Astonishingly, Legend of the Sea Devils marks the first reappearance in modern Doctor Who for writer Malcom Hulke‘s much-loved foes! Upon their debut in 1972’s The Sea Devils, these aquatic adversaries immediately joined the pantheon of classic Doctor Who monsters, despite only making one underwhelming return in 1984’s Warriors of the Deep. Now 38 years on, they’re back and in an episode that feels practically custom made for them. Pirates and sea monsters? A mash-up made in heaven, surely?
Alas, Legend of the Sea Devils does little justice for these much-loved foes, whilst the central premise feels completely underdeveloped and lacking in substance. A stunning redesign that remains beholden to their original 1970s look aside, the episode does very little with the Sea Devils beside a few clumsily choreographed sword fights and some gubbins about a gem stone that has power to upset the tidal balance of the Earth and flood the planet (or something). The monsters may look amazing in their 21st century prosthetics but it’s merely cosmetic – there’s very little beneath the surface here.
The historical aspect of the story also sadly falls short. The Chinese Pirate culture and the character of Madame Ching (Crystal Yu) are intriguing concepts to explore in an episode of Doctor Who, each promising both interesting production design and insightful glimpses into a period of history seldom explored on primetime television. Alas, neither is much present here. Ray Holman‘s excellent costume design aside, the whole visual affair falls pretty flat from a directing point of view, whilst the script throws out a few flat lines of breakneck exposition before getting on with the painfully average sci-fi shenanigans. It’s a crying shame that once again an idea which sounds so great on paper is so clumsily bought to life on screen, but here we are again.
The aforementioned pacing issues are certainly a major factor in Legend‘s disappointing end result. For the most part, the episode plays out like a piecemeal version of something a lot better. Whole scenes of exposition feel rushed, whilst other scenes are notable by their absence. The episode zips about from one moment to another at a fair lick, but it’s a rush job at best, and there are clear signs of production issues behind the scenes that have resulted in the rather messy, cobbled-together end product. The central plot about the pirates and the treasure is underwhelmingly lacking in the script as it is, but the choppy editing and clumsy direction only work to bring these flaws to the forefront even further.
The episode is just about saved by the gung-ho performances from the main cast and the guest stars, especially those of Jodie Whittaker and Mandip Gill in the closing moments of the episode. The scenes in particular properly touch upon the ‘will they/won’t they?’ aspect of the Doctor and Yasmin’s relationship for what feels like the first time, and whilst the end result of said-scene is obvious from a mile-off, it’s still beautifully played by the two co-stars. There’s hope still that this will set up some real meaty drama to come in the Thirteenth Doctor’s final story this autumn, but only time will tell for now.
Moments of good plunder aside, Legend of the Sea Devils is hardly a legendary return for the much-loved fan favourites of the title. The episode’s behind the scenes production issues are clear from the off, the heavily hacked apart plot and a breathlessly rushed and choppy final cut together making for a far from great end result. In nautical terms, it’s more of a salvage than a total shipwreck, but there’s no denying the fact that any pirate treasure here is sunk and lost as a result.