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).