Friday’s Rag Tag Crew: Doctor Who & the Legend of the Sea Devils

Those of you with memories of longer than six days will recall that I explicitly stated that the TARDIS crew really don’t count in this sub-genre of pirate space cowboys that I’m exploring. I’m sticking with that claim. The Doctor is whatever the Doctor is and really doesn’t fit with the dashing-but-dodgy ship captain we are looking for. The Doctor’s companions do tick a box as not a formal space-navy crew, except that they aren’t really crew. The companions are tourists and the TARDIS doesn’t go on voyages so much as act as the portal in a portal fantasy.

Yet here we are. The tipping point is, of course, pirates. The thesis at the end of reviewing Firefly was that show wanted to be a space western but is actually a space pirate show. The series and the movie has them robbing trains and banks rather than other spaceships but they do fly around and rob stuff. War and a lack of other legitimate options force them into piracy but that’s the arc until mid-way through the movie when they get a new and morally redeeming purpose by exposing the crimes of the Alliance on Miranda.

Meanwhile, with Our Flag Means Death being the hit comedy of the year, pirates are riding high in the pop-cultural consciousness. Coincidentally, the Doctor Who Easter Special was also pirate themed and so we have The Doctor crashing into another genre. Pirates aren’t new to the show — the Doctor has met a whole pirate planet and the reboot series has had pirate adventures before. This time though, the theme is Chinese pirates.

In the early 19th century, the pirate queen Madam Ching (based on this real-life pirate https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zheng_Yi_Sao ) attempts to break a statue in a fishing village. The statue is of a Sea Devil — the aquatic equivalent of the dinosaur-era Silurians. A bunch of stuff happens and the statue becomes a real Sea Devil who lays waste to the village. Thus begins an awful lot of hand-waving. I’ve watched this twice and while I don’t want the story to stop for lots of exposition, there are an awful lot of disconnected ideas here. Magic stones, lost treasure, and confused motives each rush by without making a lot of sense.

There are some great visual moments and largely the Sea Devils themselves look great but the integration of the special effects with the live acting creates a very stagy feel. I suspect the whole thing was impacted by covid restrictions on filming because, despite attempts for some swashbuckling, there is a lot of standing around and pointing.

There is the skeleton of an interesting time travel story here but the episode really doesn’t manage to tell that story in an engaging way. There’s not a lot of point of having pirates in the episode without touching on the moral ambiguity of pirates as romantic figures of fiction and violent thieves in reality. The Sea Devils (along with the Silurians) are also beings that typically are used to create more complex questions. As the rightful “owners” of Earth, they typically present at least a degree of subversion of alien invaders. Chris Chibnall was the writer of the Matt Smith-era episode Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (Hugosauriad chapter here) which was a serviceable episode touching on some bigger moral issues, so he is definitely capable of pulling these multiple strands together.

The best thing I can say about it is that it was undercooked. There are lots of great ingredients here but the whole thing needed a lot more work. The most interesting aspect of the show was the brief advancement of the Doctor/Yas relationship, with The Doctor confessing their aversion to a deeper relationship. A nice bit of dialogue with The Doctor starting a sentence with “I can’t fix myself…” but shifting that meaning to “I can’t fix myself to one person.” Neat. You can do a lot with one line and this line, in particular, adds a lot to the Whittaker-Doctor’s nature. The breezy positivity is a superficial layer of the emotional pain of the loss of multiple significant people in their life/lives. The coming-soon trailer suggests that Whittaker’s farewell will include some past companions also. I hope that is more than a gimmick because there’s a strong theme there.

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9 responses to “Friday’s Rag Tag Crew: Doctor Who & the Legend of the Sea Devils”

  1. I think “disconnected ideas” is the inadvertent theme of the episode.

    This was probably the worst produced episode of the Whittaker era in my opinion. The scene-to-scene progress felt disconnected. Many of the actual scenes were marred by the camera focus being too close, making it hard to see how characters were interacting with each other. This was particularly noticeable in the sword-fighting scenes.

    And frankly, there was far too much plot to cover for the runtime. What particularly suffered for that was the Sea Devils themselves. You’ve got to assume that after nearly 40 years that the general viewing audience will have no idea who they actually are; would it have killed them to actually fill out that background slightly?

    Charitably, I think you can blame lack of budget, Covid regulations and that apparently there was 15 minutes cut out of the story compared to what was on screen. But given the way that the BBC have aggressively mismanaged this show during the Chibnall years, I’m not feeling very charitable.

    I like Whittaker’s Doctor and companions. I find Chibnall’s writing ok. I do think that for the show to be successful that there needs to be a season per year, every year, and the current production team have failed to deliver on that, even before Covid.

    Forget quality (you shouldn’t forget quality).

    Forget good performances (you shouldn’t forget good performances).

    Forget good writing (you shouldn’t forget good writing).

    If you don’t have a product on the screen, none of that matters.

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  2. That one was all over the place. I missed the other boys in it, who would have loved playing pirate. (I gather also that some people were not pleased with how Asian elements were handled, including cultural errors.)

    I was glad that they tackled the Jaz plotline, though, as it was not a plotline that was otherwise going anywhere in this ending of the most recent era, but at least it was resolved nicely. When the show started long ago, the Doctor was presented as a mainly sexless being, a literal elderly grandfather for whom any romantic interests were largely in the past. As the show went on, the incarnations generally got younger and started becoming potential romantic interests for some of the companions, with such possibilities mostly not happening as the Doctor was ultimately above and too much for mere humans. When the show was revamped for the modern age, the Doctors were relatively young, cute and definitely set up as possible romantic interests/objects for some companions as a stronger aspect of the show. They clearly were sometimes having sex (see Queen Elizabeth I,) flirted, sometimes got jealous, and while their feelings were mainly familial caring for the human companions, a few they did fall for — Rose, River Song.

    But the Doctor knows that they entangle human lives because they need them, seldom like to be alone, and also can cause the companions who get romantic extreme pain even when they don’t get them killed. So there’s always that hesitancy, that concern, and the Doctor laying it out for Jaz was well done, I thought. You got the sense that the Doctor was trying to not have Jaz end up like Martha, with whom she’s a great deal a parallel figure. The Doc made special effort to say that Jaz was noticed and valued and a true partner. As a “It’s not you, it’s me” speech goes, it was effective if scattered over the course of the episode.

    I’ve enjoyed Jodi as the Doctor despite the very uneven nature of the show. But I do hope they have a leave-taking episode for her that’s a bit more cohesive than this one.

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  3. In other words, kind of typical for the Chibnall era. Remember the fight against the space spiders (Arachnids in the UK) that just stopped? Or the dude between the mirrors (It Takes You Away) who served literally no purpose at all? He appeared to be there to sop up time in a script that ran short.

    Chibnall’s stories have mostly missed for me. The best ones have been a mess and the worst make no sense at all. It’s a shame to do a thing like that to Jodi Whittaker.

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    • I’ve actually liked a fair number of episodes he’s penned over the years. But as a show runner, he wasn’t ideal. But I’m not at all happy about Davies coming back to do it. My daughter stopped watching the show because as she got older she increasingly found stuff with Davies that was problematic. They may not have had a choice and it may be temporary, but they need someone new. A woman running it wouldn’t hurt even if the next incarnation of the Doctor likely goes back to being a man.

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      • I can agree with that. Davies tended to rely on stadium endings that involved the Doctor shouting about how scary he was to wrap it up. I thought making problems go aw y by shouting at them was lazy.

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