Doctor Who: Series 13, Episode 0 – Revolution of the Daleks

“I was in prison for being me – right at the point I wasn’t sure what that meant.”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

The Timeless Children was a bit of a game changer (and I realise that, for various reasons, I haven’t written about it yet – I will get to it). Controversially rewriting the whole of Who continuity (again), it had a lot of fans up in arms, and left many, many unanswered questions.

How then to follow that? Ideally, I guess, with some kind of contemplative story in which the characters – and especially the Doctor – get to reflect on everything they’ve learned, and what it means for the future. Not ideally, with a slambang Christmas special, the kind of fluffy spectacle not usually renowned for its introspection and character development.

And yet, to give it its due, Revolution of the Daleks managed to be both. Sure, there was empty spectacle aplenty, with armies of rival Daleks slugging it out over the skies of Earth; but there was plenty of contemplation too, not just for the Doctor but for all the regular characters. At the end of it, you felt that the show had tried (and mostly succeeded) to address its future, within the framework of the required undemanding action adventure.

As longtime readers of this blog (assuming there are any) may know, to say that I’m not a fan of Chris Chibnall’s writing would be something of an understatement. But having set himself quite a task here, delivering both those episodes in one, I have to say I thought he mostly succeeded. It was far from perfect, sure, and a lot of it was obvious and overstated, but generally, it did what it needed to do.

Most obviously, that was to address the revelation that the Doctors we knew were in fact far from all of them, and that the Doctor her/himself wasn’t even Gallifreyan, but had been the template from which all Gallifreyans sprang. And that, up until now, she hadn’t remembered any of it.

Even in a show like Doctor Who and for a character like the Doctor, finding out that everything you thought you knew about yourself was wrong would be… difficult to adjust to. In this respect, the Doctor’s confusion and angst mirrored that of (at least some of) the fans, and Chibnall was at pains to address this and reassure throughout.

It was, naturally, the Doctor herself who bore the brunt of this. Yes, all the regular characters went through journeys here (and more about the others later), but Yaz, Ryan and Graham are relative newcomers. The Doctor, even if the actor too is relatively new, has been the one constant of the show since 1963, so naturally she had to address the new questions about her identity.

Both Jodie Whittaker and Chibnall’s writing pulled this off rather well, I thought. Even amidst the angst, the Doctor managed to display her usual sense of humour, ticking off her days in prison with the well-worn clichéd tally marks on the wall, and reading herself a bedtime story that was at least the opening line of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

The humour was added to by the arrival of Captain Jack Harkness, finally getting to meet the new Doctor after just missing each other the last time he returned. John Barrowman’s acting was like he’d never been away (despite the fact that until recently, it was a full ten years since he’d been in the show). His appearance, however, was not. Despite that unchanged irrepressible smile, he’s visibly aged– perhaps a little odd for an immortal being who’s already lived centuries, but hey, I guess he’s edging closer to his ultimate destiny as the Face of Boe.

The script cheekily acknowledged this, as the Doctor asked, “have you had work done?”. Yes he has, as anyone who saw his recent appearance on QI will know. It was amusing to hear him flirt with Graham using the term “silver fox”, considering his own natural hair colour these days. I couldn’t help noticing that every shot of Barrowman took place in very low light 😊

But for fans worried about change, Jack was a reassuring constant, a reminder of the show as it was. The story was littered with that kind of reassuring nods to the continuity we know. The crowd-pleasing fellow prisoners included a fortunately restrained Weeping Angel, a Mighty P’Ting, and even a Silence (“oh, I’d forgotten you were here”). Other little nods were present throughout, especially in the spare TARDIS with its classic 1980s door opening sound effect.

The cumulative effect was to say, “don’t worry, this is still the show you know, even if its horizons have now been expanded”. And of course it is – the show’s continuity has been rewritten many times before, probably starting with 1969’s The War Games and continuing up to Steven Moffat’s seemingly continuous reboots of the entire universe and/or timestream. It survived and thrived after those, and I’m sure it will here too. As Ryan reassured her in a sweetly contemplative scene, “you’re the Doctor. Same as always”. By the end of the ep, it seemed that the Doctor herself understood this, and was ready to deal with the new knowledge about her past.

All of this was neatly wrapped in a spectacular but, let’s face it, fairly unoriginal Dalek adventure. We’d been here before – most obviously in the last Christmas special, which proved to be the wellspring from which this story sprang. Elsewhere, we had Daleks appearing to be helpful robotic servants (Power of the Daleks, Victory of the Daleks), rival factions of Daleks battling it out on the streets of Earth (Remembrance of the Daleks), a dodgy Prime Minister in league with the bad guys (The Sound of Drums), said Prime Minister meeting her fate at the extermination beam of a Dalek (Journey’s End), and so on and so forth.

Of course it’s difficult to come up with a wholly original story in a show that’s now been running for 57 years, and plenty of the show’s classics are basically retreads of older stories (even the universally beloved Caves of Androzani is little more than an improved remake of the lousy Power of Kroll). All those recycled elements were put together in a new way though, and meanwhile the sense of familiarity helped with the overall aim of reassuring the viewers that they were still watching the show they remembered.

I have to say, I actually liked the new Dalek design. Lean and stripped back, it was certainly way better than the oddly proportioned, chubby “rainbow Daleks” that were introduced and then quickly forgotten in the Moffat era. It made sense too, as they were basically reproductions of the wreck of the one from Resolution, explicitly stated to be a specific model – a “reconnaissance Dalek”.

And for any dissatisfied fans worried that this will be the Dalek look from now on, the standard models made a welcome reappearance for the first time in the Chibnall era. I’m not sure how many props were made of the new style (CG multiplication being a very handy thing for producers nowadays), but I suspect we will see this model again. Along with the classic ones, which should please everybody.

Still, even with the many, many resets of the universe, it seemed odd that nobody recognised the Daleks for what they were. I mean yes, Steven Moffat’s frequent reboots might have ensured that the events of Tennant-era Earthbound Dalek stories were forgotten, but I don’t think the universe has been rebooted since Day of the Doctor, where UNIT at least certainly knew about them. I know Chibnall has disbanded UNIT (seemingly for a pointless joke about Brexit), but it was less than believable that no people or documentation still existed to say, “hang on, these ‘security drones’ are clearly Daleks, we’d better warn the government”. Not to mention the presumably abundant footage of the one from Resolution destroying GCHQ and killing lots of its employees.

Of course that knowledge would actually have stopped the story before it even started, so it was glossed over and I guess most casual viewers wouldn’t even have thought of it. Basically, that story was pretty much a rerun of Resolution, on a much wider scale. Instead of one Dalek, there were thousands. And instead of one Kaled mutant, there were tanks and tanks of those too, each proving to be a real threat as Yaz and Jack discovered.

The return of Chris Noth’s dodgy entrepreneur / politician Jack Robertson was another nod to the (more recent) past, though I have to say he seemed played more broadly for comedy this time, and hence a little less believable. Still, his unexpected survival (and apparent inability to learn anything from events) makes it seem likely we’ll be seeing him again, actor availability permitting.

He might even, by then, be President, although with the recent dethroning of Donald Trump that may be less topical satire than it seemed when he first appeared. From Aliens of London onwards, it’s clear that like the classic show, the politics of the Whoniverse have diverged very much from those of the real world (Obama’s brief appearance in The End of Time notwithstanding).

Here, we got yet another new Prime Minister to follow in the footsteps of Harriet Jones and Harold Saxon. Jo Patterson (played by the marvellous Harriet Walter far more seriously than Noth as Robertson) was elevated to power in the same way as the current incumbent, by an internal party leader selection, which was at least more plausible than Saxon’s entirely independent politician winning. Patterson, however, was a far more serious and plausible figure as a politician than Boris Johnson, which just goes to show that truth is often less believable than fiction.

Director Lee Haven Jones certainly delivered on the spectacle, with hordes of flying Daleks and a dramatic cross-Dalek showdown on the Clifton Suspension Bridge. But interspersed with the action were plenty of quieter, more introspective scenes – not just involving the Doctor, but the rest of the regular cast too. It had been widely publicised that this ep would see the departure of both Graham and Ryan (much as I might have wished that to come as a surprise), and the script nicely cut between the Dalek plot and quieter character scenes that emphasised how much these characters have changed – not just in the ten months the Doctor’s been away, but in the time since we first met them.

Those scenes were quite sensitively written and played – and crucially, unlike Ryan’s seemingly endless chat with his dad in Resolution, were short enough to provide a breather in the action, rather than completely derailing the story’s pacing. In previous episodes, it’s been Bradley Walsh’s Graham who’s provided the beating emotional heart of the story, but here that was left to Ryan, in a beautifully contemplative two-handed scene with the Doctor.

I must say, Ryan – and by extension actor Tosin Cole – has not been well-served as a character, the writing hugely inconsistent from ep to ep. For example, his dyspraxia, introduced as a defining aspect of the character, has been forgotten time and again as the plot demanded; and occasional hints of unresolved sexual tension between him and Yaz have been introduced and dropped seemingly at random.

Here, though, given some nicely reflective material, Cole did very well as an emotional foil – and support – to the forlorn, dejected Doctor, in a scene that almost came across as an inversion of Patrick Troughton’s compassionate reassurance of Debbie Watling in Tomb of the Cybermen. Here, it was the Doctor that needed consoling and reassuring, and her heartfelt “thank you for being my friend” was a genuinely tear jerking moment.

Ryan’s musings on change here – and throughout the ep – set the scene for a very believable departure, even if less dramatic than many previous ones. And it was perfectly in keeping with the way their relationship had developed that Graham would choose to leave with him. Yes, it was a low key exit, but the Doctor’s gift of some handy psychic paper suggested that (like other former companions we’ve seen or heard about) they’d carry on the good work of protecting the Earth from home. I have a feeling we may be seeing them again, just as we’re still seeing John Barrowman. And how lovely to see one last cameo from Sharon Clarke as Graham’s beloved Grace, smiling in pride at what her family had become.

Revolution of the Daleks, then, was a story of two halves. A spectacular (if undemanding and unoriginal) action adventure wrapped around a much more effective and thoughtful character drama. As a blend, I thought it worked rather well, especially in having to follow up the dramatic revelations of the episode immediately prior. And while I was sorry to see Ryan and Graham go (Graham in particular), I have to say that a more trimmed down TARDIS team will make the stories less unwieldy. It had become a regular feature for one of the three companions to be more or less sidelined, and hopefully a smaller team will avoid that. And hopefully it will also reduce the Doctor’s irritatingly frequent use of the word “fam”.

It seems that it won’t just be a Doctor/Yaz team though, as in an announcement I missed because I was watching from Spain, the BBC revealed that quintessentially Liverpudlian standup comic John Bishop will be joining the team as a new companion called Dan. Cue the predictable screams of outrage from the more entitled parts of fandom about casting light entertainers rather than actors. Those fans might do well to remember the similar screams of outrage about casting Bradley Walsh. And Catherine Tate. And, of course, Billie Piper. They seemed to work out all right…

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