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Doctor Who: Legend of the Sea Devils

"Too much?"
"WAY too much!"

Actually, no. Way too little.

Look, I really wanted to like this one.

Perfunctory, is the word.

Almost all of the problems with this episode, and there are many, come down to a failure to properly establish anything. Hugely significant characters are introduced by just wandering into shot like they're looking for the restroom. Plot points which become hugely significant towards the end of the episode either never get set up at all, or else get set up half-heartedly in the least interesting way possible long after they should have been.  It's all incredibly frustrating and sloppy.

It's not entirely clear if the problem lies with the script or the direction. I'd hazard that it's an even split between them. And it's frustrating because it's all so, so fixable. Another pass at the script and a few rethought shot compositions and sound cues and this could have been wonderful.

Now, I don't want to come across as having some sort of vendetta against this episode, nor do I want this review to be some kind of attempt at declaring this to be 'the death of Doctor Who' or some ridiculous bullshit like that, largely because I suspect there's plenty of places on the internet triumphantly shitting all over this one as if it was some kind of proof that their misogynistic tantrum of the last three years has now been proven somehow 'valid.' So, let's agree up front that after digging into the factors that make this one not work, we're going to talk about a bunch of stuff in it that is actually pretty great. Because there honestly is a lot of stuff in this one that either is, or could have been, wonderful. Also, it's better for your blood pressure to end on a positive.

Oh, and I hope it goes without saying, but I didn't mean to imply that if you didn't like this episode, you must be a misogynist. There's plenty of objective reasons to criticize it. I'm just so, so tired of that particular subset of Doctor Who viewership.

So, let's talk establishing shots. For drama to work, the individual components that are important to the drama need to be properly established for the audience so that we know what the individual pieces are and what they mean. This is drama 101 stuff. In this episode it gets both skipped and botched, and it severely damages what could, and should, be really good stuff later on in the episode.

To illustrate what I mean, it's probably useful to talk about the Sea Devils' shiny new blue sparkly swords.

We first see the sword after the Chief Sea Devil is released from the statue. He raises it mightily. It crackles with blue energy in a pleasing way. They feature it prominently in enough shots that we, as the audience, understand that it's supposed to be important.

But then they don't bother to show us what it does.

Sure, we see the Sea Devil raise his sword, and then we cut to a shot of Ying Wai recoiling in terror, and then we cut away entirely. Later on we see the corpse and are told in a line of dialogue that the damage was done with a sea devil weapon and a brief summary of what it did, but we don't get an establishing shot of seeing that weapon do that thing, so that later on when our heroes are menaced with the same weapons we actually feel the weight of what that weapon can do. It robs every later scene featuring those swords of any kind of weight, because either the director, or the script, or both, didn't think it was worth bothering to give us a big, juicy establishing shot right up front that showed us exactly what they do and why they're a threat.

You can't make that kind of thing up by inserting a line of dialogue to cover it a little later on. That just doesn't carry the same weight for the viewer. And as a consequence, when Dan is later given this 'clearly supposed to be a big deal' sword by the Doctor to be used 'as a last resort,' the script is treating this like the Doctor just gave him the Infinity Gauntlet, but as a viewer you're just thinking, 'Oh, he has a sword now, that's nice.' Which means that when he later uses it to kill six Sea Devils in two swings it just looks cheap and stupid, instead of a triumphant use of the enemy's ultimate doomsday weapon against them to save the day. Which is what they were clearly going for.

One little three second establishing sequence of seeing the sword hit Ying Wai in the cold open and showing us why it's impressive would have changed how all of that worked for the better, and they didn't bother to do it.

I should note before someone points it out in the comments, yes, when the Sea Devils attack the village later on we do get a brief shot of the sword actually doing its damage, but it happens way too late to be effective, and absolutely nothing about the way that moment is shot, scored, or edited indicates that it's of any importance whatsoever.  So my point stands.

And that's kind of the episode's problem in a nutshell. If the villagers are running into their huts in the opening sequence because there's a pirate queen descending on them – which is what's being implied – and Ying Wai is honor bound to protect the statue at all costs, then why in the name of all that's pink and fluffy doesn't he go and, you know, protect the statue. Instead of casually wandering into his house for a bit first. That, combined with the fact that it takes Madam Ching about three and a half seconds to free the Sea Devil from the statue rob the entire opening sequence of any possibility of tension or presence.

And while we're on the subject, what's up with the circuitry looking stuff on the inside of the broken statue pieces? They do bother to give that at least three establishing shots to make sure we've seen it, but then it never matters in the slightest to anything and is never brought up again. Was this a remnant of an earlier draft or something? Hell, the gag visual of Dan's outfit gets a proper establishing shot when half of the significant plot points just kind of show up whenever they show up.

OK, I feel like I'm beating a dead horse at this point, so I'll limit myself to just one last example, because it's an important one.

They never bother to tell us who the Sea Devils are.

Yes, The Doctor gets one quick throwaway line to Yaz about the fact that the Sea Devils used to own the planet and now they want it back. It's thrown out there as fast as possible and dropped almost immediately. Which would actually probably work fine for any other alien threat. But it actively works against the episode here for one very good reason. The Silurians already exist in NuWho. So just throwing out the 'prior owners' explanation only leads the viewer to think, 'Hang on, didn't we already have one of those?'

I was curious to know if I was making a big deal out of nothing on this point, and so I asked a friend of mine who's a fan of the new series but doesn't know much about the original series, and his response word for word was, 'How many prior owners of Earth are they going to shoehorn in?' Which is exactly what I suspected. For anyone who doesn't know and is interested, in the original series, the Sea Devils were essentially a variation of the Silurians. They referred to their species as 'cousins,' for what that's worth. When the Silurians put themselves in suspended animation to wait out the incoming global catastrophe, the Sea Devils did the same thing as part of the same plan.

I get that they weren't interested in remaking 'The Hungry Earth,' and the whole 'waking up from suspended animation' thing didn't need to be the point of the story, but it, and the Sea Devils' relationship with the Silurians, really needed at least a moment of clarification. As it stands the episode can't even make up its mind about when the Sea Devils woke up. Was it 1807 when the statue was broken up, like the head Sea Devil says, or were those the same Sea Devils that we saw very much awake back in 1533? Did they hit the global snooze button between the two and nap for a bit more? Who knows, because the episode certainly has no idea.

And it's a shame, because the Sea Devils' plan as ultimately revealed, to reverse the poles and flood the Earth with melted icecaps, is a good, solid Sea Devil plan. We would have totally been on board with it if they'd set the Sea Devils up properly. But you can't have the big villain plan revolve entirely around them wanting to reclaim the planet if you haven't bothered to properly set up that it used to be their planet with a brief note as to how it stopped being their planet and how they might feel about that.

Whew. OK. As promised, positives. The director of this episode was Haolu Wang. She's from China and lives and works in London, at least according to her IMDb info. I'm also trusting IMDb on her pronouns, for the record. Someone please correct me if I'm wrong. She appears to be a younger director, and this is her first Doctor Who. So, both new talent in the pool of directors and increased representation behind the scenes. Both of those are intrinsically good things. By inclination she seems to be drawn to surrealist mood pieces, which tracks with what we see here, because the moments in the script that lend themselves to that are friggin' wonderful. The shots of the TARDIS in its air bubble at the bottom of the ocean are objectively beautiful. All of the shots of the two ships at sea are hauntingly lovely. The conceit of seeing the stars in Madam Ching's eyes is absolutely stunning.

Additionally, the relationship with Madam Ching and Ying Ki is handled very well and is kind of the highlight of the episode on re-viewing. In point of fact, everything about this one improves a bit on re-viewing, because we've already put in the work as a viewer to figure out what we should care about and what's important in the story. The problem is that as a viewer you shouldn't have to work that hard to get to the point where you're able to see the story properly. The episode is supposed to be doing that work for you, and here it just isn't. It improves on re-watching but gives you almost no reason to re-watch.

And one more positive about this episode. Although I expect not everyone is agreed on the point.

The Doctor and Yaz thing:

I really like how they handled this here. The twist that the Doctor was perfectly aware of Yaz' feelings and reciprocated them was a pleasant surprise, I was 100% sure that they were going to have her be oblivious to them and then Martha the crap out of the situation. That would have been the obvious way to go, and I was glad they resisted the urge. Pushing Yaz away because the pain of constantly outliving everyone you develop feelings for is a textbook Doctor reaction, and it would feel dismissive and queer-baity, but for that entire final scene in which they make it perfectly clear that this isn't the end of the story as far as their feelings for each other go. If they'd written off the relationship with the 'Sorry, I can't go there again' and that was just the end of it I'd be pissed. As it is, I feel like the story is still unfolding.

That said, I'd be dishonest if I didn't mention that Jodie Whitaker and Mandip Gill don't have particularly strong romantic chemistry. They're both very talented and they're doing well with the material, but they just don't have that 'spark.'


Bits and Pieces:

-- Dan really does have amazing hair. Even hung upside down.

-- Not only can Sea Devils now teleport in clouds of green mist, but the fact that they can do so is so unremarkable that it never inspires even the smallest comment from anyone, ever. You know, because the teleporting ability of sea turtles is just something that we're already so accustomed to.

-- The Sea Devils looked great here. I like that they only did minor tweaking to their look. And while I get that their old school whispering voices probably wouldn't have worked for this episode, I do wish they hadn't given them the exact same voice that the new Ice Warriors have.

-- What's the deal with the scale on the Sea Devil statue in the opening sequence? It's holding a tiny little human like it's enormous, but then when it gets de-statued it's regular human sized. But in the shots of Madam Ching with the statue it seems to be enormous compared to her. And if it was turned into a statue by the magic crystal thing, was it fighting tiny scaled down humans at the time? Why was whoever it was fighting at that moment so much smaller than them? Was he just happily playing with whatever the 16th Century Sea Devil version of American Girl doll when someone whammied him?

-- And on that point, was the Sea Devil turned into stone, or entombed inside stone? Because they're trying to have it both ways here.

-- Too much of the action scenes – and other sequences as well for that matter – rely on mostly one shots of individual characters that get alternated. I'm trying not to judge them too much for it, since I suspect that was COVID protocol related. Same for Madam Ching's total lack of crew, which really robbed her character of any sense of majesty.

-- The episode is at its best when it's riffing on Jaws or Pirates of the Caribbean visuals. It does both a lot.

-- The sea monster was called Hua-Shen. I can't have been the only one that wishes they'd called it the Myrka.

-- There wasn't any good reason for the Sea Devils to have kept Ji-Hun alive all that time. It would have made much more sense for the Doctor to have brought him from 1533 to 1807. A minor point, but it bothered me.

-- I very much appreciated them using the old school 'Sea Devil in pain' noise when they were being killed.


Quotes:

The Doctor: "Sea Devil."
Sea Devil: "Land Parasite."

Ying Ki: "You must be pretty good at fighting if you’ve survived to be... what... 70? 60?"
Dan: "Forty s... two."

The Doctor: "No ship, Sherlock."

The Doctor: "Yaz, you know the ocean floor?"
Yaz: "Yeah."
The Doctor: "It’s not really there anymore."

The Doctor: "You really pimped his ride. Do people still say that?"
Yaz: "It’s 1807."
The Doctor: "I’m ahead of the curve."

Sea Devil: "Our Earth will be gloriously aqua once more."

The Doctor: "Only to be used in emergencies."
Dan: "What, like the imminent flooding of the entire planet?"


I love the Sea Devils. I always have. Something about them just please me on a fundamental level. I wanted to like this one so much. But it just makes itself too hard to love.

Three out of thirteen Doctors. A lot of those visuals really are beautiful.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, retired firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla. If you'd like to see his raw notes for this and other reviews, you can find them at What Was Mikey Thinking.

2 comments:

  1. I have decided that Chibnall is not a good fit with Doctor Who. He has been a good show runner in other projects, but with DW a lot hasn't clicked. When it has clicked, it has been with the "historical" episodes, ones more grounded in non SciFi concepts. Jodie Whitaker has been fine in her portrayal, but the writing has not been consistent or strong for the run of this show, IMHO. This episode suffered from writing as many of the Chibnall episodes have.

    I admit that I am not a fan of the idea that the Doctor falls in love with human companions. I didn't like it with Rose, was delighted by his relationship with Donna and later Amy and Rory. That said, I do agree that the feelings between the Doctor and Yaz have been well handled. I can totally understand the Doctor not wanting to be hurt repeatedly by having a relationship with creatures as short lived as humans, who will die long before the Doctor.

    This episode was a letdown, especially as the second to last one of Whitaker's stint as the Doctor. I would have loved to see her under a different show runner. I do hope the actual finale to her tenure gives her a great episode to go out on.

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  2. Apologise in advance for the long rant, but this is just something that I needed to get off my chest.

    I've always found the Doctor's whole "I'm immortal so I can't date" schtick to be a thoroughly flawed concept that the show has rarely ever taken the time to confront and discuss. The closest it ever came was in 'Amy's Choice', where the Dream Lord called the Doctor out for abandoning his companions when they are young and never looking back ("The old man prefers the company of the young, does he not?"), and 'The Husbands of River Song', which was a complete rejection of the concept as the Doctor finally settled down with the woman they loved even though they knew it would end tragically in 23 years time.

    When you look at how it has been used in the past, it is really just the Doctor's excuse for getting out of relationships before they can get too complicated for them. It is framed as their great tragedy, the so-called Curse of the Time Lords, that leaves them heartbroken and alone. At least until the next companion comes along, which is always the part that they conveniently leave out.

    The Doctor has been doing the same thing again and again for thousands of years and never changing because that just how the show works. Companions leave, the Doctor is heartbroken, then stores all that pain away and gets on with having fun with the new companion. Doesn't matter if the relationship is romantic or not. The Doctor always becomes unhealthily attached to the people they share their life with.

    This episode could've been a good opportunity to finally address this problematic side of the character and allow them a chance to actually develop instead of just repeated the same angsty beats with different actors, but I'm not at all surprised that Chibnall missed it. Besides cast Jodie he really seems reluctant to do anything genuinely revolutionary with the character and their relationships. So here we have 13 and Yaz just doing their own cover of 10 and Rose's chat from 'School Reunion', but written in such a way that (probably unintentionally) paints the Doctor as manipulative and kind of cruel.

    She dangles the possibility of a relationship in front of Yaz, even going to go so far as to compare Yaz to her wife and saying that if she could be with anyone it would be Yaz, then later turns it all around and says that they are incapable of being fixed to anyone or anything because it will hurt her too much, and they should just keep things as they are. Instead of using their immortality as way out of this relationship the Doctor seem to be using it as a means to keep their relationship in a state that is more convenient for her.

    I've seen more than a few fans talk about how difficult it was for them to watch this because it reminded them of the emotional abuse they suffered from ex-partners. Coupled with the shocking poor treatment she endured last season, Yaz's relationship with the Doctor is the most unhealthy since Martha, the only difference is that Chibnall doesn't seem to actually realise he's doing that, or he's just has no idea how to portrayed it effectively. Either way, it isn't good that the Doctor's first same-sex relationship might need to come with a trigger warning.

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