Doctor Who Series 13, Episode 8
“Legend of the Sea Devils”
Posted by Sage
How did we get here?? What the hell happened? Because I cannot believe that “Legend of the Sea Devils,” the penultimate story for Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, hit the airwaves exactly as it was meant to. This truncated, edited-to-shreds episode simply can’t be what anyone intended us to see.
I don’t even know how to recap it, to be quite honest with you, and I’m actually offended that I even have to try. Six weeks of Flux broke me in that regard, and now, after one seductively competent New Year’s special, I’m expected to make sense of a plot that seems to have been untangled and clumsily rewired in post. Fresh takes on the great (and just okay) pirates from history are having a moment right now, meanwhile Doctor Who can only offer a glummed-up and not at all educational portrayal of Madame Ching, known nautical badass.
Of course, I can allow that COVID filming challenges are still a thing, but that’s hardly an excuse now that we’ve seen from other media what’s made possible by little ingenuity and a lot of careful planning — the latter this era seems to be lacking entirely. Chris Chibnall had to know that Madame Ching wouldn’t read as fearsome or capable on a ship without a crew. He had to know that putting the entire species’ arc in the fins of one (1) Sea Devil would look silly and sparse. Yet that’s exactly what was served up, and I just don’t feel like looking for the silver lining anymore. This is insulting.
Once again, we’re stuck in nonsensical adventure with a stagnant Doctor. That second part, one would imagine, is more easily fixable. You don’t need effects or dozens of extras to allow Jodie to give us some idea of where the Doctor is at emotionally or how any of the past four years have changed her. (You know, since there’s one special left before her regeneration and she seems to have some idea that the end is nigh.) She’s still her emptily cheery self, introducing Dan, Yaz, and friends as her “crew” and, for some truly godawful reason, making Pimp My Ride jokes. The bits are old hat (She says she has a plan; Yaz knows she doesn’t.), the dialogue is rote (“How do we fix this?” “Here’s how we fix this.”). But she’s been adrift as a character for so long that there’s little hope at this late stage of making her feel as rich and real as the rest of the modern Doctors — even the ones who were only around for an hour or so. Thirteen tells Yaz that she is too afraid to “fix [herself] to anything, anywhere, anyone,” and it’s like Chibnall is speaking right through her. This Doctor’s personality is a product of creative fear, not passion or curiosity. It feels to me like the current team was so busy worrying about how she would be interpreted that they neglected to make her anything. And any deep interpretation that one can find evidence for still requires a lengthy reach. “I’m smiling while I die inside” is a perfectly acceptable direction to go with a regeneration, but good god, couldn’t they have leaned into it more? We shouldn’t have to do the majority of the work ourselves.
But, as was the case with Flux, Thasmin is the saving grace here and what will be worth remembering as the show moves on. I remained unsure whether or not the Doctor reciprocated Yaz’s feelings at the end of “Eve of the Daleks,” so all I was hoping for here (and I have such little hope left, my friends) was that we’d get confirmation either way. So it was a really wonderful surprise for the Doctor to have two direct and honest conversations with Yaz about it. (And for Yaz to hold the line and keep her own feelings out there when the Doctor does try to brush past those tense moments.) But where this storyline falls short for me is that the show doesn’t seem to care why Thirteen could do what Ten or even Twelve couldn’t. I mean, Rose Tyler would have done terrible, unspeakable things to get the painful satisfaction of “If I was going to, believe me, it’d be with you.” What makes Yaz different? What makes this Doctor different? After years of keeping her companions at arm’s length, what gave her the ability to come out and express her desire for a different kind of connection than she’ll ever let herself have? It’s not that I don’t buy it — I do, and I’m invested — but I miss the deep dive. I want to dig into some souls here, and the Chibnall era won’t even let me dip a spoon in.
Meanwhile, poor Dan. The only resolution for this character that the show has bothered to seed is for him to be dropped off at home, having not changed in any way because he was already perfect, and then go out for a drink with a woman who he didn’t even seem to know very well in the first place and who callously rejected him last season for…well, I suppose she had her reasons, but hell if I know what they were. Dan is lovely, John Bishop is very fun and twinkly, but those things in and of themselves do not make a case for his presence. Nothing about this comes off as thoughtful or purposeful, and it’s a bummer for the actor, no matter how much fun he’s having.
This controversial era in Doctor Who history is unfortunately playing out in a time where an anti-criticism stance has been blossoming on social media, and it’s certainly infiltrated our fandom culture. I see it a lot and and from all different ages. They say that others being critical of Doctor Who hurts their experience of it, and that it hurts the show. There’s a belief that it’s the responsibility of those who are invested in Doctor Who to be praising it constantly — or, at the very least, keeping our mouths shut if we don’t have anything nice to say. But it’s because I love Doctor Who like crazy that I have the capacity to be so disappointed by it, and I am entitled to express that. On top of that, there are many, many professionals who are paid to make the show, and I would suggest that it’s those people who are responsible for its reputation and its survival, not me. But I do understand how we got here. When everyone has a platform, good-faith criticism and trolling are conflated and often given equal weight. It can be difficult to parse through all the noise, and suddenly, everything that’s not laudatory starts to feel shitty and bad. On the other hand, you and I — and the Doctor Who legacy — deserve content that’s been created with love and care. We deserve well-told stories and characters who jump off the screen. What we did nothing to deserve was that pathetic sword fight, and I’ll be damned if I pretend otherwise.
- I officially do not understand this era’s relationship to violence. The Doctor chastises Ji-Hun for killing the Sea Devil who imprisoned him for centuries, yet Dan can mow down a whole lot of them with a quip about his mum? What are we saying here?
- “Seventy? Sixty?”
- The best acting in this special was in the second after the Doctor asks, “Not a bad date, am I?” and Yaz’s face starts to fall when she realizes she meant it colloquially, then steels as she refuses to let the moment pass. Mandip! Gill!!
- How did Madame Ching tie up two grown men by herself without knocking them unconscious first?
- Ear in a box? Sure, why not, let’s pull that out and never mention it again.
- The set piece comes first, and the bullshit reason for its existence follows.
“Since when did you need a ship? You’re aquatic creatures.”
“It’s not a question of need. It instils fear in the Land Crawlers.” Okay then!
- Who named the Keystone and why would the Sea Devils tell Ji-Hun so much about it before they encased him in that little cryo tank?
- Remember when TV used to be pretty and saturated and vibrant? Because it’s been so long that I’m starting to forget.
- Hilarious to leave Madame Ching counting up some ancient treasure, as if she’s meant to know what any one object is worth in her time.
What did you think about “Legend of the Sea Devils”? Let us know in the comments.
Featured Image Source: BBC