This section of the review is free of spoilers. If you venture below Daphne the spoiler-squirrel, beware…
Let’s begin as always with tonight’s spoiler-free portion of the review. For those of you haven’t seen tonight’s episode, you’re in for something of a treat. Now go on, off you pop and watch it so that I can talk about the D—GAH! Daphne, no! NOT THE FACE!!
There’s an old saying on the internet: trailers always lie. Marvel, in particular, have gotten the practice of portraying how a movie is going to feel, not to mention dangling story threads and possible confrontations, down to a fine art. Sometimes this requires withholding information from the audience; occasionally it means flat-out falsehoods, like a certain large green chap appearing in the Infinity War teaser in scenes where he didn’t, as it were, exist.
Resolution probably didn’t have the remit nor the budget to go inventing entirely fictional scenes to get people excited, but there’s a sense that it might have liked to. From the moment we heard that the New Year’s Day special would feature the Deadliest Creature in the Universe, it wasn’t hard to predict that the Daleks would be making a return… but, crucially, we couldn’t be entirely sure. So much about this year’s adventures has bucked convention. Even the BBC itself seemed a little concerned it had overegged its hyperbole pudding, going so far as to deliver an addendum teaser that assured us; don’t worry, it’s not the Pting again, nor an oversized Daddy-Long-Legs. The Daleks are coming back.
Given that he’s been a part of the creative force behind Doctor Who for a decade at this point, it’s somewhat odd to note that this is the very first time Chris Chibnall has chosen to take any of the fan-favourite monsters out of his new toybox – the less said about Cyberwoman the better. Given that, it’s not surprising that he chose to depict his take on a Dalek mutant in a slightly different way. (Not that you’d have known he was tonight’s writer, necessarily, as this full-hour instalment chose to do away with the title sequence entirely.)
Before we discuss the differences, though, it’s worth talking about the similarities. What is the BBC going to do when Nicholas Briggs retires, I’m forced to wonder? He’s been the voice of the Daleks across TV, games and audio for so long – longer than Zippy, even – that it’s going to feel genuinely strange when another actor eventually tries to put their stamp on that performance, and it feels like the show was wise to allow him to reprise his role tonight.
There’s a fascinating tonal shift in his portrayal, however. The Dalek mutant, shorn of its casing, is softly-spoken, picking its words with predatory glee and clearly relishing its acts of evil. It’s as if the casing itself, that sudden rush of sensory information, is what inflames the Dalek to screech in a staccato panic when it would rather be taking its time. Some of that frenzy does still break through at moments when the creature is feeling particularly exposed, mind, which is the kind of nuance you don’t get without a high-quality ring modulator and someone who’s been voicing that kind of genocidal maniac for a very long time.
Beyond Briggs’ performance, there are a number of other story beats that harken back to Christopher Eccleston’s single season. The dormant Dalek that’s been languishing on Earth, for one, not to mention its desire to seek first information and then restorative power. There’s a debt paid to Robert Shearman’s Dalek, to be sure; in particular the scenes where – back in its casing – we get the mutant’s POV as it faces down an army of unwitting soldiers, twitching its weapon about as it assesses its targets. Tonight, like in 2005, we got to see another new use of the casing dimples that dot the Dalek’s surface, though in this case they’re there to disguise missiles rather than to aid in an act of self-destruction.
Less successful, as thematic call-backs go, is the moment where the Doctor nearly takes a Dalek beam weapon full to the face, were it not for her TARDIS’ shields, because all of this was played out beat-for-beat back in The Parting Of The Ways. (“Useless! Nul points!”) The key difference here is that the Ninth Doctor had earned that moment – the extrapolator having been won at a significant cost and featured heavily in previous plots. Here, it’s one of a number of technobabble moments we’re simply told, not shown, can just happen now. The TARDIS has shields – deal with it.
Perhaps the most divisive of these moments will be the idea that a single Dalek mutant, because it’s special in some way, is capable of borderline magic. We’ve seen Daleks do some pretty spectacular things over the years as the series has sought to keep them empowered and, therefore, scary. A single touch from Rose was enough to rebuild a broken travel machine. Dalek Sek managed to subsume an adult human during the oft-maligned Daleks In Manhattan. And yet, for all of that, it still feels a bit off that a Dalek mutant can survive being chopped into thirds, taken to the very ends of the Earth like it’s a video game superweapon, and then teleport its trifurcated tentacles back together because somebody slapped it on a tanning bed.
It’s tempting to ramble on about the Dalek all day, because it’s a pleasingly useful baseline – one of the few elements connecting the new to the old that allows us to codify how different showrunners have approached working with monsters that are older than they are. I’ll settle for saying that the junkyard Dalek, like the stone Dalek from The Pandorica Opens, was a particularly cool one-off design. It probably wouldn’t be wise to have an entire species of alien supremacists (though the script oddly shied away from calling them anything but ‘psychopaths’) looking like their construction had been supervised by Robert Llewellyn and the Scrapheap Challenge crew, but it was a very gritty aesthetic that made up for the less great-looking CGI horse early on.
Story-wise, this was a pretty solid three-act structure told with a rigorousness that’s sometimes been missing this past year. The first act was the slow, creeping horror of a weakened Dalek mutant, forced to hide and make-do with a latent cunning that was genuinely scary, even if its new-found powers did cause a few eye-rolls here and there. The second act shifts from Alien to Aliens, cramming as many people into the TARDIS as possible and bringing in the marines for some explosive fun that would have been right at home on Christmas Day. The third and final act is the villain, broken and defeated, desperate to cause the hero some last personal harm before their ultimate failure.
Had the episode been cut to 45 minutes of action-packed romping, it would have been ideal holiday fodder. It was a bold choice, therefore, to push the total run time to an hour and treat Resolution not just as a series closer but also shut down a few emotional arcs. The big one was Ryan and his dad, which was unfortunately low on chemistry. Mitch and Lin, who opened the show, had so much more to offer in their brief moments together, and it’s hard to put the fault anywhere other than Aaron’s character.
We’ve repeatedly been told he’s the World’s Worst Dad, and he’s certainly treated that way by Ryan, Graham, and the Doctor herself, who seems to have emotionally detached completely from the human race in favour of getting angry on an intellectual level. Aaron’s not an evil guy. He’s not a stupid guy. He’s never overtly selfish nor malicious, and arguably saves the day even when his mind should have been reeling at the situation he’d been dragged into. As deadbeat dads go, he’s far more sympathetic than many others the show has presented over the years, and it’s a bit harsh that the Doctor so effortlessly demolishes him upon their first encounter.
We’ve gone long enough without mentioning Charlotte Ritchie, the archaeologist who serves as the episode’s Skarosian Professor Quirrell. (Spoilers for Harry Potter! – oops, too late.) As this year’s reviews have occasionally groused about, humans have been The Real Monsters quite a lot in the past series, but Ritchie – with a Dalek sucking on her neck – is a real treat; far more nuanced, deceitful and resourceful than the Donald Trump knock-offs and space-racists we’ve seen in stories that were trying to be more thematically weighty. As a side note, the scenes where she began to hammer together a Dalek casing out of scrap worked brilliantly as a dark reflection of Jodie Whittaker’s own foundry antics, where she created a multi-purpose weapon of her own – the Sonic.
Ah, the Sonic. Some Doctors have abhorred it, others have used it for anything from averting intergalactic catastrophe to changing the telly over. We’ll leave it to Youtube to decide if Thirteen is the Doctor with the greatest sonic addiction, but using it to jam a Dalek’s laser so that she can sashay around its new casing? That’s going to have ground a lot of tooth enamel this evening.
Being pragmatic, the gap between the series and Resolution filming would have amounted to nothing more than a half-term holiday, so it’s unreasonable to imagine that critiques like overuse of the Sonic were going to have been addressed at a script level – but still, it grates. And speaking of grating, the curse of repeated exposition to address the most mundane plot points rears its head once again. Case in point, the Dalek’s first appearance:
“Doc,” Graham ventures, “Are you telling me it’s roaming around in the water?”
The Doctor ignores him. “It looks like,” she pronounces gravely, “it slid down the wall… and into the water.”
This reliance on repetition would have almost been comedic were it not for the pantomime moment when the Dalek “shuts down wi-fi” for the sake of a cheap gag about families having to have a conversation. The problem is, these jokes don’t land well because we’re often not with our families for New Year’s Day. Is there a winter festival, I’m forced to wonder, where a joke about the lack of internet forcing us to talk to our loved ones might have been situationally appropriate? Answers on a postcard, please…
Elsewhere, the character balance seemed to struggle a bit. Graham got sidelined so that he could focus on Arron, his step-son, though there’s very little sense that he really knows him nor cares for him beyond basic considerations. Yaz utters a few rote phrases early on that hint to her professional training, though it’s somewhat telling that the Dalek mutant got to spend more time being a police officer tonight than Yaz has in her entire tenure. Tosin Cole, meanwhile, spills resentment through every fierce glare and shift of his shoulders when dealing with his Dad, though his delivery never quite matches the fire of the dialogue he’s been given.
Perhaps the biggest transformation, though it’s easily lost in the hubbub, is the codification of Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor. For the first time, I feel like I understand who Thirteen is going to be, beyond the panting and the slang. This Doctor is flawed: she says the wrong thing at the wrong time, she bequeaths promises that she cannot keep, and she makes mistakes. She genuinely bumbles. This is a full reset of the Doctor’s character and her strengths; she’s as vulnerable and fallible now as William Hartnell was in his first few serials. It’s going to take a while to get used to that.
All told, this is the proper series finale. The stakes were more intimate on a personal level, the threat – despite being smaller – felt more epic than a red laser slowly absorbing the Earth, and we got some cool new takes on a villain that’s been pepperpot-tering around for half a century now. Resolution didn’t answer every lingering question that remains – the Timeless Child, for one. But unlike the underwhelming Battle Of Ravskoor Av Kolos, this was a welcome way to see the Doctor and her best friends off for the New Year.