Doctor Who New Year’s special recap: Daleks and departures

·8 min read

James Pardon/BBC America

After a year in which many of us wished we had a TARDIS to take us away from the gloom and misery of 2020, there’s something reassuring about kicking off 2021 with new Doctor Who.

For the third year in a row, Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor is eschewing the Christmas episode in favor of a New Year’s special, ringing in each new year by blowing up Daleks or facing off against the Master. It’s a nascent tradition that’s quickly become one of my favorites: What better way to celebrate a holiday that’s about marking the passage of time and looking hopeful about the future, than with a show that is, at its core, literally about that?

And in typical Doctor Who fashion, this year’s “Revolution of the Daleks” continues the show’s message of hopeful optimism — with a few gut-punch moments and gleeful sci-fi action scenes sprinkled in along the way. The episode picks up where the season 12 finale left off earlier this year: The Doctor has been captured and imprisoned by the Judoon, and we soon learn that her incarceration is a lonely one. A life sentence isn’t fun for anyone, but it’s an especially bleak prospect when you’re a gregarious immortal — and locked up in maximum-security prison, drifting through space.

By the time the episode starts, our extroverted heroine has been alone for decades, and she’s settled into a sort of melancholy routine. Her only companions are her fellow prisoners, most of whom are not happy to be sharing the space with her: There’s a Weeping Angel she’s nicknamed Angela, two maniac Oods she’s dubbed Bonnie and Clyde, a very hungry Pting, and even a member of the Silence (whom she keeps forgetting is there, unsurprisingly). It’s here that I found myself wishing that this could’ve been an entire episode dedicated to the Doctor’s imprisonment. It’s an intriguing idea, to have the Doctor locked up with all the enemies she’s made over the years. And after all, some of the show’s best entries have centered on Doctors alone, stripped of their TARDIS and screwdriver and companions. (Think of the Twelfth Doctor’s best episode, the century-spanning Peter Capaldi showcase “Heaven Sent.”) And our Doctor has a lot to reckon with as she sits alone in her cell: Everything she learned on Gallifrey about the “Timeless Child” has not only thrown her own memory into question but her very sense of identity. How can she go on being the Doctor when everything she thought she knew about herself has been a lie?

“Revolution of the Daleks,” however, has little time for introspection: There are planets to save and guest stars to introduce! Which is why it’s only a matter of time before a familiar face shows up to help break the Doctor out of the big house: Yes, it’s everyone’s favorite immortal 51st-century playboy Jack Harkness, played as always by the impossibly charming John Barrowman. Good old Jack doesn’t age either, which means that it’s no sweat for him to get thrown in jail too and spend the next 19 years trying to get moved to the cell next to the Doctor. Once he does, the pair stage a quick jailbreak, and the Doctor is soon reunited with her beloved TARDIS.

Jack popped up for a quick cameo earlier this year, but it’s nice to see him actually get to share the screen with Whittaker’s Doctor. (“Have you had work done?” she asks him at one point. “You can talk,” Jack retorts.) Who showrunner Chris Chibnall previously worked as the head writer on Torchwood, so he certainly knows how to write a Jack one-liner. And you can tell that Barrowman feels right at home, strutting about the TARDIS with Captain Jack’s familiar coat billowing behind him.

Back on Earth, only 10 months have passed since the Doctor’s disappearance, but Yasmin (Mandip Gill), Ryan (Tosin Cole), and Graham (Bradley Walsh) aren’t taking her absence well. Yaz in particular has gone full Charlie Day-in-It’s-Always-Sunny-conspiracy-theorist, frantically scanning the universe for clues as to the Doctor’s whereabouts. Ryan, on the other hand, seems content to largely move on with his life, while Graham is just happy to spend time with his grandson, whether that’s on Earth or on some distant alien world. But old planet-saving habits die hard, so when the trio gets word of another Dalek incident, they set out to investigate, Doctor or no Doctor.

The resulting plot is your typical Whovian tale of human hubris: The Dalek from 2019’s special “Resolution” has been seized by the British government, and American businessman Jack Robertson (Chris Noth, reprising his role from 2018’s “Arachnids in the UK”) has used the Dalek technology to develop a horde of security drones. Thanks to support from power-hungry politician Jo Patterson (Harriet Walter) and well-intentioned tech expert Leo (Nathan Stewart), Robertson has managed to amass a legion of Daleks, with plans to sell them to every police force in the world. I mean, honestly, when are the Brits going to learn that Daleks are not their friends? You’d think that after Winston Churchill’s disastrous attempt to deck them out in Union Jacks and recruit them for World War II, there’d be some sort of note in all briefings for aspirational British politicians: Don’t trust a Dalek!

As Dalek stories go, it’s not the freshest take, but there are still a few memorable moments, like the very 2020 detail that these Daleks are 3D-printed and energy efficient, or the creepy sequence where a loose Dalek goes full Alien facehugger and attacks Jack. Instead, the episode is mostly interested in exploring the dynamics between the Doctor and her “fam”: After her long absence, the Doctor expects a heroine’s return, only to be met with indifference from Ryan and full-blown hostility from Yaz, who’s still smarting from feeling abandoned.

There’s a particularly lovely moment later in the special when Yaz and Jack bond over their shared feelings of what it’s like to be left behind by the Doctor. On one hand, Yaz is mourning the loss of all the wonderful worlds the Doctor has introduced her to, but more importantly, she’s also mourning the loss of the woman herself. (It feels a bit like a conversation that one might have about a romantic ex, which suggests that unlike Ryan and Graham, Yaz might possibly think of the Doctor as more than a friend.)

“It felt cruel to be shown something I couldn’t have anymore,” she explains. “Felt like I’d rather not have known. I’d rather not have met her because having met her and then being without her, that’s worse. How do you deal with that?”

“Enjoy the journey while you’re on it,” Jack replies. “’Cause the joy is worth the pain.”

It’s a foreshadowing of what’s to come: The Doctor ultimately defeats the Daleks with a clever bit of misdirection (calling another squad of Daleks to help wipe them out, before luring them into the second TARDIS she nicked while escaping from Gallifrey). Now reunited with both her TARDIS and her fam, she’s ready to go back to her old life of adventuring. But Ryan has done some soul-searching over the last 10 months, and he realizes that he’s not the same kid as he was when he first met that strange alien woman on that train all those years ago. He’d rather stay behind on Earth and do what he can to help protect his home. Graham, of course, doesn’t want to leave his grandson behind, and so the two step off the TARDIS for the last time.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we eventually see Ryan and Graham again. If Jack’s return proves anything, it’s that the Doctor’s story can bend in strange ways, and long-gone allies can pop up when you least expect them. But for now, this is the end of “the fam” as we know it. I, for one, will miss the sense of comedy and camaraderie that Ryan and Graham brought to the TARDIS, as well as the more emotional moments. (Their grappling with Grace’s death led to some of the show’s most compelling storytelling in recent years.)

But I’m also curious as to what the Doctor-Yaz era will look like: With three companions, the TARDIS could occasionally feel a little bit crowded, and Yaz never got as much time in the spotlight. “Revolution of the Daleks” serves as a welcome reset button, ushering in both a new year and a new era of Doctor Who.

TARDIS log notes:

  • Captain Jack departs by saying he’s going to go check on his old Torchwood pal Gwen Cooper, who he says “took out a Dalek with a moped and her son’s boxing gloves.” Glad to know that although Torchwood has been off the air since 2011, Gwen is still out there, wreaking havoc and taking down alien threats.

  • Speaking of Jack, I love his succinct summary of his immortality: “I can be killed, but I come back to life pretty quick. Partially her fault, partially a friend of hers on Earth called Rose, but she’s trapped in a parallel universe now.” To which a horrified Yaz replies, “She’s what?”

  • A premiere date for the new season has yet to be announced, but showrunner Chris Chibnall recently told EW’s Doctor Who expert Clark Collis that the new series is currently filming and will debut “as soon as we finish it.”

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