The Doctor Who New Year’s special brings back the Thirteenth Doctor’s age-old enemies for an adventure that highlights one of the worst aspects of the Chris Chibnall era.
Here’s the thing about Daleks. You’re either a fan of the angry little pepper pot villains or you aren’t. And if you aren’t, Doctor Who New Year’s special “Revolution of the Daleks” will likely be very hard going for you, as it incorporates not one, but two separate types of the creature.
The episode’s basic story is pretty straightforward: Jack Robertson – the Donald Trump-esque corporate billionaire bad guy from so-so season 11 episode “Arachnids in the U.K.” – has harvested the Dalek that was destroyed in last New Year’s special, “Resolution,” and used it to make high tech security droids that he plans to sell to world governments.
That goes about as well as you’d expect and after some quick cloning of existing genetic material by a well-meaning but deeply stupid tech bro, the empty droid shells are soon once again full of murderous Daleks and another battle is looming for the Doctor to fight.
But let’s be honest: None of the Dalek stuff in this episode is particularly interesting or memorable. For the most part, this is ground we’ve covered before: Daleks are obsessed with the purity of their own race and governments are all too eager to adopt fascist and/or authoritarian protocols in the name of safety. Oh, and for some reason, residents of London cannot seem to remember what Daleks look like, despite the fact that they have laid eyes on them literally dozens of times at this point. Seriously, y’all, your iPhone gallery lasts forever.
The stuff that matters about “Revolution of the Daleks” is the character work – or lack thereof as the case may be. We’ve known for weeks that Doctor Who stars Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh would be leaving the series after this episode, so the special is as much a goodbye to Ryan and Graham as anything else. Yet, it attempts emotional beats that never quite feel earned – and are revealed as hollow by the episode’s other big surprise.
We also knew that “Revolution of the Daleks” would see John Barrowman come back to Doctor Who as Captain Jack Harkness for the first time since season 4 finale “Journey’s End.” (Torchwood and his adventures there notwithstanding, of course.) And Jack’s return is everything we could have ever wanted it to be – save, perhaps, a tad bit longer.
The idea that Jack Harkness would commit a bunch of crimes in order to get through in the same Judoon prison so that he could break the Doctor out is perfect, as is the pair’s buddy comedy reunion and subsequent romp through the prison. (And, naturally, we all know where Jack hid that vortex manipulator.)
Barrowman shares an easy chemistry with Jodie Whittaker, and the two manage to infuse their scenes with the weight of all the history that lies between these characters. Unfortunately, the two are so good together – and the connection between their characters so real – that it shines an uncomfortably bright light on how the same thing can’t really be said of the Doctor and her current “fam”.
It’s clear that the Doctor is utterly devoted to her current squad of companions, but it seems fair to ask whether she likes them very much. She can’t run out of the room fast enough if any of them asks her a remotely emotionally loaded question, and season 12 finale “The Timeless Children” highlighted not only just how much the Doctor didn’t know about herself, but how little those that were traveling with her did either. (Did she ever tell any of them about regeneration?)
And this episode isn’t much better in that regard. Thirteen finally has a heart to heart with Ryan, but since this may be the first extended conversation the two have ever shared, it just feels like a missed opportunity more than anything else.
Yaz gets more character development in a single scene than she did in all of last season – but it’s during a conversation with Jack, another character who understands what it’s like to be obsessed with the Doctor in a way that is not always reciprocated. (Doctor Who still seems wildly averse to exploring the relationship between Yaz and Thirteen in any real way and I can’t figure out why. At this point, I sort of wish she’d just go work for Jack and Gwen in whatever passes for Torchwood these days.)
And Graham is…well Graham makes some good jokes.
The question of whether this incarnation of Doctor Who could handle multiple companions seems to have been pretty thoroughly answered: Yaz is staying on board the TARDIS, yet it still barely feels as though we even know who she is, or why she needs the Doctor so badly. I wish I felt more hopeful that this means she’ll finally get an arc of her own – or, even, at the very least something to do besides stand around mooning after Thirteen.
As we say goodbye to two of our original Thirteenth Doctor companion trio, it’s a bit bittersweet. It’s a relief to see two people simply decide that their time on the TARDIS is up, simply because they’ve gotten what they need from the experience, are grateful for it, and can move on. Ryan wants a life with roots and meaning. Graham wants time to watch his grandson become a man. Companions used to exit like this all the time before Rose had to get jettisoned to a parallel universe and Donna got mindwiped. It’s a good thing.
Here’s hoping that it’s a sign of other much-needed changes to come for the companions of Doctor Who – that the show will allow us to get to know them for themselves, outside of how they feel about the Doctor, and give them meaningful arcs and narrative journeys of their own.
Doctor Who season 13 is currently in production.