****BIGGER SPOILERS ON THE INSIDE!!****
Picking up after the event’s of last year’s canon-reshaping story “The Timeless Children”, “Revolution of the Daleks” was written by current producer/showrunner Chris Chibnall and directed by Wayne Yip. In solving one minor headscratcher from the old series (the pre-canonical incarnations of the Doctor, briefly glimpsed in 1976’s “The Brain of Morbius”), “The Timeless Children” has created a whole slew of headscratchers for the series going forward.
However, for this New Year’s Day episode, none of that reimagined backstory is relevant for now. The only immediately relevant thread from the Doctor’s last outing is the coda, which saw her at the wrong end of a Judoon arrest warrant (for a mere 7,000 infractions).
“Revolution of the Daleks.”
Picking up another loose thread from the DW special “Resolution”, the series jumps back in time to those innocent, pre-pandemic days of 2019. The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her Tardis ‘fam’ Yaz (Mandip Gill), Graham (Bradley Walsh) and his grandson Ryan (Tocin Cole) had stopped a lone reconstituted Dalek from wreaking havoc on Earth. However, there is a vacated mechanical Dalek body left behind in the GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters)…
Note: A tongue-in-cheek tone is set right off, with a Star Wars-style card stating “A long time ago (2019) far, far away (Cheltenham)…” We then see a bold typeface “GCHQ” flashed onscreen. The rest of the episode retains a little bit of this semi-camp flavor, particularly with Chris Noth’s over-the-top American tech mogul Jack Robertson (“the Spider Guy” as Yaz, and the audience, remembers him). Aside from those touches, the tone is otherwise business-as-usual for this Whoniverse adventure.
Shortly after the events of “Resolution,” we see Prime Minister Jo Patterson (Dame Harriet Walter) allying herself with ruthless American CEO Jack Robertson (Chris Noth) and tech genius Leo Rugazzi (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) decide to reverse-engineer the technology left behind with the emptied Dalek carcass, which effortlessly overran the British military. Believing that the shell itself is the creature responsible, they seize upon current civil unrest within the UK to exploit this alien tech for urban ‘pacification.’ Rugazzi gets to work creating compatible electronics which will internally control each unit, and mass production begins. The story then jumps forward a year to the present…
Note: Not the first time that a Doctor enemy has been recreated with Earth-based technology; see 2006’s “Rise of the Cybermen,” which took place in a parallel universe where the formerly Mondas-based Cybermen were recreated using alternate Terran tech as well.
A year later, we see a top-secret demonstration for government brass of this newly developed alien technology using a prototype Dalek (their true name isn’t used) against a staged crowd of urban protesters. Multiple police are standing by with riot gear as a crowd of mock civilians await the arrival of the robot, which carries a variety of dispersal weapons, including tear gas, water cannons and sonic deterrents. The demonstration is a success, and a contract is easily awarded to the greedy Robertson, who immediately gets to work with his exploited genius, Dr. Rugazzi. PM Patterson gets the leg up on the American entrepreneur by awarding him the contract only with the caveat of no expense to British taxpayers. Robertson reluctantly agrees, only when she reminds him of the lucrative international market for his machines… a market whose appetite will be whetted by an upcoming public demonstration.
Note: Human-Dalek alliances, in any capacity, have never ended well. See: “Power of the Daleks” (1966) and “Victory of the Daleks” (2010).
Unfortunately for all involved, Rugazzi has been working on a side project to the Patterson’s robocop militia. Using recovered Dalek DNA found inside the carcass, he has successfully cloned a squid-like Dalek parasite, which he’s kept alive in a fluid-filled container. This ‘little side project’ has been going on for awhile, with the scientist utterly oblivious to the danger he’s resurrected. Proudly showing the fruits of his labor to Robertson, he’s dismayed when the angry American orders him to toss his alien abomination into the furnace. Carefully removing his slimy, squid-like creation from its container and preparing to toss it into the fire, Rugazzi is overpowered by the creature. It springs to life and clings to his body, “ALIEN”-style. As in Robert Heinlen’s “The Puppetmasters”, the creature immediately subverts the hapless researcher’s will, forcing him to call his wife, telling her he’s going away on an extended business trip. He then books a flight to Osaka, Japan…
Worried about their unheard-from friend Yaz, Graham and his grandson Ryan pay a New Year’s visit to her inside of the second TARDIS, which is masquerading as a suburban house in Sheffield (that TARDIS formerly belonged to another Doctor, played by last season’s Jo Martin). Welcomed inside, Ryan and Graham are disturbed to find an obsessed, sleep-deprived Yaz surrounded by a plethora of post-it notes everywhere, as she tries desperately to figure out what became of the Doctor, who’s been missing for ten months now. Clearly Yaz is having a difficult time letting go of her magical (and dangerous) adventures with the Doctor, and there’s more than a hint that she may be harboring a Rose Tyler-like crush on the ancient time traveler.
Note: Once again, as we saw with Sarah Jane Smith in “School Reunion,” and other companions in episodes since (Amy Pond, Donna Noble, Martha Smith, etc al), the allure of an adventurous life with the Doctor is very hard to let go of; it’s every young person’s fantasy to be whisked off on a life of boundless adventure to galaxies unknown. Especially so for the young policewoman, who’s life until then had been bound by obligation and responsibility, both to her community and her family.
Turns out, Graham and Ryan’s visit is more than a simple social call on a friend; Graham pulls out his phone and shows Yaz leaked internet footage of the Dalek proof-of-concept demonstration. The trio, of course, immediately recognizes the gravity of their situation. Without the Doctor to throw out quick and easy answers, the TARDIS fam does some research, and finds traces of Dalek DNA in an agricultural laboratory in Osaka, Japan. Since none of them understands how to operate the spare TARDIS left behind by the Doctor, they have to perform their investigation the old-fashioned way…
Note: Once again, the idea of former Doctor Who companions having adventures on their own without the guidance of the Doctor was explored in “The X-Files”-style spinoff series “Torchwood” (with Captain Jack Harkness as a new immortal team leader) and “The Sarah Jane Adventures.” TSJA saw former 1970s Doctor Who companion Sarah Jane Smith, played by the late Elisabeth Sladen, carrying on with a group of young students (and an adopted son) in a series which was tonally somewhere between Doctor Who and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The latter series came to a premature end with the tragic passing of Sladen in 2011.
Spoiling for a confrontation with Robertson in his headquarters’ carpark, the trio sets off to interrogate the powerful tech giant, who at first, mistakes them for carjackers. When Robertson comes to his senses, he recognizes their meddlesome faces from their time together in “Arachnids in the UK“. They press him about his work “in Osaka”, of which he’s genuinely ignorant. Before long, the powerful CEO’s security forces arrive and level their weapons at the TARDIS fam. Their former bravado disappears. Reminding them that he could’ve easily had them shot, the group leaves. With no leads and no means to check out the Dalek life signs in Osaka, the group is back at square one.
Meanwhile, 72 billion light years away, the Doctor has been a prisoner of the Judoon for a couple of decades now. Locked in a metal cell, with endless gate-tallies of her days there scratched onto the walls, she seems resigned to her fate.
Note: Asteroid prisons are hardly the most original idea in science fiction, but it works. We’ve seen them in pulp novels, the 1960s Lost in Space, the original Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek Deep Space Nine, and many other pop sci-fi works. There was even the penal planetoid Exbar in the British sci-fi series “Blake’s 7,” created by Dalek creator Terry Nation. Once again, we see a bold-face campy font telling us that the isolated Doctor is 72 billion light years away, which would place her well outside of our own galaxy; our nearest galactic neighbor, beyond the Magellanic Clouds orbiting our own galaxy, is Andromeda…some 2.2 million light years away.
Life in the prison is incredibly dull for the adventuresome Doctor, who’s been separated from her fam and her beloved TARDIS for far too long. She says her hellos to the security cameras each day as she walks by some of the other prisoners, including an Ood, a Weeping Angel (named “Angela”) and even a member of the amnesia-inducing “Silence”, to whom the Doctor quips, “Huh..I forgot you were here.” Clearly, the law-and-order Judoon have no trouble holding onto their highly dangerous rogues gallery.
One day, the red-jumpsuited Doctor happens upon a familiar, handsome face; the “Face of Bo” himself, Captain Jack Harkness (the charismatic John Barrowman), who is also doing time in his quest to find the Doctor. Captain Jack had to work hard to get himself transferred to her facility in order to break her out. Smuggling in some escape-aiding technology (you really don’t want to know how) which Jack uses to freeze time and create a forcefield ‘hamster bubble’ around the two of them, which has a life of mere seconds. They roll their protective forcefield bubble out to safety, and Jack uses his vortex manipulator to land them right inside of the Doctor’s old TARDIS. Reactivating the old girl back after her long “nap,” the Doctor and Jack set the TARDIS on a course through spacetime to 21st century Planet Earth…
Note: While the return of Captain Jack Harkness is always welcome, actor John Barrowman (who is roughly my age) is having to rely on a few more makeup and hair tricks to remain a convincing ‘immortal.’ I saw him at a (pre-pandemic) convention a year ago, and his hair is Anderson Cooper-white now. There is even a joke where the Doctor comments, “You’ve had some work done.” To which he replies to the gender-reversed Time Lady, “Look who’s talking!” While Barrowman is still ridiculously handsome, he doesn’t look quite as 30-something as he did during his days on “Torchwood.” Nevertheless, the roguish Jack Harkness always brings an element of campy fun to the show.
Meanwhile, around the dinner table together, the reunited Fam are in glum-mode, having failed to gain any traction in their investigation with Robertson’s Daleks. Before the others, Yaz hears a familiar whooshing sound, as the TARDIS lands right in the living room. Captain Jack exits, followed by the Doctor–who is back in her familiar tan overcoat, and rainbow t-shirt, with the prison washed out of her hair, too.
Note: Yaz is shown as the only Fam member who is actively obsessed with the Doctor’s whereabouts, and interestingly, she is also the first to hear the faint sounds of the TARDIS’ return as well. Clearly this not only hints of her alluded-to crush on the Doctor, but also of her being the only member of the Fam who chooses to remain with the Doctor later on.
With the Fam reunited, they enter the TARDIS and get reacquainted. Having met Jack last season, they are already familiar with him, of course. When the Doctor is puzzled by their surprised and less-than-enthusiastic reaction, she quickly learns that her return to her Fam was about ten months late. Ryan is particularly embittered by her seeming abandonment of the once-tight knit group. The group realizes that this is par for the course for the Doctor’s companions—she can waltz in and out of their lives, taking all her magical spacetime adventures with her, leaving not so much as a goodbye note. Remaining on point, Graham and Yaz present the Doctor with their findings about the Earth-made Daleks, and she formulates a plan. The Fam will have to split up; Yaz and Captain Jack will check out the organic Dalek life-signs in Osaka while the Doctor makes plans to kidnap Robertson with her TARDIS.
Dropped off outside of a vertical hydroponics ‘farm’ building in Osaka, Jack lays out the reality of traveling with the Doctor to a disillusioned Yaz, telling her to “Enjoy the journey, because the joy is worth the pain.” Yaz swallows her bitterness and heeds the words. The former policewoman also finds a back entrance into the facility, and teasingly asks Jack to join her.
Note: Jack’s advice to Yaz is very similar to the parting words of Sarah Jane Smith to Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) in 2006’s “School Reunion”, when she parted ways with the Doctor for the second (but not last) time in her life.
Inside of the ‘farm,’ they find the dirty secret of Dr. Rugazzi; the Dalek-controlled doctor has cloned an army of the parasites, stored in tanks, bathing in green light, waiting to be rejoined with their awaiting robotic bodies in London. Rugazzi is working against his will to help the creatures, who retain their angry mutants’ personalities, even from the tiniest bit of their surviving DNA. Getting a closer look at one of the creatures, Yaz is unaware that one of them has exited its fluid-filled maturation tank…
Feeling a drop from overhead, Jack looks to find the freed parasite leaping onto Yaz, climbing onto her back in an attempt to fuse with her, as it did with Rugazzi. Jack is also attacked by a parasite leaping onto his face, which he rips off and destroys with an energy weapon. Taking aim at the parasite on Yaz’s back, he fires another well-placed shot, which obliterates the creature, to Yaz’s surprise and relief.
The TARDIS is en route back to London when the Doctor has a heart-to-heart with the once bitter Ryan. She tells him that, during their time apart, she’s been questioning exactly who and what she is now. Turns out Ryan is going through a similar reevaluation. They reconcile, with her assurance that even if they’re separated again, they will always remain friends. Given the Doctor’s lifespan, that assurance means a lot more to him than it would from most. What the companions have to realize is that a relationship with the Doctor is the classic definition of a ‘long-distance friendship’— you may not see each other for years, but when you do, it’s like old times again. I have a few friends like that in my own life, and on those rare occasions when we reunite, the years between quickly melt away.
Note: Am I the only one who found it odd that the TARDIS took such an unusually long time to reach London from Osaka? Usually the machine’s trips are near-instantaneous. Of course, I realize that the story needed a ‘breather’ for the dejected Ryan makes peace with the Doctor, but I still found it strange to hear the Doctor announce (like a train conductor or airline pilot) that they were “on course”. The TARDIS was already at Earth, so why was it taking the scenic route through the spacetime vortex, especially when the clock was ticking for Yaz and Jack?
Arriving at Robertson’s office, the TARDIS materializes. Robertson is unable to call security as the Doctor has remotely disabled his outgoing phone lines. With no choice, Robertson takes his first trip inside of the TARDIS. The greedy, shortsighted businessman has a more difficult time than most with the time capsule’s dimension-defying physics, as he can’t quite wrap his brain around the little blue police box’s larger interior spaces. They take him to the Osaka ‘farm,’ where he still fails to understand his mode of transport (“It’s more fun to watch him struggle with it,” Graham jokes). Finding Jack and Yaz, Robertson is angered to see that Rugazzi apparently ignored his order to incinerate his pet project. Soon Rugazzi himself arrives, and speaks with the Dalek’s arrogant voice overriding his own. Before long, that Dalek kills its host, ending Rugazzi’s own torment as well. The ambient lighting within the cloning farm begins to change from its eerie green to an alarming ultraviolet as the Doctor quickly realizes the parasites are preparing for an instant mass migration into their awaiting mechanical bodies in London. With the lighting fully changed, the Daleks receive their necessary energy, and they teleport out of their tanks en masse.
Note: Actor Nicholas Briggs returns to voice the Daleks. Briggs, whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting at the Gallifrey One convention in Los Angeles, has been the voice of the Daleks as well as the Cybermen since Doctor Who’s triumphant return in 2005. He’s also voiced the creatures for the immensely popular Big Finish Doctor Who audio dramas.
Also of note: I feel like I missed something regarding the significance of the ultraviolet lighting on the Daleks’ teleportation. Nevertheless, it moved the story along well enough, even if I failed to grasp the exact ‘why’ of it.
Returning to London with the Fam and Robertson, the Doctor is late, as Prime Minister Patterson is holding her live demonstration at the heart of the British government at 10 Downing Street (of course, because aliens love to attack landmarks, as every sci-fi fan knows). The parasites have already teleported into their newfound mechanical bodies, immediately asserting control of them—the interior lights of the hijacked robots changes from a benign blue to a malevolent red. Before long, the Daleks are staging yet another London apocalypse, and I have to say this is the least interesting part of the story, despite lots of pew-pew action, as flying Daleks strafe the streets of London with their built-in red energy weapons. Patterson herself is killed, as the angry cyborgs resume their previous (failed) attempts to conquer Earth.
Note: Aside from the rehash of yet another Dalek takeover of the world (see: “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”, “Remembrance of the Daleks” “The End of Time” and many others), the Dalek’s great plan to exterminate the people of Earth by taking random potshots at civilians seems to be an awful time-waster. In the much smarter story “Dalek” (2005), written by Robert Shearman, we see a single Dalek hack into the internet, which would be a far more efficient way to bring the world under one’s control than endless sorties of random potshots.
With options limited, the Doctor tells the group that she’s considering “the nuclear option”, which involves plugging into the spacetime vortex and sending an anonymous message to the SAS Daleks, otherwise known as the Death Squad Daleks. The SAS Daleks are designed with the express purpose of eliminating ‘impurities’ within their own race, wherever they may find them. Over Jack’s pointless objection, she sends out the signal, and within moments, a large Dalek flying saucer arrives over the skies of London, filled with the more ‘traditional’ brass-finished Daleks of the post-2005 DW series.
Note: The Daleks, as a race, have been wiped out and resurrected so many times within Doctor Who lore that I no longer question their repeatedly impossible resurrections. Hell, even the characters on the show have stopped doing that. These days, it’s just “Oh look, the Daleks are back!” with no credible explanation for their return, other than a weak line by the Doctor, who says “They’re always out there…somewhere.” Convenient, I suppose, but it also cheapens the prior “mass extinctions” of the Daleks in earlier stories.
Before long, the descending Dalek spaceship unleashes its own murderous Daleks to destroy the other Daleks, with the newer Daleks pleading for their right to exist—insisting that their ‘impurities’ can be worked out. It doesn’t work. The traitorous Robertson, recognizing that the bronze Daleks will soon be in power, immediately sets about a plan to surrender to them. Slipping away from the Doctor (who, curiously, doesn’t attempt to stop him), he eventually gains access to the mothership overhead.
The Doctor’s plan is for Jack to teleport aboard the Dalek’s ship, along with volunteers Ryan and Graham. Once there, they will plant a series of remote-detonated explosives. Inside the craft, the trio starts planting the explosives stealthily, avoiding detection by the Daleks in the process. Inside the craft, they see the opportunistic Robertson negotiating with the Dalek’s leader, offering them the location of the Doctor. Mere mention of the Doctor incites Dalek rage, which reaches a boil when Robertson reveals that she was the one who sent the call for them across the vortex. In return, Robertson offers his further services to facilitate the Dalek takeover of Earth. The three saboteurs teleport off the ship (as does Robertson), and the craft is destroyed. However, there are still dozens of deadly flying bronze Daleks over London. The Doctor does a St. Patrick, luring the Daleks into what appears to be her TARDIS. The Daleks pour into the flying police box, and she locks them inside, right before she escapes. This locked TARDIS is the duplicate TARDIS, left behind on Earth. With the Daleks trapped aboard, she sets the spare TARDIS to fold in on itself—crushing all of the Daleks inside, until it disappears into null space.
Note: Robertson’s arrangement with the Daleks reminds me of 1978’s “Battlestar Galactica”, where Count Baltar (John Colicos) sold out the 12 colonies of his fellow humans in exchange for sitting snugly on a high chair aboard a Cylon baseship.
With Earth safe from the Daleks for now, life is somewhat restored to normal. A surviving Robertson is being falsely credited by the media as the man who “saved” humanity from the Daleks through his negotiations. Letting him take the credit, the group says goodbye to Captain Jack, who plans to visit his Torchwood associate and friend Gwen Cooper. Sadly, the Doctor also learns it’s the end of the line for two of her other companions as well. Ryan misses his home planet of Earth, and Graham can’t go without his beloved grandson. Both men vow to remain vigilant, should extraterrestrial menaces come a calling. The Doctor gifts them both with two wallets of psychic paper, which will allow the two would-be investigators easy access for future gumshoeing. The Doctor is delighted to hear that Yaz will be staying on with the TARDIS, but the delight is tinged with sadness as she realizes the fam will now be going their separate ways. The Doctor tells Ryan and Yaz, “Two hearts… one happy, one sad.”
The series leaves Graham right where we first saw him, teaching the dyspraxia-stricken Ryan how to master a bicycle on a green Sheffield plain. Both see a vision of Grace (Sharon D. Clarke), Graham’s late wife and Ryan’s beloved nan, urging them on. Their bike-riding lessons seem futile, but the eternally patient Graham never gives up on Ryan.
****NEW COMPANION INTRO****
Just before the end credits begin, we see a man in the city reading an offscreen man’s horoscope, telling him that the color blue (TARDIS), the number 13 (13th Doctor) and the letter “D” (Doctor) will become significant for his sun sign of Aries. As the camera pans over, we see that the horoscope belongs to actor/comedian John Bishop, who will be joining the cast as new companion “Dan” when the show returns later this year.
New Year, Familiar Faces.
With the return of fan favorite John Barrowman (always a pleasure) coupled to an overly familiar Daleks-invading-London story (seen that one many times already), “Revolution of the Daleks” isn’t terribly revolutionary, but it is entertaining enough. This one is all about the characters; the story itself is merely a perfunctory excuse to bring them together for one final adventure. In that regard, it works, but can we put the Daleks out to pasture for awhile?
While I can’t say I’m terribly disappointed to see the Tocin Cole’s Ryan depart the show, the actor did have a compelling final scene with the Doctor during their unusually long TARDIS trip to London. I feel as though I got to know and appreciate more of Cole’s Ryan in this story than I did during his last two years in regular season episodes. The actor rarely expressed anything beyond equanimity. Sadly, Ryan’s departure necessitates the departure of his grandpa, Graham, played by the lovable Bradley Walsh. Walsh has been the life of the party for the last two years, often buoying the show with its funniest bits. He’s everyone’s favorite silly uncle, and he will be sorely missed.
While I’m admittedly not as fond of writer/producer/showrunner Chris Chibnall’s era of Doctor Who, there have been a handful of genuinely solid stories and characters. Most of the stories have been serviceable to mediocre, with some real clunkers (looking at you, “Orphan 55”). That said, I don’t think the series has fallen from its pop culture perch just yet. Doctor Who has seen creative slumps before (the mid-to-late 1980s, for example) and it has always come back stronger.
I think the show would get a real shot of adrenaline if they brought back Jo Martin’s Doctor someday. The series has precedent for the Doctor reassuming a familiar face (Tom Baker’s coda in “Day of the Doctor”), so who’s to say she won’t spontaneously regenerate into Jo Martin’s Doctor once again? Martin (“Fugitive of the Judoon” ) brought a much-needed gravitas back to the character that had been in short supply since the final year of Peter Capaldi. Jodie Whittaker comes up a bit short when expressing the darker range of the Doctor. She seems more content with swimming in the emotional shallows rather than going deep.
At any rate, Doctor Who is still solid enough entertainment, but I would love for the series to truly surprise me again someday.
“Doctor Who” is, of course, available for viewing/streaming on BBC and BBC-America. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States are over 342,000 as of this writing and that number is increasing by thousands daily. The newly-developed vaccines are slowly working their way into the general population, so for the time being, so please continue to practice social safe-distancing wherever possible, wear masks in public (even if you are vaccinated; the vaccine’s immunity isn’t permanent), and avoid crowded outings as much as possible. With New Year’s celebrations tonight and through the weekend, let’s all try to keep any get-togethers safe-distanced, outdoors (weather permitting) and in small numbers, please!
Wishing everyone a safer and happier New Year!