Doctor Who – New Year’s Day Special 2020
“Revolution of the Daleks”
A new year brings new Doctor Who with the Doctor being once again plagued by her most famous foe as an old friend shows up to provide assistance.
Dalek episodes are an interesting phenomenon in Doctor Who for a few reasons. Of course they’re the most famous enemy the Doctor has and are as iconic as anything else the show is known for so they will always be brought back. Problems arise when it comes to making them interesting as they are very simple. They are motivated by an unflinching need to wipe out everything that isn’t them, have no discernible personality beyond that and are incredibly awkward to make threatening because of their design. In the modern era a lot of the stories have focused on how threatening they can be in large numbers which ultimately leads to a resolution that has them completely destroyed only to return later armed with excuses as to why they weren’t utterly wiped out as previously believed. Fortunately those sorts of stories have reduced in number because there’s only so many times that particular card can be played -arguably once is too many- before it becomes impossibly contrived and their threat value is reduced to the point of being meaningless. Essentially the Daleks are actually a really boring antagonist most of the time so the episode surrounding them has to make up the shortfall as iconography isn’t enough to carry it on its own.
This episode gets into the Dalek story by having it pick up from the last New Year special effectively making this a direct sequel to it separated by two years of real time. It appears the Doctor should have been more careful in the aftermath of her victory as the burned out shell can still cause issues especially when greedy businessmen and opportunistic politicians are involved. Through some manoeuvring the casing comes into the possession of Jack Robertson (Chris Noth) -who last appeared in “Arachnids in the UK“- and he uses it as a template for a new breed of law enforcement drones that he pitches to Jo Patterson (Harriet Walter). She wants to be Prime Minister and needs something major to hang her candidacy on so the Dalek inspired drones strike her as being a really effective way to get her noticed. Jack Robertson was a thinly written character before and nothing has really changed here. He behaves exactly as expected, causes all the problems he’s supposed to and does it all without any hint of humility even when his efforts could end up dooming Humanity. Chris Noth remains a good chewer of scenery in this role but there’s just very little to this character which makes for a bad antagonist. the same applies to Jo Patterson who is performed well but adds very little to the overall story beyond the place she has within it. Both characters are a means to an end and Chris Chibnall clearly has no interest in making them any more than that which is very unfortunate.
As expected the drones aren’t simply empty shells run by artificial intelligence, they are actually fully under the control of the same Dalek the Doctor faced in the aforementioned previous Dalek story. It used the resources made available to it by Jack Robertson to clone itself, mass produce the shells and build an army ready to conquer Earth. This eventuality was never in doubt so the consistency when it comes to characterising the Daleks is to be applauded and the episode doesn’t treat it as a big surprise that shocks everyone either which it could easily have done. The Doctor expected it immediately and was just looking to understand how it happened. It boils down to “Humans thought they could control the Daleks and were wrong” which works well enough and does keep the story moving.
In general the Dalek focused aspects of the episode were the least interesting because of how familiar it all felt. Daleks were shown attacking people with their numbers seeming insurmountable just like in previous stories until an easy catch all solution could be found. I did like the idea of the Doctor calling in the “real” Daleks because she knew they would be disgusted by the impure offshoots on Earth because their DNA has been merged with Human meaning they don’t measure up as far as the pure Daleks are concerned. This leads to an extermination of the pretenders from the originals therefore creating a new problem that needs to be dealt with in the form of the Daleks that were summoned by the Doctor. They don’t pose too much of a threat with a different and unimpressive catch all solution from the Doctor with the help of her companions to rid the world of the Dalek threat. Tricking them inside the spare TARDIS and then destroying it as their command ship is blown up is a frustratingly neat solution that makes it difficult to accept that there was any real danger associated with the Daleks. This is a common complaint in any large scale danger scenario with this being no exception.
Similarly, the attempt to add depth by having Jack Robertson looking to ally himself with the Daleks didn’t work as intended. The episode fails to justify why they don’t simply kill him seconds after he approaches. It’s difficult to believe that they would waste time taking him up to their ship to continue refusing to work with him. He really has nothing to offer them so the time spent pretending that it is worth their time hearing him out could definitely be better spent. It’s understandable that Chibnall would want the character to remain part of the story after his role in creating the problem was dealt with but his contribution following that is far from meaningful.
The Dalek aspects of the episode may have been largely uninteresting but there was merit to be found in the characterisation. The focus on the Doctor and her relationship to companions in general was really well handled. Captain Jack Harkness’ (John Barrowman) return was a great way to explore that by having the current companions consider their relationship to the Doctor through having a former companion’s experience to draw on. This comes after they have been left behind for 10 months while the Doctor heads off to deal with something and they’re left wondering if she’s even alive. Yaz has taken this especially hard and and thrown herself into obsessing over every unusual occurrence she can find that might lead her back to the Doctor. Graham and Ryan are concerned but are handling it better than she is which has more to do with their close connection offering them emotional support than a lack of empathy. Yaz doesn’t really have a strong connection in the same way so it makes sense that she would feel more isolated. In many ways Graham and Ryan bring her exactly what she needs by pointing her in the direction of a situation that might be of interest to the Doctor.
There’s a missing story here about how companions go about saving the world without the Doctor leading or supporting them. The trailer for this episode suggested that the Doctor’s role would be minimal with Jack standing in as a pseudo Doctor helping to lead the adventure. Of course an episode can’t be judged positively or negatively by what the trailer suggested it would be but it was an interesting idea that the episode could have played with. It does start out as if that was the intention before it quickly swerves away from it. What actually happens is the companions wade into a situation only for the Doctor to join in and help them out with Jack supporting along the way. It really is a missed opportunity and would have given the characters real scope to develop.
The available characters are largely used well in the story they participate in with each of them having at least one definable unique trait that informs their actions. Most of the development goes to Yaz which makes sense given that she’s the one staying and has to define her reasons for doing so. Her conversation with Jack about what it means to travel with the Doctor was particularly interesting because it makes no attempt to sugar-coat the fact that there are major drawbacks to the experience that aren’t easy to deal with. The Doctor warns all of them that they won’t be the same after their journey with her and Jack confirms that by being very real about his experience of that journey ending. He knows what it feels like to be deposited somewhere and having no idea whether the Doctor would return or even if he -at that time- was still alive. Jack understands exactly how Yaz is feeling and openly discusses that with her. She talks about feeling as if she would rather not have known what the Doctor can offer as experiencing that then having it ripped away is something she sees as worse than living her life ignorant of what else is out there to experience. It’s a very internalised and melancholy reaction to the separation that was imposed on her which has allowed her negative feelings to overpower her. It’s understandable to resent something you once had when you no longer have it because it is so deeply missed that it’s impossible to imagine how life can possibly continue without it.
Jack’s advice about the journey itself being worth the pain that comes with it ending is the most important advice that Yaz receives. Jack accepts her feelings, doesn’t lie to her in an attempt to make her feel better and gives her the benefit of his experience while highlighting that despite the pain he feels that his experience was a worthwhile one. His presence with the knowledge and experience that he has is also proof that life doesn’t necessarily end once travelling with the Doctor does. Exploring the relationship between the Doctor and his/her companions from the perspective of those who travel with her is common in the modern era because it adds a relatable emotional aspect to it. Abandonment is something that everyone can understand so it makes for a very Human emotional story that can be really powerful when done well. Many of the companions have had their experience from the Doctor forced away from them in some way so Yaz hearing from Jack what it feels like to be on the receiving end of that made for a really strong and thoughtful moment between the two characters.
Outside of that, Jack basically takes on the role he often takes in Doctor Who. He’s the commando who can be violent where the Doctor isn’t, he provides a measure of comic relief, he flirts with everyone he comes across and he has access to certain resources that prove useful at exactly the right moment. John Barrowman didn’t miss a step getting back into character so if Jack is a presence you enjoyed then this won’t change your mind though if you feel the opposite then this won’t change your mind. He’s Jack Harkness and that’s about all that can be said for the most part. I would have liked to see more time devoted to exploring how his relationship with this version of the Doctor differs to that of the two on screen versions he has previously interacted with. Their back and forth was fun but it would have been good to get more.
Ryan and Graham say goodbye to the Doctor, Yaz and the TARDIS in a moment that’s more than a little confusing. It starts with the Doctor excitedly talking about their next destination with Graham matching that excitement before Ryan announces his departure. His reasoning is that he’s built a life over the 10 months with close friends and family that he doesn’t want to leave behind. It seems fine on the surface but no evidence of that is given in the episode which makes his announcement seem like it comes out of nowhere. Graham wanting to stay behind with him so that he doesn’t miss out on being there with him as he lives his life makes sense as a reaction but some groundwork needed to be done in order to make this land better than it did. Jodie Whttaker’s performance in this scene is particularly noteworthy; she channels what prior Doctor actors have done when companions choose to leave in playing the Doctor being on the verge of tears while understanding that the departing companion has to do what they feel is best for them. The Doctor even considers changing the timeline so that the 10 months doesn’t happen and they can all have more time together but quickly realises that things have played out in the way that they have and it’s best to move forward when Yaz reminds her that “it’s ok to be sad”. This shows that Yaz has taken what Jack said to heart and has realised that the sadness is worth the experience that preceded it. Ending the episode with Graham trying to teach Ryan how to ride a bike was a great callback to their first appearance with the addition of their interest in protecting Earth showing how far they’ve come since then.
The Doctor is reeling after the revelation at the end of the previous season and is now questioning everything about her. It’s notable when she says she was put in prison just because of who she is because she has no idea what that means any more. She goes into detail about this in her conversation with Ryan where, after some prodding, she confides in him about what she learned about herself and her origins. When asked how she feels about it she admits that she feels angry because she has no idea who she is after having so much of her life hidden from her. The lack of control weighs heavily on her and the constant lingering question isn’t one she can answer so she can’t deal with it. Ryan assures her that as far as he’s concerned she’s still the Doctor though he points out that things may have changed and that they have to change. New things can definitely be scary so that’s probably a big part of her uncertainty but once she figures out the answers then things will get better. Ryan’s wisdom in this scene is informed by his unseen growth over the 10 months and works really well as a reminder of what has recently happened while also pointing out that the reveal won’t actually change the Doctor which means that it won’t actually change the show in any significant way. This is comforting to some degree though it does render the reveal pointless if the consequences of it will be minimal. Time will tell what this will end up meaning for the Doctor in the coming season.
A good New Year outing for the Doctor and her companions with a fairly predictable Dalek plot propped up massively by really strong character moments and the welcome return of Captain Jack Harkness. Bringing back Jack Robertson was very underwhelming as he is far from an engaging character and fails to step up in any way in this episode. As an enabler of the main plot he does work but there’s nothing beyond that. His attempt to negotiate with the Daleks was a clear attempt to keep him involved after he had played his part but it didn’t work because it made no sense for the Daleks to even bother interacting with him. The Dalek aspects of the episode were by far the weakest as their defeat was made possible by two catch all solutions that all but negated their threat level. In general they were used in a way that felt a little too familiar without adding anything interesting to it.
The characterisation elsewhere was largely excellent. Yaz received a lot of development through her obsession with finding the Doctor being motivated by feelings of abandonment. Captain Jack Harkness proves to be very useful in this space with a very frank conversation about his experience of having his journey with the Doctor brought to an unexpected end. He acknowledges her feelings, doesn’t lie to her about the reality of the situation and tells her the experience is worth the pain. It’s something that Yaz takes on board and ends up informing her decision to stay because she understands what the end of it will mean for her. Outside of this Jack was in keeping with his previous appearances with John Barrowman slotting naturally back into the role. It would have been good to get more of the dynamic between Jack and the Doctor to explore what his relationship is to this version but his presence was a welcome one. Graham and Ryan’s decision to stop travelling with the Doctor makes for an odd moment that comes out of nowhere to some extent as Ryan explains that he’s doing so because of the life he has built with no evidence of it existing within the episode. Graham leaving because he wants to enjoy the time he spends with Ryan makes sense and their final moment made for a great callback to their first appearance while highlighting their growth. Jodie Whittaker’s performance in the scene where Ryan announces he’s leaving is excellent and deserving of praise. The Doctor having trouble with what she has recently learned plays into the episode nicely and her conversation with Ryan where he advises her that change is inevitable and scary was a really strong moment. This all seems designed to assure the audience that things won’t really change that much despite what has been revealed which may render the reveal to be largely pointless.
- Yaz in particular struggling with feelings of abandonment after 10 months of not knowing where the Doctor is
- Jack’s very real advice about the reality of having travelling with the Doctor abruptly end
- John Barrowman easily stepping into the role of Captain Jack
- the really strong moment between Ryan and the Doctor where she confides in him about how she currently feels
- Jodie Whittaker’s performance in the scene where Ryan announces he’s leaving
- Ryan and Graham’s final moment calling back to their first appearance while highlighting their growth
- the familiar, predictable and repetitive Dalek plot
- Jack Robertson and Jo Patterson failing to rise above their plot function
- Ryan referencing a life he’s built with no actual evidence of it in the episode
- a missed opportunity to tell a story about how companions save the world without the Doctor
- no real showcase of how Jack’s dynamic with the current Doctor differs to his relationship to previous iterations
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