Doctor Who is back with a long-awaited New Year’s special. Matt Taylor takes a look at this latest instalment from Chris Chibnall – Revolution of the Daleks.
Warning: this review contains spoilers.
Chris Chibnall’s tenure as Doctor Who boss has been rocky, to say the least. His two series so far have been extremely controversial, but have admittedly had some fantastic highs – as well as some awful lows. Series 12 ended on one of those highs, and it’s down to the New Year’s special Revolution of the Daleks to deliver on that promise. So does it?
Well, sort of. It’s neither the best nor the worst episode of the show we’ve seen under Chibnall, but that in itself is what makes it a disappointment. All the ingredients are there for an exciting and emotional special – Captain Jack returns, the Daleks are back, and we’re saying goodbye to Ryan and Graham. On paper, this can’t go wrong! And yet … it does.
The special’s big issue is its narrative, which is all over the place. There’s far too much happening in too short a space of time for any of it to land quite as it should. One of the big questions going into the episode was: “How will Ryan, Graham and Yaz stop the Daleks without the Doctor?”. The answer is: they won’t. They don’t need to worry about that, because the Doctor is broken out of prison and returned to Earth almost immediately without a problem. Granted, ten months have passed for the fam on Earth, but we’re never given any time to take that in – it’s made clear that Yaz is upset by the Doctor’s disappearance (which makes perfect sense for her, and actually leads into one of the episode’s more intriguing ideas), but we have absolutely no idea what Ryan and Graham have been up to.
That lack of information is something that actively works against what the episode tries to do in its conclusion; Ryan and Graham make the decision to leave the TARDIS and stay on Earth, but because we actually know so little about them as people, the emotional impact doesn’t land. When Ryan says, “my mates need me,” the audience has no idea what that means because we haven’t seen Ryan spend any time with his friends on Earth. Graham’s decision to stay with Ryan and watch him grow up makes sense, sure, but because that factor is directly based on Ryan’s decision this one also feels a little lacking in impact. If anything, it feels like Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh were ready to jump ship, and Chibnall had to find a way to write their characters out of the show. It’s a shame, really – but the worst is yet to come.
In many ways, Revolution of the Daleks feels like a nothing episode. By which I mean, nothing is done with any of its excellent ideas. Nothing is made of Jack’s return: John Barrowman (who’s admittedly having a great time) simply swans onto screen like we’re back in Russell T Davies’ era of the show, and then disappears without so much as a goodbye. Nothing is made of the new Daleks; their sleek design looks excellent on-screen, but they do absolutely nothing and are destroyed by the original Dalek death squad just as they’ve started to get going with their plan. And nothing is done with the Timeless Child reveal from the last series – a plot decision that shook the entire Who canon and changed everything we thought we knew – yet it’s barely touched upon. The fact that the Doctor’s entire life up until this point has been a lie should be the basis for an excellent character arc for her – but nothing happens with it.
She voices her worries to Ryan in a scene that’s stilted by both wooden dialogue and a stiff performance from Tosin Cole. They exchange a few words, and all of a sudden everything is right with the Doctor again: “I’m the Doctor, and I’m the one who stops the Daleks,” she says. It’s too quickly resolved to feel impactful, and without impact, what is Doctor Who?
That lack of impact carries over to the rest of the episode: Ryan and Graham’s aforementioned goodbye suffers severely because of it, and so do the Daleks themselves. The death squad (who become the actual villains of the piece after they dispatch the new Daleks with ease) never feel like they’re a threat and are defeated far too quickly to be satisfying. We’re also never given an explanation as to why humans on Earth don’t recognise the Daleks: it’s an intriguing thread that’s hinted at but immediately dropped. It’s all a huge shame, and feels like wasted potential for what could have been a fantastic episode.
It’s hard to say how the show will fare going forward. The prospect of a duo of Yaz and the Doctor piloting the TARDIS together is an exciting one, particularly with the implication of Yaz’s romantic feelings for her friend. Mandip Gill and Jodie Whittaker always have enjoyable chemistry (even when the dialogue they’re given is poor), and the idea of a romance between the two is an extremely intriguing one. Any hopes of them traversing the universe as a pairing, though, are immediately quashed by the post-credits reveal that comedian John Bishop is joining the cast for series 13 as new companion Dan. This is something that could really go either way: Chibnall said that Dan has been part of his plan since he took over the show, but we’ve no way of knowing how that will work out until the new series airs later in the year.
And in any case, it doesn’t matter all that much: I can’t speak for many others, but I’m just about ready to clock out of Doctor Who. I enjoyed series 12, but the mediocrity on display here doesn’t bode well for what we’re going to see next. I wanted so badly to enjoy Revolution of the Daleks, as everything in it should have been fantastic – but the final product wasn’t fantastic, and I couldn’t enjoy it. In a way it speaks to much of Chibnall’s era of the show so far: good ideas, poor execution. All in all, a disappointing and underwhelming start to 2021.
Revolution of the Daleks is available to stream now on BBC iPlayer.