“We’ve gone back in time. Dalek incoming. Two people in this building about to die unless we stop it.”
Star Trek has done it. The X Files has done it. Person of Interest has done it. Heck, even Doctor Who has done it before (Heaven Sent). But for the non-nerds in the hungover New Year’s Day audience, Dan Lewis spelled it out in a way that pretty much everyone should know – “It’s Groundhog Day”.
Yes, Eve of the Daleks gave us yet another iteration of one of the most timey-wimey tropes of sci-fi – the repeated time loop in which every iteration involves the main characters dying until they learn enough to avoid their ‘inevitable’ fate. In terms of concepts, there was nothing particularly new to see here. But after the convoluted, over-complicated mess that was Flux, it was a huge relief to get back to a straightforward, stripped down story that had only one plotline.
The confined setting and bare bones cast were a huge help. After the last six incomprehensible episodes spanning all of space and time and featuring so many characters that barely any got any depth, this was back to what Doctor Who does best – a desperate siege in an inescapable location, with a small cast being picked off one by one.
Obviously it was never going to be as small a cast as Heaven Sent, which basically featured only the Doctor. But it wasn’t far off. Outside of the three regulars, there were only two guest characters (well, unless you count the recurring phone calls from Sarah’s mum – yes, that was Mrs Doyle from Father Ted). But the time loop format meant that they could get killed off as many times as the writer liked, and still come back.
Yes, Steven Moffat did this constantly, but here I have to give Chris Chibnall credit for it not lowering the stakes involved. We knew all along that the time loop was cycling down, and that ultimately there would be only one go left at avoiding the deaths our heroes had experienced multiple times. As a result, it felt like there was far more suspense and jeopardy than Rory’s multiple descents into oblivion.
It also meant that there was far more time to get to know the characters than there had been in the frenetic, overpaced Flux. Dan in particular felt like he got more depth than in any of the previous five episodes. Yes, some of it was just playing up to the Scouse stereotype he was established as being in The Halloween Apocalypse, but he also got to be empathic, knowing, and cheekily funny, playing to John Bishop’s strengths. The scene where he ‘delayed’ the Dalek by dodging round its gun while complaining about its customer service was the best use the show has made of him since he joined.
And he also got to channel some of Bradley Walsh’s innate empathy with his deduction that Yaz has ‘feelings’ for the Doctor. Feelings that neither the oblivious Doctor nor Yaz herself had recognised. Which, let’s be honest, is hardly a surprise, since the viewer has been given no hint of this either until now.
It’s an interesting attempt to give the fairly bland Yaz more conflicted aspects to her character; we’d never previously had any hint that she was attracted to women, but we’d never actually seen her romantically interested in anyone of either gender. There again, we don’t know if she’s aware that, up till now, the Doctor has been mostly male. It felt like an attraction to the person her/himself, rather than a fixed sexual thing, very much in line with the show’s increasing acceptance of diversity. Though I couldn’t help inverting Steven Moffat’s line from when the Doctor regenerated into Joanna Lumley in Curse of Fatal Death, in the event the next regeneration is male – “I don’t think this phrase has ever been used so literally before, but you’re just not the woman I fell in love with”.
Mandip Gill played it well as she finally admitted it to herself, her voice cracking and tears rolling down her cheeks. Speaking as someone who spent a number of years in denial about being gay, it felt very familiar. Gill has shown herself to be a capable actor when given good material (as in Demons of the Punjab and Arachnids in the UK), so hopefully this new angle will give her something meatier to work with. I do hope it doesn’t descend into a replay of Martha Jones’ season-long pining after the oblivious Tenth Doctor though.
Because this Doctor too seems totally oblivious to the idea when Dan mentions it to her (I’m sure he meant well, but I wouldn’t want somebody I know telling the object of my crush about it). I say ‘seems’ because I actually got the impression she wasn’t so much oblivious as avoiding the whole issue. That’s actually in keeping with her character as established – remember when she uncomfortably avoided discussing Graham’s fears about the return of his cancer in Can You Hear Me? This is a Doctor who, for all her triumphant proclamations about her “fam” really can’t deal with big human emotions.
She also got to be shifty and evasive again, as Yaz questioned her about her promise to tell all on an idyllic beach. I don’t think Jodie Whittaker has been given enough credit for her constant subtext that the Doctor is always holding back, as part of that inability to deal with human feelings, but it was very much on display here. I’m sure it will come to the fore more as we approach her ending, her “past catching up” with her.
If anything, this was a first glimpse at that, as the Dalek Executioners were specifically targeting her for her role in getting their war fleet destroyed in the Flux nonsense. Given their history though, I have to say that felt like pretty small potatoes – something even the Doctor herself lampshaded by saying, “which particular actions?” I mean, is this up there with destroying their city on Skaro, averting their two invasions of Earth, destroying their army on Spiridon, attempting to avert their entire creation, tricking them into wiping out their entire star system or seemingly exterminating their entire species in the Time War? Felt pretty much like small fry in comparison.
Still, it was good to see that Chibnall adhered to the classic strengths of the Daleks without needing to yet again redesign them or re-imagine them. These were very much trad Daleks, as we’ve known them since 2005, albeit with the addition of really cool new weapons that fire like Gatling guns. All credit to Chibnall (something I don’t say often) for managing to make them both scary and funny. These Daleks were remorseless in tracking down their targets and worryingly intelligent in terms of strategizing how to do that. Yet at the same time, they repeatedly delivered deadpan funny responses to the characters’ protestations – “Daleks are not fair”, “Daleks do not have friends”, and most amusingly meta of all, “I am not Nick” (given that they are voiced by Nick Briggs).
Nick, engagingly played by Adjani Salmon, was one half of the guest characters that gave the ep its heart. The other, Aisling Bea’s Sarah, was equally good, going from obliviousness to Nick’s obvious crush on her, through contempt for him and finally to affection (“it’s the good-hearted weirdoes who are the keepers”). I’m very much familiar with Aisling Bea as a comedian, and her comic skills were very much on display here, but I’d no idea she could actually act. And she really did, making her burgeoning romance with Nick both tender and amusing.
All things considered, I enjoyed Eve of the Daleks. It didn’t do anything particularly original, but after the convoluted nonsense of Flux, it felt like a breath of fresh air. The ep made the most of a confined, obviously low-budget setting to give us a thrilling story that depended on the development of its characters, something that was sorely missing from the last season. And it worked so much the better without a vain attempt to deliver universe-spanning spectacle.
Only two more episodes left for Jodie’s Doctor, then. I feel she’s been somewhat ill-served, not only by some questionable writing, but also by the strictures and episode shortages necessitated by the Covid pandemic. There’s been hints all along of the more complex character she could have been, but it felt like she’s never had the chance to properly grow into that. As a result, it feels like she’s leaving while we haven’t really even got to know her yet.
Still, like all fanboys, I let out a little whoop at the preview of the next, penultimate episode for her. Sea Devils! Looking like they properly should, and way better than they did in 1984’s Warriors of the Deep! Having previously re-introduced the Silurians in the workmanlike but unimpressive Hungry Earth / In Cold Blood, could Chris Chibnall do a better job with their aquatic cousins? I’m surprised to say I’m on tenterhooks to find out.