Review: Revolution of the Daleks

It was fine. No, really, it was fine. It had jokes and set pieces and it moved at a decent pace. It was a perfectly welcome distraction at a time when plenty of us could do with one of those. Really, it was fine.

All the same, I’m glad I didn’t stake all the political questions of my previous post on this. To complain that the episode failed to address coronavirus and the 2020 election would be unfair, of course. To complain that the satire it does offer is toothless and underwhelming feels closer to the mark. Harriet Walter is a delightfully nasty screen presence, but her character’s vague speechifying about “stability and security” fails to land as the “strong and stable” parody it’s clearly aiming for, almost as if the show is worried about alienating one of its higher-profile fans.

Chris Noth’s Jack Robertson, meanwhile, is almost unrecognisable. Gone is the vague Donald Trump parody of Arachnids in the UK, in favour of a Lex Luthor-style mad science tycoon. The events of Arachnids and his presidential ambitions get a nod, but nothing in the story actually requires Robertson as such. The episode would need few changes if he were replaced by Henry van Statten. Certainly he wouldn’t be the only character from 2005 the episode inexplicably banks on.

Which brings us to Captain Jack. As with his last appearance, he primarily serves as a plot enabler, showing up to move another character from A to B, and subsequently pulling out a new (or old) gadget whenever the plot requires. Tellingly, he doesn’t even stick around for the emotional farewell, which contributes to a general coldness between Barrowman and the other leads (only mildly thawed by a nice-but-brief heart-to-heart with Mandip Gill). The idea that the Doctor might not be all that pleased to see Jack is an intriguing one, hinted at by some early banter about changing faces and TARDIS bedrooms, but the script does little with it. Indeed, for all his prominence in the marketing the episode seems curiously uninterested in using Jack; he may boast that he’s immortal, but he never actually does his coming-back-to-life routine.

Speaking of empty references, this may be the most callback-laden special since Twice Upon a Time. The return of Jacks Robertson and Harkness is one thing; the quick infodump on Rose is another, let alone making Graham’s parting line a reference to the pat ‘we don’t get aliens in Sheffield’ gag from The Woman Who Fell To Earth. The closing scene on the hilltop at least manages some decent parallelism, though it clashes oddly with the previous scene in the TARDIS. Ryan expresses a wish to leave the Doctor because “my planet needs me.” He immediately goes back to trying to ride a bike, and then he and Graham get the idea to go and investigate the supernatural. It just about flows logically, but it feels very jarring for an apparent would-be activist to so literally return to square one. It speaks to a contentlessness in the departure, which makes the ditching of precisely half the fam feel arbitrary.

(Plus there’s the fact that this marks the second episode in a row where a mystical vision of a black woman turns up to inspire the main heroes and contribute nothing else to the proceedings, which is rather unfortunate).

But for all the problems with the wider episode, Revolution of the Daleks does get one thing right: the Daleks. This sounds like damning with faint praise; the Daleks, after all, are one of the hardest things in all of Doctor Who to fuck up, and it’s frankly amazing that Terry Nation managed it so many times. But Chibnall manages a handful of cool twists on classic flavour Daleks, most of which at least raise a smile and don’t outstay their welcome. The corporate knockoffs of the Daleks proper are a good idea, and Lee Haven Jones’ direction conveys both cheap naffness and genuine threat. The horny possession tentacles are still an intriguing twist on the traditional Dalek mutant, and highlighting the victim’s consciousness (“You give this body false hope!”) gives this go-round a potency that Resolution lacked. For my money the best new tricks are the invocations of corporate motivational speaking. Having a Dalek proclaim “This is what I have built!” or the ever-popular social media slogan “I did that!” is delicious. Plus it’s always fun to see a Dalek exterminate a Scots Guard.

The original model Daleks are less exciting, existing mainly to spout a predictable line about purity and then fall into a McGuffin. But their scenes largely work, bar an undercooked appearance from the original recon Dalek. The visual effects work here is particularly strong, with the scrunching-up TARDIS evoking a pleasantly Doctor Who hybrid of Star Wars and Blue Peter.

Revolution of the Daleks, like its departing leads, is hard to dislike, but equally hard to get much of a handle on otherwise. Certainly it offers few clues about where the show will go from here. Yaz’s obsession with the Doctor will surely play into Series 13, though given the scant attention paid to her character over the past two series the execution remains up in the air. And while John Bishop is a charismatic performer who will likely do just fine as a companion, the introduction of yet another middle-aged comedian to eat up the TARDIS team’s oxygen just feels like a drag. Long-term speculation aside, Revolution of the Daleks is a perfectly adequate episode that nonetheless fails to live up to its name. But what else could we expect from a Re of the Daleks story?

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