“Revolution of the Daleks”
Starring Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, and John Barrowman
Let’s pull no punches and tell it how it is: “Revolution of the Daleks” is a mess. An episode that is tasked with writing Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor out of the space prison she was unceremoniously trapped in at the close of this March’s finale, plus reintroducing Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), reuniting her with her companions (Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole and Mandip Gill) and paving the way for two of them to depart while the other stays and the Doctor still comes to terms with the revelations of the Timeless Child story arc would be enough to include in itself, without also having to function as a gripping monster story. Not only a monster story, in fact, but the Daleks. “Revolution of the Daleks” gets by on momentum, which means throwing more and more plot pieces into the mix without giving the previous one any time to register. Nothing is left to sit or percolate with the audience. No idea is adequately expanded upon or explored – it’s simply onto the next one, which means that there’s very little that resonates or has a marked impact upon the audience. It simply is trying to do too much at once.
There is no firm sense of what this episode wants to be, or what it views its central development or conflict to be. It cobbles together bits and pieces from previous Dalek stories to make some sort of “Dalek greatest hits”, but also tries to be an emotional farewell to a companion, and also a meaningful exploration of what life with the Doctor is like. There are many competing elements at work, such that the major Dalek conflict ends up at odds with the broken faith of the Doctor’s “fam” that’s given far more prominence than is needed and yet lacks any sort of emotional weight or resolution. Does this episode function as a way to demonstrate Ryan’s growth and maturation, the building of a life away from the Doctor, or is it about Yaz renewing her faith in the Doctor and recommitting to the life that she has been shown on the TARDIS? Not even the episode knows. It ricochets from scene to scene, from idea to idea that very little impression is left on the audience’s mind.
The most difficult part about judging this is the fact that, since their introduction in 2018, none of the current set of companions have actually been substantially elevated from anything other than a generic character. It’s no secret that Chibnall has elected to focus more upon the character of the Doctor as the grounding point for the audience instead of the companions. It means that the attempts made at generating emotion here at Ryan and Graham’s departure fall painfully flat, and ultimately any story arc throughout this story doesn’t succeed as the show clearly wants it to. Regardless of whether it’s about Ryan’s maturation, or Yaz’s shaken faith (Graham slips into the background for the vast majority of this story), it is odd thematically that it is Ryan who is the one to talk to the Doctor about her uncertainty over being the Timeless Child, while Jack has the conversation with Yaz about what it’s like to be abandoned by the Doctor when it might have worked much better the other way round, cementing the bond between Yaz and the Doctor, while actually giving Ryan some meaningful growth.
Indeed, despite the seeds of Ryan’s departure being sewn back in “Can You Hear Me?” about how sustainable a life with the Doctor is before they can get back to their regular lives, very little of that storyline remains here, which is strange considering the production of this episode coming at the end of Series 12’s filming. Any development which Ryan is given here, to suggest that he has matured, is not reflected in his demeanour or his performance, which is still depressingly emotionless, but rather it is reported to the audience. We hear that Ryan has reconnected with his friends, and with his father, but this is not reflected on screen. His sudden assertion that the Earth needs him also feels unearned, considering his relative lack of initiative in all of the adventures that we’ve seen him on so far for him to appear even vaguely qualified.
Yaz fares slightly better in the character development stakes through this episode, though that is perhaps only because she has never been developed at all up until this point. The way that the episode finds her as completely obsessed with finding the Doctor again and checking that she’s alright nicely sets up her decision to remain with the Doctor at the end of the episode. Her heart to heart with Jack is also effective, and demonstrates her love of living with the Doctor and experiencing things beyond her wildest imaginings. It’s essentially the base level of understanding that the audience have for any companion, as that’s a commonality that they all share, but these revelations do not serve as the heart of the episode in the same way that Sarah Jane, as a previous companion, was the heart of “School Reunion”. In that episode, it was Rose’s first real sense as to the impermanence of her relationship with the Doctor, and it was poignant and meaningful. From Jack, this just doesn’t work in the same way, not least because we have much less of a grasp on Yaz as a character as we did on Rose (which is incredibly telling, considering Yaz has been a companion for two series, compared to Rose’s one at that point), but also as the audience we’re aware that Jack’s tales of his adventures with the Doctor showing things he’d never dreamed of are, at best, grossly exaggerated considering he was already a time agent before he met the Doctor and travelled with him for a grand total of 3 adventures.
Ultimately, what Chibnall tries to make the climax of the episode if a somewhat overegged eight-minute departure for Ryan and Graham, in which, not only are we treated to a list of all the aliens that Ryan has seen off as some way of legitimising his absurd notion to remain on Earth and protect it, but also some sort of holographic projection of Grace (Sharon D. Clarke), in a blatant move of emotional manipulation. Companion departures work best when they come from an emotionally satisfying place. Where there is the sense of emotional weight and consequence to the decision. While New Who has often resorted to more dramatic ways of writing out its companions, such as mind wipes, parallel universes, weeping angels, death ravens and Cybermen conversions, throughout the history of Doctor Who, there have been far more that are similar to Ryan and Graham’s – not least because of Doctor Who’s tendencies to pick up characters who were less than willing to travel in the first place. However, when you look at those departures, they were all in service of a grander arc. Sarah Jane’s departure, a brilliant, emotive two-hander scene saw the audience bid farewell to a fan favourite in tragic fashion. She didn’t want to leave the Doctor, but they had to say goodbye. Tegan’s departure, she suddenly realised that all of the pain that she had been through with the Doctor just wasn’t enough anymore. Again, that was satisfying. That was development, and it was powerful. When Martha left in Series 3 again, even though it wasn’t a long scene, it felt impactful because she was standing up for herself and her own worth that the Doctor had neglected for too long. That’s the difference, however, because all of those characters had solid characterisation and meaningful moments to prove themselves. Martha went all the way around the world, for example, spreading the story of the Doctor which ultimately proved the defeat of the Master. Ryan and Graham have had nowhere near that opportunity to rescue to the Doctor.
Overall, this episode suffers from an obvious waste of potential. Despite the fact that the promo material heavily promoted the idea of Graham, Ryan and Yaz having to act against the Daleks without the Doctor, this plot line ultimately amounted to very little. What’s more, there was also a tremendous waste in the use of the Daleks throughout this episode.
Daleks being utilised by the government isn’t exactly a new idea in Doctor Who, having previously been used in “Victory of the Daleks”. However, this episode, unknowingly, touches upon several images which are quite resonant to a 2020 audience. Firstly, there’s the sight of a Dalek diffusing a public protest, which is especially prescient considering the civil unrest worldwide throughout 2020. Additionally, there’s a Dalek at border control. These ideas are unintentionally striking, but could have been further developed to make a proper, interesting impact upon the audience. It’s clear, however, that Chibnall is not interested in making any sort of shrewd political commentary. The Doctor only takes umbrage at the fact that the security drones are modelled after the Daleks; not, in fact, that the government are using them in the first place.
There’s never a sense of anything sinister within Prime Minister Jo Patterson (Harriet Walter) in the way that she uses these drones to establish control. There’s nothing in her demeanour that even hints at any well known politicians that the audience Matt be familiar with, which means that this doesn’t really resonate with the audience as something that could be real. It retreats from the powerful ideas and imagery, and Patterson’s motivations are presented as just and reasonable. It’s merely the Daleks that are evil here, and the episode tells you as much. There’s no nuance to be found here.
As the plot stands, the use of government control in the form of these drones is quickly superseded by Jack Robertson’s aide Leo Rugazzi (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) accidentally creating a Dalek from bits of the DNA within the destroyed Dalek from 2019’s “Resolution”, which promptly latches onto his back, leads him Osaka, where a whole army of Daleks have been built, which are quickly implanted into the defence drones and start exterminating left, right and centre. Then, of course, the only logical course of action is to get another set of Daleks to kill that set of impure Daleks and then, once those Daleks have been killed, the Doctor can kill the first set of Daleks with a really, really complex and intellectual plan. By which I mean, she blows them up. For an episode called “Revolution of the Daleks” there’s very little that’s revolutionary about it.
It might have been more interesting to explore the ramifications of what life could have been like underneath Prime Minister Jo Patterson and her army of defence drones. How this monumental sense of power ultimately could have gone awry for the public, and how Graham, Ryan and Yaz combatted it. This would have lent much greater credence to Ryan’s delusions of grandeur from how he can apparently go solo, as well as developing our characters significantly more. This would allow either the companions, somehow, to free the Doctor, or for her to figure out some way to free herself, but it’s clear that Chibnall just threw in Jack Harkness with some random gadgets because he couldn’t think of a more intelligent way to do it. Ultimately, it robbed the companions of meaningful development and made the Doctor look like a damsel in distress, when it’s fairly obvious that any other Doctor would have been able to get themselves out of their predicament. I’m also acutely aware of the damaging image it creates when the first time there’s a female Doctor they require saving from a male companion. Come on, Chibnall, it’s 2021.
The issues with this episode are, in fact, so numerous, that it’s almost impossible to list them all here, so for the sake of brevity: the pacing was off. The beginning of the episode was full of potential, nicely building the tension, up until the point it stagnated when the Doctor met her companions again. From here, it was full of moments of forced emotion and long, laboured conversations that slowed down the action unnecessarily. The Dalek plot line was desperately convoluted and had far too many plot holes, and while Chris Noth wasn’t as irritating as he was last time as Robertson, his motivations for siding with the Daleks against the Doctor makes literally no sense, and the fact that he ultimately suffers no recrimination for selling out the human race is entirely atrocious. The stakes didn’t feel terribly high. Short of a very small sequence of Daleks shooting people down, there’s no global sense of scale to this adventure and most of the Dalek action happens off screen. Even the confrontation between the two different sets of Daleks on the bridge isn’t heaped with tension, but is laden with dry, boring dialogue that sucks the childish joy out of seeing Daleks confront each other as they have done in the past.
As an episode to tide us over for the delayed thirteenth series, with a reduced episode count of only eight, “Revolution of the Daleks” is somewhat of a damp squib. It doesn’t succeed well on characterisation or especially competent plotting, but hopefully with a less crowded TARDIS next time around, Chibnall will be better able to focus himself upon more solid story arcs to elevate the current adventures. Hopefully, Yaz also received some meaningful development in the wake of the news that she will be joined on the TARDIS by John Bishop as Dan, and that she won’t be, yet again, overshadowed.
The Doctor will return… Eventually…