Groundhog Day of the Daleks
Doctor Who is known for taking seemingly unrelated genres and stories, only to then hurl them head on at one another. While this occasionally generates something wonderful and unique from two seemingly dissimilar narratives, it can occasionally churn out utter nonsense. If you asked me a year ago whether I thought colliding the Daleks with a Bill Murray vehicle from the early nineties would garner something special, I’d say it had potential. Well kids, it transpires that yes, combining Britain’s most feared pepper pots with a time-loop caper from 1993 doesn’t just work, it breathes new life into the Doctor’s number one nemesis.
Eve of the Daleks certainly has its problems, which I’ll get onto in due course, and I’m certainly not going to label it as an instant classic. It’s a pretty by-the-numbers story for the most part. Nevertheless, for all its flaws, this is a thoroughly entertaining story that feels more focused and thrilling than anything Chris Chibnall has penned during his tenure as show runner. For a frothy new year’s special, this ticks all the right boxes, delivering a sinister romp that’s far from the bloated nonsense found throughout much of the current era.
Death to the Doctor, Ad Infinitum
The Daleks are terrifying, both in their design and concept. Hate-fuelled mutations born from the mind of an unhinged war veteran, the former Kaled race now charge across reality, slaughtering billions in their wake. Over the years they have taken many forms. Paranoid madmen, titan-sized armadas, lone-soldiers pining after orders, deity-obsessed egomaniacs, conflicted hybrids, reality-ending lunatics and warriors of a universe-altering time war. Amidst all of these interpretations, one thing has always remained the same, they despise the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) just as much as she despises them. There’s another consistency when it comes to these creatures too, they occasionally get boring.
That’s not to say they are always dull. This is far from the case. There have been a sizable portion of decent Dalek scripts submitted to the BBC over the years. Problem is, their power and popularity has a tendency to serve as their downfall at times. Not only do they often pop up in series after series, due to high demand of course, their USP of being near-invincible diminishes each time they rear their heads. If they are supposedly one of the most powerful beasts reality has to offer, why do they keep getting defeated so often? And how come they can’t kill a single Timelord wielding nothing more than an ancient screwdriver? The answer is because the show must go on, which just so happens to be part of the problem. Their reputation as “unstoppable” world burners contributes to their own shortcomings.
Doctor Who has managed to get around this problem on a few occasions in the past. The most recent example being 2005’s Dalek, Robert Shearman’s remake of his own 2003 Big Finish audio story, Jubilee. Dalek, somewhat unsurprisingly, focuses on a lone member of this species as it flees from a prison situated beneath the Utah desert. It’s a remarkable story, one that spends most of its screen time selling these creatures as a genuine threat. It takes a single Dalek, locks it in an underground cell, then spends the next 45-minutes emphasising its sheer power by having it slaughter 100s of heavily armed soldiers. Shearman engineered a scenario that allowed showcased the Doctor’s main foe as an indestructible killing machine.
I’m not for a second suggesting that Eve of the Daleks comes anywhere near as close to Dalek in terms of its quality. While we may not be returning to the glory days fof 2005, Chibnall’s latest special does appear to be doing something similar in terms of creating a scenario which sells the Daleks as bonafide menace. The environment fashioned through the enclosed warehouse slap bang in the midst of a time-loop gives the show a chance to let the Daleks do what they were born to do; exterminate anything and everything that crosses then. What’s more, it allows them to exterminate the Doctor, countless times over.
More often than not through the show’s history, the Daleks tend to spend a great deal of time letting the Doctor talk themselves out of a perilous situation, when all the while they could have utilised that time to wipe their greatest nemesis from the face of the universe. Here, they finally get the memo, and waste no time in blasting her into oblivion. They are also make sure to annihilate her companions in the process too. These are hasty, merciless killers who haven’t got time for the usual chitchat. They’ve a job to do, and they sure as heck ain’t going to waste any time getting it done. If it wasn’t for that pesky time-loop bringing everyone back to life every 10-minutes, these guys would go down as the most successful Daleks in the history of their species!
By applying a groundhog day time-loop between 11.50pm and 12.00am, Eve of the Daleks creates a playground for Chibnall, one where he can have Davros’s children charge into any given scene and burn it all to the ground. They are heartless, enraged and to the point. No matter how much the Doctor tries to stay ahead of their plans, they continuously remain one step ahead of her. Even when the script attempts to so much as take a breather for our heroes debrief, you can sure as heck expect one of these hate-fuelled salt-shakers to charge from the shadows and send everyone to their graves. Their rapid callousness jettisons the fear factor all the way up to eleven. These Daleks mean business, and they’ll stop at absolutely nothing to get that point across.
Utilising a concept not seen since Phil Connors (Bill Murray) drove himself potty waking up to Sonny and Cher’s I Got You Babe every morning allows for an iteration of the Daleks that finally manages to sell them off as a genuine threat.
An Elf Contained Narrative
A lot of people who’ve been following this blog for a while may have cottoned onto the fact that I have some issues with Chris Chibnall’s decisions as show runner. Some may even suggest I hold an unfair bias toward him. I actually think that Chibnall is a fairly decent writer, despite some of his more self-destructive tendencies. He’s certainly produced works in the past that have gripped and moved me. I think the problem here is that Doctor Who is a ruddy difficult show to write for, a task that Chibnall just doesn’t seem up to pulling off. He’s not a bad writer as such, he’s just bad at writing for this particular show. Being as mad, whimsical and gargantuan as Doctor Who is, it falls upon the show runner to find the best possible way to present their era in a way which leans into this sort of madcap appeal without it all getting too carried away with itself. Lean too far into the insanity of this premise, everything hurls off the rails. Try to curb things too much, then you just have a show that takes itself far too seriously. Therefore, how do you apply scale to a show that’s all about being big and bonkers as possible? It’s a tricky balancing act for those working on the show have to try and maintain. They either run the risk of capping a story brimming with potential, or completely loose meaning amidst the chaos of it all.
Eve of the Daleks does a top job of walking that wobbly tight rope. Locking the story down inside a singular warehouse closes the story off from the wider world. This reins things in a touch, allowing Chibnall to focus his energies on writing a script in which the Doctor and the Daleks attempt to stop one another. Likewise, the time-loop set to expire at midnight applies a ticking time bomb, as well as a small selection of rules for the narrative to guide alone. The Doctor and the Daleks play cat and mouse with one another for an hour; the last one to succeed before the clock strikes 12 is a rotten egg. Throw in a handful of characters, two of which are in the midst of developing a romantic connection, and boom, you’ve got yourself a neat little plot to play with. Even the motives are simplified. The Daleks are furious with the Doctor after they believe she wiped out their fleet last time around. Meanwhile the Doctor and her team just want to get out of the warehouse before they find themselves deceased on a permanent basis.
Apply all this to a gang of space aliens with revolvers strapped to their bodies and a time-loop forcing everyone to play out the same 10-minutes on repeat, and you’ve got yourself a story that’s still bonkers enough to feel at home within the context of this series. We’re still working with plenty of madcap concepts and peculiar circumstances for this to feel like an episode of Doctor Who, yet in an environment that doesn’t feel too big and barmy for its own good. It’s small enough to reduce the risk of things hurling off the rails, yet it’s still loony enough to stick to the show’s quota of keeping things bold.
Daleks are Never Sorry
The three Daleks we get to spend this episode with are terrific. So cross, so sassy. The way they answer with such snide fury whenever a character attempts to engage with them is delicious. After playing the part for nearly two decades, Nick Briggs appears to still be finding new ways to add character to these menacing space nasties. The sassy rage mixed in with a slaughter-happy tendency makes Eve of the Daleks’ trio of exterminators the most threatening band of baddies we’ve seen in some time. Considering they spent a majority of Flux not being very good at playing hide and seek, not to mention getting regularly blown up whenever they had the nerve to show up on screen, this is a nice change of circumstances
There is, of course, an argument that could be used here to suggest their execution in this story only goes skin deep. Aside from the time-loop giving them a free pass to finally kill off the Doctor several times over, there isn’t really anything new being applied that transforms the way we understand they Daleks. They are catty and shooty, they’ve even got a neat new weapon to show off, yet they are still very much the same Daleks as we’ve seen show up for the past several years. No attempts are made to shift our understanding of them as a species.
Considering this is a holiday special that’s been bolted on the tail end of a series, however, is it fair to expect Chibnall to use this as an opportunity to reinvent or expand the Dalek lore? I’d say not. This is a standalone romp that’s intended to thrill and entertain for an hour on New Year’s Day. Doubling down on the fear factor, giving us some proper irate Daleks and actually having them live up to their reputation as relentless killers does a pretty fine job of this. We don’t need to have them be recontextualize or expanded upon for this to be given a green light. You can present the Dalek’s as a standalone nasty and still generate something worthy of watching, which is very much the case here.
Eve of the Daleks may well be considered superficial and run of the mill in terms of what it’s doing with Skaro’s most infamous occupants, but it still manages to do superficial in a way that feels gripping. Both Nicholas Briggs and Chris Chibnall appear to be having an absolute blast bringing these three to life, even if it isn’t attempting to so anything revolutionary. Considering this is likely the last time Chibnall does the Daleks before his departure later on in the year, can we really blame him for having a bit of a lark with the Doctor Who toy box?
New Year’s Pessimism
It’s probably safe to conclude that I enjoyed Eve of the Daleks. This isn’t to say the episode doesn’t have its problems. It certainly does. So before I go on to wrap up this primarily positive review, let’s take a peak at some of its issues, as I do think they are worth a mention.
Whereas the Daleks have a menacing and cut-throat presence throughout, a couple of strange inconsistencies float up to the surface on occasion. For one thing, how come they can’t break through steel doors? Or to put it more accurately, how come they think they can’t break through steel doors for a couple of minutes, but then as soon as the plot needs to get the Doctor and companions out of the room they are stuck in, they suddenly can again? I know this may sound like a daft nit-pick, but we’ve just spent the past decade and a half establishing these creatures as the most powerful beings in the cosmos. We saw them break through doors and windows powerful enough to withstand meteorites all the way back in 2005’s The Parting of the Ways. Doors of any kind are pretty much no big deal for these dudes, so why are members of a fully-fledged Dalek fleet suddenly of the opinion that it’s easier to wait outside a closed door, as opposed to blasting it open? Considering they’ve got shiny new gatling rays to play with, they aren’t all that willing to put them to good use.
As well as forgetting to use their weapons, we even see these Daleks momentarily behave like confused cats having a go at a laser pen point on a wall. During the final scenes, the Doctor gets Sarah (Aisling Bea) to phone her mum as part of a grand escape plan. After an hour (well…10 continuous minutes) of the Doctor and the Daleks outsmarting one another, the final trick lurking up the Doctor’s sleeve is to plonk Sarah’s mobile phone next to a heap of explosive fireworks, have Sarah’s mum call moments before midnight, then have the Daleks fire lasers at the image they’ve mistaken for an actual human. The aim is to send the collection of fireworks piled next to the mobile up into a blaze of crackles and bangs.
Never mind that Dalek shells are almost certainly strong enough to withstand exploding gunpowder, the thought of them mistaking a phone call for an actual person is daft beyond measure. They can detect heartbeats, adrenalin, and pretty much every other physical characteristic of a life form unfortunate enough to be in the same room as them. These are meant to be geniuses who’ve mastered time travel, conquered the most advanced of civilisations, and are capable of cracking over 100 billion strands of code in under a second. Yet when you dangle a mobile phone with a middle-aged woman’s face in front of a heap of gunpowder, you’re telling me their immediate response is to scream “Human detected!” and blow themselves up?
The problem here, which is also the problem with the whole Daleks not breaking down a steel shutter, is the script is bending narrative logic for the sake of convenience. The script needs the Doctor, Yas (Mandip Gill), Dan (John Bishop), Sarah and Nick (Adjani Salmon) to have their little character exchanges, so it makes steel temporarily stronger than the Daleks for a couple of minutes. Likewise, when the hour is almost up and the credits are itching to roll, these calculating pepper pots momentarily descend into dumb robots so they can annihilate themselves in time for the grand climax. The inconsistencies are created to bend the story in whichever direction Chibnall needs.
None of this damages the overall quality of the story as such. It’s just somewhat frustrating, and takes something away from what has been, for the most part, a pretty fabulous representation of the Daleks.
A Heartbreak in the Making
Although Yaz and Dan’s heart to heart may come at an extraordinarily in appropriate time, this is a plot development that I’m somewhat thrilled to see addressed. The revelation that Yaz is in love with the Doctor confirms a plot thread that’s been subtly alluded to throughout the latter portions of the Chibnall-Whitaker era.
I’ve never been one to grow frustrated at the idea of the Doctor brushing side-by-side with romance. The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston), and Rose (Billie Piper), Ten and Nurse Redfern (Jessica Hynes), and Eleven (Matt Smith) and River Song (Alex Kingston) are all romantic plot threads that have built some of the most tragic and beautiful stories we’ve seen Doctor Who tell in recent years. A lonely alien with a near-immortal life span will only ever encounter pain when they fall in love with another. The Doctor’s revelation to Rose about how humans wither and die in 2006’s School Reunion is the perfect definition of this doomed tale.
To see the thirteenth Doctor acknowledge the realisation that someone close for her has yet again developed feelings for her – feelings that may well be reciprocated if her expression is anything to go by – suggests we may well be returning to that tragic fable once again. It’s a story that’s bound to end in tears for poor Yaz and the Doctor, which is why establishing this now is a perfect way to build suspense within the audience before this year’s inevitable regeneration story comes to pass. We know these two aren’t going to live happily ever after, as much as we may like them to, so how is this story going to play out?
The scene between Mandip Gill and John Bishop is beautifully performed, particularly with regards to Mandip. The combination of frustration, shame and sadness captures the myriad of things going on in this scene. Yaz is facing her feelings toward the Doctor for the first time, both recognising that talking about it changes everything for her, as well as her essentially coming out in the process. It’s a gorgeous depiction of lust and unrequited love, one that we know isn’t going to end in the way both the audience and poor Yaz want it to.
For all the brutality and conceptual madness kicking off about the place in Eve of the Daleks, this handful of minutes between Bishop and Gill make for some of the most heartfelt and impactful moments witnessed during this era of Doctor Who. Give me this sort of stuff over Timeless Children and intergalactic Cyber fleets any day of the week!
Eve of the Daleks is a lot of fun. The concept not only provides a focused narrative with an underlying ticking time bomb to keep everything moving, it also gives our boys from Skaro a chance to be as menacing as can be. After a boatload of flabby attempts to do “epic”, Chibnall is reining it in for one night only. There remains several moments throughout that hint toward Chibnall’s flaws as a writer, the Daleks turning dumb and weak to name but two. Fortunately, there’s a lot in here to love.
Certainly not a game changer or a classic in the making, but a lot of fun. For a blousy special airing on the first day of 2022, what more could we ask for. A fiery special with plenty of thrills and spills to keep this hour of TV moving at an entertaining pace.
- Best Dan-moment of the story has to be him saying “alright mate” to a Dalek before winding it up into murdering him (not every day you get to say that). If there’s one moment in which John Bishop truly channels evil Dan in his performance, it’s here.
- It’s been said everywhere already, but Nick categorising his ex-girlfriends stuff is kinda weird, particularly when you consider how many girls he’s been with! Still, I think Sarah’s reaction was a bit much. I know they were trying to go for the whole quirky creepy romance trope that seems to be popular for whatever reason, but this felt way too heavy handed for my liking.
- The time-loop is a genuinely brilliant mechanic for this story, I just wished they’d gone somewhere with that whole “Nick doesn’t make it past five to midnight” plot-line. That would have seriously ramped up the stacks. Yet it’s dropped almost as soon as it’s raised.
- Though I disliked the thought of a near-indestructible death machine getting blown up by a firework display, that show after the building goes up in smoke is a nice finishing touch, particularly in an episode set on new year’s eve.
- Okay, so I get that the Daleks have been wiped from the Whoniverse’s history books on several occasions throughout the show’s past, most recently in 2010’s The Pandorica Opens. Nonetheless, am I the only one who finds it odd that Sarah and Nick have zero recollection of them? I mean they did smash up London exactly twelve months prior to this story. Even if they did have a slightly altered paint-job back then, they are still pretty recognisable as the same species. Are we suppose to assume that each time a present day Dalek story occurs, a post-Pandorica crack continues to hoover up any alien-shaped events that rear their heads?
- Next time, we are getting the return of the sea devils! Much like with the Sontarans, it looks like Chibnall is remaining faithful to the original designs. Still, they look pretty creepy. Really looking forward to see what they do with them!