★★★★ Let off some fireworks! After an initially promising, ultimately disappointing Series 11, the Doctor Who New Year special is no damp squib but actually most enjoyable. Resolution is the first New Year special since David Tennant’s departure on 1st January 2010 – a staggering nine years ago. This is Jodie Whittaker’s first special and showrunner Chris Chibnall’s too.
But let’s talk Dalek. No Time Lord can call him or herself the Doctor until they’ve stared down the eye-stalk of the archenemy. Having eschewed the timeworn baggage of old monsters in series 11, His Chibs has at last delivered a Dalek. Just the one. But a very fine one. Cleverly, lovingly, hideously deployed.
He’s pared his lone Dalek to its roots as a deadly, implacable foe – a squid-like mutation desperate to build a new armoured shell, weaponise itself and exterminate humanity. I like how Lin, the possessed archaeologist, welds the Dalek casing in a foundry, mirroring how the Doctor forged her sonic screwdriver from Sheffield steel in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. The “junkyard chic” result, like some scrunched rusty bean tin, where nothing is quite right, yet it’s still undeniably a Dalek, is a design triumph that retains menace. And Nick Briggs, overlooked for voice-work throughout series 11, is back to add the creature’s chilling, grating cadences.
More importantly, the presence of the Dalek elevates Whittaker’s stature. Her Doctor no longer reads like a floundering ingénue fresh out of Gallifreyan diapers. She acknowledges her history. “I learned to think like a Dalek a long time ago.” Finally, there’s a sense that she has lived a very long life. (Note, though, in all 11 episodes she has demurred from identifying herself as a Time Lord, or Lady.)
Whittaker gives such commitment to the role you can almost feel her energy emanating from the screen, and here she’s well served by a punchy plot and dialogue. Wit is still parsimoniously dispensed, so that I laughed when she says, “I must remember – how long’s a rel?” She lands the line – but it’s a line that would have been a chicken nugget at a banquet served by Steven Moffat.
(FYI Fact Fans: a “rel” is a Dalek unit of measurement, usually indicating time. It was coined in 1964 in The Dalek Book, the first Doctor Who book ever published, where a rel was defined as “a Dalek measure of hydro-electricity”.)
While I’m recalling the 60s – alas, poor Unit! The United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, latterly the Unified Intelligence Taskforce, a mainstay of Doctor Who for five decades, is no more. Or at least it’s been “suspended pending review”. I was watching as a toddler when Unit debuted in The Invasion, a 1968 classic with Patrick Troughton’s Doctor, and I adored it when Jon Pertwee’s Doctor made a home at Unit HQ in the 70s alongside Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart. So I’m aggrieved at this development.
Unit has proved invaluable to 21st-century Who: Russell T Davies quickly reintroduced the organisation in Aliens of London in 2005, and Chris Chibnall was also delighted to bolster Unit in his Matt Smith episode The Power of Three and established its new CO, the Brig’s daughter, Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave). In 2012, he told me: “There’s a strange invasion going on, so Unit is the best thing to deal with that. As a writer, you’re eternally grateful to everyone back in 1968 who came up with that idea because it’s a brilliant storytelling mechanism. Unit is embedded into the family history of the show.” A change of heart then.
Now a helpline operator explains that “all Unit operations were put on hold following financial disputes and subsequent funding withdrawal from the UK’s major international partners”. This overlooks the fact that Unit has always been an international organisation, headed from Geneva, and for a long time associated with the UN. Without her stalwart allies, the Doctor gulps, “We’re on our own.” It works for this story, making the Time Lord and her family of friends self-reliant – even though the narrative and budget still run to an explosive showdown between the Dalek and some non-Unit military types.
Resolution provides a decent mix of action sequences and stop-talk-emote pauses. I’m not interested in Ryan’s woes, but the scenes between Ryan, his dad Aaron and “Gramps” Graham are well written and performed. I guessed immediately that Aaron’s thumping great microwave would have a bearing on the plot. In the guest cast, Charlotte Ritchie and Nikesh Patel are fine as Lin and Mitch, the digging duo who find love and horror among the bones under Sheffield Town Hall.
Although Sheffield is frequently name-checked, I gain little sense of place from what’s on screen – it’s all warehouses and dreary interiors, cars speeding on A roads. I’d have welcomed a set-piece with the Dalek causing panic in the Moor, the city’s packed shopping precinct – but that would’ve blown His Chibs’s big surprise. The rebirth of the Dalek and its gradual reveal within the narrative are probably the greatest successes of this New Year special.
Do I miss Doctor Who being on Christmas Day? No. Though pleased the Beeb held the programme in such esteem to place it slapbang in their yuletide schedule for 13 years, I was never sold on the idea of festive Who. This time it means my extended family didn’t once switch on the TV on 25th December. Am I optimistic for the future? For sure. But further Who is far away. Sadly, there will be no more adventures until 2020. After the perceived success of the 2018 relaunch under Chibnall/Whittaker, and whatever spin the delay has been accorded, surely few at the BBC and BBC Worldwide can be pleased with the situation – and their licensees with product to shift but no show on air will be especially vexed.
See you in 2020!
Catch up on RadioTimes.com’s reviews of all ten episodes of series 11.
Read about every Doctor Who adventure from the beginning…