Contains spoilers for the episode
The Doctor Who production team were damned if they did, damned if they didn’t on this one. As soon as they teased “the deadliest creature in the universe” in trailers, fandom was rife with speculation that this could only mean the return of the Daleks, after a maiden season for Jodie Whittaker conspicuously devoid of any of the Doctor’s greatest adversaries of the past. So should the production team deny it – and risk leaving fans disappointed and disillusioned weeks before the broadcast – or simply accept that the surprise had been spoiled?
Unfortunately, in the end the secret simply could not be kept all the way to New Year’s Day, which is the new slot for the annual Doctor Who special after it was bumped from Christmas Day. To be honest, I’m in two minds about this time switch as I found that it really did leave a sense of something missing on the 25th. There’s also an implication of the show losing prestige and no longer having the full-throated support of the current BBC hierarchy, both of which are worrying signs of those of us who are long-time fans.
But at the same time, I’d long found Doctor Who to be a rather poor fit for Christmas Day, when we’re all stuffed full of food and alcohol and on the verge of slipping into a coma for the rest of the evening at any point. The show has often struggled to find the right tone and content for a Christmas special – it’s either too soft and silly (did I mention how much I hated “The Husbands of River Song”?) in an effort to join the family revels and reach out to fans and non-fans alike; or else it veered more to business as usual (such as the cluttered “The Time of the Doctor”) which made it a very awkward fit with the festive frivolity, and hard to properly concentrate on when the rest of the family were chatting and playing party games.
So perhaps New Years Day is actually a better slot for the annual special after all. It comes as normal life is about to resume after the holidays, but we still want one last treat before it does. And what could be better than the return of the Doctor’s greatest adversaries to get 2019 off to a flying start? Plus the New Year slot provides the perfect title for the occasion with “Resolution”, which in itself was an indication that it might feature the Daleks since the extended “Resolution of the Daleks” would be a very classic series type of title.
So, okay, the Daleks are indeed back, exactly 45 years to the day after their return in “The Day of the Daleks”, one of my all-time favourite Jon Pertwee adventures. It’s a genuine shame that the attempt to keep this a secret didn’t come off, because the early part of the episode is structured around a creeping reveal and a building sense of foreboding, and you’re supposed to be unsure what’s afoot until the Doctor’s eventual confirmation. But instead, long term fans will recognise the ‘naked’ Dalek the minute that it’s lit up by torchlight on the wall of an underground archaeological dig; others might need the extra hint of ring modulation to actress Charlotte Ritchie’s voice once she’s taken over by the creature. For those still not getting it, Nicholas Briggs takes over vocalisation duties shortly afterwards just to make sure everyone’s clear what’s what.
This idea of a Dalek getting down to work in its non-armoured form is a new one for the show, and even once it’s properly dressed for the occasion it’s still a very different-looking Dalek from those we have known before. But the intention is to achieve something that the eponymous “Dalek” episode from 2005 managed: bring the metal monsters back while at the same time restoring their innate sense of danger and lethality. This is a creature that can survive being cut up into three parts and buried around the world, but within hours of being revived has pulled itself back together again and assembled all the bits and pieces it needs to reconstruct a primitive but fully-functional casing (in a scene that seemed to echo the Doctor’s reforging of her sonic screwdriver in “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”, or maybe that was just me?) It then goes on to lay waste to an army unit – including a modern tank – without breaking a metaphorical sweat in the process. This single Dalek is soon claiming superiority over the whole planet, and it’s only going to get worse if it succeeds in calling up reinforcements.
It’s to director Wayne Yip”s credit that the episode looks as good as it does despite its epic aspirations not being matched by a similar-sized budget. While the story hops to different points around the globe, it’s clear that after being established by aerial archive footage the actual filming locations are chosen to be as remote and anonymous as possible so that they could be filmed close to Cardiff as cheaply as possible, including GCHQ’s absurdly minimalist computer room. That said the episode mostly got away with it, and I especially liked the way that the Sheffield city hall undercrypt scenes were lit and photographed in a way that was both creepily atmospheric and at the same time really rather beautiful.
The result is an action chase movie, and for once it’s the Doctor on the offensive rather than the one who is being chased. She uses every means at her disposal to stop the Dalek before it can pull itself together and make that crucial reverse charge call home, and it produces the sort of all-out thrills and spills moments that the more reflective and reigned-in Series 11 that proceeded it rather lacked as a whole. That previous absence actually makes “Evolution”‘s sense of release all the more effective as a result. There’s no issue of ethics or a sense that the adversary might be a misunderstood lost soul: this Dalek exists to kill and does so repeatedly, even slaying an unarmed farmer for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That the Doctor still offers the Dalek a chance to capitulate speaks highly of her morals, but by this stage there’s only one way this can go – and it does.
The confrontation enables Jodie Whittaker to finally show us what she can do as the Doctor at the top of her game. Gone are virtually all off her slightly ‘dippy’ moments that came with post-regenerative trauma or concussion from a sonic mine: much like Christopher Eccleston in his own seminal Dalek episode 14 years ago, the dark severity of facing up to her oldest and deadliest foes allows Whittaker to draw on her drama roots and deliver her best performance yet in the role. Anyone who hadn’t already been won over by her in the role will surely have been after this.
Of course, she’s not serious all the time. But the level of humour was as a whole better applied, and got a genuine laugh out of me when she stop to muse “Just how long is a rel exactly?” largely because I was also trying to think if we’ve ever had a reliable rel-to-minutes conversion algorithm laid down in the series in the past or not. But she’s at her best when she’s at her most intense, going eyeball to eyestalk with the Dalek, or appealing to the possessed Lin to fight back against her captor.
Charlotte Ritchie does a great job as Lin, first making her sympathetic in the opening sequences when she and colleague Mitch (Nikesh Patel) tentatively address the significance of that kiss at the Christmas party, which grounds her firmly as ‘one of us’. She then also wonderfully conveys the Dalek’s possession with her grim, expressionless rampage which includes the casual slaying of two traffic cops. It’s almost a shame when the Dalek moves on, as Lin has nothing else to contribute after that (nor does Mitch to be honest other than a couple of exposition points from the historical books he’s been toting around) and they both just become background extras in a steadily growing crowd milling around in the already cramped Tardis control room.
The other major guest star of the week is Daniel Adegboyega, who plays the much talked about but until now never seen Aaron Sinclair, father of the Doctor’s friend and travelling companion Ryan (Toisin Cole). In hindsight we should have expected him to pop up in the New Year Special, as the effect of his poor parenting skills on Ryan had been an ongoing story strand for the preceding season and needed closure one way or another. The surprise is that – after all we’ve heard about him, and given the many practical examples of how he’d been a really bad dad to Ryan and disappointing son to Grace – he actually turns out to be a perfectly decent, regular guy. You’d almost certainly like him if you met him down the pub. It’s just that he wasn’t ready to be a parent and as a result ran away from his responsibilities. Many of us have similar or worse failings, and so even though we remain firmly on Ryan’s side in this particular family dispute we’re also happy to see them reconciled.
The scenes between Ryan and Aaron, and also between Aaron and Graham (Bradley Walsh, once again as strong as we’ve come to expect from him throughout this run of Doctor Who) are the naturalistic emotional bedrock of the episode that is so important to showrunner and writer Chris Chibnall’s heart. Here these scenes are used to break up, contrast and balance the out-and-out science fiction thrills of the Dalek chase. They are decently well written and played but nonetheless possess a sort of earnest naïveté to them which mean they feel painfully like a piece of kitchen sink drama expressly there to serve a series arc purpose, rather than the way that Russell T Davies used to be able to make them look seamless when he was in charge. It was also hard to miss the way that the script crowbarred in a literal plot device: the minute we saw Aaron’s prototype microwave oven, we guessed it would be the way the expanded Scooby Gang would triumph over the rampaging Dalek.
As for the fourth member of the Tardis crew – oh dear, poor Yas. I can’t remember a single thing that Mandip Gill was given to do or say in the entire episode. “Evolution” must be the character’s most sidelined outing yet in a season that’s been full of them, and it feels particularly unfair to an actress who has shown she’s more than up to the challenge when she’s given the chance. Here she’s given less screen time than the character of ‘Call Centre Polly’ played by Laura Evelyn, who in a brief cameo informs the Doctor that her old friends at UNIT have been disbanded due to budget cuts (and, it’s hinted but not too strongly to ruffle feathers, due to the impact of Brexit) which is surely a sign of Chibnall wanting to declutter the series of some of the left-over detritus of his predecessors. Even the unnamed ‘ordinary’ family whose internet connectivity is interrupted by the Dalek taking over GCHQ to make its distress call to the fleet have more to do than Yas, and display more character as they realise with horror that this means they’ll actually have to talk to one another instead of playing games or watching Netflix. (I’ll admit that this brief cutaway did produce a wry smile from me, but it also felt obvious, oft-used and flat-footed; on this evidence it seems that no one can accuse Chibnall of having a light touch when it comes to comedy.)
But quibbles aside, overall this episode come together in a very satisfying way, with a boo-hiss villain that wouldn’t have gone amiss in a Christmas pantomime that allowed Whittaker to finally become the Doctor that she was born to play. The show as a whole felt the better for it, more like its old self, while continuing to hold on to the modern updated storytelling that Chibnall and his team have sought to inject from the start. It’s a sign that the show is back on its feet after the odd stumble in 2018, and clearly ready to get to work.
It’s just a shame, then, the Doctor Who won’t actually be back until 2020.
The Doctor Who 2019 New Year’s Day special is currently available on BBC iPlayer for viewers in the UK. It will be released on DVD and Blu-ray in February 19. The boxset of S11 will be available from January 14 and there will be no overlap in content between the two releases, apparently.