Despite some of my reservations regarding the more recent episodes of Doctor Who, I found myself looking forward to 2021’s new year’s special, Revolution of the Daleks. After all, it was the first Doctor Who story we’d had in over 10 months. After such a horrible year, it was nice to be able to return to a fictional world we hadn’t visited on TV since Covid-19 decided to spread its rancid backside across the globe. There was a strange nostalgia to it all; a reminder of something we hadn’t seen since the before-times.
Another reason for my excitement boils down to the fact that I actually like Chris Chibnall’s standalone specials. I genuinely enjoyed 2019’s Resolution, despite its flaws. I further enjoy Chibnall’s approach to the Daleks. As stale as these particular monsters have grown in recent years, there was a freshness to their stripped down depiction during the previous story. A return to a standalone tale functioning as a direct sequel to Resolution was something I wasn’t all too pessimistic about. Plus Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) was set to return, which was a dose of nostalgia I struggled to not get caught up in.
For all my enthusiasm, Revolution of the Daleks turned out to be a slightly below average episode that had more potential than it ended up utilising. I certainly didn’t hate it, and I’m actually of the opinion that it’s not a terrible episode. What we essentially have is a story packed with a number of highly intriguing ideas and some neat character moments. Unfortunately, the overall episode feels a little let down due to its runtime and position of being a standalone special.
I absolutely love the idea of having the Daleks weasel their way into British society at the hands of populist Prime Ministers such as Jo Patterson (Harriet Walter). We’ve seen the Daleks win over the trust of humanity in the past, but not in this way. We’re living in a highly frightening age in which populist figureheads are repackaging far-right rhetoric so that it’s becoming more commonplace amongst the mainstream. Individuals such as Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and Tommy Robbinson – to name a few – have emboldened bigots, bullies and neo-nazis in ways we haven’t seen for many a moon. Seeing as the Daleks are straight up metaphors for nazis, it makes sense to modernise them by reinventing Skaro’s worse as figureheads for populist leaders to send out onto Britain’s streets. How do you make the Daleks more terrifying and relevant in an age where they’ve been used to death? By having them become a part of human society.
Modern day horrors surrounding the fearful and misguided turning to the awfulness of the far-right made this a storyline ripe for the picking. It’s an idea absolutely bustling with potential, which is why it’s all the more disappointing that the episode does very little with the goldmine of material they’ve set out for themselves. The Daleks are introduced into the public after Patterson is elected; the electorates are never once shown to sympathise or glorify their presence; and within minutes of them being dispatched as British defense drones, they start exterminating up the place before anyone has time to contemplate their arrival. How fascinating it would have been to tell a story in which Patterson rose to power by using the Dalek doctrine and technology to rile up hatred in a nation gasping for power and glory. Except we don’t get this in the slightest. The whole Daleks-as-defense drones idea is used as a brief plot point to get the Daleks in a position where they can blast up the nation before the Doctor (Jodie Whitaker) puts it all right.
Which brings me onto the next point. Having the Doctor stop a Dalek invasion by luring another Dalek faction to earth is yet another neat idea that has much potential to it. Dalek civil wars have been explored and appeared on screen in various forms in the past, but having it be the solution to a Dalek invasion is a neat little twist on the idea of Daleks despising members of their own race for their impurity. Using a villains own characteristics against them is a tactic the Doctor is brilliant at utilizing (see Day of the Moon for my favourite example of this). Establishing a civil war to avert an invasion and set up the next part of the story is great, but again, this concept is rushed before having time to breathe. Within minutes of the Doctor sending out her signal into the vortex, the Patterson/Robertson Daleks are destroyed – largely offscreen – and the reconnaissance ship is blown up before we really get a chance to see this clan of Daleks do anything.
This is perhaps my main issue with Revolution of the Daleks. There is plenty of solid concepts peppered throughout, only the runtime and fact that its constrained to being a standalone special means we don’t really get to see anything done with them. It’s wasted potential which I think would have been better utilised as a series arc or two parter. Chibnall is showing here that he can come up with good ideas for Doctor Who, it’s just being used in an episode that I think would have been stronger had it chosen to tell a completely different story.
As many who watched this would have been made aware, Revolution of the Daleks is Bradley Walsh and Tosin Cole’s final appearances as Graham O’Brien and Ryan Sinclair. Their final moments in the episode were really sweet, and I think their exit was handled well. I love the fact that we can finally say goodbye to a set of companion’s on their own terms. I was growing tired of the tragic exists New Who has come to rely so heavily on. Trapping characters either in purgatory, parallel universes or time-locked periods of history is certainly one way to amp up the emotional stakes, but must we do this every time a companion departs? Revolution of the Daleks is the first time since 2007’s The Last of the Time Lords that has wrapped up a companion’s story by having them decide to move on from the Doctor without some life-shattering event ripping them away.
Their departure worked, and their final few moments on screen felt well earned and fitting. If only we’d had more time during the episode itself to build toward this lovely moment. We know from the getgo that Graham, Ryan and Yaz (Mandip Gill) have been on earth without the Doctor for a good ten months, so perhaps it would have worked better had we seen more of this part of the story play out on screen. Chibnall did actually pen a Doctor Who story back in 2012 – The Power of Three – which would have functioned as a brilliant companion departure story (had Moffet chosen not to go and write them out in a totally different fashion one episode later), which depicted Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) gradually easing back into their lives outside of the Doctor’s. I can’t help but feel a story like this may have been a far more fitting and logical precursor to Graham and Ryan’s departure; a story in which the pair fall back into their regular lives whilst the Doctor tries to return to them. This would have made for a more organic and natural conclusion the their inevitable decision to leave the Tardis.
I’ve done a lot of complaining during this review, I know, but I must stress that I didn’t hate this episode. There was a lot I liked, and I felt it was one of the better episodes we’ve had in the Chibnall era of the show. There were some solid ideas, a fitting departure to two of the show’s companions, Captain Jack Harkness delightfully charging through the story as if he’s never been away from the screen, and an appropriate end to two of the show’s characters. Sure, a lot of it was rushed, and I think the Dalek story could have waited until the following series to be told, but this wasn’t the absolute shambles it could have been. A rushed and missed opportunity? In places, sure. An absolute disaster? Not in the slightest.
Revolution of the Daleks shows that Chibnall still has a way to go before escaping the shortcomings he has as a Doctor Who writer, yet it’s also evident he’s got plenty of solid ideas that really could go the distance if only they had a chance to flourish.