A review from a slightly alternate universe
After ten months off screen, Doctor Who returns with the episode the world needed. Being written and shot months before 2020 upped the ante on the trauma, it was always going to be a challenge for the episode to be released in such an unexpected context. However, by being just-adjacent-enough in its approach to real world issues, Revolution of the Daleks was a celebration of Doctor Who’s ability to explore serious problems, with added Daleks. This case? The Surveillance State.
Festive specials demand spectacle, and the opening heist of the Dalek husk delivered as much thrilling blockbuster action you could expect on a BBC budget. Action has never been the shows strong point, even with highpoints such as the Runaway Bride or that one episode where Jon Pertwee pretended to be James Bond, so it’s thankfully brief and doesn’t outstay it’s welcome.
Ten Months have passed for Yaz, Graham and Ryan since they last saw the Doctor – and they’ve gone their separate ways. The maturity this is deployed with is commendable, there’s no big drama break-up, just characters going their own way and fighting their own fight. There was no way of knowing that introducing Graham and Ryan amid a protest would become such a loaded image, but it thankfully places our heroes on the more sympathetic side of the argument. The protest is against the deployment of a privately owned fleet of drones that fly with a very familiar hum.
We might not get Yaz renouncing her role as a cop in Series Thirteen, but Ryan’s insistence that the protest only turned violent due to the instigation of the Police is a promising step in the right direction. It’s a heightened moment of gritty chaos leading to a deployment of a Water-Canon-Dalek which was genuinely shocking. As the lads point out, “real life” has been so busy, they haven’t had a chance to think about the Doctor.
At which point, the episode opts to reinvent itself and cuts to space prison. It’s a leap, but it’s very much Doctor Who. Her time in the slammer has been hard on the Doctor, confining such a free spirit to a few walls has clearly been hard on her and adds gives Whittaker a chance to bring a much-needed edge to her substitute primary-school performance. She’s getting by, making friends with some more sympathetic prisoners (almost hitting a critique of the prison system, but not quite, the Doctor has a lot to do this week and she’ll get back to it) but clearly struggling.
She was pushing her luck, she admits. Being a very old Time Traveller meant that things would catch up with her eventually, suggesting that her incarceration in the highest security prison in the universe was an inevitability.
Of course, the same is true of one Captain Jack Harkness, who was sentenced to life a very long time ago. By virtue of outliving every regime of the Prison Security, Jack has found himself in-charge of the facility, albeit unable to leave. It puts him in a position that affords the episode a chance to remind viewers that Jack isn’t always a PG-13 character, running an underground Live Chess circuit to maintain order in the jail. A necessary evil caused by centuries of inertia – isolation hit the Doctor and Jack hard.
Their reunion is joyous and inspirational, in the sense that they give each other the spark to mount a daring escape. Perhaps in a later episode they’ll return to raze the prison to the ground, but we’ll give props for baby steps here. Considering how Thirteen is clearly impacted by her sentence, the revelation that she was only in there for two weeks speaks was a gag that manages to say something about the characters – a far cry from the lifeless, stale “We’ll have to have a conversation” from Resolution.
It’s a fun sequence and gives a sense of momentum to Jack and the Doctor’s return to Earth, falling straight into Jack Robertson’s Dalek plot.
It’s thankful the show doesn’t repeat Resolution’s mistake of taking an actor with the skill of Charlotte Ritchie and confining them to an “evil voice” for the episode, and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s transformation between scenes as a youthful, optimistic genius to the burnt-out scientist festering Dalek DNA was a great performance. Having touched the residue of the Dalek Mutant, Leo is subtly being manipulated – placing the cause of his blackouts to the impact of his workload. His final scene where he realises his complicity is dark. We witness his values and priorities change in front of our eyes – the human Dalek taking control and implanting itself into the AI of the man-made shells.
These aren’t Daleks – they’re corrupted humans, and thanks to the Government’s privatisation of their security, they’re everywhere. This separation offers effective commentary while making great use of the iconography and our newest Prime Minister is charismatic and slimy without being a caricature. It also offers a moment of catharsis for the audience as the PM meets the same fate that befalls most of the other world leaders introduced in Doctor Who.
The fam’s reunion is suitably joyous, inevitably causing a pang in the socially distanced audience. Yaz is unsure, but soon appreciates the Doctor did what she could – and notices something has unnerved her. Having Jack on the scene is great fun, but not just a chance to roll out the same jokes made over ten years ago. It allows Yaz to see a new side of her friend, one that’s vulnerable and needs company.
The question of the episode becomes “Is the Doctor okay?”. She’s brash by calling in the Daleks -ringing them up like they’re old pals and them having no clue who she is- and her questionable abandonment of Trump on the Dalek spaceship. Graham and Ryan have clearly moved on, heading the lead in the adventure with even Jack trying to keep up and the Doctor is clearly affected by that. It’s with a quiet moment with Yaz, where she realises, she’s allowed to need people that she commits to healing and hatches a plan to save the day.
With Not-Trump’s survival and celebration in the last scene, we have a nice indication that the Doctor isn’t past her troubles just yet with plenty of fall-out to come.
Baiting the Daleks into her spare TARDIS and collapsing it in on itself is a ludicrous solution, but it’s joyously so, a celebration of all things bonkers and Doctor Who. That’s the key word here – joy. Everyone involved seems thrilled by the possibilities presented by making Doctor Who, and never taking the first idea that comes into mind. The dialogue is snappy, the set pieces are effective, and all elements are considered and coherent in a way we’ve not seen since the Imperial Phase of the Moffat era.
And, of course, Jack’s back. An episode with Barrowman’s return, plenty of Daleks and a “subtle” Trump cypher could have landed flat by the pen of a lesser writer, one who’d consider these things interesting in of themselves. I suppose, in hindsight, it was a good thing that Chris Chibnall disappeared in mysterious circumstances, leaving only an outline and RTD stepping in to finish off the episode.