and that comparison we were going to make. Remember when the Cybermen came back in Earthshock? Brand new, but noticeably the same, and you got the sense of serious ‘rightness’ about them, for all, as Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor mentioned, “this [Cyberleader] is positively flippant.” It was an enormous evolution of the species while staying true to what had come before, and it guaranteed David Banks work as the Cyberleader for the rest of the Classic run.

That’s what it feels like writers Ella Road and Chris Chibnall, and actor Craig Els, have achieved in Legend of the Sea Devils. A right way to do stories with a particular monster, after a disappointing previous encounter (Revenge of the Cybermen/Warriors of the Deep), and a way to bring them back into the mainstream of Doctor Who after years in the relative wilderness. For that, if for nothing else, Legend of the Sea Devils has to go down as a classic Doctor Who story.

Oh, and don’t get us started on the Next Time teaser. That’s a whoooole other article. Coming soon…

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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