Old enemies re-awaken off the coast of 19th-century China in Doctor Who‘s Easter Sunday special, Legend of the Sea Devils

Doctor Who landed back on our screens last night for another stand-alone special, Legend of the Sea Devils. This episode marks the mid-point of a trilogy of stories that will see out the Thirteenth Doctor‘s era. A third and final special is due to air this autumn, in conjunction with the BBC’s centenary celebrations. This concluding story will see Jodie Whittaker depart from the role of the Doctor.

For now, however, her penultimate adventure finds the Doctor, Yaz, and Dan in a small, coastal village in 19th-century China. There, they come face-to-face with legendary pirate queen Madam Ching (Crystal Yu), who has unwittingly awoken some of the Doctor’s oldest enemies, the Sea Devils. Can the Doctor save the planet from this underwater threat once again?

Marsissus (Craige Els) in Legend of the Sea Devils (c) BBC Studios Doctor Who Sea Devil
Marsissus (Craige Els) in Legend of the Sea Devils (c) BBC Studios

Legend of the Sea Devils Brings Us an Epic Adventure Despite COVID Challenges

With its expansive scope and grand premise, Legend of the Sea Devils makes for a very different kind of story when compared to preceding special Eve of the Daleks. New Year’s Day saw the TARDIS crew trapped inside a building alongside two ordinary people against a single Dalek. Now, Easter Sunday finds them exploring the depth and breadth of the ocean off the coast of historical China. What’s more, they’re fighting off the Sea Devils with the help of legendary pirate queen, Madam Ching (Crystal Yu).

Nevertheless, as with Eve of the Daleks, along with Flux, this episode was again filmed under strict COVID restrictions. As such, it once again demonstrates how much the cast and crew have been able to achieve despite difficult circumstances. Wales is convincingly transformed into 19th-cenury China through the combination of Ray Holman‘s incredibly detailed costume and creature designs, Segun Akinola‘s score, and impressive set-dressing.

Crystal Yu Completely Embodies Powerful Pirate Queen Madam Ching

In terms of recent stories, this special’s premise shares the most similarities with War of the Sontarans. It features the return of an iconic enemy, along with a notable historical figure in the form of Madam Ching. Crystal Yu completely embodies the character of this real-life pirate leader from the very first moment she steps into frame. Before we even see her face, we can feel her commanding presence. She captures brilliantly what an imposing figure the real Madam Ching must’ve been.

Crystal Yu as pirate queen Madame Ching in Legend of the Sea Devils (c) BBC Studios Doctor Who
Crystal Yu as pirate queen Madame Ching in Legend of the Sea Devils (c) BBC Studios

It is something of a shame, therefore, that the story itself didn’t necessarily convey just how influential and powerful Madam Ching truly was. She commanded of an enormous confederation of pirates consisting of thousands of ships and tens of thousands of men. For this reason, Madam Ching is often dubbed ‘the most successful pirate of all time’. In this sense, the story doesn’t fully do this important historical figure justice to quite the same extent as those featured in similar ‘celebrity historical’ episodes in recent years.

The Sea Devils Make a Welcome Return after 38 Years

Elsewhere, Legend of the Sea Devils of course saw the return of the eponymous long-standing enemies of the Doctor. This comes 38 years after their last appearance, and indeed 50 years on from their first appearance opposite Jon Pertwee‘s Third Doctor.

As with the aforementioned Sontarans during Flux, the Sea Devils‘ look has been updated for the 21st century, whilst very much retaining the essence of their original design. Ray Holman has also cleverly incorporated elements of their usual fishing-net robes into their more period-appropriate pirate attire. The only element of their updated appearance that isn’t quite so effective is the animation that has been applied to their faces in post-production, which feels a little excessive at times. Nevertheless, it does make them feel more credible as living, breathing creatures.

The Sea Devils return for Legend of the Sea Devils - (C) BBC Studios - Photographer: James Pardon
The Sea Devils return for Legend of the Sea Devils – (C) BBC Studios – Photographer: James Pardon

As well as their overall appearance, their ultimate aim remains largely the same as before. The Sea Devils seek to regain control of the planet that they feel is rightfully theirs. The search for the keystone that will allow them to flood the Earth takes our heroes across time and space. This makes for an engaging and fast-paced (but subsequently at times difficult to follow) story. They hop between locations, not lingering anywhere very long. Even so, the script does still contain some jarring moments of excessive exposition. Events are repeatedly explained to the audience rather than letting us work it out for ourselves, such as when the Doctor and Yaz witness the Sea Devils capturing Ji-Hun’s ship.

Nevertheless, throwing the characters into a high-octane adventure such as this does allow for some fantastic action sequences. The crew’s sword-fight against the Sea Devils is undoubtedly a stand-out moment within the episode. It’s also fantastically directed by Haolu Wang in her Doctor Who debut.

The Doctor and Yaz Provide Legend of the Sea Devils‘ Most Impactful Moments

Moreover, in amongst the action, the TARDIS crew are thankfully afforded some brief moments of downtime. Dan’s conversations with Yaz and the Doctor in Eve of the Daleks made it clear that both of them needed to address how they truly feel about each other. As such, what time the Doctor and Yaz are able to spend alone together generates many of the most impactful moments in Legend of the Sea Devils.

Yaz (Mandip Gill) and the Doctor (JJodie Whittaker) have 'things to talk about' in Legend of the Sea Devils (c) BBC Studios, Photo: James Pardon Doctor Who
Yaz (Mandip Gill) and the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) have ‘things to talk about’ in Legend of the Sea Devils (c) BBC Studios, Photo: James Pardon

Throughout the episode, it’s heartbreakingly clear how desperately both of them want to be together, whilst also knowing deep down that it could never last. As a viewer, it’s just as bittersweet to see them begin to open up to each other just as their time together is about to come to an end. As frustrating as this is, however, it’s vital not to understate the wider importance of this storyline. In terms of representation, it’s so significant and meaningful to have not only a long-running companion but also the Doctor herself explicitly express their love for one another as two women.

Elsewhere within the TARDIS crew, there are some lovely little moments between Dan and Yaz in this episode. Most notable are her dressing him up as a stereotypical pirate, and the look they share before skimming stones. All of these scenes they share subtly portray the strength of their friendship after years of travelling together.

The Thirteenth Doctor’s Final Adventure Looms Large Over Legend of the Sea Devils

Overall, Doctor Who has once again overcome the challenges of recent times to bring us a bold and expansive adventure. As the Thirteenth Doctor’s final episode looms large, it somewhat threatens to overshadow this story. As such, it’s perhaps all the more important to appreciate Legend of the Sea Devils‘ success in bringing to life the 19th-century Chinese coast, as well as resurrecting some of the Doctor’s oldest enemies, and cherish some of the calm before the storm it afforded the current TARDIS crew ahead of their last adventure together.

Doctor Who will return later this year for the Centenary Special.

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