Wednesday 2 January 2019

Reviews in Time & Space: Doctor Who 2019 New Year's Day Special - Resolution

2018's series of Doctor Who has been all about breaking traditions. We've had a female Doctor, no returning monsters for the entire season and now it seems even the annual Christmas episode is no more. At least for the now anyway, as this year it was replaced by a special New Year's Day episode instead. Given that it's already been announced that the next full series won't be landing until 2020, Resolution could quite possibly be the only Doctor Who for the year so it had quite a lot to live up to. Written by show runner Chris Chibnall and directed by Wayne Yip, Resolution also welcomes the return of a familiar old foe.

Years ago, an army of enemies came together to fight an impossible opponent beyond their wildest nightmares. After achieving victory, the army split their enemy’s body into three pieces to be buried at opposite ends of the world. Two parts reached their destination safely, but the third was lost to time.

In present day Sheffield, archeologists Lin and Mitch unearth the missing third piece - causing a chain reaction that brings the creature back to life. Whilst celebrating New Year’s Day, the Doctor and her friends are alerted to this and arrive back to investigate. As Ryan deals with the return of his estranged father, the Doctor must deal with the return of her greatest enemy.

That's right, in what could have been one of Doctor Who's best kept secrets had they not blown it with a special screening and subsequent Christmas trailer giving the game away, Resolution finally sees the 13th Doctor go head to head with the Daleks. Or more specifically a Dalek, as the story once again tries to highlight just how dangerous a single one can be. Reaching both the threat level and emotional heights of previous attempt Dalek (still by far and away the best Dalek story to come out of the modern series, as well as one of the best overall) is a near impossible task, but Resolution does a fairly good job of it by forging its own path instead. Resolution properly introduces the concept of Dalek possession, with the lone Dalek mutant grafting itself to Lin and using her as its puppet. It’s a far cry from the Daleks of old who could be killed by being thrown out of their casing, but works from both a progressive and evolution standpoint. This Dalek mutant is also significantly better than the pink mono-eyed octopus that’s been the iconic design since 2015, writhing with far more presence and menace than that could ever hope to achieve. The whole set-up of it being cut into three parts and somehow being able to piece itself back together is unbelievably dumb, but what follows definitely makes up for it.

The mutant sets up a strong first half that’s quite unlike any Dalek story that’s come before it, but of course it wasn’t going to be long before it was back in familiar form - albeit a little more off-model than usual. The Dalek-possessed Lin forging new casing out of “Sheffield steel” is a beautiful parallel to the Doctor’s construction of her new Sonic Screwdriver back in The Woman Who Fell to Earth - two mortal enemies creating their greatest weapons out of the same materials. From a design standpoint the makeshift Dalek casing is a wonderful tribute to all the (officially licensed no less) off-model artwork and toys there have been over the years, and is a much fresher and unique take then simply rolling out standard bronze models again. Yes just how a Dalek-posessed human could forge such complex casing out of such primitive materials in such a short amount of time is questionable and there are some other logical inconsistencies (it getting offed by a microwave is all well and good, but in that case why is it bullet-proof?) but it doesn’t matter, because it all just looks so damn good. Resolution revives that merciless, exterminate first and foremost attitude the Daleks have thrived on to incredible effect - demonstrating exactly why they are and always will be the show’s most popular adversary. The scene of the Dalek tearing through armed forces with not only its gun but also surprise rockets is exactly the kind that’ll be fondly remembered in years to come.

That all-important fear factor works not just because its emanating from the Dalek, but from the Doctor as well. So far this Doctor’s had relatively threat-free travels in the TARDIS, at least in comparison to her previous incarnations. But the moment the creature is identified as a Dalek Jodie Whittaker excels as a Doctor that’s fearful of her opponent, constantly planning how to defeat it and physically takes action against it. It’s good that the episode makes a point to address why the Doctor must face the Dalek and alone without the aid of something like UNIT, even if the explanation is done as a quick joke and political satire. This is the confrontational side that this Doctor has massively lacked so far, so to have her finally facing off against a Dalek almost feels like a rite of passage. She’s still a bit rough around the edges in that she gives it far too many chances to leave, but it’s a step in the right direction. On the other hand, the writing for her monologuing is borderline tedious here. The “gang/fam/etc.” running joke is being forced so much that it doesn’t feel natural, and it impacts on what’s otherwise a great performance by Jodie Whittaker.

But as well as Resolution is able to revitalise what the Daleks have been lacking for years now, that success is only half of the story. The other half is reuniting Ryan with his estranged father Aaron, closing off that chapter In Ryan (and to a lesser extent, Graham's) story. It's something that had to happen sooner or later given the amount of time it was referred to over the course of series 11, but the fast-paced energy and urgency of the Dalek plot do not mesh at all with the slow character-driven moments of this. Segments such as Ryan's exchange with his father in the cafĂ© eat into the running time so much that it often becomes questionable which is a the A-plot and which is the B-plot. The other big problem is that Aaron’s “redemption” as it were just doesn’t feel earned. It’s basically a few stern words, a convenient solution to the Dalek problem, and then a near-death experience just to round things off. It’s disappointing to see the show seemingly using Ryan’s dyspraxia as a representation tick box whenever it can as well - never actually using it as a driving force but just mentioning it as if to score points. Inclusivity is extremely important, especially in something like Doctor Who. But if your show is going to do something like that, it’s even more important to do it properly.

Following on from this is just the issue of the companions in general. One of the constant complaints of series 11 was that a crowded TARDIS meant that there was no time for even development between the three of them, and given Yaz's pretty terrible treatment overall it's a pretty fair one at that. Resolution goes even further and adds another three key characters to the story, which means there's now seven characters (and a Dalek) vying for 60 minutes of screen time – and it just doesn't work. The Aaron subplot even feels like it's been purposefully written to specifically take cast members out of the action at certain times. Yaz is as underutilised as ever and almost certainly now just there for the Doctor to drop exposition on, and Ryan and Graham's contribution to the Dalek plot seems equally non-existent save for plot conveniences. But perhaps the biggest problem of all is that while Resolution actively tries to highlight just how frightening a Dalek is, none of that fear is conveyed by the companions whatsoever. A single Dalek is magnitudes higher than any other threat they've faced with the Doctor so far, but to them it just feels like another standard adventure. Jodie sells the Doctor's fear brilliantly, but for three new companions' first encounter with the Doctor's greatest enemy it doesn't have the impact that it should. It's just as well that the guest characters are able to pick up the slack for the regular cast, as Lin and Mitch both prove particularly memorable. Admittedly Lin's impact is mostly tied to her time as a Dalek puppet, but Charlotte Ritchie gives a great performance nonetheless and having a character so personally affected by a Dalek but not be killed or have any significant deaths connecting is a nice new angle to play on. Mitch is more there for exposition purposes, but arguably works just as well within the story. Their initial introduction is another element that eats into the running time more than it needs to, but it does help build a bit more suspense before that great mutant reveal.

In the end Resolution is a story of two halves. One half is undoubtedly the best Dalek story the show has produced in years, while the other is poorly-timed piece of character study that kills the momentum of the story more than it enhances it. The "resolution" of Ryan's relationship with his father was an important piece of character development that had to come sooner or later, but given the clear priority his development was given over the course of series 11 it also feels like it should been done elsewhere so both halves got proper justice. But since there isn't going to be anymore Who for another year, it was just thrown in here for closure's sake. Resolution is an episode I desperately wanted to like more, but the problems that hold it back are just too significant to ignore.

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