❉ Robert Fairclough returns to pass his verdict on the Time Lord’s latest special episode.
It feels like an age since I’ve last seen Doctor Who, principally because so much has changed in the world at large. Which is curiously fitting, because amid all the crash-bang-wallop of a festive special, here was an affecting story about how people do – or don’t – change.
Revolution of the Daleks did that thing that Doctor Who has always excelled at, namely making a heady brew out of a variety of sources: Jack Robertson (Chris Noth, brilliantly obnoxious), with the collusion of the MP Jo Peterson (Harriet Walter, scarily ambitious), scavenging the remains of a Dalek scout to create a cost-effective workforce of security drones, riffed on any contemporary political thriller you care to mention. The eye of the media on events, including a cameo from a real reporter, Emily Maitlis, recalled Russell T. Davies era Doctor Who, as did the returning Captain Jack Harness’s flippant grinning in the face of danger, and having John Barrowman back was a tremendous plus. Once again, there was also some pleasingly destructive Dalek-on-Dalek action, a notion that has appealed to Doctor Who writers since 1967.
What I particularly liked about this story was the authentic sense of realpolitik. In a post-Brexit, austerity-cut Britain, ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, the sense of unease and paranoia is palpable. Under those circumstances, it’s all too believable that an unscrupulous businessman, and an unscrupulous politician, would capitalise on fears about national security by manufacturing a robot security force, “without draining the public purse.” It was a classic case of being careful what you wish for, as Robertson’s theft of Dalek technology led to his pet scientist, Leo Rugazzi (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), being taken over by a reconstituted Dalek mutant, and the Dalek-based robot security drones occupied by cloned mutant creatures. As Roberston said in another achingly up-to-the-minute aside, “This is why people don’t like experts.”
The direction by Lee Haven Jones (the overseer of the whirligig of times and locations that was Spyfall: Part Two and, much less memorably, Orphan 55) was incredibly stylish. His expressive use of light – the first view of a back-lit Dalek mutant, the moody interiors of the Dalek clone farm and the ‘SAS’ Daleks’ ship, Jack and Yaz’s night-time stroll through a neon Osaka – reminded me of Blade Runner (1982); it was that good. The production team have obviously kept Haven Jones on because he’s equally assured helming big action set pieces and special effects – I loved the way the disguised TARDIS shrivelled and collapsed on the Daleks – and intimate character work.
Speaking of which, there was plenty on display here. Like it or loathe it, this relationship-centric approach is how all modern TV drama works, and it was significant that the Daleks were offed ten minutes before the end of the episode (which did feel a bit perfunctory). This cleared the stage for the resolution of he character arcs of the Doctor, Yaz, Ryan and Graham, established in Jodie Whittaker’s first episode The Woman Who Fell to Earth two years ago.
When you consider how leaden the scenes between Ryan and his estranged father were in Resolution (2018), to such an extent that the pacing of the episode ground to a halt when the two were on screen together, the bitter-sweet climax to the the four lead characters’ individual journeys was carefully interwoven throughout Revolution’s script. It was the impetus for a melancholy mediation on the nature of change: the gap of ten months since last being with the Doctor had seen Ryan settled back in Sheffield, Graham more committed to the welfare of his adopted grandson, while Yaz had become obsessed with finding the Doctor (Is Yaz in love with her? Food for thought…). Even the Doctor herself was different, “mostly angry” at the revelations about her true identity in The Timeless Children, and acknowledging that her ten month absence had meant consequences for her friends: “I made it back too late. Missed my time with you.” So, Ryan and Graham stayed on Earth and the Doctor and Yaz continued travelling, reflecting the Doctor’s rather wonderful line, “Two hearts – one happy, one sad.”
Even Captain Jack, for all his risqué bonhomie and bravura breaking of the Doctor out of space prison, had changed, appearing more empathic by consoling Yaz about how alternatively life-affirming and hurtful it can be travelling with the Doctor; a nice touch. The supreme irony in the story, of course, was that the Earthbound Dalek mutants had evolved to survive, but were considered racially impure by the Skaro Daleks and wiped out. There was even the suggestion that remaining true to your amoral self can reap dividends, as the traitorous Roberston was hailed as a hero and put back on the road to the White House. In short, it’s not a cut-and-dried universe out there.
All in all, Revolution of the Daleks was solid and satisfying stuff, not least because the regular cast rose to the challenge of the meatily emotional material. Whittaker, Walsh, Cole and Gill have come in for some not always unwarranted criticism over the past two years, but damn they were good here, moving me, at least, to tear up. The angelic reappearance of Graham’s dead wife Grace, in a final scene that replicated the first scene of The Woman Who Fell To Earth, will, however, either be seen as very touching or sentimental tosh, depending on your point of view.
Now then, John Bishop. What’s all that about…?
❉ Revolution of the Daleks aired on BBC One on New Year’s Day, and is available now on BBC iPlayer.
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘Infinity’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’.