A New Year’s resolution is about making a fresh start. Maybe undoing some of the mistakes of the past. Turning over a new leaf, being a new person. Most resolutions fail, of course, but they are about hope, something the Jodie Whittaker era has gone big with so far. The fresh start here is all to do with the relationship between Ryan and his dad, which is deftly handled, albeit a soap opera element that is relatively disconnected from the main plot. But to give Chris Chibnall his due, he can write this kind of stuff in his sleep, and write it well. Two aspects worked brilliantly: the interactions between Aaron and Graham, and the Doctor’s reaction to meeting Aaron:
Doctor: “You weren’t at Grace’s funeral.”
Doctor: “Ryan waited for you. You let him down.”
It’s one of those moments that are designed to make the viewers admire the character of the Doctor. No skirting around the issue, just an immediate reproach from somebody who knows her friend has been hurt, and won’t let it go unsaid. Tosin Cole plays all the dad issue scenes brilliantly too. I didn’t praise him enough last series, but he has been great, like all the regulars, and here the moment I want to highlight is how he portrays Ryan’s unease when Aaron turns up. He is on edge and actually quite nervous, but later finds the courage to say what needs to be said. Respect isn’t a right, even the respect of a son for his father. It has to be earned.
While Aaron attempts to make a fresh start for the new year, so does writer Chris Chibnall. We are back to basics with the Daleks: showcasing the danger of just one, even without its protective casing. Showing how deadly one solitary Dalek can be is a great way of emphasising why they are the Doctor’s biggest of Big Bads; it worked in Dalek and it works again here. But Chibnall also continues his fresh start from the previous series, stripping away the past of Doctor Who. Last year we had a series with no returning elements from the past apart from the Doctor, TARDIS and sonic. For the New Year’s Special he finally gives into the temptation to bring back a past monster (a Dalek of course), but removes UNIT from the equation for Earth invasion stories.
This will divide opinion. Is it an astute move to make the Doctor solve problems without military backup? Possibly. Probably. The way it was achieved was not ideal though, a silly attempt to make a confused political point, which ignored the well-established international nature of UNIT. Issues of austerity or sovereignty don’t shut down an organisation like UNIT. There was a time where that “UN” in “UNIT” stood for “United Nations”. It is also a depressingly parochial moment in an episode that otherwise highlights the resilience of humanity across the ages.
But it wouldn’t be a Chibnall episode if the writing wasn’t highly irritating at times. Within less than two minutes of the start of the episode, we were watching somebody being killed and his body searched for possessions, while a potentially valuable bundle was completely ignored, lying in plain sight in front of him. What was that nonsense all about anyway? What exactly was cut into three pieces, if the Dalek was intact in one bundle? What’s the point of dividing up a Dalek and taking it to distant parts of the globe, if two of the bundles turn out to be irrelevant, presumably forgotten by a writer who can’t even remember what he put at the beginning of his script? Then we had the ridiculous spectacle of somebody discovering an alien mutant on the wall and deciding the best course of action was to touch it. So as usual there were frustrations. Why dispose of UNIT, and then have a scene with the military attacking a Dalek and being destroyed, which could have played out exactly the same with UNIT?
I’ll be fair though. I won’t blame everything on Chris Chibnall. To balance things out, let’s just pause for a moment to appreciate a rare thing in Doctor Who: a blunder that’s not his fault: that amusing moment if you were paying attention where the car Lin is driving touches 103mph… but the speedometer is in kmh (note for international readers: we don’t have that here) so she’s actually doing about 60. Then she gets apprehended by a police officer driving the least convincing police car I’ve seen on television since The A Team. I’m no expert but I’m pretty sure there aren’t a lot of 20-year-old police cars around. They might struggle to keep up with the criminals driving at 60 in a 60 limit.
OK, I’ve had my fun. Let’s get real with this episode: it was really, really good. It reminded us why the Daleks are such great villains, and reminded us why the Doctor is such a brilliant hero, even if she does break a few chairs. Hope-y New Year. RP
The view from across the pond:
Through the clever placement of four PTO days, I was able to get 11 days off to wrap up the year. Oh, a PTO day is a paid time off day so basically vacation days on the job. But those 11 days were super busy and I did not get nearly the downtime I was hoping for. We ended our days off with an old friend who spent the day with us. We went out for banana/strawberry Nutella crepes and then came home to catch up. (Did I make your mouth water? Don’t feel bad; the same happened to me as I typed that out!) Hours later, we had dinner together and still kept chatting, finally wrapping up around 9:30pm. And then I “unwrapped” that final holiday gift: Doctor Who, Resolution.
The biggest question I have to ask is:
Shouldn’t the new show runner be required to watch key episodes from the last decade before writing his story????
Look, 2005’s Dalek demonstrated the power of a lone Dalek. It could take out the entire United States on its own. And that’s in modern times! So how does a Dalek get beaten in the 9th Century by a bunch of dudes with swords and ropes? It. Doesn’t. Make. Any. Sense!!! “I-can-ex-ter-min-ate-you-all… but-first-I-need-a-nap!” Then those same brave warriors have a conversation:
Ideaman 1: “Here’s an idea, let’s move the parts of this thing to all over the map. Let’s not cut up this squid looking thing, but move parts of it. Let’s see, do we have a helicopter or a plane? No? Duh, what was I thinking, they haven’t been invented yet! Ok, well get in a rowboat and paddle out to Anuta island and bury the thing there. How do I know about this island? I’ll explain later. Don’t worry, Timmy, we’ll tape your favorite shows, you won’t miss anything. There’s a year before your favorite show is back; you should be home by then. Should we throw it in the ocean? Nah, too hard to locate if anyone ever wants to dig it up!”
Ideaman 2: “Isn’t that the point?”
Ideaman 1: “Yes, but it would make far too much sense and we have to follow what is written in the book of Chibnall.”
Now, premise aside, the episode wins points on a number of things. Cinematically, the episode looks amazing. Gone are the days of waiting for a theatrical release; we can have the visual beauty on our television screens on New Year’s Day. Also, the sound quality was superb; so much so that I usually keep the TV on “20” when watching movies, and I actually had to lower it! Then we have the special effects. When we see the Dalek squid clinging to the wall…. Ho-ly-cow, did I love that. What a terrifying image. Seeing the Dalek tentacles emerging from behind the woman to attack the cop was also incredible, but one wonders how the female police officers was taken down. Wouldn’t she have run back to the car and driven away at high speed? Or, I don’t know, just run off screaming? I think Daleks out of their casing are far more terrifying than seeing them in their cases. Which brings us to those casings…
First, I can tell Chibnall loves an urban setting because we were right back in the same warehouse that The Woman Who Fell to Earth took place in. Maybe it’s not the same but he clearly loves the hanging plastic and the metalworks, but we’ve been there too recently to be back already. Then, when someone is going to A-Team their way into a new Dalek case, do they have the time to create missiles that can launch from the orbs? I mean, even in Science fiction, there should some internal logic. “But the visuals”, you remind me. Yes, they were great. The top-down view of the Dalek attacking the military was amazing but that doesn’t change the fact that there needs to be logic. I’m constantly telling my mom she’s silly to dislike science fiction because through SF, great stories can be told. But that argument falls on its face when any thought is thrown out the window in favor of cool visuals. Visuals can’t carry the story. The story comes first! So, while it’s not a terrible story, a lot of it makes zero sense.
And let’s touch upon UNIT. What happened to them? Is that going to be a plot for next year? I suspect not because no one is going to remember that 1 minute scene where we discover UNIT is shutdown. Where is Torchwood? That scene was not very useful in the grand scheme and only served to remind viewers of the bigger world of Doctor Who… and tell us that it is not there after all. Meanwhile we’re given some global communications facility with a new acronym and … are we meant to remember this for next season, over a year away or was it just showing us that the writers could form abbreviations?
Now, where the episode did succeed was the Ryan subplot. I loved the Doctor’s attitude, ripping the plaster off the wound to expose the unpleasant truth: Ryan’s dad was a jerk and there was no ambiguity to how she addressed it. His dad is not the irredeemable baddie though. He seems to genuinely want to get back with his son, which added a nice element to a new year’s special. The New Year represents new opportunities and in the end both father and son come together which is a great message for the story. And the two protagonists who were effectively just background characters to help the plot along end the episode holding hands as the TARDIS dematerializes, which was a lovely image. These two are better after their experience with the Doctor and the episode ends on another high note, which is a huge victory. Doctor Who should always end on a high note; it keeps us wanting more.
So what’s the verdict? Surprisingly, I still enjoyed the episode despite its oversights. Is this Twice Upon a Time material? Heck no! But was it a fun, entertaining adventure with the best damn Time Lord in all of television? Yes. The cast is stellar, as they have been all season long. (And having Ryan call Graham “gramps” in front of his dad was just icing on the cake!) This may not go down as the best holiday episode of all time and that’s fair, but it was an enjoyable hour. And maybe… just maybe… the Daleks will be more frightening in the future, because what we had with this story was by far the scariest Dalek I’ve even seen. And that would be a nice change for the future…. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Spyfall