Doctor Who's Legend of The Sea Devils cast tease sword fights, serious conversations and "something big around the corner"
Chris Chibnall, Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill and John Bishop reveal all about the second in a trio of specials airing in 2022
In a swashbuckling special adventure, the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Dan (John Bishop) come face to fin with one of the Doctor’s oldest adversaries: the Sea Devils. Why has legendary pirate queen Madam Ching come searching for a lost treasure? What terrifying forces lurk beneath the oceans of the nineteenth century? And did Yaz really have to dress Dan up as a pirate?
Legend of the Sea Devils is the second in a trio of specials airing in 2022. Jodie Whittaker’s final feature-length special will transmit in autumn 2022 as part of the BBC’s Centenary celebrations.
Legend of the Sea Devils airs on BBC One and BBC iPlayer on Sunday April 17.
Q&A with Chris Chibnall
Where do we find our core cast at the beginning of this special?
This special sees the TARDIS crew landing in a coastal village in China, on the trail of the mystery of the treasure of the Flor de la Mar, which the Doctor has been meaning to find out about for a long time. When they get there, they discover some very strange events and a terrible evil being unleashed in this village!
What was your inspiration for this episode and how did you come to work together with Ella Road on this script?
We had been intending to do a piratey story during Flux and we didn't manage to make it work for all sorts of reasons. So when it came to thinking about the final specials that was one of things I really wanted to revisit, to do a big, thrilling Bank Holiday romp of an adventure for Jodie's penultimate story, featuring a warrior pirate queen. Ella (Road) then came to us with the idea of Madam Ching - this incredible character from history - and it all knitted together thanks to her.
Can you tell us a bit about the process of bringing the new guest actors on board?
We are always really lucky on Doctor Who as we have one of the best Casting Directors in the business in Andy Pryor. Andy’s great at keeping tabs on everyone and also uncovering great new, young talent as well. So when we were thinking about the story, I talked to him and gave him a heads up on the characters that we were thinking of. Usually the process is that Andy will put together a list, people who will tape and we'll look at load of people so that's how it went on this and we saw some amazing people.
Crystal (Yu) just absolutely shone out, and then we also Marlowe Chan-Reeves who plays Ying-Ki, I think this is his first television job and he's an absolute star of the future. It's something that happens all the time on Doctor Who, down to the genius of Andy Pryor and his team – they’re the unsung heroes of the series since 2005. They have cast every episode and this litany of incredible guest actors is absolutely down to them and their brilliance. The show owes that team a huge debt of gratitude.
Why did you decide to bring back the Sea Devils? Was it always planned? How did you go about bringing that vision to life with your team?
We didn't start with Sea Devils at all, but the great thing about Doctor Who’s history is sometimes you can pull on all of that history and go, “Oh wait okay, the perfect monster has already been created, and is already in there!” So you can spend a long time thinking about creating or making a bespoke monster for this story, but actually, we thought, “If you add the Sea Devils in, this becomes really exciting” – they bring an extra layer of story, an extra layer of thrills and an extra layer of meaning for the fans. And so it wasn't always in there but when we put them in and tried them out it really worked.
Then the question is whether you do a big redesign, as we did with the Silurians when I was working for Steven Moffat on Matt Smith’s first season. They were created by the same writer, Malcom Hulke, and are sort of cousin monsters! With the Sea Devils, it felt like there were ways that we could fit that original, brilliant and recognisable design into this story and have a bit of fun with it, pirate them up a little bit while also doing little bits of updating and augmenting – but fundamentally retaining the incredible design by John Friedlander.
So they’re very much his creation, and updated by Robert Allsopp and Ray Holman, our costume and monster designers. Then we were really lucky in that we had Craige Els, who played Karvanista in Flux, as the Chief Sea Devil. He’s a magnificent actor who is now beneath another mask– we still haven’t seen his real face in the main show! He does a brilliant performance and we knew we needed a really great actor - a great voice actor and a physical actor as well. What he brings is just gorgeous, as always.
What was added in after filming? They seem very true to the prosthetic that was created by Robert Allsopp.
It’s just things like expression, blinking of the eyes, they do a bit of snarling - just tiny little things to make sure that things come alive but they’re very much the monsters as you saw them previously.
There seems to be great anticipation about their return?
It’s the lovely thing you can do occasionally - there aren’t millions of Doctor Who monsters that you can bring back. But there’s a lovely affection for the Sea Devils, and they haven’t been used in the modern era. Also probably my earliest memory of Doctor Who and probably my earliest memories of being alive almost, is seeing them on the TV, so it was a nice thing to do in the penultimate story we were doing.
How does the relationship between Yaz and the Doctor develop further in this episode?
Dan has cottoned onto the dynamic between the Doctor and Yaz and from a distance, observed what they haven't been admitting to themselves. I think really, in Eve of the Daleks, both Yaz and the Doctor have hinted that they have feelings that they are suppressing and keeping quiet about. So there are some conversations that need to be had and you'll see those conversations developing and taking place in Legend of the Sea Devils. The Doctor and Yaz have something to talk about!
Would you say this is more of a standalone episode?
Yes, it’s a big standalone bank holiday action romp for all the family! A rollicking, swashbuckling adventure for the Doctor, Dan and Yaz with big monsters, big pirate ships, the sword fights, lots of fun, loads of action, lots of lovely jokes and a great, fun tone before we go into the big epic battle for survival with Jodie's final episode.
This episode was of course filmed during strict COVID restrictions. What were some of the bigger challenges that you faced in making it happen?
It was a huge ask, and I didn't know whether we could do it after the production team had pulled out all the stops for Flux. We knew it was a big deal to be able to transport the show back in time, around the world, onto ships and onto the seas. It’s just a testament to the whole production team from first to last - from pre-production to post production.
Daf Shurmer, our Production Designer, is an absolute legend himself and he did something that I think should have been impossible - and I think was impossible - and he achieved it. He's just given us such scale with so many great sets that look amazing.
Haolu Wang, our brilliant director, and Mark Waters our Director of Photography, have shot it wonderfully with energy and love and fun, and the cast all got into that. And DNEG who do all our CG and visual effects have just delivered something really special. We've got sea monsters, we've got pirate ships, we've got the oceans, and we’re in an ancient coastal village!
As with every episode of Doctor Who, is it was a massive team effort. Everybody involved in the COVID procedures on Doctor Who whether it was testing everybody or sorting out the bubbles - we never had a day shut down due to COVID, it involved incredible work by the whole team. And the fact that I think Jodie Whittaker did not go out for almost a year, while she was working on her final series -she set such a great and responsible example, and put the show first.
For anyone who is coming to Doctor Who as a new viewer is this an easy one to step in and get on board with? What do you hope families take from it?
I think it’s definitely a great episode to come into. It's got a lot of action, very heroic plot, lots of fun, big mad monsters, mad ideas, cinematic ambition, all that stuff and a great cast. We have a big, epic, rollicking, fun adventure for you whether you've never seen Doctor Who or you've seen every episode. And then for long term audiences and fans of the show there are loads of lovely little easter eggs and nods to the past so it's absolutely got something for everyone.
Is it starting to feel a bit surreal now that your time on the series is coming to an end?
The workload is less so it’s lovely doing the post production on these last two specials because you're not having to write and film at the same time. As showrunner, when you're doing Doctor Who and you're in the thick of it you're doing three jobs at the same time. You're writing for episodes down the line, you're looking at all the filming that's happening and you're in the edit and post production on multiple episodes. So it's really nice now that I don't have any other episodes to think about.
I love the post production process, it’s one of my favourite bits because you're just watching teams of geniuses produce great work! So it's nice not to have the workload, it’s nice not to have the pressure of what’s coming up. I'm sort of combining having a break with finishing these episodes and working on other things so it’s lovely right now.
Q&A with Jodie Whittaker
What can audiences expect from this special?
We’re a few centuries off where the Doctor was aiming for and we stumble across a period in history that is a first for the Doctor Who universe. The TARDIS knows that it's going to China so Yaz and the Doctor have prepared appropriately for it but Dan gets a bit of a bum steer and his costume is all wrong! It’s a Pirates of the Caribbean style sci-fi, action adventure that marries historical characters with Whovian characters with a really brilliant high octane Doctor Who adventure.
Did you enjoy stepping onto set – we heard the ship was impressive?
Yeah, it was amazing! The art department worked night and day to create a really extraordinary set and I think it's the biggest one that we've worked on. We walked into an incredible pirate ship - it has so many different levels, it was really epic. It has so much depth and detail and also I think it was one boat that ended up being three different ones and in the episode, you can tell that the art department have worked so hard for that to go completely unnoticed.
How was it to find out the Sea Devils were coming back, with Craige Els as the Chief Sea Devil? How did they match up to other Doctor Who creatures you’ve come up against?
I was really pleased to be working with the Sea Devils! It’s always good to work with creatures from the Doctor Who universe. This is a hat trick for me now with Craige Els! Me and Craige were in a play called Antigone at the National with Chris Eccleston - now it’s a trio of Whovian cast. I spent the entire time with Craige saying “What did you say?” because of the mask! I think they were less familiar to me so it interesting to see Craigs Els’ interpretation because obviously he's playing a very different kind of Sea Devil than we've seen before. Because of the costume and the restrictions of the mask it meant that Craige’s lines were recorded so that added complication to it but as far as the look of it, it looked great! I think an acting thing must have been incredibly challenging for Craige but once again he brought an incredible characterisation and smashed it.
How was it working with the brilliant guest actors?
On this episode we got to work with some really exciting cast. Crystal was absolutely brilliant. And also I think, Madam Ching as a character was such a great character. I think Crystal is an actress throws herself into things 100%. She's amazing, as is Craig, Marlowe and Arthur (Lee) - we had a really contained cast. There was obviously more than that but for us it was a kind of ensemble feel as were together all of the time.
Crystal’s energy was brilliant - she was never tired - she was running around, jumping off things, swinging off things, fighting, memorising lots of lines and at no point does she ever stop smiling. She's such a wonderful person to have on set and it was really was lovely. And I think the dynamic between her, Arthur and Marlowe was great too. What was lovely was that Marlowe was at the very beginning of his career and that’s always really exciting as well, to work with people that are starting out and Doctor Who plays a part in the start of their professional life as an actor. Working with our Director Haolu (Wang) was absolutely brilliant too, I loved getting to work with her for the first time - her energy and personality really shine through in this episode.
We heard Marlowe is a big fan of Doctor Who?
Marlowe is a Whovian and his knowledge of Doctor Who far surpassed mine! There was a scene where I couldn't say one of my lines and it was a very specific scientific term. I just kept getting this word wrong and he would stand next to the camera and slightly mouth it to me as I did it. It really should have been roles reversed - I should have been helping him out because he has just started but he was always helping me out!
Can you tell us about your stunts/action scenes in this episode?
There was a scene where I needed to slide down the ship but the thing was the ship didn't have a side on it, it was really high! The team’s issue was the fact that there was no other side so if I did topple over the other side it would have probably been quite a dramatic day at work, but I was absolutely adamant (to do it). When I did it was actually really controlled but I didn’t know if it looked as good as I really thought it was going to but I was really proud of it. With sword fighting I was really nervous as I had not done it since drama school and then when we ended up rehearsing it, it was just like choreographing a dance and as soon as it was like that I could do it and I really enjoyed it.
How was your new costume?
There wasn’t as many tweaks being made to it throughout filming - I didn’t get to hang out with my wonderful dresser Ian as much as I’d like to as once this costume was on it was on! What always seems to happen on Doctor Who is you wear a thick heavy material in summer and a thin t-shirt in winter, so I was really sweaty but that was not down to the look – I felt I looked a million dollars.
How does it feel as we get closer to the big centenary special?
It’s interesting because time wise, it’s such a long time off (before they air). What's great about the standalone episodes are that if you do watch it now and then you watch another episode in autumn, you don’t need to rewatch it to understand what's happening in the next one. They are great standalone individuals stories, that obviously marry all of my seasons together, build on relationships and things like that. But they are also these individual set pieces that can be dipped into and watched without the context of the rest of the show, which I think is really important. It shouldn’t exclude viewers and or may you feel like you need to go back and do homework to watch something!
Q&A with Mandip Gill
What can audiences expect from this special?
It's definitely one for the family. It's got returning monsters in the Sea Devils and it's got new characters! For a new audience, you're able to relate to new characters, or if you're watching it with your grandparents, you then get to see the return of the Sea Devils. It's a really exciting story and it looks amazing. We have brilliant costumes and actors -it's a little bit scary and a little dark in parts, but I think all that works if you're going to be watching it as a family.
Where do we pick up at the start of this episode?
At the beginning of the episode, the TARDIS lands at a small coastal village but once again it's landed where it's not supposed to land. The Doctor promised Dan and Yaz that they’d be going to a beach somewhere exciting and they land on a beach, just not the beach that they expect. They get out, hear a massive scream and they realise that something very terrible is happening in this place.
How was it to film on this set?
It was a really epic ship that was built in the studios at the BBC. I saw Matt Strevens our Executive Producer in the hallway (before filming) and he was so excited for us to see it. It was brilliant, it was a huge ship so we didn't have to cheat any of the places or any of the angles. It was all there for us – things worked and moved and Jodie was able to do her stunt scene on that actual set which is always so helpful. It was one of the few times we had the whole thing there to work with. It was really spacious too, it was built to get all of us on it and a crew. The attention to detail was brilliant and having seen the episode it looks amazing!
How was it for you working with the Sea Devils?
I thought the prosthetics were amazing. Also, we knew the Sea Devils were part of Doctor Who’s history so I've always found it really exciting to work with characters that have already been there previously like Cybermen, like Daleks - it always feels like it really cements our place in the world. And then to be up against something that has been around for so long, was also an honour. They were so tall and the attention to detail was just brilliant. Again, it was great to be working with something that's there in front of you so to a degree don't have to use your imagination. It's all there!
Was it nice to have Craige Els back on set as the Chief Sea Devil?
It was brilliant! On set, you’re having these really natural conversations with a massive giant sea animal – we’re just casually having these normal conversations and having a laugh and I always wonder what it looks like from the outside looking in - he's ever so tall so he’s not always on the same chairs as us either to protect his costume. So he’s sat a little bit higher, and I am having these really in depth conversations with this sea monster!
Can you tell us about working with the guest actors?
Every single time you get new guest actors you get new best mates. I had already worked with Crystal on Casualty, so we knew each other and that felt quite familiar. Arthur was absolutely brilliant, you could see him going away to work on his lines - I love watching everyone else's acting techniques. Marlowe has done so well to be on a professional set and at young age and he’s so together. Also he’s a fan of the show and I love when people come in and they love the show. They want to be there as an actor, but they also love it and it's something that they actually watch on the outside.
I’ve always liked that about our guest actors - I love that they love it for a multitude of reasons, not just because they get to work as an actor. As it was a pandemic there were very few guest actors on and they tended to stay a lot longer than they did in previous series – we spent a fair bit of time together in Cardiff and I got on really well with them and had such lovely conversations. Crystal has got a really gorgeous energy and I think she's a brilliant actress, I think she was perfect for the part. Their costumes were great and we all did action sequences together which you don't often get to do, they were all brilliant!
What was your experience of the sword fighting?
We didn't do any training for the sword fighting but we rehearsed a sequence on the morning of it and because the set was really big, there was space to practice on the actual deck. You only see a little clip snippet of the whole work that we do after the edit but it was much harder than you think - the actual swords were a lot heavier than I expected! I was really into doing my own stunts before then and then I hurt my finger and I was like, “It's not for me!”
John Bishop mentioned that the team missed a trick not having Dan do more stunts. I don't know what you think about that?
I love how confident he is! To be honest, you think it’s going to be all fun and games and you want to do it all and are proper up for it. And then you do it and you realise that stunt people look so incredibly easy, because you have to go again and again and again! And so it's all fun and games until you're on the tenth take and you’re upside down again. But yeah, I guess I've had three years of being upside down and chased and whatnot.. John had one year but I mean, he probably wouldn't say that after three series!
What would you say we can expect in this episode between the Doctor and Yaz? Will their feelings be addressed further?
So the relationship between the Doctor and Yaz has definitely developed further. There’s not an awful lot I can say about it but there's a lot of bravery, there's a lot of emotion and a lot of understanding, and openness. Conversations are not concluded in this episode, but they still definitely have advanced from where they were at the New Year’s episode. There’s a lot of open and honest conversations.
How does this episode set us up for the final special?
We definitely get a sense that something is coming because there always is something coming when the Doctor is around! Things have not been resolved by the end of the episode and I think that can be said for the relationship between Yaz and the Doctor but also the Doctor’s history and future.
Why should everyone tune in this Easter Sunday?
I think it's a really jam packed, epic story. It looks amazing - you'll see the hard work that went in from the crew and the cast during the pandemic. They've definitely excelled in terms of prosthetics makeup, costume and set design. Everything is just brilliant. It's a standalone episode that has adventure, returning monsters, but also, ultimately and fundamentally there is a story of love at the centre of it all.
Q&A with John Bishop
What’s next in store for the trio on this adventure?
Well, this adventure involves monsters, someone dressed as a pirate, real pirates, an underlying love story, and it involves somebody finding something in themselves to make a commitment to another person to look after them. It has all of those things, and sword fighting, so I don’t think you could ask for more!
For this episode, we have the return of the Sea Devils, which everyone is very excited about. How did they compare to working with other Doctor Who monsters? Obviously we have Craige (Els) was back in a costume so you got to work with him again!
That was quite an interesting dynamic. Craige is great, but when he was Karvanista we were mates whereas with the Sea Devils it’s a bit of a different story - so it made the coffee breaks interesting! It was also, from a performance point of view and so on, really odd because they were physically threatening. In Doctor Who some of the monsters are not necessarily bigger than you are or physically different than you. Whereas with the Sea Devils…put it this way - if they walked into a pub, nobody is going to take them on!
Did you know much about them before filming or did anyone need to bring you up to speed on the history?
I knew a little bit about them and then Ray (Holman) our Costume Designer had a chat with me about their history, and how they’ve not been around for a while, so I knew what he had told me. Like all the elements of Doctor Who, the main actors are a small part of the fabric of what makes it work. The designers, the art department, the prosthetics, wardrobe and all those things make it work on the day and then afterwards, the post production, the music; all of those things make what you see so much better than what you’re doing on the day. And when you do it on the day and it’s good, you know it’s going to be brilliant on the telly because all of those bits get added.
You've got quite a striking pirate costume in this episode. How did that one come about?
It starts out a little joke between the characters – between Yaz and Dan - and then events take over and he never gets the chance to change!
Was there anything about the sets that really impressed you?
I’ll tell you what impressed me - having a ship! I just couldn’t believe it. It was a full ship built in the studio next door to the TARDIS. So we were filming a previous episode, and then you walk in next door and there's a ship that has been built. It absolutely floored me, honest to God it staggered me - the workmanship and the level of detail in it. It literally blew me away.
There are some new guest actors in this episode. How was it welcoming them into the Doctor Who family?
It's always good, particularly when they’re good actors! Crystal was familiar with Cardiff because obviously she has been in Casualty and when she was on set there she was thinking about what it was like in the Doctor Who studio - on the other side of the wall - so it was interesting to see it from that perspective. It was Marlowe’s first job and he was he was brilliant. Everyone wanted to look after him but he was just so accomplished, me and him were hanging upside down for half a day just having a laugh. Which is an odd way of getting to know someone!
How was your experience filming this special compared to others?
To get on the beach, on the coast, all of that setting and just being outside was good. But the main thing for me was just the ship, filming on the ship and just seeing the way it's done. There’s a massive screen for all of the CGI and I've never seen anything like that before - it was just so impressive.
Is Dan still involved with the Doctor and Yaz in this episode in terms of the development of their relationship?
I think it was probably a surprise to both the Doctor and Yaz that it was so obvious to him that there was feelings between them. And I think as a character he is probably not the most obvious persons to be the matchmaker. Because he comes in as an ordinary bloke you would suspect is so bemused by the world that he's in is too busy to absorb what's going on around him to notice. But because the bond between them is so clear, and because I think as well as he says to Yaz in the New Year’s special - sometimes if you've got feelings for somebody you just have to act on them because otherwise if you don’t it will be too late.
Were you involved in any of the sword fighting for this episode?
I'll be honest with you - I think they missed an opportunity because I was so desperate to do a few somersaults and swing on ropes - I really wanted to be a proper pirate! I got a bit done but if it was down to me I think there was a big likelihood that I wouldn't have been in the show at all because I think I would have killed myself at some point. I was like a kid on the set, climbing up ropes and everything - the stunt coordinator kept going “Get off, get off!” There’s a bit of rope swinging a bit of sword fighting and all that. Because we knew it was a special and the way the story was we played it for fun - it was written to be big and bold and that’s what it was.
How does it set us up for the final special? Does it gives any clues about what to expect?
You know there’s something big about to happen. You can see the change in the Doctor and change in the dynamic and you just know there’s something big around the corner.