Once upon a time, a new episode of Doctor Who was something to get excited about. These days, not so much. The latest special–the second of three to air this year–is a bland affair. It’s not egregiously bad, but is certainly drab and uninspiring. I almost skipped out on writing about it, it was so unmemorable. And strangely cheap looking.
Spoilers, I guess. But really, with an episode so unmemorable, who cares?
I don’t know if it’s a result of COVID-era production, but it seemed like the episode was just uncomfortable ever showing that many characters in the same shot. As a result the cast is sparse and the whole production feels like its being filmed in tiny locations, even when we’re supposed to be seeing a whole village. The scene where the Sea Devil attacks the village is the absolute. We get a series of close ups of the Sea Devil swinging his blade, intercut with close ups of villagers screaming or falling to the ground, dead. It’s shot a bit like something I might have made with my super-8 camera when I was a kid. This obvious weakness steals away what has been one of the biggest strengths of Doctor Who under Chris Chibnall, which is the cinematography.
The big climactic sword-fight between everyone on the ship is also terribly visualized. Everyone runs around in jarring shaky close-ups that make the action uninspiring at best, and incomprehensible at worst. Maybe if the plot were more interesting it wouldn’t matter so much. But it’s not more interesting, so it does matter.
Proponents of a romance between the Doctor and Yaz will find both reasons to be happy and sad here. The possibility is addressed, but nothing actually happens because the Doctor has decided she can’t handle it. She knows any relationship will eventually end (due to the vast differences between human and Time Lord) and so the whole idea is just too painful.
I’m not a fan of the idea for much the same reason, but also because there is just nothing in Yaz that I can imagine the Doctor becoming attracted to. The Doctor calls her one of the greatest people that she’s known, but there’s basically nothing in three seasons of the show to support this idea. And since this plotline got underway, Yaz has mostly just been sullen and grouchy. She almost is a non-presence in this story except to look wistful and sad.
None of the other characters are all that great either, although Jodie Whittaker does a nice job playing both the Doctor’s quick thinking and emotional ups and downs. Crystal Yu is vaguely interesting as Madame Ching (continuing the show’s recent habit of spotlighting lesser known historical figures, especially women), but Ying Ki (Marlowe Chan-Reeves) can’t decide whether he is grieving his dead father or just out for a big adventure.
On the positive side, Legend of the Sea Devils might be the best Easter special that Doctor Who has ever had, since it’s only competition is the dreadfully boring Planet of the Dead. And it also might be the least terrible pirate-themed episode of the modern series, beating out The Curse of the Black Spot from Series 6 (although at least the regular cast was fun back then).
But these are low-bars to clear. In the end, the most exciting thing about watching this episode is seeing the trailer for Jodie Whittaker’s last episode (the BBC’s Centenary Special) and seeing that Tegan and Ace were coming back for it. Of course, this natural excitement is counter-balanced by my tepid quality the show in recent years–the image of the two of them firing big machine guns next to each other doesn’t make me hopeful.
Is this still my favorite show? Sure, in light of the whole 59 year history. But just at the moment, maybe not so much.