Into the Void
On the surface, show runner Chris Chibnall’s penultimate episode dons the ingredients of a rip-roaring special. We’ve got a real life pirate queen from the actual history books, pimped up pirate ships that glide through the skies, a plentiful helping of swash buckling sword fights, a sea beast bigger than the grandest of skyscrapers, and a classic villain who hasn’t had a television appearance since 1984.
Legend of the Sea Devils should have been an animated romp prior to the big, broody final next fall. Instead it ends up being a story that feels rushed, empty and unsure of what it’s supposed to be doing. I imagine there’s a draft for this episode out there that’s bustling with backstory, heart and character. If such a draft does indeed exist, it sadly hasn’t made it into the finished product. In Lieu, what we have are characters who feel about as interesting as a table cloth, a returning baddie whose motives don’t appear to stem beyond the desire to cause ‘chaos’ for the hell of it, and a story that resolves dramatic plot developments before they’ve even had time to do anything interesting.
To call this terrible would be unfair. There’s not enough going on in here to give it a negative rating. Instead, what we get is the televisual equivalent of a pretty looking screensaver dancing around on a computer monitor. It’s simple enough to be considered inoffensive, yet there’s nothing of any worth to latch onto. You’ve got one character looking for treasure, another wanting to avenge his dead dad, a handful of monsters causing havoc for a laugh, two heroes chilling at the bottom of the ocean for a bit, a sea beast which seemingly vanishes half way through the episode and John Bishop donning a pirate outfit that would have been a more appropriate form of attire during the events of The Halloween Apocalypse.
It’s not that there isn’t potential to tell a good story with the components on offer in here. Ying Ki chasing Madam Ching after he’s led to believe she killed his father gives us a character with motive and potential for growth. Likewise, Madame Ching risking her life to save her crew and family gives us a character with a drive we can all get behind. Even Ji-Hun, who starts life as a villain’s henchmen before revealing more humane intensions, dishes up the servings of what could easily have become a delicious drama.
The thing is, if you want to pay all of this off in a manner that tugs on heart strings and triggers gasps from the lungs of audiences, you need to present these sorts of stories in a manner that reveals and engages. Don’t just have people standing around telling us what they’ve done, are doing, or will eventually do. Actually show us Ching losing her children before embarking on a quest to save them, give us a chance to spend more time with Ji-Hun so we can get a feel for what his partnership with the sea devils is seemingly about, and chronicle the development of Ying Ki and Madame Ching’s relationship so we can see the transition from revenge to companionship in more believable detail.
Had more screen time been dedicated to fleshing out these characters’ stories and showcasing their worlds to audiences, perhaps there may have been a chance to tell a tale packed with tears and cheers. Seeing as this is a standalone special perched after the arch-heavy demands of last year’s Flux, not to mention the calm before the storm of a show-shifting final, the promise of a blousy epic light on story yet packed with memorable characters is the sort of joy you’d expect to experience from this sort of story. Unfortunate for all, what we get is an instalment that’s as light on character as it is on plot, resulting in something that’s about as flavourless as an unseasoned Huel shake.
The Chibnall Factor
Having characters stand around so they can tell us what they are thinking and feeling, as opposed to having them experience their circumstances is prevalent all the way through this episode. Character drama is turned into character dialogue, which is a surefire way of sucking the emotion out of any given scene. Seeing someone cry is far more heartbreaking than hearing someone tell us how sad they are, after all.
We only know that Ying Ki’s dad died at the start because he said so. We only know he’s plotting revenge, because that’s what he tells Dan. We’re only aware that Ji-Hun isn’t evil, because he stops the whole damn episode to tell us that he was trying to save his men (by having them jump to their deaths…).
If you want us to care about what’s going on, you’re going to need to do more than tell us about it. Having characters stand around and explain what’s going on isn’t new in the world of Chibnall’s Doctor Who. In fact, it’s been a recurrent problem as far back as day one. Legend of the Sea Devils is no less guilty than preceding stories, but that doesn’t make it any less irritating. Having Yaz declare that Ji-Hun is forcing his men to throw themselves overboard, or the Doctor telling us that they are on the bottom of the ocean, is made all the more annoying when we can see the events being described happening before our very eyes. It’s as if the episode was adapted from a radio screenplay, only they forgot to update the draft to match the medium.
Of course, having characters spell out what’s happening isn’t the only recurring Chibnall trait to grace our screens this week. We’ve also got nobody’s favourite trope of the Doctor finding herself in a situation where she must sacrifice her life to save the day, only for her to be fortunately spared when a side character decides to take one for the team and venture into oblivion on her behalf. Ta very much Ji-Hun, thanks for dying so the Doc didn’t have to. What a top lad!
Now I’m not suggesting for a second that the Doctor should have sacrificed herself to make the episode feel slightly less cheap. What I’m saying is, don’t bother putting the damn scene in there if you’re just going to serve up a get out of jail free card milliseconds after the threat is presented to us. The scene is set up and resolved so quickly, none of us get enough time to even process what’s happening. We saw this exact same problem occur back in The Timeless Children, and it was just as rubbish then as it is now. If you want to convince audiences that the Doctor is on death’s door, fine, but make an effort to make it convincing. Oh, and while you’re at it, make her methods of escaping death more meaningful and consequential than just having some disposable character with next to no development take one for the team.
Remembrance of the Screenplay
Another returning shortcoming is the moral uncertainty which the Doctor and her companions exhibited throughout this story. As we are now well aware, after many years of seeing her disgust, the Doctor doesn’t like the idea of killing, particularly if it can be avoided. Though she’s developed reputation for spilling blood during times of desperation, after years of self-reflection, she now likes to see herself as the woman who never would. When she sees others taking lives when such acts could have been avoided, she has a tendency to give those individuals a ruddy good telling off. We’re reminded of that when Ji-Hun guts an armless Sea Devil and gets a right proper telling off by her. All good and well, except her anger doesn’t lead to any kind of plot development, despite the story stopping to emphasise how miffed she is by it. It’s a scene that happens, then is never referenced or acknowledge again. Seconds after her anger, the Doctor is back to liking Ji-Hun once again. To add insult to injury, when one of her own companions goes ahead and slaughters half a dozen Sea Devils in the following scene, we’re whisked back to last year’s War of the Sontarans, in which we saw Dan commit the same life-ending monstrosity after the Doctor had just lectured another character for resorting to murder. Sure, you can say she didn’t see Dan kill, and therefore doesn’t know about it, but what are we supposed to think of this character if he’s cracking japes after he’s committed an act we’ve just been reminded is considered awful in the Doctor’s rulebook? If you want the Doctor to make a point about why it’s wrong to kill when it can be avoided, great, but don’t raise the point if you’re going to forget about it seconds later!
Lapses in memory are peppered throughout this episode. For instance, in one scene, Ying Ki sneaks on board Madame Ching’s ship so her can murder her as a means of avenging his dead father. That would be all good and well, only if he didn’t forget about it within minutes of being on board. After Ching captures Ying Ki and Dan, she tells them they must work for her if they want to live. The pair agree, and Ying Ki goes along with this without so much as a protest. He goes from wanting her dead, to being her employee within a matter of minutes. Now I know she threatened to kill him, but would his fury and animosity toward her not drive him to at least refuse to do her bidding? He just goes along with it, because the plot tells him to.
Shortly thereafter, another spot of script amnesia kicks in when Dan, Ying Ki and Madame Ching find themselves at the mercy of a colossal sea beast with jaws large enough the swallow their ship whole. The team attempted to retaliate by firing some cannon balls at the beast, which are quickly hurled back at them. At the last second, the scene cuts away, leaving us in suspense as to what happens to the trio next. When we return to them, the exploding cannons have vanished, and town-sized monster is nowhere to be seen. It’s as if the terrors we were watching unfold minutes prior took place in an alternate timeline. In fact, we get no resolution to the sea beast from that moment onward. It doesn’t even appear during the episode’s climax. Following on from the Sea Devils defeat, we’re left to assume it just roams the sea without any owners. It leaves one wondering, what was the point in putting this creature into the episode if you’re not going to do anything with it. One could argue it was only around to get Yas and the Doctor to the Seas Devils underground lair.
Dating in the Abyss
There’s a moment in this episode in which Yas and the Doctor land at the bottom of the ocean, where they admire its tranquility and beauty from the doors of the TARDIS. The scene feels reminiscent to that of the moment in The Runaway Bride in which the Doctor and Donna Noble watch the earth form around the Racnoss’s spaceship. It’s a lovely little moment in which the story stops and invites us to admire something remarkable; a zenful reflection of the epic.
It also gives the episode a moment to catch its breath, allowing two characters interact with one another. Normally, I dislike it when a story pauses everything to do character development. After all, the character and plot development should be integrated and go hand-in-hand. Be as that may, in an episode in which nothing and everything seems to be happening at a breakneck pace, easing on the brakes so we can spend time with the two defining individuals of the Chibnall/Whitaker era serves as a welcoming recess from everything that’s going on.
The moment at the bottom of the ocean also serves as set-up for the episode’s final sequence, in which the Doctor confesses her feelings for Yas. This is a return to the doomed love story as first told by Russel T Davies back when Ten and Rose were getting all smitten over one another in the heydays of 2006.
Having thirteen fall in love with someone she knows she can never be with due to her ammortality may feel as though it’s treading over old soil, however it’s the sort of plot that can be done more than once. It isn’t all that difficult to believe the Doctor can develop deep emotional attachments toward someone they travel with on more than one occasion. Rose wasn’t the Doc’s love, what with him snogging the socks off of Grace during the 1996 TV movie. She wasn’t even the last, as River Song’s marriage to the character confirmed during the Moffat era.
Inserting the confession this late into the game can be looked at in a number of ways. On the one hand, it can be considered as a shoehorned plot development that’s intended to exist for the sake of getting debunked in the following episode. A quick fix, tragedy if you will. The argument here suggests that establishing the Doctor and Yasmin’s feelings a mutual isn’t done to create any sense of drama, or do anything interesting with the characters themselves, but is a way to engineer a moment of heartbreak moments before it’s needed. The development isn’t nurtured or developed over time, but shoehorned in right before it’s needed.
Another way to look at it, is to consider this a moment of growth for the thirteenth Doctor at the end of her life; a moment in which a character who has suppressed her feelings for others following the loss of her wife, River Song is finally learning to open up. While some may see the last minute decision for the Doctor to confess her feelings for Yas as forced and superficial, you could also argue that the lateness of her decision adds to the heartbreak of her impending loss. We end this episode with the Doctor telling Yas she wants this era of her life to last for eternity. During the next episode, Yas is going to be written out while the thirteenth Doctor will regenerate into a new person. Therefore, her wish for an eternal life with Miss Khan is going to be over before it’s even had time to begin. The Doctor’s dream of a normal life returns, yet before she has even had chance to consider what such a life with Yas may look like, it will be snatched away from her.
In an ironic twist of fate, one of Chibnall’s weaknesses has somehow managed to work, provided you apply the latter reading outlined above. By having the Doctor tell as opposed to show, he has created a character moment that feels tragic. The Doctor’s decision to elucidate how she feels about someone signals a moment of growth for the character. She couldn’t even tell Rose that she liked her, even after she was banished to another universe! Yet here she is, spilling the beans to a girl she cares for. It would be a cause for celebration, except of course we all know that fate will have different plans for the pair by the next episode comes to pass.
Some will consider Chibnall leaving such a revelation this late to be an act of retrofitting the Thasmin plot line to match the internet theories. Others will see it as a rapid attempt to hurl a tragic love story into the mix for episode 13.9. I’d argue it creates a gut punch moment of heartbreak; one in which a possible happy ending is snatched away before it even has time to blossom. Waiting until the penultimate episode for the Doctor to open up adds to the heartbreak of an era so close to its twilight. Giving them this sort of a moment right before their departure is a form of devastation. Whether it’s a cruel, superficial or meaningful devastation is still something that’s very much up for debate. From where I’m sitting, it’s a decision that feels me with a sadness and melancholy that doesn’t feel as cynical as it might do form the perspective of another.
I don’t hate Legend of the Sea Devils, and it doesn’t really do anything that properly ruffles my feathers. I don’t even think the script is inherently bad. It’s quite clear to see what they were going for in this one, particularly when it comes to the characters of Madame Ching, Ying Ki and Ji-Hun. There’s potential for a great story amidst all of this. The main problem is, the final product feels far too rushed for its own good. The Sea Devils come across as one dimensional baddies who want a plot device that will inflict chaos for the sake of chaos, the side-characters spend too much time talking about tragedy as opposed to showcasing it, and far too many scenes jump from setup to revelation without providing enough time for us to process what’s actually going on within them.
I enjoyed the moments between the Doctor and Yas. I loved hearing the Doctor confess her romantic feelings toward a companion after years of avoidance. This may sound contradictory following my frequent complaints of Chibnall delivering plot development via dialogue, yet in this particular context I think it works. It feels sweet and tragic coming at the tale end of this Doctor’s era. Plus it showcases her growth as a character, going from someone who bottles up her feelings to someone willing to exhibit great honesty.
There is certainly potential buried deep within the depths of this story, especially with regards to the characters and the journeys they are on. I am of the opinion that much of this may have been vastly improved, had it dedicated more time to developing the characters it introduces. Madame Ching, Ji-Hun and Ying Ki needed more of an opportunity to flesh out their backstories, offering audiences a better understanding of who they are, the losses they’d endured and the journeys they were embarking upon.
As it stands, Legend of the Sea Devils is a story that had the potential thrill, yet will sadly go down as a more forgetful addition to the Chibnall era.