❉ Raise your glasses to one of the best episodes of the Jodie Whittaker era.
It’s an obvious thing to say, but Doctor Who’s has never been more divisive than it is now. One quick scan through reactions to Eve of the Daleks on the internet reveals comments such as “Doctor Who? Doctor Poo more like. Awful” and, at the other extreme, “funny, scary, inventive and the best episode in years.”
I watched Eve of the Daleks with three other people, none of whom are rabid Doctor Who fans, although they have watched it before and liked it. Although we’d spent the day commenting on and good-naturedly sending up various things we’d been watching on TV, when Eve came on the room went quiet as the story pulled everyone in. Afterwards, my non-Who chums said they’d really enjoyed it.
The vitriol sprayed over this story on the web really flummoxes me. Looked at objectively as a piece of contemporary television, in no way was Eve badly written, directed or acted, as my three friends appreciated (and it certainly doesn’t qualify as faeces of any kind). If you took the trouble to be open-minded, you were treated to one of the best episodes of the Jodie Whittaker era; as the clock ticks down to her regeneration, the quality of her stories is, rewardingly, increasing with each episode.
It’s a deceptively simple story. The central narrative motif of the time loop, with events repeated over and over again, is as old as the hills in science fiction and fantasy terms. But within that cliché was a mature, layered variation on the 21st century Doctor Who trope of ‘ordinary’ people having their lives changed overnight by the Doctor.
Perhaps the reason some people found Eve “awful” was due to the amount of screen time given over to guest characters Sarah (Aisling Bea), the long-suffering owner of ‘Elf’ Storage, and her stalky suitor Nick (Adjani Salmon), who turned up on New Year’s Eve three years running just so he could have a few words with her. Again, that doesn’t really follow, because so many of Who’s festive specials have concentrated on supporting characters – Donna Noble, Kazran, the Arwells, to name a few.
Well, if that is the case, the naysayers missed a treat. The casting of Sarah and Nick continued Doctor Who’s long tradition of top notch ‘comic’ actors taking on dramatic roles (vis-à-vis Butterworth, Pertwee, Tate and many more). Bea writes and stars in the Channel 4 comedy This Way Up (2019- ), Salmon starred in and wrote the BBC3 series Dreaming Whilst Black (2018), and they’re currently at the top of their game performance-wise. It was such a pleasure to watch then batting back and forth comic exchanges with such elegant timing, my favourite being Sarah’s dead-pan questioning of Nick as to whether a Monopoly board game was “toxic, hazardous or radioactive.” (And who knew writer Chris Chibnall could do genuine funny?) You got the feeling that Sarah was just about keeping all the plates spinning in her life, and her exaggerated patience with her mother as she phoned repeatedly – “The lines will be busy!” – was laugh-out-loud hilarious.
Nick’s best moment came when the Doctor and friends investigated his storage locker and found that he kept mementoes from all his ex-girlfriends. Mandip Gill as Yaz stole the comedy thunder here: “You’ve got a lot of [exes]… They’re alive, aren’t they?” It was beautifully played.
That’s what’s so good about Eve of the Daleks: even though people were trapped in a time loop and being killed over and over again by alien machine creatures, the humour in adversity added the authentic touch of real life. Likewise, the quiet moments when Sarah and Nick gradually grew closer together were made believable, and touching, by Bea and Salmon’s equally impressive dramatic skills.
The plot and character beats knitted together really well, with an interesting contrast between Sarah/Nick and the Doctor/Yaz: one couple revealing their feelings in the contracting time loop, the other keeping them hidden. The sensitivity and subtlety of this was perhaps thanks to new director Annetta Laufer, who’s also a writer. Considering she’s only directed four short films before, her handling of what could have been a confusing story was all the more impressive for being so focused and clear. Laufer also made the Daleks genuinely menacing, as well as genuinely amusing. I really hope she stays on.
In a small cast, the regulars had some equally meaty stuff to work with. Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor is clearly aware of, and in denial about, Yaz’s attraction to her. Behind all the surface goonery, she’s becoming quite a repressed soul, always rushing to the next crisis or destination instead of letting her emotional defences down. I really like this development in the character, and when Dan forced her to acknowledge Yaz’s feelings for her, there was some impressively anguished facial acting from Whittaker; a striking moment amid all the sound and fury.
John Bishop’s Dan took on the role of relationship counsellor and had a good, humorous moment with the “automated staff”, while, Yaz’s feelings for the Doctor aside, you can tell Gill is enjoying the ‘regional rivalry’ banter with Bishop.
A few words in praise of the absent Jeff, Sarah’s colleague, who was like the dodgy businessman Arthur Daley in Minder (1979-2009), hoarding all kinds of bizarre stuff in the storage facility such as stuffed animals, holiday goods and three-years-out-of-date cans of ‘Beef n Beans’, as well as actually living there. He even supplied the solution to the Dalek problem, as the Doctor concocted a lethal mix of alcohol and fireworks from his motley collection… Maybe the story should have been called Waiting for Jeff?
Two caveats: why did a Dalek wait so long to burn through a flimsy shutter, when it could easily have blasted it aside? Perhaps it was toying with the Doctor and her extended fam? And although it was nice to see Karl (Johnny Dixon) from Jodie’s first episode The Woman Who Fell to Earth (2018), why was he there? His presence didn’t add anything to the story, apart from showing, via his groomed and healthy appearance, that he’d obviously moved on with his life.
But then, away from the obvious appeal of Dalek execution squads and a rebooting TARDIS, that was the point of Eve of the Daleks: move on, be honest, say what you really feel, be your best self, because you never know when you’ll run out of time – literally, in this case.
If Jodie’s remaining two stories are up to this standard, I really will be sorry to see her go. Sometimes too little isn’t too late.
❉ Doctor Who is a BBC Studios production for BBC One and a BBC America co-production. BBC Studios are the international distributors for Doctor Who.
❉ Robert Fairclough writes on a variety of subjects, including mental health and popular culture (sometimes both at once). He has written six books, contributes to magazines and websites, and writes regular blogs about projects he’s involved in for The Restoration Trust. He can be contacted on email@example.com, and his website can be viewed at www.robfairclough.co.uk