WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS
It’s been 9 months since the last new episode of Doctor Who on BBC1. At one time that would have been considered a long wait, but it’s surprisingly swift by the standards of the post-2005 series – especially considering all that has happened (and is still happening) in the meantime. Unlike a lot of series, Doctor Who was lucky to have its Christmas special ‘in the can’ before everything kicked off and COVID restrictions hit drama television production very hard. Season 13 might not be so lucky, but that’s in the future; for now, let us look at this year’s Chris… sorry, New Year special Revolution of the Daleks, which was broadcast at 6:45pm on Friday 1st January 2021 (we’re officially in the future, Amazon are delivering my jet-pack next week) on BBC1.
The divisive final episode of Season 12, The Timeless Children, ended with the Doctor imprisoned in the space chokey by the Judoon (unseen) for crimes (unspecified) and her fam stranded on Earth with a fully functioning TARDIS that they have no idea how to use. Many felt that the reappearance of Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) in Fugitive of the Judoon was a bit of a non sequitur and were surprised when he didn’t appear in The Timeless Children. Fear not true believers, for he’s here in this new series to bust the Doctor out of the slammer (that’s the last use of early 20th century slang for prison, I promise) at a pleasingly early juncture in the story. The trailers for Revolution of the Daleks cannily avoided showing the Doctor and Jack together, but I for one was delighted to see that this was just a red herring.
On Earth, the remains of the Reconnaissance Dalek that the Doctor destroyed in the 2019 episode Resolution are being shipped off to a giant government warehouse to be examined by top men, when the unguarded, unescorted truck carrying it is hijacked at a roadside café. Quite how anyone knew exactly which café the driver was going to stop at is a question best skirted over. Anyway, the man behind the hijacking is Jack Robertson (Chris Noth) the unscrupulous Trump-a-like businessman from Arachnids in the UK; he’s got this idea about creating his own Daleks and repurposing them as security drones. Rogue minister Jo Patterson (Harriet Walter) is all over the idea and before long we’ve got new-stylee Daleks patrolling public events while, presumably, a lot of career policemen sign on the dole.
However, Robertson’s chief (and only) scientist Professor Leo Rugazzi (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) gets a little too curious about the organic residue he’s scraped off the inside of the Dalek casing, deciding to clone one of the creatures and, before you can say Jack Robertson, he’s got a Kaled mutant stuck to his back (they can do that now), instructing the scientist to clone him some chums. The cloned mutants t-mat themselves into the new Dalek casings, which all start chanting ‘Exterminate!’ and go on a killing spree. When the Doctor and Jack turn up, then rest of the fam (who’ve been investigating this) tell her about the Daleks and she sets to work knobbling them. In deference to the two-letters-different Revelation of the Daleks, she realises that the best way to sort out a new breed of Daleks is by figuratively ringing their Dad to come and pick them up. In this case, for ‘their Dad’ read the original Daleks. And for ‘pick them up’ read exterminate them.
Now, I have to confess I was not a fan of the Dalek redesign, so I was quite happy to see the old boys wading in and wiping them out. There was something about that waspish waist and the way the eye stalk was curiously low-set on the dome that just didn’t appeal to me. I’m not anti Dalek redesign and count myself as one of the few people that didn’t really mind the Paradigm Daleks, but it rankles a little that the BBC are always so ready to back-pedal on any redesign that doesn’t meet with fan approval (i.e. all of them). Regardless of what Steven Moffatt has retroactively said, the Paradigm Daleks WERE intended to replace the design introduced in Dalek and the BBC invested a lot of money in production and merchandising, but constant whining from the fans led them to return to the former design. The situation in Revolution of the Daleks is slightly different, because they were always intended to be redundant, but it’d be nice to see the series stick to a moderate redesign and bring things up to date a little.
The 12th season of Doctor Who was something of a Curate’s Egg – when it was good, it was the best the series has been in years; when it was bad, it was downright awful. I’m happy to say that Revolution of the Daleks falls into the former category. It was a simple, almost traditional adventure story that didn’t feel the need to be over-dramatic or epoch-making, which is pretty much what we needed during the holiday season in such troubling times. There was only a passing reference to the controversial revelations of The Timeless Children, which I’m hoping will continue in the next series (though I suspect that will not be the case) and the episode plunges straight into the narrative without too much undue faffing about. Having said that, it does feel a little rushed at times, even at 75 minutes, and would probably have made a rather good 2-parter.
Jodie Whittaker and John Barrowman as the Doctor and Jack are as reliable as ever and I was pleased to see the latter return without too much Torchwood heaviness. I had hoped that the series would take the opportunity of the Doctor’s return from space prison to tweak her outfit a little, as I’m a fan of costume variations for the Doctor, but it’s pretty much back to exactly how it was – she must have several of everything in the TARDIS wardrobe. Mandip Gill gives a nuanced performance as Yaz, definitely pointing the way to something more than friendship between her and the Doctor. I’m not sure how I feel about that – not because I’ve any objection to same-sex relationships, but because I’m old-fashioned enough to be uncomfortable with the Doctor having any kind of romantic involvement.
This was the final story for Tosin Cole as Ryan and Bradley Walsh as Graham and I found their mode of departure very satisfying. It’s difficult for writers to come up with some original way of writing out companions and the new series often falls back on the modern cliché of killing them off, but in the departure of Ryan and Graham, Chris Chibnall has actually found something a bit new. Graham does not initially want to leave, he’s enjoying his travels with the Doctor, but Ryan does and Graham is reluctant to leave his Grandson, so he too elects to stay on Earth. It’s emotive, but not in the obvious way of killing a character off, and for me it’s the best companion departure since Rose. Fans hoping for a season of Doctor and Yaz are confounded by the unexpected announcement of a new companion at the end of the show – introducing John Bishop as Dan. Some fans with very short memories have already started complaining about the casting of a stand-up comedian as a companion, but Bishop has appeared in straight dramatic roles, including the Ken Loach film Route Irish, so I’ve no concerns about his suitability.
In all, I really enjoyed Revolution of the Daleks. The festive specials are frequently disappointing, with only really The Christmas Invasion, The Runaway Bride and A Christmas Carol holding any real fondness from me, but I may well add this new story to the list. It wasn’t obsessively Christmassy (or New Yeary) but it had a fairly light action-adventure format that worked for this time of year. We don’t need the heavy stuff, this isn’t bleedin’ Eastenders; so if Doctor Who can keep up this kind of story for the holiday season, I’ll be perfectly happy. And if they can keep this up for the upcoming season, I’ll be happier still – we’ve only got 8-episodes, so please don’t fill them with arc-stodge! I enter 2021 with cautious optimism, not only for the state of the world, but also for the future of my beloved Doctor Who.