The dawn of a New Year can be a time for sober, objective deliberation. A contemplation of the year just passed; its triumphs – and its follies – and, most importantly, the chance to reflect, reconsider and refresh both yourself and your work. Not that you would glean this from the current Doctor Who production team’s faltering festive offering.
More than a millennium ago, the people of the world came together in a desperate, unified battle against a foe so terrible, so deadly and so nearly invincible that even in the pyrrhic relief of victory, they were still afraid. So afraid that they resolved to divide the presumably mortal remains of their enemy into three pieces and hide them across the world, burying them in sand or snow sometimes up to a foot and a half deep. But one piece failed to make it out of Yorkshire, after a rogue archer on a grassy knoll killed the custodian and then left him and his belongings where he lay (as, apparently, did everyone else who passed that way) until his body is rediscovered by a modern-day archaeological team underneath Sheffield Town Hall who discover remains missed by both the construction workers who built the town hall itself and the ones who constructed the sewers under it in the first place. Oh, and by the way, the alien was a Dalek because there’s no patience for surprises anymore.
Initially, I thought we were in for the return of the cold open as we plunged into the historical action and then fast-forwarded to the present day but no, instead it proved to be more of a tepid opening – harking back to Chibnall’s still inexplicable decision to not have any opening credits whatsoever on the season premiere – which kept you waiting for the story to properly begin until, after about half an hour, it dawns on you that whatever story you’re waiting to begin, it’s probably already underway.
And the story, it turns out, is a clumsy and mawkish exploration of Ryan’s ongoing estrangement from his father and the fallout from his grandmother’s untimely death. The episode keeps returning to this momentum sapping B-story like a fingernail to a slightly loose scab, picking at it until it becomes more of an irritation than anything else. It’s clear that Tosin Cole is giving his all in his big *ACTING* scenes and that Chibnall feels more comfortable churning out overwrought emotional drama than he is with any kind of coherent sci-fi but there’s something so intensely, weirdly unblinkingly, over-earnest about these moments that they skid right past pathos and into parody. Mind you, if this Doctor ever encounters the Weeping Angels, they’re screwed when they come up against Ryan. The turgid, time-filling Sinclair family drama also sucks in Graham, benching the series’ MVP for much of the episode to accommodate the guest cast. At least Yaz gets to stick with the Doctor – although, again, do very little because – like much of series 11, the story doesn’t have enough to do for the characters it has to include. This is why Moffat often side-lined his regular series companions during the Christmas specials: to give the story and the guest cast room to have some fun.
The guest cast here amounts to Charlotte Ritchie (“Call The Midwife”), Daniel Adegboyega (“Skyfall”, “Transformers: The Last Knight”) and Nikesh Patel (“London Has Fallen”, “Indian Summers”) although only Ritchie gets much to do. As the makeshift vehicle for the newly revivified Dalek, she gets to have some fun as the de facto villain of the piece, even killing a few people and – sadly only once – developing an almost Slender Man-type menace.
The Dalek’s sudden ability to recombine and reanimate itself after having been defeated, chopped into three separate parts and left to rot for 1,200 years certainly comes out of nowhere but Chibnall’s swiftly invents a new class of never before mentioned Daleks to explain this. And when I say explain, I, of course, mean the Doctor explains it. Because in Chibnall’s hands, Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor remains cruelly constrained to only being able to speak in expository narration. Chibnall billed this as Doctor Who as a ‘popcorn blockbuster’ but if this is his idea of what constitutes action, he needs to get out more. Simply getting poor Segun Akinola to layer in loud and obnoxiously, incongruously kinetic action music below yet another dull expository monologue does not an action-fest make.
There’s an unevenness to the whole thing that feels like we got two rough drafts of abandoned season 11 episodes sticky-taped together and then strewn with some party-popper contents for that ‘New Year’ feel. There’s the serendipitous reference to the flying Dalek as a ‘rogue drone’ which has an accidental topicality if nothing else but for every happy accident like that there’s a leadenly clichéd cutaway joke about a family having to have a conversation because the internet has gone down that suggests Chibnall may have recruited one of the manatees from the “Family Guy” writers’ room to supplement his own screenwriting capabilities.
It’s a shame, too, because there are still some exciting glimpses of purple and green amidst the otherwise disappointing accumulation of strawberry and orange cremes that make up this Quality Street tin of an episode. The junkyard Dalek, while initially a bit jarringly skinny, is actually a marvellous creation, restoring some of the worn-out menace and threat of the long-in-the-tooth foes. It’s a great bit of design work, bringing a scrappy lethality to the venerable monster, even if its creation does archly homage the series’ own season premiere. It’ll be interesting to see, when the Daleks inevitably return, whether any of the aesthetic of this one bleeds through into the regular stock. Likewise, the abrupt confrontation with a generic military force (we know it’s not UNIT because they’ve been mothballed due to withdrawal of budget contributions from overseas partners, either a feeble Brexit/ Trump dig that doesn’t the courage of its unreliable convictions or a passive/aggressive dig at the BBC bean counters) is spectacular if a little bit over-done as director Wayne Yip, seemingly confused by the script’s wildly varying tone, throws everything on screen in the hope that some of the visual stylings will go well with what’s on the page.
With no sign of a change of course yet, it’s starting to look like the Chibnall era is one for Whovians to endure rather than enjoy – something I’ve long experience of but I can’t help but feel sorry for the Littlest Craggling who jumped aboard the TARDIS with Season 11 and has been befuddled and disappointed by how boring the last few episodes have been. If reports are to be believed, there’s at least another 364 days to go before we get any more Doctor Who (although I have a sneaking suspicion we might get a Christmas special for 2019) and hopefully that will provide enough time for some quiet reflection and a renewed resolve to improve. Jodie has the makings of a great Doctor but it would be a terrible shame if she never got the chance to properly shine because of the dreadful writing of the showrunner. One wonders just what the “Open Air” audience of 1986 would make of it all…