Review: Doctor Who – Revolution of the Daleks

The New Year’s special provides a hit of Doctor Who but that is about all. The episode is inoffensive, it plays around with one interesting idea about the theatre of policing and the aesthetics of fascism but doesn’t know what to do with that. Above all, it exemplifies the frustrating aspects of the Chibnall era. There is always a feeling of a better episode, that is almost exactly the same, lurking around the same pieces.

There are many ways that the episode is made flatter than it should be but many of them are the way the story drains tension from itself.

The premise is that a new British PM with the help of a shady US businessman (Chris Noth reprising his role from Arachnids in the UK) has created Daleks to serve as “security drones” for British police forces. [There are forgivable flaws here in that the episode was written in 2019 and some of the political satire elements (a very Theresa May PM) were overtaken by events of 2020.] Meanwhile, the Doctor is in a space prison and her companions are stuck on Earth with no knowledge of whether the Doctor is alive or dead. I’m also happy to skip over the recurring amnesia of the British public over Daleks — whose recurring invasions of London are always a surprise.

These two ideas are very strong: Daleks (or at least Dalek shaped machines) appropriated as police, along with companions having to deal with this without the aid of the Doctor. There is a great story there and it is almost exactly the same as the story we got, except…

Firstly, the episode first spends time explaining to us all what happened, how the Dalek-cops got to be made and why. By the time Yaz, Ryan and Graham start investigating there is no mystery for the viewers. There is no revelation or surprise or twist because we already know exactly what is going on. There is a nice shot later of Chris Noth demonstrating to a sceptical ‘Fam’, that the Dalek-cop is just an empty machine and not the carapace to a tentacled hate monster but the bit is undermined because we already knew that.

Meanwhile, by the time the human trio has begun to start checking into the Daleks-of-Dock-Green, the Doctor has already been rescued from prison by Captain Jack. So, while we get teased with the idea of the companions getting to work without the Doctor, the story really doesn’t engage with that. Given the later decisions from each of them as to whether they should stay with the Doctor or continue one without her, it is a very odd choice to not let the separation play out for longer. Obviously, the Doctor is going to defeat the Daleks by the end of the episode but as we are going to have a guaranteed deus-ex machina resolution anyway, why not save the return of the Doctor for nearer the end?

It is an episode of odd choices where simpler but more interesting choices are sitting right there being ignored. We are a long way in before Graham and Ryan visit Yaz who has taken to living in the Master’s old Tardis (disguised as a surburban house). No mention is made of Yaz’s police career (in a episode that is partly about police and policing). Has she given up being a cop? It’s just odd not to mention it. Yet what a great place to start this episode!

Same scene but begin at this point. Graham and Ryan (who have taken to looking into weird happenings themselves during the Doctor’s absence) seek help from Yaz (who instead has taken to looking for the Doctor) after discovering phone footage of what appears to be a Dalek. Ooh! A mystery! Neither the Fam nor the viewers know how or why the Daleks are back. They investigate, find out about the connections between the ambitious politician and Chris Noth’s character etc. They are ready to expose the whole thing to the press when…the politician becomes PM and publicly reveals the “security drones” anyway.

Only when the story has got that far should they have brought in Captain Jack Harkness and then followed dual plots of 1. chasing down the mutant Dalek creatures and 2. finding and rescuing the Doctor (which we can explain that Jack couldn’t do earlier because he didn’t know that Yaz had a Tardis). Voila! Companions get stuff to do, there’s just a bit more tension and everything gets fixed before bedtime.

I get that Chibnall has expressly avoided the over complicated puzzle-boxes that characterised the Moffat era but sometimes he’s gone so far the other way at times that we end up with episodes like this one where the back story is the front story and the narrative is like a series of train stops. Likewise, you don’t need stories to be long winded thesis of aesthetic or moral themes to pick up on ideas that are just sitting around there. We have Dalek police, a Tardis famously disguised as a police box (and a Tardis notably not disguised as a police box), and a companion who is a police officer (not to mention a whole thing from last season where the Doctor is sort of an Irish policeman) but they are just bits sitting there as if “police” is the word of the day but devoid of any significance (any at all — it doesn’t need to be a political point about police or policing).


17 responses to “Review: Doctor Who – Revolution of the Daleks”

  1. The trouble with the Daleks is that they’re utterly predictable by now… we’ve seen them posing as harmless servitors in two previous stories, and we can pretty much tell in advance how and when things are going to go wrong. (I did like the Dalek genetic purity enforcers, if only because I know fanboys who’d take exactly the same attitude to a redesign of the Dalek casing.) In general, I think the show should give up Daleks. They’re bad for your health, you know.

    I was bothered somewhat by the sacrifice of the spare Tardis – we know from previous episodes (in particular, “The Doctor’s Wife”) that Tardises are alive, sapient beings in their own right, and so setting one to implode seems morally dubious (especially as they are, by now, a critically endangered species.)

    Overall, I agree with your assessment – it’s a watchable, slightly fanservice-y, but not terribly interesting, episode that could have been a lot better. And then there was the post-episode announcement…. John Bishop is clearly chuffed to be involved in the show, and I hate to harsh anyone’s squee, but it does smack of the same stunt casting that gave us Bradley Walsh, and I’m worried it’s going to lead to more criminally-underutilized Yaz in the upcoming season. No doubt we shall see. Eventually.

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  2. I just think that if you want to grow tentacle creatures without any unfortunate mixups, you should avoid the city whose signature dish is takoyaki.

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  3. Two things struck me about the experience. First was that after it aired the most popular tweets extracted all the best fanservice clips and callbacks to other episodes — as you might expect, but I found the squeeing more entertaining than the actual episode.

    Second, I’m convinced nobody in the cast can act, even the fellow who played the Master, despite his epic scenery-chewing efforts. A lack of acting ability need not prevent a show from being successful — Who clearly is, and another example is NCIS, which has run for almost 20 years with a cast that can’t act a lick. But when a show uses a lot of close-ups of characters facing off in order to extract drama from the changes in their expressions, the deficiency is harder to ignore.

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    • I think Whittaker continues to do a bang-up acting job in a role that seems to mostly involve her being passive and listening to other folk (mostly men) explaining the plot to her (or, rather, to us because we’re too dumb to figure things out for ourselves.) The Doctor would have escaped from that prison three or four times already.
      She was pretty good in the DXM scene though (“…like obedient little pets” is a great line), which was one of the few times in this era that she has clearly executed a Doctor-plan (even if the solution does, as Camestros notes, require treating this TARDIS like the earlier Dalek-casings: just an empty shell.)

      The real problem for me is that all of the characters (including the Doctor) feel exactly the same as they did at the start of this era. I maintain that you could take any of the 22 Whittaker episodes and not really have the faintest idea whereabouts in the run they came. I mean, I actually liked Ryan & Graham as characters but they’ve had that “coming to terms” scene about five or six times in just two seasons.

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  4. Correction: That wasn’t “the Master’s old Tardis”. That was one of two Tardises attached to the Capitol they used to escape from Gallifrey at the end of “The Timeless Children” (the Doctor left the other one parked in the shape of a tree on another planet). And yeah, I was sad about its sacrifice as well.

    As much as I’m not a fan of the style of having stories showing the villain’s POV as well as the hero’s, with the time limitation I’m okay with the episode showing how things developed rather than having a massive dialog info dump. I’m still wondering how many decades the Doctor has been trapped in prison. It took Jack 19 years to move to the right cell; how long did it take him to even find out the Doctor was in prison?

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  5. “Why doesn’t anyone remember Daleks?!” is always my question. “Holiday special” is the answer.

    I said to Mr. LT as the Daleks were flying around, “Ah, for the olden days when they couldn’t even climb stairs.”

    Anyway, I was just happy to see the Doctor and fam again, and of course it’s a treat watching John Barrowman in full-out mode. He turns it up to 11, then uses the vortex manipulator to go back and adjust it up to 12. And he got to tell the Doctor to “run!” for a change.

    The talks between Jack and Yaz and the Doctor and Ryan were lovely, I thought. Might have bored those who wanted more EX-TER-MI-NATE and explosions, but gosh. Dialogue sans technobabble. I bet the actors enjoyed those bits.

    I would have liked to see Gwen taking out a Dalek with nothing but childcare equipment. In an alternate universe, that scene is included. As is the spin-off series of Graham and Ryan using their psychic paper to save people from low-level weirdness.

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  6. From about halfway I did slightly suspect that Dalek enforcers would arrive, but I was thinking more that it would be Dalek High Command’s intellectual property lawyers arriving to sue over breach of patents, copyright violation and unfair competition on government security contracts, leading to a Pythonesque left turn into courtroom drama. It would at least give them a chance to reuse the Trial of a Time Lord set.

    It was all a bit heavyhanded, but there are worse crimes. I rather liked it.

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  7. I overall enjoyed it though I was sorry to see Ryan and Graham go (though them being agents on Earth was funny.) Yaz had dithered about whether to keep being a cop or not for some time and at last point was on medical leave, so it seems clear she decided to not go back to the Force. She likes being a spacetime cop with the doctor more, which is why she got obsessed when the Doc disappears for a large chunk. But Ryan has increasingly thought about leaving as a companion and so his departure now, after he’s had more time not being one, made sense. Graham joined the Doctor mainly to help Ryan, his family, and so he ultimately decided to keep with family over exploring. Jack is the companion who has perhaps the most experience waiting long time periods for the Doctor to show up, so he was the perfect person to counsel Yaz and set the theme, which is that being the Doctor’s companion is a process of growth that ends (or they die, though not Jack since he can’t die.)

    The Doctor maintained a strong enough sense of self to escape from the Matrix at the end of the last season, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t internal blowback when she finally had time to process everything in time prison. She failed to save Galifrey once more and doesn’t really know who or what she really is and doesn’t have all her memories or know what she did in the past. So she basically spent time in the prison figuring those questions out from her dialogue to herself. But she was starting to get bored and Jack shows up with his trademark of chaos. She figured she could go back to right near the time she’d have been gone from the companions so she wasn’t worried about that issue. But she was brought back instead 10 months too late and realized she missed the last bit of always limited time with these companions — some of them had moved on. That’s always been an on-going theme of the show and particularly the specials.

    I’ve never been a huge fan of the Daleks, though I prefer them to the Cybermen and seeing them as police bots with a new design was funny. Like most of the plots on the specials, it was thin, but having Jack, Graham and Ryan trying to blow up the Dalek ship was highly enjoyable. The show also seemed to decide that having two tardis was problematic and so got rid of the extra one. Essentially, the era of the “fam” was over for the Doctor but also the era of Galifrey is now over for the Doctor too, so she’s going to have to forge a very new chapter. It’s true that there wasn’t a ton of surprises in this story, but there very seldom are surprises in the specials. They tend to be more reflective and poignant with the Doctor always dealing with some type of angst. So in that sense it was pretty much in keeping with canon. And it had Barrowman cackling once again which is really all I need during a bad new year. 🙂

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  8. Chibnall is a godawful writer. You mentioned Arachnids in the UK — remember how that ended? Arachnids ran off to wreak havoc, the end. Doctor and Fam engage in banter and just ignore them. Remember the house with a tunnel between worlds? A creature that lives between worlds? Full stop. Said creature served no function in the story. It was just there.

    I liked the Moffat era. It was engaging and you had things to think about. Chibnall is just spewing baby food. And that’s when he’s having a good day.

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