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The nice thing about the festering debacle that was The Timeless Children immediately followed by the *entire rest of 2020* is that it finally lowers your standards enough to appreciate Chibnall. Was this good? Absolutely not. Did I care anymore? Also no. So, you know. Detente. It was, at the very least, not actively, malignantly bad. It was instead just sort of inoffensively there. An entirely adequate piece of Doctor Who. Given that even Davies and Moffat failed to achieve that about half the time on their Christmas specials, this has to be taken as some sort of result.
For the most part, what we have here is Chibnall’s worst instincts being overcome by sheer volume. At the end of the day a double companion departure, two returning villains, and Captain Jack is simply enough stuff that as long as you don’t do something like have the Doctor stand still for half an episode while the villain explains the plot to her you can probably just about make it work. Things explode at a basically reasonable frequency with emotional beats in the middle. One of the many problems with the Chibnall era has been that it’s never been entirely clear who it’s for. This is for hung over people who watched the show in 2008. There’s a reasonable number of those on New Year’s. So, you know. Job done. This is fine, as the kids say.
The problem with banal adequacy is that it’s easier to note the things that went wrong than the virtues. The directing was flat and unimaginative. (What on Earth was that “Yaz and the Doctor face the camera to deliver their final lines” bit? Why did we pan up the Dalek clone farm over a dramatic chord twice?) The emotional beats as ever suggest that Chibnall thinks they’re called that because you’re supposed tol club the viewer over the head with them, having characters simply assert the growth and characterization that Chibnall had forgotten to write for them previously. John Barrowman and Chris North spend much of the episode in a perverse duel to see who can offer the flattest line reading. (North ultimately runs away with it, as Barrowman’s efforts are undermined by his narcissistic desperation to be a fan favorite.) The Doctor apparently can’t be assed to even try escaping from prison for decades because she’s too sad over The Timeless Children. Which, I mean, that’s also kind of how I feel about it, but for fuck’s sake, even Eight tried to escape from prison regularly and he spent most of his era with amnesia about his amnesia.
The most egregious part of it, and the thing I’ll no doubt pick up most on if I ever hate myself enough to do an Eruditorum of this era, is the bizarre squandering of Daleks as cops. And look, I know this was all done in 2019 and wasn’t able to respond to anything that happened in 2020, but this still has to go down as one of the most amazingly wasted ideas in Doctor Who. What, exactly, does this episode think the problem with Dalek cops is? Is it that they’re fucking nazis? Is it that they’re inhuman and emotionless authority that prioritizes law and order over all else? Is it the severity or heavy-handedness of their tactics? No! It’s that they’re built on a corrupt contract with stolen alien technology, of course! Sure, they exterminate fake Theresa May, which, man, the 2019ness of the script sure shines through there doesn’t it, but even that’s fundamentally and crushingly vapid. Nobody can be surprised that there’s not much there to a Chibnall episode, but this is surely the most grandiose premise he’s ever squandered.
And yet for all of this I want to return to the fact that this was perfectly, mundanely adequate. You could show this to someone without embarrassment or undue disclaimer, though you’d need a lot of backstory fill-ins. That’s more than you could easily say about Voyage of the Damned, The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe or The Return of Doctor Mysterioso. It’s more than you could say about Orphan 55 or The Timeless Children too. And yet all of those stories are, inept as they may be, accurate descriptions of what their eras were. Show someone Voyage of the Damned and they get an accurate understanding of Davies in all regards save for basic quality. So what do you get if you show someone Revolution of the Daleks? What sort of show will they conclude that Doctor Who is? An aging franchise with its interests firmly rooted in the past, with little to offer save for past glories.
- Speaking of a Whittaker Eruditorum… it’s currently unlikely. As my reviews make painfully clear, I’m not having fun with this era. It’s a chore to watch once. The idea of writing a minimum of 60,000 words on it just to cover the actual episodes feels miserable. The idea of putting down a project I love like Last War in Albion to spend the better part of a year on it sounds even worse. If Doctor Who eventually gets good enough again that I feel a deep compulsion to write about it the way that I did after Series 5 then I’ll probably work through whatever backlog I have. But I want to be clear about what that bar is, because it’s “get someone who wrote over a million words about Doctor Who and then fell very out of love with the show to love it again,” and that’s not a small task.
- And speaking of Last War in Albion, the first bit of Book Three is already available for Patrons. It’ll be here in a bit; I want to bank a decent chunk before I start serializing.
- “I forgot you were here” is in fact a really good gag.
- Unlike the Harry Potter quoting. Not because Rowling is a TERF—that wasn’t well enough known in 2019 for me to be bent out of shape about it. Just because the setup of the Doctor talking to herself and telling herself “one of the classics” as a bedtime story in an episode shot not long after August 2019 was so obviously the setup for her to begin, “Through the ruins of a city stalked the ruins of a man…”
- I think the thing that most sums up this episode is the use of the squareness gun. It makes a return, clearly displayed so that fans can appreciate the callback. And then this cheeky, weird, silly concept that’s worth remembering fifteen years after its debut… gets used as a completely generic laser gun.
- The new Dalek design worked better on screen than it looked like it would in photos, though it’s hard not to be glad the classic design remains the standard. For all that trading on past glories is tedious, sometimes a truly perfect and iconic piece of design is in fact a truly perfect and iconic piece of design.
- Two of Chibnall’s most defining yet puzzling tendencies on display in the final thirty seconds: the belief that guest stars are the single most attractive thing about the program, and the belief that Doctor Who cannot function without a middle aged white dude.
- Another bewildering squandering: the Doctor was arrested by the Judoon. This story is about Dalek cops. There are no Judoon in it. That’s… weird.
- Also, this episode contains no actual revolution.
- No, seriously, did Chibnall just call it that to do an R of the Daleks story?
- That’s embarrassing, dude.