Doctor Who’s New Year’s Day episode, “Eve of the Daleks”, directed by Annetta Laufer and written by current producer/showrunner Chris Chibnall, has aired. While the current run of Doctor Who will be the last under Chris Chibnall before the return of Russell T. Davies in 2023, I’m pleased to write that “Eve of the Daleks” is a welcome return to the leaner days of Doctor Who storytelling.
Getting away from the ridiculously oversized and needlessly complicated machinations of the recent six part “Flux” event, “Eve of the Daleks” sees the return of the Doctor’s staple villains and a classic ‘base under siege’ story…
“Eve of the Daleks.”
The story opens with a lonely, barely occupied “Elf Storage” Lot, at near midnight on New Year’s Eve, 2021. Lot manager Sarah (Aisling Bea) is forced to work the holiday when her only employee calls out once again (a legacy loafer who came with the family-owned business). This leaves Sarah to mind the nearly-deserted storage depot, which currently has one paying occupant in its five levels; a lonely, sweet-natured, socially awkward introvert named Nick (Adjani Salmon).
Note: I thought the name “ELF” was going to be more significant beyond a throwaway Christmas sight gag…unless I missed something? On the plus side, Sarah, as nicely played by Aisling Bea, is a terrific character; a cynical, put-upon small business owner with a heart of gold, despite her situation. True companion material.
Per annual tradition, Nick arrives on New Year’s Eve to put a single item into storage; in this case, an old Monopoly board game. The frustrated Sarah dutifully tends to her kindly, eccentric customer. Even at this early point in the story, it’s clear to anyone with functional eyes/ears that Nick is nursing a crush on Sarah, but is too desperately shy to ask her out. We later learn that Nick comes around every New Year’s Eve, knowing that Sarah’s sole employee will, once again, leave her deserted as usual. Sarah’s tedium is interrupted by yet another annoying call from her mum (Pauline McLynn) who insists that “the lines will be jammed” if she calls at midnight.
Note: “The phone lines will be jammed” gag, alluding to Sarah’s mother’s lack of modern phone-tech understanding, is cute, but slightly overused; even if it does play a significant role in the finale.
We then see the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), along with companions Dan (John Bishop) and Yaz (Mandip Gill) trying to pilot a badly-damaged TARDIS (post- “Flux”) to a nice alien beach where it can reset itself–a process that’d be fatal if they were to remain aboard. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen countless times over the show’s run, the TARDIS has a knack for delivering her occupants where they need to be rather than where they want to be–arriving instead at the main loading dock at ELF Storage. Exiting the TARDIS at nine minutes to midnight, the Doctor whips out the ol’ sonic screwdriver and determines they’re in Manchester on New Year’s Eve, 2021. “Mancs,” Liverpudlian Dan laments, as Sheffielder Yaz teases him. As they step out, the cracked and battered TARDIS begins the slow process of resetting, effectively locking them outside for awhile…
Note: Chris Chibnall gets a lot of mileage from regional English rivalries, even if many of those gags are lost on Yanks. Personally I love them–they’re part of the show’s uniquely British charm.
Unfortunately, the Doctor finds a cloaked temporal signature elsewhere within the building; the time travelers are not alone. Meanwhile, Nick is arranging to stow his Monopoly game when he is met by the source of the Doctor’s reading; a lone Dalek (Nicholas Briggs). Nick initially assumes the “robot” to be some kind of bizarre, automated groundskeeper, but is proven fatally wrong when the creature envelops him in its deadly x-raying beam (“Exterminate!”).
Note: There is a sly in-joke of identity confusion between the Sarah and the Dalek, who is once again voiced by actor Nicholas Briggs. Sarah initially confuses noise that the Dalek makes for Nick, to which the Dalek angrily replies, “I am NOT Nick!” I see what you did there, Chris Chibnall…
Soon, the Doctor and her companions also locate the single Dalek, fresh from its murder of poor Nick. Realizing the end is at hand, the Doctor sadly exclaims, “Not like this,” before she and her companions are similarly exterminated by the Dalek’s lethal energy weapon. All this before the opening credits…!
Note: One of the better teasers in recent memory, that’s for sure. Jodie Whittaker does a lovely job with her regret-filled delivery of the line, “Not like this.” Granted, we know the Doctor and her companions aren’t truly dead (not yet, anyway) but the admittedly predictable teaser sets up a nice little backwards-mystery for the Doctor to solve. Have I mentioned that I miss these smaller-scale Doctor Who stories?
This “Groundhog Day”-homaging episode (as Dan later observes) jumps backward to Nick and Sarah at the service desk, with both feeling a strong sense of deja vu. They go through their previous motions, right down to Sarah receiving the annoying call from her mother (“the lines will be jammed at midnight”). In the receiving bay, the Doctor and her companions arrive once again, and are also met with a strong sense of deja vu. Being a lot more familiar with time travel machinations than Sarah and Nick, the Doctor quickly surmises they’ve arrived one full minute earlier than their previous arrival, as it’s now exactly eight minutes till midnight instead of nine. Each time they’re killed, the next time-loop is reset one minute closer to midnight.
As Sarah and Nick also have their respective run-ins with the evil ‘robot’, they try to separate and make their way to the exits, but quickly realize the Storage center itself is ensnared within a Dalek forcefield, effectively eliminating any means of escape. Each are met by a Dalek and killed by its rays, as are the Doctor and her companions, who also try to divide and conquer before their next ‘exterminations.’
Note: I loved Sarah’s indignation during her confrontation with the Dalek; while she is clearly terrified of the creature, she still manages to mock its ‘stupid’ name before she is killed. Once again, she is clear companion material.
With each new time-loop one minute shorter than the last, the Doctor and her friends try to out-strategize the Daleks, who slowly swell their ranks with each new cycle. Soon the Daleks’ true purpose becomes clear; they have isolated the Storage lot into a kill box for the Doctor, in order to execute her for ‘war crimes’ committed against the Dalek fleet during “The Flux.” The Doctor also realizes that her own TARDIS is responsible for creating these recurring time-loops–a fortunate side effect of its self-repair and reset.
Note: Still love that 2005 redesign of the Daleks, which retains all the elements of the classic Dalek design, but with more sophisticated detailing and color schemes that make them darker and more sinister. I admit, I was getting a little tired of Dalek episodes, but their efficient, logical use in this smaller-scale story really works.
In one of the time-loops, we see the Doctor and her friends trapped in Nick’s storage bay… a bay filled with utterly useless junk against a rampaging Dalek, which eventually blasts its way through the metal rollup door. In another loop, they discover several storage bays–a whole wing, in fact–that’s being used (without payment) by Elf Storage’s single freeloading employee, who leaves a post-it note. The Doctor quickly susses out a silver lining, as she notices the illicitly-occupied bays are full of items not permitted on site–including drums of petrol, fireworks and other things that, if ignited, could blow up the building and take the invading Daleks with it. When left together for a moment during one of the time-loops, Yaz tearfully confesses her romantic feelings for the Doctor to a sweetly sympathetic Dan.
Note: The scene between Yaz and Dan is a lovely one, as Yaz painfully but cathartically verbalizes her feelings for the Doctor. Unfortunately, as Rose and Martha have demonstrated, companion crushes on the Doctor don’t end well, since human relationships occupy but the tiniest fractions of the Doctor’s vast lifespan(s). I also wonder if Yaz, who is gay, would feel the same way for the Doctor if she were to regenerate into a male once again? We saw a similar complication occur when twenty-something Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) suddenly experienced newfound difficulties relating to the Doctor (Matt Smith) after he regenerated into a more paternal-looking incarnation (Peter Capaldi). One of the difficulties for humans who fall in love with the Doctor; there is no one ‘true’ face with which to fall in love.
As the Daleks more readily anticipate the Doctor’s actions in each new cycle, the Doctor proposes a final Hail Mary pass in their final four-minute loop–each of them will employ five separate tactics–effectively turning their remaining four minutes into twenty. The Doctor rigs the petrol bins and fireworks into a deadly trap, using Sarah’s mother’s predicable phone call as bait for the Daleks. The plan works; the building is destroyed as the petrol and fireworks ignite, destroying the invading Daleks, eliminating their forcefield, and putting on one hell of a New Year’s Eve fireworks show for the local Mancs (one witness, possibly Sarah’s now-former employee, enjoys the show for himself). The Doctor escapes in her fully restored TARDIS.
Note: I really enjoy the tighter focus on characters within these base-under-siege stories. In this case, turning the ‘base’ into an everyday storage depot also returned that feeling of relatability to the Doctor’s adventures; the childhood fantasy that the Doctor and the TARDIS might appear right in one’s own city/town/neighborhood somewhere. Such everyday appeal is one of this long-running fantasy series’ greatest charms. It’s also one of the reasons the more grandiose, overly-complicated “Flux” event left me largely indifferent. One “Flux” episode I did enjoy was “Village of the Angels,” which had all the paranoia and anxiety of the best ‘under siege’ Doctor Who stories mixed with a strong horror vibe as well.
Later on, we catch up with new lovers Sarah and Nick planning a romantic world-spanning vacation together, celebrating her newfound liberation from the demolished Elf Storage (and collecting a tidy insurance settlement, no doubt). Meanwhile, the Doctor, Yaz and Dan are once again back in the fully restored TARDIS, setting off to solve the mystery of the Flor de la Mar–the long-lost, treasure-filled Portuguese vessel which sank shortly after looting Malacca in the early 16th century.
Note: The maritime setting of the suggested next episode might be setting the table for the next special, “Legend of the Sea Devils,” airing in spring of this year (2022). This next special will feature the return of those oceanic-lurking creatures first encountered in the Jon Pertwee era (1970-1973). The Sea Devils’ redesign appears very faithful to the original look for this offshoot of the Silurian species.
Summing It Up.
“Eve of the Daleks” isn’t another overblown, technobabble-filled, head-scratcher. Speaking for myself, the recent six-part “Flux” miniseries was not my cuppa tea, as it reiterated just about everything I don’t like about modern Doctor Who–a relatively simple idea (lure all enemies into a huge space wave to save the the universe) is hopelessly protracted into six needlessly complicated parts. I was more relieved than satisfied when “The Flux” finally came to an end. Now the series can get back to simpler, easier-to-swallow tales, such as “Eve of the Daleks.” While I am just a wee bit tired of Daleks (like Star Trek’s Klingons), they are effectively used in this tight little special.
I’ve always enjoyed the tense ‘base-under-seige’ stories of Doctor Who, as they allow us to focus on a small group of characters under pressure (as in Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians”). In this case, the danger allows for Yaz’s long-nursed feelings for the Doctor to be verbalized. As Dan points out, they were hardly a secret. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with other Doctor Who stories, Doctor/companion crushes don’t end well. Given the Doctor’s unknowable lifespan, her relationship with humans is akin to ours with a pet mouse–a few years, tops. The Doctor feels genuine attachment to her companions, but a romantic relationship is not a good idea, and she knows it. Previously smitten companions Rose and Martha didn’t end up with the Doctor, either (though technically, Rose wound up with a single-hearted human clone of the Doctor, so…). With a year or so of specials left in the Chris Chibnall-era, I’m very curious to see just how they will address this latest romantic predicament. It’d be a real shame to see it go unresolved entirely before the end of the current run.
“Eve of the Daleks,” despite its obvious, “Groundhog Day”-inspired story (as Dan notes) and arguably overused villains, still manages to work well enough, thanks to nicely drawn characters (Sarah & Nick) and a welcome reprieve from those heavier, universe-ending ‘epics.’ A promising start for 2022.
Where To Watch.
“Doctor Who” can be viewed on BBC, BBC-America and on the streaming service AMC+. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current COVID pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are over 827,000 as of this writing, with over 5.4 million deaths worldwide. The new Omicron variant is also extremely contagious, even to those who are fully vaccinated (though symptoms among the vaccinated are typically mitigated), so please wear N95 or KN95 masks and get vaccinated (including booster shots) as soon as possible to minimize hospitalizations and protect your loved ones.
Take care and be safe!