One of the curiosities of Doctor Who is that the series is an ongoing continuum, and despite an almost two decade gap, has been so since 1963.
Characters, even Doctor’s, come and go. Unlike most other science-fiction shows such as Star Trek, which rotates casts and time periods within different stylistic eras, Doctor Who is a constant. The concept has not changed, in essence, for almost sixty years. Yet the show does not always consider the journey as opposed to the destination, given how it careers from one universe bending, shattering narrative to the next. Revolution of the Daleks chooses, amidst a traditional world-threatening story, to take that breath and wonder. To consider quite what the journey with the Doctor means, and how to appreciate it.
Chris Chibnall’s era has rightly been castigated for a lack of significant character depth or development, with rather flimsy storytelling that avoided, certainly in his first series as showrunner, long-form Steven Moffat-style narrative construction. His second year saw him try and fuse Moffat’s plotting with Russell T. Davies’ earthy bombast, with mixed success. In both cases, the show has lacked a key element that made the previous eras distinct in their own way. Davies’ managed to take Who’s dated, kitsch concept and inject a modern, American-influenced level of production, and Moffat built on those foundations to deconstruct the show as a sci-fi fairytale. Chibnall’s era, to date, has lacked that signature difference.
Until, perhaps, now. Revolution of the Daleks suggests that, possibly, Chibnall might at last be finding in Doctor Who what he wants to say.
In truth, the details of The Timeless Children, the last aired episode of the show just ahead of the madness of Covid-19, had largely escaped me. Too much has happened in 2020 for the largely lacklustre previous season of Who to register.
Yet the Doctor being imprisoned by the Judoon (who presumably we only don’t see here for budgetary reasons) did ring a bell, serving as a cliffhanger ending to Season 12 that Chibnall works to pull the Doctor out of faster than you might expect. This is no Heaven Sent. Sure, she loses a decade or two in Doctor-time, but the incarceration alongside some of the series’ worst monsters—cue cameos from Weeping Angels, the Silence etc…—isn’t what Chibnall is interested in. What he wants is space for the Doctor to consider where she is, and indeed who she is, after the unresolved revelations in The Timeless Children – tangential details here but fodder important to the next season. Revolution of the Daleks is designed to remind the Doctor that she cannot just brush off the events of the previous season, and nor can we.
This works in tandem with what her companions experience in this episode. It was announced in advance (sadly, thereby ruining the surprise) that Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh were leaving the show here, and Chibnall consequently works to accentuate the companion staying on in Mandip Gill’s Yaz. She has often been left behind, particularly in the first season with this trio alongside the Doctor, but grew across Season 12 into more of a rounded character (even if the show forgot she was a police officer, and by this point seems to have decided to ignore it entirely). The irony here is that Chibnall manages to find the emotional centre of his companions just as Ryan & Graham leave the show, and figures out Yaz’s place in relation to their departure. Ryan is ready to go. Graham isn’t but chooses his family, the grandson who at first didn’t want to know him, over the Doctor. Yaz, meanwhile, is not ready to leave this life behind.
The best moment of the episode comes in the space Chibnall crafts to have Yaz truly realise this in a conversation with a returning Captain Jack Harkness (the best John Barrowman has been in the role since, perhaps, the very early days of the revival), who understands the transient nature of experiencing life with the Doctor. Yaz, having obsessively tried to keep hope alive that the Doctor might come back after ten months where she was missing, is best placed to reflect on what knowing the Doctor meant to her life. “I rather would never have known her” she admits, understanding the gift that Jack tells her travelling in the TARDIS is, and to enjoy it because “the joy… is worth the pain”.
This could be Barrowman talking to Gill herself, and reflects the central USP of the show – nothing stays fixed except the Doctor and her TARDIS.
The reason this worked for me is that it suggests Chibnall understands a deeper emotional resonance with Who than he has necessarily in the past displayed.
Davies understood the romance of the idea, of travelling in time and space, and dialled up the will they/won’t they nature between the Tenth Doctor and Rose (who gets a name check here, if ever we needed reminding the RTD era remains in the rear view mirror), and then worked to invert it with Martha Jones and lampoon it with Donna Noble. Moffat saw the idea in magical terms, transforming the Doctor from tortured, brooding Byron-esque adventurer into whimsical space wizard, using that framework to decrypt how companions work in the magical nature of Clara Oswald for one thing. Chibnall grounded everything again and seemed to reframe his show from the perspective of, Fast & Furious-style, ‘family’ (or “fam” as the Doctor calls it), recasting the female Doctor as the batty aunt, the head of a brood.
It works in Revolution of the Daleks because Chibnall finally seems to make the concept click with, strangely, her out of the picture. It makes Ryan realise he has emotionally moved on. And it makes Yaz understand that the journey is the point, and breathes a bittersweet joie de vivre into Chibnall’s “fam”, leaving it open for them to return. Crucially, he writes out particularly Graham at a point we, as an audience, don’t really want to let him go. Yaz is the right choice to keep around, instinctively, but you feel the sadness in this family breaking apart, and for the first time it became apparent that Chibnall wants Who to be a collegiate experience with the Thirteenth Doctor as protective mother hen, both to her TARDIS team and the Earth. The revelation that comedian John Bishop is joining the show for the next season further adds to the multiple TARDIS team dynamic without, presumably, the romantic or magical attachments. It bodes well for the future.
Beyond that, Revolution of the Daleks offers little we haven’t seen before in the series.
Chibnall builds on the rather bland Resolutions from early 2019 and attempts to add a revolutionary eugenic tract to the Daleks, in which the Nazi alien robots are prepared to slaughter their impure, human-created variants, but none of it presents the Daleks in a particularly fresh way.
Equally, the political commentary is just lazy at this point. We got the idea that Chris Noth’s American slimeball businessman Robertson was Donald Trump back in Arachnids in the U.K., we didn’t need to see him again, while the great Harriet Walter is wasted as a Theresa May-style cold PM who willingly encourages the creation of a Dalek-offshoot drone force designed to quell protest movements and civil action in an increasingly totalitarian Britain. The best science-fiction doesn’t wear such allegory so openly on its sleeve and it’s all just groan worthy and old hat at this point. Doctor Who should transport us to a different place and time, not reflect the kind of pantomime government villainy we see on the news every day. All of that is disposable and lacks the humour or bite Davies would have given it.
That being said, Revolution of the Daleks benefits from freeing audiences of the muddy, mythological contractions of the previous season, at least temporarily, and telling a story about what journeying with the Doctor actually means. Maybe if Yaz can find that joy in the next season, then we finally can again too.