“Doctor Who” can’t shake its bad habits with “Revolution of the Daleks”

Doctor Who Revolution of the Daleks New Year's Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor, Mandip Gill as Yasmin Khan - Doctor Who Special 2020: Revolution Of The Daleks - Photo Credit: James Pardon/BBC Studios/BBCA

Chris Chibnall’s run of the show continues to frustrate with an overstuffed, meandering New Year’s special with all the highs and lows of his era.

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Eagle-eyed readers of The Spool may have noticed that we spent the early days of 2020 recapping season 12 of Doctor Who week-by-week, with unfailing delivery. That is, until the season finale, “The Timeless Children.” I’m sorry, folks, I just couldn’t do it. The show failed me, it failed you, and it failed the franchise it’s spent the better part of a century maintaining. More than the lore-breaking revelations seemingly out of nowhere (Turns out the Doctor is… ugh… a secret mysterious alien who created the Time Lords and invented regeneration and has had a million lives before William Hartnell stole a TARDIS and swanned off across the universe), the series is marked — and marred — by a distinct lack of focus.

Several months later, and with the release of season 13 up in the air due to the COVID-19 pandemic halting production, “Revolution of the Daleks” had a golden chance to help right the ship and get the series back on track. Instead, it fumbles nearly everything it sets out to do: as a rollicking space adventure, as a return of the Doctor’s deadliest foes (and one fan-favorite companion), and as a farewell to two of our “fam.”

In the closing minutes of “Timeless Children,” the Judoon finally caught up with the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) for her various crimes and sent her to a space-based asteroid prison, where she’s been whiling away the last several years trying to decide what her newfound origin means for her. But rather than focus on that, we get a warmed-over reprise of last year’s New Year’s special “Resolution of the Daleks” as formulaic as it is disappointing.

Doctor Who Revolution of the Daleks
John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness, Bradley Walsh as Graham, Tosin Cole as Ryan, Chris Noth as Robertson, Daleks – Doctor Who Special 2020: Revolution Of The Daleks – Photo Credit: James Pardon/BBC Studios/BBCA

You see, the metal shell of the homespun Reconnaissance Dalek destroyed last year is hijacked by smarmy, Trumpian businessman and presidential hopeful Jack Robinson (Chris Noth, returning from “Arachnids in the U.K.”), who wants to use the design to create AI-controlled security drones to solve the extremely 2020 problem of protests against police brutality. While the episode was filmed in 2019, its images of riot cops and protestors clashing in the streets are remarkably of-the-moment, as Robertson, his whiz-kid tech guy Leo (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and future British Prime Minister Jo Patterson (Succession‘s Harriet Walter) watch a cluster of Dalek drones hose down protestors in a test of their abilities.

The chance for a parable about security-over-freedom measures, and the over-militarization of police, might have been interesting to explore, especially given the year we’ve had. But Chibnall has too much ground to cover, so that more interesting angle gets brushed aside. Instead, poor Leo gets puppeteered by a regrown Dalek he decides to clone from the cellular material inside the Recon Dalek shell (why?!), and a plan is hatched to create more Dalek squiddies to take over Robertson’s army of robot drones. So we’re left with more Dalek infighting and blinkered human arrogance and too-clever-for-their-own-good problem solving from the Doc.

Speaking of which, we don’t even get much time with her in the Judoon prison, which promises a relatively clever scenario — she pals around with Weeping Angel prisoners and counts the days of her imprisonment, . But soon enough Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) shows up with a wink, a smile, and a magic time ball that lets them escape. It’s a reasonably exciting sequence, and it’s refreshing to see that Barrowman has the same easygoing chemistry with Whittaker that he did with previous Doctors. But we don’t get too long with them (except for a couple of classic Chibnall stand-around-and-talk-about-our-feelings exchanges) before they’re back with the rest of the fam — Yaz (Mandip Gill), Ryan (Tosin Cole), and Graham (Bradley Walsh) — and ready to save the world.

At this point, I genuinely don’t know if Chibnall knows what he wants to do with the show he’s been running for three years.

Really, it’s the companions who get short shrift most of all in “Revolution,” the hour giving them even less time than normal to develop as characters than they usually do. Yaz has always been a problem character with little personhood; here, Chibnall inelegantly grafts onto her the classic companion-left-behind complex seen in everyone from Rose to Donna Noble to, yes, Captain Jack, but at least it’s something for her to do. Ryan and Graham, who paradoxically are the two companions you’d want to spend the most time with since we’re leaving them by the end, get virtually nothing to do. Even their reasons for leaving — Ryan misses his friends and the Earth, and Graham would rather spend his remaining years with his grandson if he’s forced to choose — feel limp and unspecific.

Maybe if Ryan’s friends were characters, or we had an impression they had lives outside of each other and the TARDIS, that decision might hit more. But instead, it feels like a transparent excuse to thin out the TARDIS for next season. Their final moments, a reprise of Ryan’s introductory scene struggling to ride a bike, is a lovely cap to their relationship, especially given a momentary heavenly glimpse of Sharon D. Clarke’s Grace for closure’s sake. It’s a shame to see Walsh go, considering how vital he’s been to maintaining the gee-whiz energy of the show even in its weaker moments. He was easily the best companion of the three, and the show will have to work double-time to replicate the magic he brought to the show.

“I don’t know who I am anymore,” the Doctor confesses to Ryan at one point in “Revolution”. Sadly, that statement feels as revealing of the show itself as its enigmatic protagonist — the episodes remain rushed and formulaic, spectacle overwhelms any space we might have to get to know our characters. Pardon the pun, but the series is struggling more than ever to serve too many masters, from the adult fans who desire more sophisticated storytelling to the kids hiding behind their couches whom the show was made for in the first place.

Doctor Who Revolution of the Daleks
Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor, John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness – Doctor Who Special 2020: Revolution Of The Daleks – Photo Credit: James Pardon/BBC Studios/BBCA

Chibnall bounces a million ideas and threads in this episode but focuses on the wrong things for too much of it. Why did we spend so much time haggling over the logistics of Robertson’s Dalek cloning process and so little on, say, Graham? Why throw the Doctor in a Judoon prison, only to bust her out unceremoniously to start a whole other adventure? Why set up the threat of selfish, greedy humans using dangerous technology they can’t control, just to give way to another “Daleks attacking the Earth” story?

At this point, I genuinely don’t know if Chibnall knows what he wants to do with the show he’s been running for three years. At times, he wants a disposable action-heavy story for kids, which delivers on budget-friendly BBC spectacle but leaves little room for character. But he wants to eat his cake and have it too, prying momentary pathos from a Time Lord who no longer understands who she is, and a group of humans who’ve started to see the end of their intergalactic vacation from their Earthly lives. There’s not enough space for both, and the writing isn’t elegant enough to balance the show’s heart and its sense of fun. And at the center of it all is The Doctor, who despite Whittaker’s excitable, endearing performance (she finds some rare but incredible moments of introspection this week) is a character we knew little about even before they scrambled her life story.

Much like the Doctor, Chibnall’s run on Doctor Who is in search of its own identity. Here’s hoping they find it soon, before we get yet another season of empty dashes through corridors. Maybe with a truncated Team TARDIS (and an all-female one, no less!), Chibnall will take a second to breathe,find focus, and settle on some interior lives for his Timeless Child.

Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks Trailer:

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