Doctor Who – New Year’s Day Special 2019
Doctor Who ushers in a new year with an adventure featuring the return of an old enemy and an unexpected visit from Ryan’s father.
In concept it was a good idea to have an entire season of Doctor Who bereft of classic monsters as it theoretically encourages the writing team to come up with original threats that don’t rely on audience familiarity. How successfully this was pulled off is up for debate but there’s no denying that the intention behind the idea was right. That being said many believe that the real test of a Doctor is how they handle familiar threats like Daleks or Cybermen so this episode delivers Jodie Whittaker’s first encounter with a Dalek.
This episode is really uneven when considering it as a whole but the Dalek parts were by far the best thing it had to offer even if the way this Dalek operates is somewhat inconsistent with past behaviour. There’s a tendency in the revived Doctor Who to make alterations to the Daleks in order to expand their threat level and these alterations often feel somewhat gimmicky. I’m sure the idea of a Dalek scout seemed promising enough on paper but it makes no sense when you consider their previous methodology. They aren’t really the sort of race to study their targets before striking as their strategy normally amounts to attack in force and expect their superiority to be enough. There are exceptions to this as we’ve previously seen but they were more reactive than proactive so the scout idea didn’t really work for me.
The Dalek being separated from its casing and having to adapt to that circumstance is something that did work really well for me. It’s easy to forget that the creature inside the casing can be dangerous in its own right and this episode makes use of that in a really interesting way. I can’t help but wonder if Chris Chibnall took some inspiration from Venom as the Dalek acts like a more malevolent version of the symbiote in the way it bonds itself to Humans to use them as vessels to carry out its mission. Lin (Charlotte Ritchie) is the unfortunate victim who acts as the Dalek vessel for the majority of the episode. Charlotte Ritchie is both menacing and sympathetic with her dead eyed yet enraged glances as well as the periodic displays of terror when Lin comes close to regaining control of her body. Having her act on behalf of the Dalek ramps up the tension as there’s a specific barrier to stopping the Dalek since it is effectively holding her hostage. The Doctor has a difficult problem to deal with as she has to act quickly to thwart its plans but also has to consider that Lin will be easy collateral damage if she makes the wrong decision. This all works brilliantly as it establishes this Dalek as a more deliberate and nuanced threat than what this villain usually brings.
All told the Dalek plan is pretty much what it always is which is somewhat refreshing as there’s no attempt to add unnecessary complexity to its motivations. All it wants to do is signal the other Daleks so that they can wipe out the Human race. It wants to do this because it’s a Dalek. The speed in which it acts adds a natural ticking clock to the episode and keeps the plot moving when the focus is on the Doctor trying to track down the Dalek. There are pacing issues not related to this narrative but I’ll get to those later in the review.
Eventually the Dalek makes its way to a farm in order to build a makeshift outer shell that resembles the Dalek design everyone is aware of but has a rustic home-made look to it. The end result is somewhere between cool and laughable which I feel must have been the intention considering the Doctor makes fun of how the Dalek currently looks. She is still afraid of it and it’s clear that the shell that is thrown together from scrap metal is meant to be almost as dangerous as a standard Dalek at full strength. I’m not quite sure how that can be considering the resources that should have been available to it based on its location. As cool as it was to see the Dalek go up against a squadron of soldiers and a tank I couldn’t help but wonder how it managed to mock up jet engines and missiles out of whatever was on hand at the farm. I suspect that Chibnall didn’t put much thought into this section but this could have been more unique if the Dalek had been portrayed as concerned about the soldiers because it happens to be a lot weaker than it otherwise would be. The priority was clearly on delivering a blockbuster battle though it didn’t entirely fit given the setup. The creation sequence was impressive and acted as a dark mirror of the scene from the first episode of the season where the Doctor built her new Sonic Screwdriver.
In true Doctor Who tradition the Doctor has to out-think the Dalek and use its despotic tendencies against it. Her strategy is perhaps not quite as nuanced as it could be but she is able to distract it by forcing it to focus on its innate hatred of her personally in order to outwit it at the end of the episode. It does result in a bizarre looking sequence where she outruns its blasts by sliding around the room but it wasn’t terrible.
The Doctor’s relationship with the Dalek is well portrayed. The different incarnations since the revival of the series have reacted very differently from Eccleston’s anger and hatred to Capaldi’s more subdued almost curious reaction. Whittaker’s version of the Doctor is still afraid of them but appears more frustrated by the presence of a Dalek than anything else. She understands the threat they represent and feels responsible for them so is determined to solve the problem with as little casualties as possible. This is perhaps the most driven we have ever seen her version of the Doctor so far and it’s another thing that helps carry the episode. Jodie Whittaker’s performance is excellent throughout as her Doctor is confident yet cautious around the current situation.
Unfortunately the eventual defeat of the Dalek really doesn’t work. It takes control of Ryan’s father Aaron (Daniel Adegboyega) and demands to be taken to the Dalek fleet then believes the Doctor when she agrees to it. Naturally she double crosses it by taking the TARDIS to a supernova and arranging for it to be blown out into space. The Dalek should really have seen that coming as it had fairly limited leverage despite the possessed Human and should have put something else in place to ensure that the Doctor wouldn’t take advantage of the relative vulnerability to turn the tide of the conflict in her favour. It also adds on a half baked emotional climax where Ryan forgives his father for everything he’s done immediately before helping him free himself from the Dalek’s influence.
Ryan’s fractured relationship with his father has been hanging over the show since the first episode of the season and is pretty much resolved in this episode. I’m not saying the execution of this was bad but it was painfully out of place and derailed the pacing massively. It takes such a long time for this episode to build up any sort of momentum because of all the subplots receiving attention early on and it continues to awkwardly cut back to Aaron’s attempt to make up for past misdeeds. It all feels very clumsily edited as there will be a really tense scene building up the urgency of the Dalek threat before cutting back to a quiet emotional moment where the importance of family is discussed. On their own neither of these elements are bad but when combined it feels sloppy and unfocussed.
I found Aaron to be a really compelling character played really well by Daniel Adegboyega. Everything that had been heard about this character before now had been fairly negative so putting a face to the name and hearing his point of view was really interesting. Aaron is really sympathetic and it’s clear he’s being sincere when he talks about not knowing how to handle all of the hardships his life has brought him. Not attending his mother’s funeral because that would mean accepting that she’s really gone is a very relatable reaction to personal tragedy and his awareness that he can’t take back his mistakes but wants to do what he can to make up for them makes it possible for the audience to empathise with him.
Aaron’s scene with Ryan is really strong. It’s as awkward as it needs to be and feels like a real conversation between an estranged father and son. Ryan being asked what apology is expected is a really interesting choice as it shows Aaron taking full accountability for the breakdown in their relationship while learning how deeply Ryan has been affected by the choices Aaron has made. Aaron tries to explain why he hasn’t been around and does so without trying to excuse the decisions he’s made though he does want Ryan to understand that he is fallible and has made choices that he isn’t proud of but he is serious about trying to make up for them.
His interactions with Graham further this idea as Graham has more distance from the relationship than Ryan has which gives him a more balanced perspective. At first he’s entirely on Ryan’s side and makes it clear that Aaron hasn’t done enough as a father but as the episode progresses he starts to see Aaron’s point of view and makes it clear to him that it’s not too late to salvage his relationship with Ryan. It’s all fairly strong stuff though feels at odds with the more fast paced Dalek plot as these scenes are more contemplative and upset the overall pacing.
There are some moments throughout that made me scratch my head with how ludicrous they were. The first such moment was the Doctor calling a call centre trying to get put through to U.N.I.T. and finding out that financial austerity has caused the organisation to be shut down. Apparently they’re no longer essential because there hasn’t been an alien invasion in a while. I do appreciate the continuity nod and the attempt to enlist Kate Lethbridge-Stewart but taking U.N.I.T. off the board entirely is a very strange choice and feels insulting to the fans to do so in such a casual way. Another bizarre scene was the reaction from the family who realise that the internet has gone down. The joke is that people are so reliant on technology that families no longer talk to each other but it falls completely flat and comes at a point in the episode where the focus should be on maintaining the momentum that has been built. This scene all but derails that for the sake of an out of place joke that is too forced to be funny. As an attempt at social commentary it fails and as a joke in its own right it doesn’t work.
An uneven episode that has two plots competing for attention that don’t compliment each other therefore killing the pacing. The Dalek threat is different to what has been seen before in terms of its methodology which proves interesting enough to carry much of the episode. Charlotte Ritchie’s performance brings this to life while serving as a reminder that the Dalek is holding a Human hostage through possession. The Doctor has to find a way to stop it while not sacrificing the hostage which massively increases the tension. In general the build-up of the threat is really well done and results in some really cool looking action that is hampered somewhat by the limitations a Dalek shell thrown together from spare parts should have. The Doctor’s reaction to the presence of a Dalek is played well and feels different to the other recent incarnations. Jodie Whittaker’s performance is excellent throughout as the Doctor handles the situation confidently yet cautiously. The plan she comes up with to stop the Dalek is a bit clumsy as the Dalek fails to see the obvious double cross coming but on the whole it holds together fairly well.
The other main plot featuring Ryan and his father working to redefine their relationship is also really well handled but ends up robbing the episode of a lot of urgency as cutting between the fast paced Dalek plot and the more contemplative family drama makes everything feel disjointed. Despite that Aaron is an interesting character looking to make up for his mistakes without knowing how to do that. He doesn’t try to apologise for what he’s done and has no idea how things got into that situation but his desire to make amends whatever way he can seems genuine and he shares a really strong scene with Ryan where they both put their cards firmly on the table. His interactions with Graham are similarly well done with Graham having a more balanced point of view that helps steer him on the right track. Once again it’s all very strong but belongs in another episode with a much more deliberate pace. There are a couple of bizarre moments that don’t work on any level. The first is revealing that U.N.I.T. has been shut down because of financial austerity which feels like a slap in the face to fans and the second being a baffling moment where a family are baffled by the concept of talking to each other when the internet has gone down. Neither of these work and feel entirely out of place.
- Charlotte Ritchie’s performance helping to establish the threat level and doing something different with the Dalek
- Jodie Whittaker’s excellent performance showing her Doctor reacting differently to the presence of a Dalek
- building urgency throughout the Dalek focused scenes
- a cool Dalek vs. military action sequence
- Aaron as a complex and sympathetic character
- complicated family drama with no easy answers
- the two main stories failing to compliment one another
- cutting between the Dalek threat and the family drama negatively impacting the pacing
- failing to justify how the Dalek casing made from scrap metal could be a match for the military
- tone deaf attempts at comedy mixed with social commentary
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