Saturday 2 January 2021

Reviews in Time & Space: Doctor Who 2021 New Year's Day Special - Revolution of the Daleks

Revolution of the Daleks

After the Doctor's origins (as well as the series canon in general) were blown apart at the end of the last series, nobody quite knows where Doctor Who is headed next. One thing is for sure though - ending on such a divisive note means the next episode ideally needs to follow up with something familiar. And that's exactly what showrunner Chris Chibnall did for the 2020/2021 New Years Special, as the Doctor's greatest foes returned once more in Revolution of the Daleks. Written by Chibnall and directed by Lee Haven Jones, this episode sees the exit of companions Graham O'Brien (Bradley Walsh) and Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), as well as the proper return of Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) - something that was teased all the way back in Fugitive of the Judoon.

Remains of a DalekDoctor locked up

10 months have passed since the Doctor's "fam" were sent back to Earth and she was imprisoned by the Judoon. Graham and Ryan have started to move on, but Yaz is determined to find the Doctor once again. However Earth currently has its own problems - after acquiring the remains of Dalek reconnaissance scout's casing from the GCHQ, businessman Jack Robertson has begun production of a new defence drone soon to be rolled out across the country. 

Jack Harkness breaks to the Doctor out of prison and they return to Earth, but immediately they have to deal with a whole new Dalek threat. Robertson is adamant that the drones are simply robotic, but the Doctor knows where the Daleks are involved nothing is as it seems. As the recon scout returns once more, a new breed of Daleks is poised to take over the planet. With no plan to combat the threat, the only hope to defeat the Daleks is...more Daleks?

The fam contemplate their next moveCaptain Jack is back!

Dalek civil war stories are nothing new to Doctor Who. The classic series featured Dalek-on-Dalek conflict in both 1967's Evil of the Daleks and 1988's Remembrance of the Daleks, whilst Big Finish even tackled the subject in their two-part story Blood of the Daleks. As such, when images of the newly designed "defence drone" Dalek surfaced on the internet last year along with set images of the standard bronze Daleks, it didn't take long for fans to piece together what the story of Revolution could possibly be. But while it's a subject that's been broached plenty of times before it's one that's still rife with story potential, and in Revolution of the Daleks Chibnall sets up a story that's both engaging and relevant for current times. It brings together numerous threads from previous stories, not only acting as a direct follow-up to Resolution but also connecting those events with Arachnids in the UK with the return of Jack Robertson. At a time where Government corruption and control is rife in the media and the UK feels on the verge of tearing itself apart, a story about Daleks invading through the guise of a “surveillance state” is extremely poignant. 

But the problem is that ultimately this isn’t the story of Revolution. After Chibnall delivers some extremely strong set up where a cloned recon scout is able to cleverly breed a whole race of Daleks by exploiting Robertson’s assets, the drone Daleks are immediately replaced by the arrival of the “real” Daleks. There’s no disagreements, no civil war, no thinly veiled commentary about how the Dalek’s own feelings on genetic purity parallel recent events - the drone Daleks are wiped out by the originals in a matter of seconds. Ultimately these new Daleks, sporting a brilliant design that takes the Resolution Dalek and turns it into a slick piece of Earth machinery, are simply a means to an end. At 71 minutes long Revolution of the Daleks certainly isn’t short of running time, but still could have really benefitted from the traditional multi-part format. At times it feels like two completely different stories - one that gives the Daleks a chilling new origin much closer to home, and another that’s just a good old fashioned Dalek invasion adventure.

A new kind of droneJack Robertson

Perhaps it’s simply because there was so much that needed to be crammed into Revolution of the Daleks to begin with. The story wasn’t just a straight up sequel to Resolution - it also had to follow up on the ramifications of the last episode, deal with multiple returning characters and see the exit of two companions. And some of these things it dealt with better than others. The Doctor’s grief at finding out her past is a lie is a hot topic, but it’s one for another time and for now can be quickly moved away with a brief emotional talk with Ryan. Jack’s long-awaited return to Doctor Who proper is a welcome one, but doesn’t feel like it was used to its full potential. Breaking the Doctor out of prison was necessary, and his talk with Yaz about not necessarily being able to choose the time you spend with the Doctor was both appropriate to Ryan’s exit and feels like it will have ramifications when Yaz eventually follows suit. But other than that Jack often fell to wayside, which doesn’t feel right at all for a personality as big as his. Why have him repeatedly tell characters that he’s immortal and then never show it? Similarly bizarre is his abrupt exit from the episode, which hits a lot of nice notes for Torchwood fans but feels very understated for such a big return. Was Barrowman simply not available for filming at that time? 

There was also a lot to get through with the regular companions as well, beginning with the fallout of spending ten months away from the Doctor. While Graham and Ryan have been able to let go and even enjoy returning to their normal lives, Yaz has become obsessed with returning it to the point of sleeping on the floor of their hi-jacked house TARDIS. The juxtaposition of a companion ready to leave on their own terms and one that wants to stay no matter what was subtle but very effective, and arguably tells us more about Yaz than the previous two series did. Based on some of the exchanges in this episode some sort of Yaz/Doctor romance subplot is almost inevitable. There’s still plenty of story there, but for Ryan and Graham their exit feels appropriate. Ryan’s development felt like it reached an appropriate end last series, whilst Graham stagnated long ago - once again here mostly reduced to making quips every now and again. With nearly all modern companion exits steeped in tragedy it was actually refreshing to see a more lowkey exit for once. 

One last goodbyeAnd then there was Yaz

With all this get through, is it any surprise that Revolution of the Daleks' resolution felt so convenient? Daleks destroy one set of Daleks, and then the other Daleks are also despatched without much fanfare at all either. Credit where it’s due Chibnall did at least do this with the tools he’d already laid out rather than a last-minute deus ex machina like Russell T Davies often would, but it was all so neatly wrapped that the latter half of the story was devoid of almost any tension. The drone Daleks went on a bit of rampage, but all the other Daleks really got to do was get rid of the genetically impure brethren. Again there didn’t seem to be any hint of a bigger picture, even there wasn’t a lot of time to act upon it. What was the point of the Doctor hiding the fact she brought the Daleks to Earth if her plan entirely hinged on the Daleks knowing she was the one that did it? The somewhat cynical ending of Robertson being treated as a hero despite his misdeeds throughout the episode also falls short, if only because the show already let one business tyrant get away with no repercussions in Spyfall. The Doctor was once a man who brought down a Prime Minister with only four words, but now there doesn’t seem any comeuppance in sight for people fundamentally worse. It’s good for Doctor Who to mirror real-life in some aspects, but sometimes it’s also nice to have the hope that bad people will ultimately get what they deserve. 

But where the story often fails Resolution of the Daleks, the visuals do not. This is without a doubt the best the Daleks have ever looked in the modern iteration of Doctor Who, and easily one of the best looking episodes as a whole as well. Lee Haven Jones fully embraces the bolder, more cinematic direction the show has taken on and the result is nothing short of spectacular. From the drone Daleks being unveiled at Downing Street and eventual takeover the the shots of the Dalek Death Squad saucer and flying Daleks surrounding the TARDIS, Revolution certainly isn’t short of memorable shots. The overall look of the episode is exactly what it’ll be remembered for in years to come, and hopefully why the drone Daleks will be fondly looked back on as wasted potential. The redesign might not have worked for everyone, but in context it couldn’t have looked any better. Even something as a simple lighting change from blue to red instil a menace that the Daleks have often lacked in recent stories.

The Dalek Saucer arrivesBack in bronze

The story also has a fair few references to Doctor Who history to keep fans on their toes as well. Cameo appearances from the Weeping Angels, Ood, Sycorax, Silence and P’Ting are among the more obvious ones, but the deeper cuts are the particularly special ones. We see the security drone Daleks speak with a modified voice reminiscent of Remembrance of the Daleks’ Imperial Dalek faction, whilst the gun effects have also had a similar revamp. Curiously the episode also debuts a new claw-like Dalek appendage similar to that of the new Time Lord Victorious Daleks, though this remains a background reference rather than fully showing what exactly it does. Finally of Jack’s return to the show of course also brings plenty of nods to his time with the Doctor in addition to the aforementioned Torchwood nod. After series 11 seemed to do its best to distance itself from continuity, Chibnall’s vision of Doctor Who is now fully ingraining itself in the old - whatever its plans for the future might be. 

Overall Revolution of the Daleks attempts to make up for its messy story of missed opportunities with plenty of visual flare and technical prowess. There are the foundations of a brilliant story under there, hampered by poor execution and anticlimactic resolution. But boy does it look good whilst doing it, and that should definitely stand for something. When exactly Doctor Who will be back now is anyone’s guess, but it’s going to look and feel quite different when it does. That’s not just taking whatever COVID filming measures are in place into account too - we’re down two companions, and there’s a new one about to join the TARDIS crew very soon…

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