Directed by Wayne Yip
Written by Chris Chibnall
Welcome back to a very special episode of Thirteenth Doctor. We didn’t get a Christmas special this year, a move I can’t say I bemoaned, and instead we got a New Year’s Special. There may have been twelve years of this new tradition, but it was hardly one that I was too attached too with the Christmas themes long since spent out and even at their prime held the show back more than they added. New Year’s Day offers far less inherent baggage in terms of expected themes and storylines than Christmas.
On the battlefields of Britain in the past, an army barely wins against a far superior force. The vanquished body of their foe is cut into three pieces and spread across the world to be hidden and guarded by the descendants of the couriers. Two are sent to the South Pacific and Siberia (locations which never become relevant again) while the final one is fails in their task after being shot dead in Yorkshire in an unrelated incident. In the modern day, an excavation is conducted in the spacious sewers underneath Sheffield town hall and the body is accidentally uncovered by two archaeologists just on the cusp of starting a new relationship. After placing the piece under a UV light, the body starts lighting up and transports the other two parts to it as it comes to life.
The woman touches an octopus or squid-like thing that appears though she seems to be slightly off after, a fact which is hardly shocking considering it snuck out by taking a ride on her back, taking over her body and making her into a puppet. As had been spoiled by the advertising, it’s a Dalek and while it’s not our first look at the Dalek’s true form, it is by far our clearest view of them to date. They are the first returning supporting characters/villains of the year from previous ones and… they are not who I wanted to see return. The show’s overused them into oblivion over the years, especially NuWho, and some absence would have made their eventual return have an actual impact.
The plot is reminiscent initially of “Dalek” and its similar lone Dalek with the humans assuming there is nothing to fear from a single of the species while the Doctor stressing the severity of the situation. That’s hardly a bad thing as “Dalek” is one of the best episodes of NuWho and perfect example of how to handle a soft reboot of a character in the way it honored the legacy and shared history of the Daleks and The Doctor, while also giving them new threatening abilities and redefining the state of the two races (Dalek and Time Lord) for the new era.
The show attempts to do something incredibly similar here with the added wrinkle this time being that the Dalek lacks its casing and the bonding with a human (that time involving Rose’s touch) being more directly physical). While last time the Dalek had to contend with the human DNA mixing with its own and the complex thoughts that left it feeling imperfect and self-hating, this time the human elements merely fights back in the standard “I know you’re still in there” nonsense though it is far more interesting when she is conscious and talking to it like the writers had just watched Upgrade and/or Venom and really wanted to do their own take. The new powers are tied to this Dalek being a recon scout capable of enhanced abilities and when it takes over a place filled with collected extraterrestrial weaponry to get themselves the bits to rebuild a new casing, it’s left with a janky scrap heap of one, but a working new casing none the less.
The TARDIS Team meanwhile is watching cosmic fireworks when they get alert from Earth that something’s gone wrong. While the Daleks situation is certainly very serious, the important subplot that runs through this episode is the return of another character, one who had thus far been unseen. Ryan’s dad Aaron finally shows up a Graham’s house and The Doctor does not hide her disappointment in him. Their interactions are a culmination of a season of character development for Ryan. Maybe character development is a stretch for him since he’s still the same uninteresting Ryan that we started with, but there has been clear progress in terms of his father (and grandfather) issues. Even as his father wants to try and patch up their relationship, Ryan isn’t exactly eager to dive right back into one with him and is needing of some kind of apology and closure from his dad first.
To the show’s credit, they did a lot with Aaron this episode to make it clear he’s not been the greatest person and hasn’t completely changed, but still is an actual human being who through a conversation with the always wonderful and understanding Graham, reveals that he didn’t show up to Grace’s funeral because he couldn’t face his mother being gone. While he needed to be there for his son, it’s a surprising amount of maturity for the show to consider that he has feelings too and was struggling just as much as Ryan and Graham. They even give him a moment of ingenuity as he’s the one to ultimately take down the scrap Dalek, using parts from a combination microwave and oven that he’s been lugging around to melt the scrap metal in the Dalek’s casing.
Granted, that nearly gets Ryan another notch on his tragic backstory checklist when it escapes and of course attaches itself to Aaron, holding his body hostage to get The Doctor to take it to the Dalek fleet. Even The Doctor attempts to trick it by taking it to a star going supernova and trying to suck the Dalek out into the void of space nearly fails with Ryan only barely able to hold onto his dad and get the Dalek off him. His survival offers plenty of opportunity in the following seasons (even as he has chosen to stay behind) for them to further rebuild that relationship, but it was a good capper for the season.
Yaz is also still on the show.
The episode had quite a bit of added visual style that perhaps feels unnecessary for Doctor Who. I don’t mean the upgrade in visuals that was apparent this year especially early on (though this episode is one of the best looking of the season), I mean the other kinds of flourishes especially on the shots of the Dalek possessed human. If they want to go with this approach for these kinds of episodes, I am more than fine. I’d rather a special define the term by making the episode feel above and beyond a typical one instead of the usual light entertainment that is largely detached from the show. The music also felt a bit different but I’m not sure if that change was a good or a bad thing this time out.
On the season finale (even if this episode blurs the whole season finale label quite a bit), I mentioned that I felt I had gone rather soft on most of the episodes this year and once again this is an episode I am inclined to go soft on. For once, the show was able to handle two of its biggest weaknesses, the endings and the sci-fi elements. In fact, so much of the episode felt like a course correction from the problems this season has had (even as I enjoyed it overall). It kept at least one if not two of the companions in sharp focus, the moralizing was sucked out the window when The Doctor went ahead and directly killed the Dalek after spending a season yelling at anyone who killed to prevent someone from killing again late, and an enemy who even considering the lack of impact their return provided, was still an interesting one (both inherently and in the twist on their established biology).
The episode is still really imperfect in the way that it feels like such a rehash of another (admittedly great) episode, a number of elements that were introduced early on and felt largely unnecessary, and in general I felt like there was more that could have been done with the Dalek controlled human, but as an added bonus to the year, it left me feeling far better about it than I had been. Chibnall has his first strong solo outing as a writer and that gives me a modicum of confidence that going forward, he can build on that.
– The archaeologists are played by a pair of young British drama vets in Nikesh Patel of Indian Summers and Charlotte Richie from Call the Midwife, while
– UNIT funding has been put on hold pending review with UK’s other partners having pulled out funding presumably because of Brexit. It’s an amusing thought and pointed thought (that doesn’t go too blatant), but the scene itself briefly grinds the plot to a halt for a lame comedy bit.
– I really felt for Graham when The Doctor destroyed his chair and I hope the final episode of his run sees The Doctor presenting him with a new chair just like his old one. He just deserves all the best things.
– Ryan’s dyspraxia gets brought up again but it continues to not really affect the plot
– The new start to his relationship with his father certainly ties into the New Year’s theme and it makes me extra glad for the change. I don’t need a new episode on Christmas, I just like getting things on days where otherwise I have little television.
– This is the first episode not to use the Doctor Who logo and I really don’t get why that tradition needed to be changed or why they keep messing with the intro. Just give us a proper full length intro next year and play it before every episode (the premiere also skipped it). It’s very simple.
– Once again, thank you all for checking in each time out.
Next Up: This will be the last time we check in with the Thirteenth Doctor until 2020 so assuming we’re all still around then, see you then. As I promised last time Doctor Who Classic, will continue in its typical erratic fashion as I have still been keeping myself too busy to finish up my write up on “The Seeds of Death”, so I’m sorry about that.