I mean, it was fine in the sense that this is clearly as good as we’re going to get within Chibnall’s bold five year plan of “what if Doctor Who, only bad.” This is him firing on all cylinders, making a confident piece of self-consciously major Doctor Who that struts around like it knows it’s in its imperial phase. It’s the best script he’s written all year. And it’s perfectly entertaining, in a sort of straightforward junkfood television way. There are even a couple of bits—most obviously the parallelism between the Dalek making its shell and the Doctor crafting her sonic—that are actually intelligent, subtle, and interesting. As the Chibnall era goes, this is a triumph worth celebrating.
It’s still fucking crap TV Movie-tier television. I mean, you can see this from its basic conception. There’s no idea here other than “what if we brought back the Daleks with a real make them scary again vibe?” And so we get the bog standard tricks for that: one Dalek, its identity revealed fifteen minutes in, and we don’t actually see it in its case until fifteen from the end. There’s no larger concern here. This is just a story about how badass the Daleks are. We might fairly ask why, for the tenth Dalek story in fourteen years (and that’s ignoring loads of things like Day of the Doctor, The Pilot, and Twice Upon a Time where they appear in major roles) anyone thinks the Daleks need this sort of back to basics approach, but hey, we’ve had four completely distinct Spider-Man film franchises in that time so maybe that’s just the world we live in. Apparently it’s not one where we can use the Daleks in the course of, like, an actual idea. Instead we have to do this sort of sterilely self-conscious “event” that has no content beyond the franchise-level “the monster, it scary.” Except, no, this doesn’t go for any sort of emotional affect as nuanced and carefully crafted as fear. It’s just “the monster, it important.” In 2019, the Dalek is not a metaphor for fascism or for Nazis. It’s not even an existential threat to the series offering a narrative collapse. It’s a big bad in the sense that it is big and it is bad and there’s nothing else to it. This is Doctor Who reduced to pure spectacle, with no job to do other than sell toys. Except they don’t actually make a toy line anymore it looks like, so really it’s just selling itself, a serpent eating its own tail.
Meanwhile we have the Ryan’s dad plot, which makes up the episode’s drive for emotional resonance and aboutness. The actual resolution, with Ryan forgiving his dad to stop the Dalek, is certainly a successful firing of Chekov’s gun, but… I dunno, I just kind of feel like there are probably more people who need to be told that it’s OK to walk away from their abusive and neglectful family than who need a rousing message about forgiving them whenever they hit that part of the abuse cycle. But even past that, Aaron is just another instance of Chibnall sketching in the abstract form of drama instead of actual content. It’s notable that the episode simply grinds to a halt for their scene in the cafe. Part of this is timing—”there’s a Dalek on the loose” to “lengthy emotional scene that has nothing to do with the Dalek” would be a tough switch even if you were Russell T Davies and could make those sorts of scenes sing. But Chibnall is intensely not Russell T Davies and can barely make those scenes hum slightly out of tune. Daniel Adegboyega and Tosin Cole give the scene all they can, but there’s not actually any meat for them to sink their teeth into. Aaron is never given anything like an explanation of what his issues are or why he’s done any of the shitty parent things he’s done; his dialogue is all just platitudes about regrets and mistakes that don’t actually establish any sense of humanity or substance. His oven is given almost exactly as much characterization as he is.
So we’ve got a Dalek that’s only there to be a Dalek and an abuse survivorship plotline with no substance. Past that there’s nothing save for the lazy, sloppy construction of the plot. Mitch has to be the single least competent archeologist in fiction, seemingly simply calling things out at random in an attempt to identify what something might be. Certainly there’s nothing whatsoever to make finding a random body under Sheffield Town Hall a likely connection to this particular legend. Also, he’s shot and robbed by guys who don’t check the package he’s carrying, and then decomposes where he fell in the middle of a road? Also where is he going? Are they burying the last piece in the UK near where the battle was? Why are Pacific Islanders enemies of 9th century Russians and Brits? For that matter, why create such an elaborate conceptual framework to discard it without doing anything? The Dalek just teleports itself together in Sheffield with nothing more than a cut to a surprised looking pair of guards in Russia and the Pacific. Also I’m not really sure of the narrative logic of trying to rebuild the Daleks as scary in an “even one Dalek without its casing is dangerous” sort of way and then opening with “so the Dalek was taken out by a bunch of dudes with swords.”
Ugh. We’re what, ten or fifteen minutes into the episode so far? Fuck it, let’s just sum up go to bullet points. This is Chibnall trying his hardest and pulling on all of the advantages he can from within the show’s mythic structures, doing everything he can to deliver an absolute belter. And what we get out of all of this is still aggressively unadventurous Doctor Who with nothing to say. I compared it to the TV Movie, and I really do think that’s, at the end of the day, the best comparison for this. It’s Doctor Who constructed according to a formula of what this particular sort of genre television looks like, and stitched together in accordance to that with no real point other than being assembled into that specific shape. Thanks I hate it.
- I do respect the sheer scale of trolling involved in making an extremely tentacular Dalek episode that culminates in a Dalek built out of salvage and still having it obviously not going to appeal to Jack in the slightest. Honestly, if I could troll him that well I would.
- One thing I do want to talk about: the dissolution of UNIT. I’m seeing a lot of people say this was a Brexit satire, which I have trouble buying. It’s explicitly blamed on all the other countries involved pulling their funding, i.e. entirely not on any UK actions whatsoever. No, it’s just an empty signifier of a joke that’s furiously avoiding actually saying anything about anything. But more to the point, there’s something fantastically mean-spirited and pointless about breaking a major part of series lore in a cheap gag scene. I’ve never liked UNIT particularly, but I dislike ostentatiously removing things from the toybox more, and certainly if UNIT was going to be taken out of commision they deserved to go in more than a cheap gag.
- Though that’s not as bad as the “have a conversation” gag, which was just lazy hack writing of the highest order. Good lord.
- Also in the politically meh department, maybe don’t call an invading Dalek a refugee mmm?
- The patheticness of the “I talked to the Dalek first so I get to blow it up” beat was also certainly a thing.
- Oh right and CAN CHIBNALL STOP FUCKING MAKING THE CANNON FODDER GAY JUST TO RAISE THE FUCKING STAKES ARGH WHY ARE THERE PROGRESSIVE FANS DEFENDING THIS SHIT.
- Actually this raises a good general point about “negativity” towards Doctor Who, which has become a topic of choice in certain circles. There’s a lot I could say here, from a historical observation that organized Doctor Who fandom largely arose during periods where the show could be described as “deeply flawed” and that negativity has accordingly always had a place in it to just making another joke about Chibnall’s Open Air appearance. But in the face of this episode, with its reduction of the series to a formulaic reassertion of its constituent elements—to a franchise as opposed to a piece of narrative—this sort of thinking becomes aggressively dangerous. It transforms media fandom into a sort of special case of sports fandom (or indeed nationalism), where one backs the series not because it is creating compelling or culturally vital television but because it’s become a tribal allegiance to be defended for its own sake, as an end in itself. This is… not a healthy relationship with art.
- For fun, Chibnall’s complaints about Trial of a TIme Lord in 1986: It was very cliched. It was very routine running up and down corridors and silly monsters. It’s very much what the audience was expecting. It’s not really very challenging for them to watch. It’s a very traditional sort of thing that people would expect Doctor Who to fall into. It would be nice to have something totally different from the norm, just for a change. Big mood.
- To lighten the mood a bit, I noticed this aspect of the TARDIS design for the first time this episode.
I’ve got to say a bunch of bouncing penises worshipping the larger penis as it thrusts in and out of the TARDIS console is a bold design choice for the first female Doctor’s TARDIS. But I mean, the bouncing penises *are* the best queer representation of the season so I’ll go with it. (Thanks to Scriptscribbles for the gif.)
- Things that are probably not a good sign: the overnights for Resolution are down on The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.
- Podcast at some point!