Doctor Who: Revolution Of The Daleks Review
I can’t be alone, surely, in wondering where the ‘Revolution’ was in “Revolution Of The Daleks”? In the end, there was very little about this perfunctory seasonal feature-length special that was revolutionary – or, indeed, special.
With the Doctor locked away in space prison, Yaz, Graham and Ryan have been trying to get on with their lives – well, Ryan and Graham have. Yaz has been having her own Pepe Silvia moment in a vain attempt to locate the errant Time Lord. Meanwhile, an ambitious government minister Jo Patterson (Harriet Waters) has teamed up with an old acquaintance of the Doctor (Chris Noth) to reverse engineer the remnants of the Dalek technology left behind after the GCHQ incident of January 1st 2019.
It’s difficult to know where to start with “Revolution Of The Daleks” because it seems to exist solely to support Chibnall’s own declaration that he struggles to come up with ideas for special stories. Indeed here he borrows liberally from his own previous New Year Special and also “Victory Of The Daleks” without actually addressing the thematic issues it raises during its early scenes. There’s no real exploration of the idea of sacrificing freedom for security or indeed any other ideas as it favours one lacklustre action sequence after another interspersed with achingly parochial dialogue scenes. It repeatedly trips over its own sloppy approach to continuity and time and again and uses increasingly cheap shot fan service references to distract from its paucity of ideas. More and more, Chris Chibnall is resembling the Donald Trump of “Doctor Who” showrunners. Having a sizeable fortune of audience and fan goodwill, he’s used all his skills and knowledge to turn his large fortune into a much smaller fortune.
Speaking of Donald Trump and quicker than you can say Jack Robertson (Chris Noth), Chibnall brings back a character from an episode so long ago and so forgettable that most people would be forgiven for not remembering who he was. But that’s fine because Chibnall doesn’t seem to remember him either. The character, as written and played here, is very different from his original persona, suggesting that Noth’s availability was a happy accident and Chibnall chose to try to retroactively create some of his own continuity by giving another of his milquetoast villains a second outing.
Another underwhelming villain which gets a return is the Pting, as one of the carnival of monsters which the Doctor encounters during her time in prison, alongside a Silence, Sycorax, a Weeping Angel, and an Ood. The appearances serve only to extend the runtime of a prison sequence which itself seems to serve no narrative purpose but to bulk out the runtime of the episode.
Having ostentatiously ended the last season with the Doctor in prison, it would be reasonable to assume it was part of some master narrative plan which would pay off handsomely in the New Year special? Nope. There’s no explanation as to why the Doctor has allowed herself to be locked up for so long, bafflingly passive behaviour from a character who’s renowned for their ability to escape incarceration and certain death on a regular basis. There’s a suggestion that she’s just coming to terms with all the expositionary retconning dumped into the last half of “The Timeless Children”, a reason which comes perilously close to being a fourth wall break to the audience. Given 2020 has been an unprecedented time of lockdowns and restrictions, it seems doubly disappointing that the script and character have nothing witty or topical to say about her imprisonment at all.
From a story point of view, though, The Doctor is in prison right up until the point that she isn’t. The jailbreak, predictably, turns out to be at the hands of Jack Harkness, who’s spent years committing crimes so he could get locked up in the same prison as The Doctor to affect a rescue. A rescue which involved using his vortex manipulator to transport out of a cell, raising the question of why he didn’t just teleport into the Doctor’s cell and pick her up. No need for convoluted nonsense which we don’t get to see anyway.
Ultimately, Jack’s return is a gratuitous and largely superfluous glorified cameo. He adds little to the story itself and only contributes the sense of overcrowding once ‘The Fam’ and The Doctor are reunited. His inclusion provides another example of the appallingly sloppy writing as his famed immortality is mentioned – several times – yet never once plays into the story despite there being multiple opportunities for it to come in to play. I mean, why bring Jack back if you’re not going to ‘kill’ him, at least once?
‘The Fam’ themselves are particularly irritating and annoying in this episode, their solipsistic self-involvement reaching new heights (or plumbing new depths). They’re so full of their showrunners conviction that they are the stars of the show that when The Doctor returns after an absence (from their perspective) of ten months, they’re petulant and hostile for their abandonment, sparing not a thought for the decades the Doctor’s spent in ‘space jail’. Yaz even goes so far as to physically assault the Doctor, something that feels like it wouldn’t have happened if the Doctor wasn’t female. Ryan chooses to demonstrate his disdain though Tosin Cole’s trademark ability to take any line of dialogue and deliver it with such flatness that it ends up devoid of any kind of emotional life whatsoever. And as for Graham, well, put kindly we can assume that his copy of the script was mainly pages filled with the instruction to ‘stand quietly in the background’.
There is, in this story about subversion of the British Government by a hostile alien force and an eventual invasion, a distinct lack of genuine peril. The story proceeds from point to point without any obstacles that last more than a moment or two for our heroes to overcome. There’s no explanation for why nobody in any of the UK’s government agencies recognises the Dalek (and, to be fair, why the Daleks themselves don’t recognise Earth, a planet they’ve repeatedly invaded and visited throughout their history).
Likewise, when the drone is first unveiled it seems weird for the story to make it a plot point that recognising the Daleks is what draws Yaz, Graham and Ryan into the adventure and yet completely ignore the distinct possibility that many of the Doctor’s other companions who live on Earth would likewise be alarmed and likely to take action. I mean, the episode has little shame in namedropping other characters so would it have killed them to have an old face or two turn up to help the initially Doctor-less companions? Of course, if you bring in any other companions you’d have to have ‘The Fam’ face the truth about their real place in The Doctor’s long life and gain some much-needed perspective – something Jack Harkness could do with too. His desperately needy insistence that he’s somehow the Doctor’s BFF is belied by the fact the 10th Doctor kept trying to avoid him and the 11th and 12th Doctors wanted nothing to do with him.
Once again, Jodie Whittaker is saddled with a script which too often renders her character as bumbling, uncertain and scatter-brained and her habit of talking to herself now seems less endearing and more indicative of a more serious problem, like a regeneration that hasn’t quite worked out. It would explain why, after two whole seasons, we still don’t have a real sense of who The Doctor is in this incarnation. Her defining character trait seems to be ‘anxiously talkative exposition provider’ as Chibnall persists with a narrative style of ‘tell, don’t show’ when it comes to character motivations or emotions, especially the entitled narcissists who make up two-thirds of ‘The Fam’. Ryan is no great loss to the TARDIS and, to be honest, I’m glad to see the back of him and his blunted, emotionless performances but it’s a shame Graham is going as if I had to pick one person to stay with the Doctor, it would have been him. I’m also always sad to see an actor like Nathan Stewart-Jarrett get used up in a thankless guest shot in this current era of the show as he has here because he’s a terrific actor and one who had much bigger “Doctor Who” potential, perhaps even as the title character one day.
When Chibnall does turn his attention to ‘show’, the series has rarely looked cheaper in this modern era and seems to be on a trajectory to match up with its late eighties production values which contributed to its then cancellation. Perhaps it was the 4K broadcast I watched but it certainly made everything look small and cheap. The initial cloned Dalek being carried to the furnace in what was clearly a completely undressed glass PC case was an early instance of being immediately snapped out of the story but even the later scenes of invasion and Dalek attack seemed small-scale and obviously filmed in the same couple of streets, albeit shot from different angles. The gulf between ambition and execution is emphasised by Segun Akinola’s most bombastic and occasionally overpowering score yet, as if he’s channelling a drunken Murray Gold by way of Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet”.
Watching the end credits, you can see there’s a huge team of dedicated, talented and hardworking people who strive to make “Doctor Who” as good as it can be and its something of a tragedy to see their work squandered in service of something as bland and derivative and downright shoddy as “Revolution Of The Daleks”. Of course, a show like “Doctor Who” can and has endured the doldrums before but the problem with this latest slump is that its being caused by entirely unforced errors and it seems like creative hubris will end up being the 13th Doctor’s most implacable and relentless foe.