Blackened, buffed up and both having had a little work done, the Daleks and Captain Jack Harkness are back to elevate Doctor Who from the doldrums in a New Year special, which restores some of the zest lacking in recent times, as showrunner Chris Chibnall doles out eerie set-pieces, protracted farewells and a glimpse of a brighter future.
But first, Revolution of the Daleks finds the Doctor banged up in a space jail. Incarceration is usually a dramatic dead-end in Who. It was verboten under Russell T Davies, although Steven Moffat made a virtue of it in the Peter Capaldi classic, Heaven Sent. In 2021, Chibnall finds value too as he shows Graham, Yaz and Ryan pining for their absent friend, yearning for shared adventures. For 10 months. That’s a sensation we can all empathise with – albeit captured here inadvertently because this episode was written and in the can before COVID blighted our lives.
Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor is diminished by her personal lockdown. Surely any other Doctor would have quickly found a way to outfox the rhino-cop Judoon. She is displayed simply counting the days, the years, no doubt processing the dismal revelations about her past in series 12 and gurning at fellow inmates: Ood, Weeping Angels and the silly Pting… She has to wait to be sprung free by Captain Jack Harkness.
Jack is an odd fit with this era of the series. Until a brief comeback earlier in 2020, he hadn’t featured for a decade; his function superseded by another flirtatious adventurer armed with saucy one-liners and a time-hopping vortex manipulator, River Song.
John Barrowman undoubtedly brings a star twinkle and camp-tinged bravado all his own, and has earned the right to spout continuity references to 16 years past, over-egging Jack’s time travelling in time and space (“I saw more than I could have ever dreamed” – really?) and crediting Rose Tyler for his immortality. This would have been better demonstrated with a few ineffective exterminations. Oddest of all, Jack literally phones in his farewell, blithering on about Gwen, his associate from Torchwood – a turgid offshoot we might otherwise have overlooked.
There are two Jacks in Chibnall’s pack; the other being Jack Robertson, the despicable entrepreneur who blithely walked off set to freedom in 2018’s Arachnids in the UK and to this inevitable return. Chris Noth brings towering charm to the role and, after an hour of treachery against mankind, Robertson deservedly takes one step closer to the White House. And a likely rematch in series 13…
This special wafts lots of daft events under our noses. Captain Jack’s rescue of the Doctor is as ridiculous as it is amusing. And just how many devices can he shove… sorry, secrete about his person? How unlucky is that lorry driver who stops at the one roadside cafe where an agent is lying in wait with poison? Why does no member of the public, no one in the Government or Armed Forces recognise a Dalek? In the Doctor Who universe, they’ve posed a highly visible threat to planet Earth for years.
While Daleks quacking and zapping at each in the streets have become a thunderbore, Clifton Suspension Bridge makes for an audacious if fleeting battleground. Chibnall, the director Lee Haven Jones, voice artist Nick Briggs and the FX team all do sterling work to restore menace and a degree of horror to the old foe. The augmented models (sleeker, remote-controlled, black-with-snazzy-lights) look perfectly at home patrolling No 10 Downing Street and cause a frisson of delight by exterminating the venal PM, Jo Patterson (Harriet Walter) – although even they are outshone by the golden Daleks launched in the 2005 revival.
The gratingly dubbed “fam” have fronted Doctor Who since 2018 and if you’ve grown to love this quartet (I haven’t), you’ll lament their break-up and may indulge the coda of farewells that sprawls over nearly eight minutes. Bradley Walsh is a significant loss. Across 22 episodes, Graham has shown the most heart, been the most alive, spouting wisecracks across the cosmos. But here, with the two Jacks hoovering up any scrap of humour, Graham is muted, resigned to his departure, even before he knows it.
Ryan has been a plank for much of his run, but now that he’s going is at last allowed a proper one-to-one with the Doctor. The scene where he forces her to open up (“What I always thought to be the story of my life isn’t true,” she says) shows us a window into Ryan’s empathic nature and is tenderly played by Tosin Cole. “Things change all the time,” says Ryan. “Sometimes we get a bit scared cos new can be a bit scary, right?” This is a barely cloaked admonishment to fans who choked on the expansion of the Time Lord’s origins in series 12.
Graham and Ryan return to the moorland bike-riding lessons from their debut episode, and – no surprises – are granted a final ray of sunshine with the other “woman who fell to Earth”, Grace (Sharon D Clarke would have made a dazzling Doctor). Mandip Gill persuasively conveys Yaz’s frustration with and passion for the Time Lord and her renewed determination to cling on to her woman. Yaz believes she has the Doctor all to herself now. But for how long?
The BBC broadcast ends with the left-field announcement “Introducing John Bishop”… The head honchos of Who must be banking on another leavening of the line-up à la Bradley Walsh, or even praying for the Catherine Tate effect (one of the smartest castings ever in Doctor Who). This isn’t the first time a Liverpudlian builder with a funny bone was drafted into Doctor Who (think Tom Baker) – so don’t bash the Bishop just yet!
Doctor Who returns to BBC One in late 2021. Want something else to watch? Check out our full TV Guide.