Doctor Who forewent its usual Christmas Special in favor of a New Year’s Day Special. And along for the ride was a familiar enemy that fans have been curious to see Thirteen tackle….
In the 9th century, several Earth armies converge on a Dalek and defeat it. The Three Custodians separate the lifeform into three pieces across the globe to prevent its return. In present day, Lin (Charlotte Ritchie) and Mitch (Nikesh Patel) unearth the piece of the Dalek that was brought back to Yorkshire, England, exposing it to UV rays and thereby enacting the Dalek’s reconstructive capabilities. It latches onto Lin and takes her body hostage. The Doctor and friends get a signal about it, and they head to the archaeological site to where Lin and Mitch are working. No one realizes Lin has already been taken hostage by a Dalek. She falls under its control and goes to find pieces of her former casing and rebuild. The Doctor tries to get in touch with UNIT, only to find that the organization has been disbanded due to budget cuts.
Ryan’s father Aaron shows up, and Team TARDIS take him to task for not being there for his son. He’s tries to patch things up with Ryan’s, who’s not over-enthused about his dad’s presence. Aaron is surprised to find Ryan calling Graham “gramps.” The Doctor goes to confront the Dalek once it’s let Lin go and rebuilt, using the TARDIS shields to keep everyone safe initially. They use parts from the microwave oven that Aaron is trying to sell on the Dalek to melt its casing. The Doctor thinks they’re out of the woods, but it latches onto Aaron and demands that the Doctor take it back to its fleet. Instead, the Doctor takes it to a supernova and allows it to get sucked out of the TARDIS. Ryan’ pleads with his dad to stay strong and not go over with the Dalek, and Aaron makes it out just fine. He says no to an invite to travel time and space, however.
Now that is how you do a Dalek episode.
Look, there is a problem with the Daleks, which is that the licensing issues demand their use, but it’s really hard to create stories that truly support their constant return. The easiest way is to bypass those issues in favor of more personal stories ala “Dalek” and “Into the Dalek”, which is what we end up with here; there’s a single Dalek in a story that has very little to do with the entire species, and much more to do with the Doctor’s relationship with Daleks overall. Those stories tend to be more engaging because we know why the Daleks are scary, and we don’t really need reminding. We just need to know how this particular Doctor feels about encountering them. And the answer is: She’s still frightened, but she handles it with incredible swagger and good humor.
We find out that the UNIT has been shoved under due to lack of funding, and if that’s not the most pointed Brexit joke I ever expected to see on Doctor Who, I’m not sure what would qualify better. Regardless, it was an excellent way of making and point and a joke in a short space, even if I’m sad not to have Kate Stewart rummaging around. Some fo the other jokes in this episode didn’t land, on the other hand. Making a joke about how British wifi has been knocked out, all to see a single British family complain about having to talk to one another on New Year’s Day because they don’t have any technology to distract them is pretty darn low-hanging fruit when it doesn’t really connect to anything else in the episode. If that family had been laced throughout the story as a weird aside, it might have worked better. Also, I’m just gonna say it… it’s pretty much a cop out that we don’t get to see the other two custodians after the Dalek reassembles. They had a major stake in that, and we never hear anything from them whatsoever.
I will forever be here for the Doctor taking companion’s families to task for not being up to snuff. The moment that Thirteen told Aaron that he’d let Ryan down for missing Grace’s funeral, I literally applauded at the television. That she manages to get away with taking people to task is maybe one of my favorite aspects of this Doctor. On the other hand, when Graham talks to Aaron about how she felt about her life and being a mother, we’re struck yet again with how incredible Grace was and how much she deserves to still be around. It’s never going to stop stinging. It’s never going to sit right. And when Ryan’s dad decides that he’s not interested in TARDIS travel, that really only serves to drive the nail in. There’s a time and a place to discuss what makes people say yes to traveling with the Doctor, and we don’t really have the space here (it’s its own treatise), but it begs so many questions.
This is largely Ryan’s episode; Yaz has firmly taken her place as the Doctor’s second-in-command and is routinely asked to keep things together in the Doctor’s absence (I LOVE this), and Graham is largely here to be present for Ryan in this episode, which seems only right given the season finale, which was all for his closure. He and Ryan are a solid family now, and he’s not about to let Ryan’s dad fail him again if he has a chance to give the guy a talking to. Aaron’s characterization is… it’s alright. It makes sense overall, but it’s nothing stunning or particularly moving, which seems a disservice. It would be nice to learn a little more about why he felt it was okay to abandon his son, particularly when we can see that he’s a bright guy who could clearly keep things together better if he had the motivation and the desire. We’re never given much by way of his thought process on that front.
The particular use of Lin by the reconnaissance Dalek is a helpful bridge in explaining the weird human-Daleks Moffat kept thrusting on viewers starting with Clara’s introduction. While it doesn’t quite make those hybrids work in retrospect, it does join some of those aspects together helpfully. There’s a very cool parallel going on between the Dalek and the Doctor in this instance as well, since the Dalek takes a human female form and proceeds to use that form while reconstructing their casing, similar to the Doctor’s engineering prowess. It offers a great connection even when Daleks themselves have no discernible gender. As another aside, I have to say, I’m super pleased that Lin didn’t die. Nothing annoys me more than creating a relationship between characters (in this case, the preface of Lin and Mitch’s New Year’s kiss and confusion) in order to make the audience care before killing someone. This way, we get to enjoy their survival and don’t wind up attached for no reason.
But most important of all, this episode exists to establish a baseline of heroics for the Doctor. There’s danger in this episode, but for the most part, she’s entirely on top of things in an extremely fun way. Her slide dive, her “extended fam”, her desire to show her friends twenty New Year’s celebrations, one after the other. Thirteen’s personality in this instance is clear and even more comforting. She’s a great friend, an able opponent, and she loves being who she is. Her clear glee at being able to tell the Dalek that she is the Doctor is enough to set your heart racing. It’s always a new story when the Doctor has a fresh pair of eyes, but this journey is offering her something far more exciting in return. It’s a chance to experience the universe in a truly unique pair of shoes, and surprise everyone—herself included.
In addition, it doesn’t seem like Yaz, Ryan, and Graham are going anywhere, which is a relief. We’re not supposed to get a new season until 2020, and it’s good to know that we’ll have that same set of companions. They’re not anywhere near done with the TARDIS and all the adventures it holds. So here’s to a new year, new friends, and a new Doctor who’s really just getting started.
A few asides and so on:
- This is the first major Dalek redesign since 2010. I’m curious as to whether or not it’ll stick going forward given the patchwork job this Dalek did, but this particular design manages to look both more dangerous (given the explosives behind the roundels and the claw in place of the typical “plunger” affixed to the front) and perhaps a bit feminized (the bottom half flares a bit more noticeably, almost as though it were a skirt). I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to thoroughly enjoying the reimagining of such a iconic villain. Who rules go that the Daleks are supposed to be the height of the current companion, but given the fact that there are so many, it seems as though they opted to make this Dalek Whittaker’s height—which seems the smartest choice in this instance.
- The Doctor takes her crew to nineteen consecutive New Years, with Graham’s favorite being Mesopotamia, Ryan’s favorite being Sydney in 2000, and Yaz’s favorite being 1801 when they helped Giuseppe Piazzi discover a dwarf planet. All of these favorites fit each companion well, and I was particularly tickled at Ryan’s pick, since I found myself reminiscing about the change over to 2000 this year myself. We sadly don’t get to see the final 20th New Year celebration at Quantifer, at the edge of the known universe. Maybe next time…
- The MDZ security guard, Richard, has a boyfriend. This iteration of Who has been very good at keeping plenty of queer characters around without making a fuss, but they’ve balked at allowing them any significant screen time. Here’s hoping they can get better about that going forward.
- Okay, but all Brexit jokes aside, if the Thirteenth Doctor never gets the chance to pal around with Kate Stewart, I’ll be extremely annoyed.
- Why does Aaron go out of his way to point out that the microwave he’s selling is also an oven? Isn’t that true of all microwaves? Aren’t they all technically called “microwave ovens”? Is this just supposed to be a joke about how people sell appliances? Because it honestly came off confusing….
- I was extremely pleased that the Doctor couldn’t remember how long a “rel” was, because I was asking myself the exact same question at the moment she brought it up.
- The Doctor mentions that she’s learned how to be like a Dalek, which is a particular and important self-own; the Ninth and Twelfth Doctor were both told that they’d make good Daleks.
- No opening credits and theme this time! I’m pretty sure this is the first complete Who story to forego the entirety of it, including the title card.
- TARDIS shielding! Been waiting for ages for that one to come back.