Doctor Who – Revolution of the Daleks spoiler-free preview: A bittersweet festive adventure

The all-new Daleks aren’t half as important as the interpersonal dynamics in this New Year's Day episode.

Doctor Who Special 2020 - Revolution Of The Daleks

“Stay strong… people waiting for you.”

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When Doctor Who concluded its most recent series in March, the production team couldn’t have known that its audience was in for months of forced isolation and time away from those we love – but despite being filmed long before the pandemic, Revolution of the Daleks sometimes does feel oddly timely.

Having watched it, the special is filled with all the flying Daleks, grasping tentacles, zappy lasers and  sci-fi nonsense any fan could want – but it’s the human connections between the TARDIS team (and the connections that have been lost) that emerge as the central theme of the episode, especially with the already-announced departures of Bradley Walsh and Tosin Cole on the cards.

“It’s really strange, because it was written in the summer of 2019, and we filmed it in the autumn, so we’ve had it for a year basically,” showrunner Chris Chibnall recently told me.

“And yes, we feel very fortunate that we planned ahead, but the weird thing is, watching it throughout the year, how it resonates in different ways than it did when it was originally written.

“There are lots of things where as the year has gone on I’ve been like, ‘That’s going to be interesting for the special.’”

While the story of Revolution of the Daleks is resolutely a pandemic-free zone, the most obvious parallel with real life comes with the separation of its lead cast. On Earth, the Doctor’s friends (Yaz, Graham and Ryan, played by Mandip Gill, Bradley Walsh and Tosin Cole) have been without her for about 10 months, while the Doctor herself is locked up in “space prison” after her surprise arrest at the end of the last series.

As noted this separation forms a strong thread throughout the episode, with Mandip Gill’s Yaz particularly affected by the Doctor’s absence, sleeping in a spare TARDIS as she tries to find a way back to the woman who changed her life.

We can’t say much more but suffice to say, fans looking for clues as to what Yaz’s arc could be in series 13 (where she’s the only companion staying with Whittaker’s Doctor) won’t be disappointed.

Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill and Tosin Cole in Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks
BBC

Meanwhile, the Doctor herself is languishing in a cell, the monotony of her daily life forming some of the most imaginative (and enjoyable) scenes of the special. How long she’s been there is unclear (though it’s implied to be a lot longer than the 10 months that have passed for her friends), but she’s needed back on Earth soon. After all, it might be a bit much for her “fam” to take on a new Dalek threat by themselves…

Because yes, as has been known for about a year, the Daleks are back – and they’ve got a new look. Saying literally anything else about exactly why the Daleks are here, what they’re doing or even why they look the way they do would constitute a major spoiler, so all I will say is this – I think their new red lasers are pretty cool, and it’s nice to see the Daleks out in force again.

Still, it’s interesting to note how rarely the Daleks actually seem important in this episode. Yes, they’re the main threat, but episode scribe Chris Chibnall seems more interested in his cast than the monsters, whether that’s in the form of the struggling main TARDIS team or his big guest comebacks – Chris Noth as Jack Robertson, and John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness.

Captain Jack Harkness

Both men thrive as these flamboyant characters, whether it’s the over-the-top clownish villainy of Robertson (back after an appearance in Whittaker’s first series) or the familiar, brash charm of Jack, who fairly smoothly slots into the episode after his shock cameo earlier this year. He’s certainly the most reliable source of Who Easter Eggs throughout the episode, which fans will be sure to enjoy spotting.

In fact, if anything one of the special’s faults feels like not making a bigger deal of these returns – Barrowman in particular is presented like it’s 2007 and he just wandered back onto set – even as they do lift the fun and energy of proceedings. Surely a Jack return could have themed a whole episode? And did Robertson really deserve to play second fiddle to the Daleks?

Though of course, by the end everything has to take a back seat to one of the most widely-reported parts of the episode – the long-predicted exit of Ryan and Graham, aka Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh.

Once again, I’m forbidden from going into much detail as to how or why these characters leave, but it’s no spoiler to say that it’s a fairly neat conclusion to the pair’s story that ties into their earliest appearances in the series (and may even contain a nod or two to some of the show’s diehard online fans). You may get emotional, you may wonder whether there was more story to tell with these characters, but their exit feels pretty definitive by the time the credits roll.

Yaz Graham Ryan

Their departure makes for a fairly downbeat end to what isn’t the most cheerful Doctor Who special (though there are some great gags, especially from Robertson), even as it does set up an interesting new dynamic in the TARDIS that I’m keen to see more of.

And that mix of sadness and hope seems to suffuse this episode in general. Really, Revolution of the Daleks is an odd sort of special, with some big shifts in pace and tone that may register more with some fans than others and some slightly underdeveloped elements that feel like missed opportunities. But to be honest, after a difficult year for the world it’s still nice to have a little piece of Doctor Who to enjoy as the going gets (or rather, stays) tough.

It’s not exactly a Happy Who Year for the Doctor, Yaz or plenty of people on Earth in the episode (or for the people of Earth who’ll be watching at home) but hope springs eternal. I’m genuinely quite excited to see how the series is shaken up when it finally returns – and when that does happen, hopefully all the dystopic sci-fi parallels will have been left in the past.

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Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks comes to BBC One at 6:45pm on New Year’s Day. Want something else to watch? Check out our full TV Guide.