January 27, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

‘Doctor Who’ special rings in 2021 on a lighter note: review

“Doctor Who,” in a British tradition, used to field a Christmas Day special, but throughout Jodie Whittaker’s tenancy in the time-space traveling TARDIS, New Year’s has been the day. This year’s entry, “Revolution of the Daleks,” both concludes the cliffhanger upon which last season ended and acts as a sequel to the 2019 New Year’s special, “Resolution,” which ended with the Doctor and her familial crew blowing up a Dalek — the series’ signature enemy, forever almost destroyed and forever coming back — but just not quite enough.

“It looks like a Dalek, but it can’t be a Dalek — unless it’s a Dalek,” the Doctor will say when she encounters one again, again.

The end of last season saw the Doctor being carted off by the Judoon — rhinoceros cops in space suits, basically — and bunged into a space prison “for being me.” There we find her reciting “Harry Potter” to herself, and taking exercise in a sort of prison yard filled with Easter eggs, in the non-Eastery, non-eggy sense of the term. Soon enough, thanks to current showrunner Chris Chibnall, who wrote the episode, she’s back on Earth with companions Yaz (Mandip Gill), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh). Hanging around as guest stars are John Barrowman, back as flirty Time Ranger Captain Jack Harkness; Harriet Walter as an ambitious politician; and Chris Noth reprising the Trump-ish American businessman he played a couple years back in the episode “Arachnids in the U.K.,” here trying to turn a fast buck — which is to say, millions of them — from reverse-engineering the armored remains of that aforementioned alien. Oh, foolish human.

There is no sign of COVID-19 in this timeline, but the past year’s social unrest makes a sort of appearance: there’s a plan to use these new Daleks as “security drones” for crowd control. You’d think that the people of Earth would recognize them by now, given how many times they’ve been up in our business, and know enough not to get into bed with them, but in “Doctor Who” humans are remarkably forgetful when it comes to alien attacks. (Every once in a while the series will take note of this odd fact, without ever explaining it very well. But, really, when you look around at what we’re capable of ignoring, it’s not implausible.)

John Barrowman returns as Capt. Jack Harkness in “Revolution of the Daleks,” a special New Year’s Day episode of “Doctor Who.”

(James Pardon/BBC Studios)

Notwithstanding the many actors who have played the periodically rebooting Doctor since the series’ 1963 debut, and their various duds and coifs and, finally, gender, and even allowing for the 16-year hiatus that preceded its 2005 return, “Doctor Who” has logged too many episodes to feel anything but familiar by now; it’s all variations on a small trunk of themes. But there’s much to be said for expected pleasures, and here again, the Daleks deliver with their raw, hectoring speech; fascist obsession with genetic purity; and monomaniacal desire to “Exterminate!” all that is not Dalek. (If you could just get them to shut up, that would be half the battle. But you can’t.) That they look like giant salt shakers with a toilet plunger stuck on and glide around like Roombas should make them less frightening, yet somehow it does not.

In spite of some genuine tension and terror, it’s a rather light episode; nothing about it feels tragic in any way, even when tragedy happens. This is not a complaint; I am a fan of “Who” episodes where the running around takes precedence over the looking within. Noth plays his part for What-Me-Worry comedy, and while there is some emotional matter saved for the end — it’s no secret that Cole and Walsh are leaving the show — it is more happy-sad than sad-sad; this Doctor is a hugger. And when she does grow reflective for a moment — having learned at last season’s end that she was not after all a normal two-hearted Gallifreyan child but a foundling from a mysterious Somewhere Else Entirely, she has been wondering who she is — her answer is to the point: “I’m the Doctor. I’m the one who stops the Daleks.”