“I always think I’m rid of them. Never am.”
Ever since we got our first good look at David Tennant in 2005’s The Christmas Invasion, the Doctor Who Christmas special has become a festive tradition. So you can imagine the apoplexy of some of the more… reactionary fans when the BBC announced that, for the first time in 13 years, there would be no new Doctor Who this Christmas (Ian Levine practically exploded, again).
But be of good cheer – there was one on New Year’s Day! This presents certain problems, in terms of making it seasonal. But frankly, I’d got fed up of Russell T and the Moff trying to make each one “the most Christmassy ever”, and would be happy with just a pretty good episode.
Did we get one? I’m still rather undecided about that. There was some very good stuff here, to be sure. But there were also some dreadfully shoehorned in ‘comedy moments’, and some wildly uneven pacing. It’s great that Chris Chibnall has decided to give the characters real depth; less so when lengthy character scenes like the one with Ryan and his dad in that café drag on so long while doing little to advance the plot.
To take the good first – yes, I’m actually happy to see the Daleks back. I know, I know, I used to say I was sick of the sight of them. But after the parade of instantly forgettable new creatures this year, it was a reminder of how good the established baddies are. There’s a good reason that RTD made them the main focus in the first series of the revival, and I’m glad that Chibnall hasn’t been so contrary as to write them out altogether.
And yes, unlike the misjudged chubby ‘iDaleks’ of Matt Smith’s era, I actually quite liked the redesign of the Dalek casing. Well, on the basis that, plotwise, this is the only time we’re likely to see it, and it probably won’t set a precedent for future appearances. The “junkyard chic” made perfect sense given the plot, though I’m a little sceptical that, even with the stolen weapons tech, a farm welding shed could provide quite the right materials for an invulnerable flying battle tank. I don’t know if even the A-Team got so lucky with raw materials.
Ah well, it’s Doctor Who – compared to Kill the Moon, this was a model of scientific rigour. Plus, as the Doctor made clear (at perhaps more length than was necessary), this was a type of Dalek we hadn’t seen before, with capabilities to match – at least ones that were necessary to drive the plot forward. It was marvellously creepy (if a little derivative) that the Kaled mutant has the power to possess a host by means of inserting its tentacles into their spines. The capabilities of the mutants, shorn of their casings, has been varied over the years, and this nicely established that even without the tech, these are very dangerous creatures.
Facing them for the first time gave Jodie Whittaker a chance to flex her serious acting muscles. Her portrayal of the Doctor has, so far, been rather light and fluffy; she can be serious when she needs to be, but thus far she’s had no reason to portray the damaged survivor guilt that’s been so central to every Doctor since the show returned.
Since the Daleks are central to that guilt, they always provide an opportunity to bring it back. I think Whittaker got it broadly right, as did Chibnall – the script, and her performance, merely hinted at previous dealings with the metal meanies, rather than getting bogged down in continuity references to the Time War. Still, I think this Doctor has a way to go before she reaches the gravitas of her immediate predecessor. That’s not a damning criticism, mind – I thought Matt Smith took a while to get that aspect of the character right too. And don’t get me started on David Tennant’s first season.
Despite a colourful variety of speaking parts here, there were only really three guest characters – Aaron, Lin and Mitch. Given the story arc of the season, Aaron’s appearance made perfect sense, as a further resolution to Ryan’s sense of abandonment and eventual adoption of Graham as a father figure. It wasn’t a massively well-written role, unfortunately, and you couldn’t help being reminded of Rose Tyler’s feckless dad Pete. Still, Daniel Adegboyega did well with the material (overlong café scene included), and it worked to build the character up to the nicely tense moment at the end where you really couldn’t be sure if he was going to get killed.
And there was plenty of killing in this ep. People were exterminated left right and centre, though all were incidental characters. But previous Christmas eps have (mostly) tended towards frothy plots with the minimum of actual jeopardy and death, so it was good to have some actual threat to juice the story up.
While it felt far from certain that Aaron would survive, I never had any such doubts about the other two guest characters, however. Lin and Mitch were just too… nice to be killed off in a festive special (which rather undercut the sense of danger involved in having an alien beastie shoving tentacles into your central nervous system). Charlotte Ritchie, who I loved as Oregon in Fresh Meat, managed to pull off not just making Lin likeable, but also scary and unsettling when possessed by the Dalek creature – I got the sense that she was loving every minute of those bits.
Nikesh Patel, on the other hand, didn’t have much to do as Mitch beyond looking concerned and kind of cute. I don’t mind a bit of eye candy though, and he did his best with the material to hand. He wasn’t the only one either – too cute Connor Calland made quite an impression in his bit part as surely underqualified security guard Richard 🙂
So, yes, there were good bits. But did they outweigh the bad? I thought some of the comedy was spectacularly misjudged. I can see what Chibnall was aiming for with the meta gag about the Dalek shutting down the UK internet on New Year’s Day of all days; but the subsequent skit with that family’s disquiet at having to actually talk to each other was unbelievable hackneyed and predictable. It could have come straight from an ep of My Family, except I think even that show would have had more self-respect.
But that was as nothing compared to the forced cutaway of a ‘funny’ call centre operative as the Doctor tried to call in the help of UNIT and Kate Stewart. Again, I can see what Chibnall was aiming at here – cutting out the reliable help of UNIT is a good way to underscore that this is a new era, and the trademarks of Steven Moffat can no longer be relied on.
That’s fine, of course, but UNIT is more than just Steven Moffat’s thing, as Chibnall well knows. Plus, if you’re going to get rid of them, have it for a good dramatic purpose rather than to enable what appeared to be a laboured gag about Brexit tanking the economy. I’m no fan of Brexit, but this wasn’t satire, it was just clumsy. Especially given the subsequent, and actually very good, scene of the Dalek wiping out a regular armed force who might just as well have been UNIT anyway.
The pacing was all over the place too. The ep seemed to take an age to actually get going; I don’t mind a slow burn, but during that lengthy scene in the café I began to wonder if the script had got mixed up with one from EastEnders instead. When the action scenes came, they were great; but they were unevenly punctuated with those slow, dramatic moments. There’s nothing wrong with those in themselves, they just were perhaps not in the best places to balance the script.
And is the Doctor letting just anyone into the TARDIS these days? S/he always used to be quite sensibly cautious about revealing her ship to comparative strangers; here, she’s dragging Mitch on board moments after she’s met him. Justified perhaps in that she might have been trying to keep him safe from the Dalek creature – but there was no such justification in her later invitation to Aaron to hop on board. Particularly after her grave speech earlier in the season about the dangers of travelling with her.
You got the impression that he was so casually invited on board purely to provide that set piece of his possession and potential death. That’s bad plotting and lazy writing, of the sort that would put an escape pod retrieval button on the outside of a spaceship purely because the plot required the Doctor to do a spacewalk. I’d hoped Chibnall had grown into a writer less reliant on that kind of contrivance.
Yaz, at least, had no such contrived plotlines. But that was because she barely had any involvement at all, yet again. With the character arcs so squarely focused on Ryan, Graham and Aaron, she was totally sidelined, and seemed to function mostly as the TARDIS’ perky receptionist, forever trying to get hold of Mitch or Lin on the phone without doing much else. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – that TARDIS is overmanned.
An ep of two halves, then. Despite all that criticism, I did enjoy it for the most part; there were some great action sequences, and I thought it was an inventive and quirky way to reintroduce the Daleks into the new Chibnall era. Against that was some misjudged comedy and a fair bit of script flab – I got the impression this might have worked better as a 45 minute ep rather than a 60 minute one. Still, as Chibnall’s first attempt at a festive special, it wasn’t too bad, and at least less saccharine than some of Steven Moffat’s. If we’re to have no new Doctor Who till 2020 now, this was a fair way to go into the break. But next time Mr Chibnall and/or the BBC, let’s have the festive ep back on Christmas Day, please.