Sunday 3 January 2021

The Doctor stuck in jail on New Year's Day

Revolution of the Daleks aired on New Year's Day, exactly 49 years after the first episode of classic Doctor Who serial Day of the Daleks. It's a direct sequel to Resolution.

Was the holiday special a timey-wimey treat? Nick Smith, our US-based stellar scribe, fresh from a nostalgic trip back to 1984, enlists the help of his fam.

Guest post by Nick Smith

"Should we explain it to him?"
"Nah, it’s more fun watching him struggle."

- Ryan and Graham, Revolution of the Daleks

For those of us who have been following Doctor Who for years, New Year’s Day brought the welcome return of the TV show we know and care about with lots of familiar elements. Alien invasion? Check. Feisty companions? Also, check. The Doctor locked up in a cell? Very check, except this prison has had the Doc locked down for much longer than he/she is used to.

So far, so cosy. But with its references to Daleks, time travel, the Doctor’s past and Captain Jack’s immortality, what sense does it make to someone who’s never seen the show? I decided to find out.

The willing test subjects are my workmates Chai from Puerto Rico and ‘Lucky’ Charm, originally from the Philippines. They are fiercely intelligent and good friends who can be relied upon to be brutally honest. Their many questions are answered by my Californian girlfriend Dana, who has been following the show for several years and knows the difference between Kamelion and a Kerblam Man. We live in Florida so we stream the show on BBC America. Since the special is interspersed with LOTS of adverts, there’s plenty of time to fill our friends in on what the show means to us (or in Dana’s case, what David Tennant means to her).

The first question comes when a scene is set “367 minutes later.” Charmaine asks, ‘how many hours is that?’ It doesn’t take Chai six hours to do the maths. But it does distract them while the story continues with a long talky scene between lady in red Jo Patterson (Harriet Walter), who Dana recognizes from The Spanish Princess, and Jack Robertson (Chris Noth), who everyone recognizes from Sex and the City. ‘Why’s Mr. Big there?’ asks Chai. ‘He likes England,’ is Charm’s solution.

We see the Doctor and assorted aliens in prison, including a Pting. Chai wants to know how it excretes the energy it gobbles up and we explain it’s busy trying to eat its way out. Charm gets a sudden phone call and has to go pick up her own companion – her daughter Gabby. Charm’s cheerful verdict on the show: ‘it’s robots attacking humans.’ Doctor Who goes on without her. Will Chai stick around to watch the entire episode? Dana and I are on the edge of our sofa waiting to find out.

Back to the story: As the remnants of the reconnaissance scout from 2019’s Resolution are used to forge a Defence Drone, Chai asks, ‘is this how the Dalek was created?’ so Dana tells her that Revolution leads on from a story broadcast two years ago, and that the Daleks have been around for 57 years. This is how Chai learns how long the show’s been going.

By the time Chai realizes that, ‘the Doctor is in space somewhere,’ Captain Jack Harkness appears in full Papillon mode. On Earth, even the feckless Jack Robertson knows that cloning Dalek DNA is a very bad idea. After that, Chai is hooked. ‘I’m intrigued,’ she says.

So are Dana and I, more by the interactions of the fam we’ve been following since 2018. ‘They shouldn’t be mean to her,’ says Dana, although she understands that Yaz (Mandip Gill) and crew are unhappy because the Doctor has been missing for 10 months. I reason that Ryan (Tosin Cole) – who seems especially troubled compared to his previous appearances – has been in a warzone and is still recovering from fighting the Cybermen, let alone dealing with the realities of being Earthbound after travelling all over time and space.

Chai is more practical. ‘Daleks don’t have spines,’ she says.

‘They rely on a host,’ Dana and Chai say together.

While newbie Chai is enjoying the story and adds Who to her Amazon Prime watchlist, she has a tough time grasping what the TARDIS console is and where it’s located. Veterans know the tropes of the show; new viewers are left, like the clueless Jack Robertson, to flounder. Later it becomes apparent that the ‘device,’ as Chai calls it, is inside a police box. Well, of course!

Once the feature-length episode is done, Chai remains impressed. ‘it captures you,’ she says, ‘even though I don’t know these characters.’ She compares it to the Power Rangers-style Japanese tokusatsu programmes she watched when she was a kid. ‘Something that ran this long became part of the family, through generations.’

What will generations to come think of Revolution of the Daleks? As anticipated, it’s a more traditional “monsters attack” story than the weighty self-reference of The Timeless Children. The Daleks are given their reason for being in the story, not by some Unique Exterminating Point, but because they remind the Doctor of who she is. ‘We’ve got previous,’ she says, ‘we’re not best mates.’

The production is slick and cinematic; sound is the only issue, specifically in a scene where an alarm drowns out what the characters are saying. Writer/showrunner Chris Chibnall reruns bits from previous adventures (Planet of the Spiders and Turn Left, both with an alien intelligence on a companion’s back) and from the Alien franchise (which has already been Whomaged in various stories, including Resurrection of the Daleks and Last Christmas). But it’s a thrilling tale nonetheless, with Jack Robertson providing comic relief and the departure of two companions adding emotional depth to the adventure.

Perhaps Team TARDIS’ disillusionment with the Doctor is supposed to mirror fans’ gripes with the show; if so, Chibnall makes no apologies. He does make the companions’ departures poignant and logical. They will be missed.

Revolution of the Daleks amuses and entertains, with confident lead actors and memorable visuals. At times it feels rushed and a little crowded, leaving Graham (Bradley Walsh) with less screen time than he deserves, considering the focus on relationships and sense of self. Just as the Daleks have a distinct idea of who they are, Revolution also cements present-day Doctor Who’s run-first, ask-questions-later identity, reinforces Jodie Whittaker’s role as the Doctor, and remains accessible for all newcomers.

What did you think and are you excited that John Bishop was teased as new companion, Dan? Let me know in the comments below.

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