WARNING: The following review contains SPOILERS for Series 12 of Doctor Who.
It’s been the better part of a year since we’ve had a new Doctor Who episode and two years to the day since I felt like writing a review of a new Doctor Who episode. While I haven’t been as hostile towards Chris Chibnall’s time as showrunner as some critics, I had a lot going on in the early part of 2020 (makes me something unique, I know) and most of Series 12 was more mundane than miss.
That was the damnable thing. I can work up the anger to rant about a truly awful Doctor Who episode but the better part of Series 12 after the impressive two-parter Spyfall was merely okay. It seemed like the entire season had The Doctor and fam running in place building up to something bigger and better.
That assessment was half-correct. A “bigger and better” thing called Revolution of the Daleks has come, but it has sod and all to do with Doctor Who Series 12.
As Revolution of the Daleks opens, it’s 2019 and the remains of the Dalek Scout from Resolution (the 2019 New Year’s Day special) have found their way into the possession of Mr. Big, I mean, Jack Robertson; the not-at-all-inspired-by-Donald-Trump evil American billionaire from Series 11’s Arachnids in the UK. Cut to today, when Jack Robertson has brokered a deal with the incoming Prime Minister to offer a solution to anarchy in the UK; advanced robotic drones armed with water cannons, gas dispensers and sonic devices that can be guaranteed to bust protester heads without worrying about little things like innocent lives.
Meanwhile, it’s been 10 months since Yaz, Graham and Ryan have seen The Doctor and they’re all handling the apparent abandonment differently. Yaz (Mandip Gill) is sleeping inside the spare TARDIS that brought them back to Earth after the events of The Timeless Children. Ryan (Tosin Cole) has been getting active in the community and keeping an eye out for weird goings on. And Graham… well, it’s never made clear just what Graham (Bradley Walsh) has been doing for the past 10 months, but he’s ready to pitch in when Ryan discovers that Jack Robertson is building Daleks. Luckily for the Fam, it’s at this point that The Doctor (Jodi Whitaker) returns, having just been broken out of Space Jail by Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman).
One might be forgiven for thinking that Chris Chibnall decided to go for total fan service in this outing. It would certainly be understandable given the reaction to The Timeless Children and everything that happened in it. (The short version is the Time Lords are dead, again, and either everything The Doctor thought she knew about her past is a lie or the Master is pulling the ultimate gas-lighting.) It would certainly explain why virtually everything that happened in Series 12 is largely ignored, why The Doctor was Deus Ex Machinaed out of space prison in record time, why Captain Jack has returned, and why The Doctor is facing a new breed of Daleks.
The damnable thing is most of this works, despite it being obvious fan bait. John Barrowman is as charming as ever and there are already rumblings about a Torchwood revival. The Daleks, ever reliable workhorses of The Doctor’s rogues gallery, have always been at their best as parallels for real-world fascists, and while the image of Dalek drones hovering outside 10 Downing Street alongside ideologues talking about a new age of security isn’t exactly subtle commentary… well, since when has anyone ever accused Doctor Who of being subtle?
(EPISODE SPOILERS AFTER THE IMAGE)
Unfortunately, it’s not quite enough to power through all the episode’s flaws. Chief among these is that Jack Robertson remains as aggravating as ever and he once again evades punishment for his crimes. While this is realistic, it also leaves you hoping that Chibnall and The Doctor are setting him up for a major fall further down the line. It’s the only thing that makes his presence tolerable, given that The Doctor has done a lot worse to villains for much less in previous stories. (Abandoning a dark-skinned Master to the Nazis last year comes to mind.)
It also must be said that as awesome as Revolution of the Daleks is a story title, it’s also largely meaningless and there’s no revolution beyond the last of the new Daleks insisting that they are a survivor, not a mutant, when the Daleks SS show up to cleanse the planet of impurities. Because the only thing Daleks hate more than non-Daleks are non-Daleks pretending to be Daleks.
That being said, Revolution of the Daleks does a better job than any Doctor Who story in recent memory to slow the action down to deliver two fantastic character moments. In the first, Captain Jack talks to Yaz about her feelings of being abandoned by The Doctor – a sentiment he can relate to – and confirms that the pain of ending your time on the TARDIS is more than offset by the joy of having traveled with The Doctor in the first place. In the second scene, Ryan and The Doctor discuss their time apart, with The Doctor confessing that with one thing and another she’s not really sure who she is anymore, mirroring Ryan’s own crisis of identity and desire to figure out what to do with his life.
Despite some shaky moments, Revolution of the Daleks is a welcome return to form for Doctor Who after a largely lackluster series. It remains to be seen if this quality will be maintained in the coming season or if anything involving recent developments on Gallifrey will be referenced in Season 13. All I can say is this; I’m actually looking forward to the new season, and that’s something I couldn’t say for certain in 2020.