Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks

"Can we stop there and pretend there's no bad news?"

This is a really, really badly structured episode.

Apologies. I go on a bit.

A note from Mikey of twenty four hour ago:

As I write this I have not yet watched the episode. It airs in about an hour and a half. I just wanted to make a quick note while still (relatively) unspoiled to say how much I'm looking forward to new Doctor Who at the start of a new year. For the first time I'm in favor of the switch from Christmas to New Year's Day for the special. At its best, Doctor Who is all about hope and optimism, and after the year we all just had, we need to hold on to that more than ever.

Look, we all know that the calendar is an arbitrary, non-magical system, but dammit, perception counts for something. So let's perceive a fresh start filled with hope and optimism. And maybe be kind to each other.

Roll on the New Year's special!

-Mikey from twenty four hours ago, out.


OK, present time, post-viewing Mikey back again. I stand behind my optimism of 24 hours ago, broadly speaking. There's a lot of good stuff here, and many things that were done really, really well.

But it's hard to get to them so that they can be appreciated when they're buried in one of the most poorly structured hours of television I've ever seen.

Look, I am well aware of my status as one of the biggest Mary Sunshines that the world of reviewing Doctor Who has ever seen. If there's a positive spin, I'll find it. One of the things that I do on a regular basis when I can't sleep (which is pretty much every night) is to go through Doctor Who episodes in my head and come up with one thing about each of them that is absolutely, unequivocally awesome and worth celebrating. Even for 'Fear Her,' and believe me that one took awhile.

So believe me when I tell you that I take no joy in criticizing this episode. Particularly, as I mentioned a moment ago, there's a lot that they do well. But the structural mistakes this script makes are so glaring, so fundamental, and take up SO much of its running time, that at some point you have to address the poorly structured elephant in the room.

Taking it in steps, the first eight and a half minutes of this episode should have been cut completely. They exist to tie this episode in with 'Resolution' from two years ago, and to give the backstory as to how those events led in to what we're about to see. There's absolutely nothing in them that wouldn't have been better explained with a couple of seconds of throwaway dialogue later on after the Fam tells the newly returned Doctor that the Daleks have reappeared.

That would even have made the leaked video of what appears to be a Dalek attacking people with non-lethal weapons a point of curiosity and interest, on top of all the saved runtime that could have been used better elsewhere. But it's not, because we sat through eight excruciating minutes of screen time right up front, before introducing any of the characters we actually care about, just so the show can shout at us, 'Hey, remember "Resolution"? Wasn't "Resolution" great?

No. No it wasn't. 'Resolution' was OK. It had some good moments. It had some good effects. It wasn't a 'wide eyed wonder of past years' whose mere invocation will immediately put us all on the current episode's side.

When your New Year's Day episode is intended to instill a sense of hope and optimism for the oncoming season, spending – and I'm sorry to keep harping on this – literally eight entire minutes of screentime to say nothing more than, 'Hey, remember that serviceable but mediocre episode from two years ago?' is a bad decision and a poor use of your screen time.

So how can we make that an even worse decision.

Chris Noth. That's how we make this a worse decision. If starting off your new exciting era is slightly hobbled by opening with 'Hey, remember 'Resolution'?' then following up with, 'Hey, remember 'Arachnids in the UK' pretty much takes that hope behind the barn Old Yeller style.

Let's be really clear on a couple of points. First, Chris Noth is a very good actor, has done great work elsewhere in the past, and I'm sure is nice to children and animals. Chris Noth, the human being, is blameless here. However, Chris Noth's established character in universe is a thinly veiled Donald Trump riff who didn't remotely work the first time they brought him in. I can't think of anything the universe needs less on January 1st of 2021 than a thinly veiled Donald Trump riff, unless it's a thinly veiled Donald Trump riff that the show seems to believe is cute, who betrays the core group for no reason whatsoever to the Daleks just because it seems like the kind of thing he would do despite there being literally no benefit to him in doing so, and then gets away completely unpunished because 'Aw shucks, look how cute the whole thing is.'

We have a main cast of seven characters in this thing, and two of them are named 'Jack,' because that's what Chris Noth's character was called before and we're bringing back Captain Jack Harkness as well, and it never, ever comes up other than to make my notes extra confusing. That's the level of sloppy decision making we're dealing with here.

Chris Noth's character adds nothing to this story, actively damages the story, and should absolutely have been cut in the first draft scripting stage. Especially considering that there are exactly zero plot functions for him that couldn't have been handled better or more interestingly by scheming new Prime Minister Jo Patterson, who was a potentially interesting character left completely undeveloped and then thrown away completely, or misguided scientist Leo OhGodIDontHaveTheEnergyToGoBackAndLookUpHisLastName.

Leo is actually an excellent example of what I'm talking about as far as poor script structure. Around the halfway point, Yaz and Jack (The Nice One) break into the facility in Osaka. We 're treated to an amazingly well put together sequence of them discovering that the facility is a Dalek cloning farm and that they're making new Dalek embryos to put into the machines we'd already seen being manufactured. This is really good stuff, well directed, extremely tense, with great incidental music. It should have been a highlight of the episode.

Except we already saw the exact same reveal five minutes earlier when Leo was taken to the same facility, learned the same plot revelations, and gave us the exact same information. Only without plot tension, good directorial choices, or a reason to give the audience that information at that time.

So then when Yaz and Jack (The Nice One) get there and learn what's happening, all the great directorial choices in the world can't prevent our response of, 'yeah, we already knew that.' Once again, that's another four minutes or so of screen time that's not just wasted, it actually damages scenes to come later on. And once again, again, these are mistakes you should be catching in the first draft. Having them survive to the broadcast episode is almost unforgivable.

OK, one last complaint and we'll get to the promised good stuff, of which there is a lot despite how this review has seemed so far.

The scenes of the Doctor in the prison should have either been cut entirely or whittled down to the barest bone. They served no purpose in the plot, they accomplished nothing beyond a spotter's guide of monsters we'd seen before, and they didn't even serve a thematic purpose. The Fam is angry the Doctor has been gone ten months, but we're told clearly and repeatedly that that had nothing to do with her time in prison. Jack (the Nice One) rescues her, but he only went there because he knew she was there so it's not like it was a plot device to bring them back together, nor was the escape anything but the most perfunctory 'Oh, I have a thing that will totally escape us' variety. Jack (TNO) even responded to the Doctor's question about how it worked with, 'Do you really want to know that now?' which is as lamp-shady as dialogue comes. It's sloppy, it doesn't add anything to the story, and adding all of the things I've mentioned, it burns over 30 minutes of screen time that could have, should have, been used expanding on the good stuff.

OK, the good stuff.

On a purely aesthetic note, the design of the new Daleks looked really, really cool. I liked the streamlined lines, the Darth Vader chic, and the fact that I honestly couldn't tell if there was anyone in them or not. They were the perfect balance of established design with new tweaks, and I really, really liked them. That said, it probably needs to be acknowledged that with the flared out bottom edge of the top dome and the... unfortunate positioning of the large slit for the eyestalk to flop up and down freely, there's a regrettable association happening there. I'm sorry, you can't un-see it now.


The duel mind/body concept was a very, very cool new angle on Dalek physiognomy, and I was enthralled by it.  I was dead convinced that the 'Revolution' in question was going to be a fight between the 'bodies'/shells of the Daleks being built in England and the 'souls'/embryos of the Daleks being cloned in Japan.  And I was SO DOWN for that.  A battle royale between Cartesian Dualism as expressed through Daleks...  That is exactly what this episode should have been.  I want to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that that was their intention; the mutant embryos fighting the shells for control of Dalek destiny.  God, that would have been awesome.

Sadly, they couldn't throw it away fast enough, first teleporting the new mutants into the new shells and neatly dodging the potentially interesting conflict, then having all the new combined Daleks destroyed off screen, barring six token on screen visuals so that we'd know that the 54 minutes of screen time we'd spent watching them come to life was a complete, utter, total waste of our time.

Sorry, I slipped into negatives again there.  Apologies.

The farewells to Ryan and Graham were among the best goodbyes ever.  One of the failings that Davies and Moffat share, and that's an extremely short list, is that neither of them are really ever able to wrap their head around why anyone would ever, under any circumstances, stop travelling with the Doctor.  And as a result, almost all of their companion departures are the result of some sort of catastrophic death/destruction that can't be undone or avoided.  Why else, either of them would argue, would you ever even think about stopping?

Then Ryan comes in and explains that he's ready to move on to the next phase of his life, gives big hugs all around, and a beautiful moment of what Lindsay Ellis once referred to as 'learning to lose things as an adult' occurs.  Graham's choice to be a part of Ryan's life rather than keep adventuring just further ices the cake.  Ryan's gracious acceptance that Yaz' place is still on board the TARDIS without him is the giant cherry.

In the entire 57 year history of Doctor Who, I can only think of one example of a goodbye from one companion to another eclipsing their goodbye to the Doctor.  (It was Nyssa's goodbye to Tegan in 'Terminus', as you're asking).  Ryan's hug with Yaz surpassed that for me.  The group hug with half of the Fam staying and half leaving nearly finished me off.  And full credit to Chibnall and the script here, the reason for this working is because all three of the companions individually were given an unhurried and thoughtful scene with the Doctor at some point earlier where their fundamental reasons for staying or going were laid pretty clear.

That's good use of script time. And we know from experience that Chibnall is capable of doing it well.  I wish there had been more of it on display in the rest of this episode.  Particularly considering how obvious and easy the cuts that needed to be made are from an outside perspective.

We'd like to formally request that you consider not being in this episode.

Bits and Pieces:

--  The early title card '367 minutes later' was clearly intended to be misread as 'days' so that we'd be surprised that it was picking up right after 'Resolution' and not a year later.  That's actually a good and clever trick.

--  The moment early on when a woman we don't ever care about asked the initial courier who dies too quickly to be relevant about his Mum was a really lovely and subtle bit of scripting that made them both much more human.

--  There's a really nice tight shot of the hole in the Dalek from 'Resolution' verifying its emptiness which was a nice understated way to drag out the question about Dalek Mutants.

--  Jo Patterson called Jack (The Nasty One) the 'American Mike Ashley'.  I have no idea what that means.

--  There's an entire two minute scene that only exists to communicate the information that Jack Robertson has purchased a bunch of car plants and therefore has the resources to build Daleks.  That's just shockingly inefficient scripting.

--  The neon icons in the prison guiding The Doctor's day gave a nice sense of aesthetic logic as to how the place works, but honestly - who owns it?  Who runs it?  How does it even have jurisdiction?  It's not the Timelords, as they're all dead again.  The design certainly owes more than a little to 'Shada.'

--  There's a cute moment where they imply that the Doctor is about to tell herself the entirety of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's/Sorceror's Stone as a bedtime story.  This would have been really sweet back before JK Rowling went full TERF and is now actively hurting trans people.  Now it just made me sad.

--  They seeded the existence of the backup TARDIS really skillfully, and the image of a million Daleks flying into the TARDIS doors was really cool.  Credit where due.

--  This episode was at least partially sold on the angle of 'Will the Fam be able to deal with the Daleks without the Doctor?  But then they threw that away by having the Doctor show up before they'd even really gotten to start investigating.  Sloppy.  And a waste.



Quotes:

Jack: "Hi."
The Doctor: "Have you had work done?"
Jack: "You can talk."

Jack: "I heard a rumor you were in here, so I committed a few crimes. Well, maybe a lot of crimes. Maybe more than I should have."

Jack R.: "You're getting much too excited about a bunch of 3-D printed shapes."

Yaz: "It felt cruel. Like being shown something I can't have anymore."

Yaz: "Are you feeling insecure? Because you seem to need a lot of praise."
Jack: "... ... Do I...?"

Ryan: "We've known each other long enough now, I know when something's changed."
The Doctor: "Me too."

Ryan: "Things change. All the time. And they should, cause they haveta. Same with people. Sometimes we get a bit scared, because new... can be a bit scary, right?"
The Doctor: "New can be very scary."

Jack: "You're feeding cloned Dalek embryos liquified humans?"
Dalek Leo: "Correct."
Robertson: "This is a PR disaster."

The Doctor: "I could always use the TARDIS to go back. Arrive an hour after you guys. Change the timeline. Then we'd have more time together."
Yaz: (Quietly) "It's OK to be sad."

Lots of good stuff.  Almost all of which is appallingly structured.  So much wasted time and potential.  But still so much worth admiring.

I don't know, let's say six out of thirteen missed opportunities.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, retired firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla. If you'd like to see his raw notes for this and other reviews, you can find them at What Was Mikey Thinking.

8 comments:

Billie Doux said...

This episode could have been a lot better. Chris Noth I found mostly irritating because of all the reasons you mentioned, and I was sorry that the new Prime Minister was toast so quickly, for all the reasons you mentioned.

But the rest I liked. They managed to make the Daleks almost scary by ripping off The Matrix, and I was happy to have Captain Jack back -- plus I enjoyed the prison break. And the split up at the end, as you said, was absolutely lovely and made sense.

tucsonbarbara said...

Mike Ashley
Chief Executive of Sports Direct

Michael James Wallace Ashley is a British billionaire retail entrepreneur focused in the sporting goods market, and the chief executive of Frasers Group Plc. He entered the department store industry following the acquisition of House of Fraser post-administration in 2018. Wikipedia

Born: September 9, 1964 (age 56 years), Walsall, United Kingdom
Net worth: 3.9 billion USD (2020) Forbes
Spouse: Linda Ashley (m. 1988–2003)
Education: Burnham Grammar School
Children: Oliver Ashley, Matilda Ashley, Anna Ashley
Organizations founded: Frasers Group, Sports Direct International, St James Holdings

Mark Greig said...

Also known as a complete ******* **** by everyone here in the UK. His companies are notorious for treating their staff like ****. They made headlines not long ago when one worker was forced to give birth in a work toilet because she was afraid she'd be sacked for taking time off.

Mikey Heinrich said...

Thank you to both Mark and tucson. It's endlessly depressing how many of people like that there are out there. sigh.

Billie - I just keep thinking of interesting ways the PM could have recurred. A real waste

Mikey Heinrich said...

Also, thanks to my Crown obsession, all I could think about for a bit was the new PMs meeting with the Queen where she formally asks her to form a government in her name.

Crossover opportunity missed.

Katie Hart - Pinterest Manager said...

Great job on explaining all the bits that just didn't work or weren't needed. I was very disappointed by this episode, despite some awesome parts, but couldn't really put a finger on why.

However, I disagree about the prison part - I liked that and felt like we definitely needed to see it. But it could have been much better. Why wasn't the Doctor at least trying to escape? It would have been cool to see some sort of "Heaven Sent" plan in process. Or we could have been following an unknown prisoner that we think is the Doctor (because of previews), but with clever camera angles, it's actually Jack. It was fun seeing some past villains, though the Pting was only appreciated because it wrapped up the stupid ending from its episode.

I also disagree about the companion send-off (I'm more with Davies/Moffat on this one - why would anyone just leave?). I like the big send-offs. And Ryan and Graham were sorely underused in this episode (too many characters). Plus their final scene just felt stupid. I know they were calling back to their first scene (which was also dumb), but you'd think they'd do something to show their growth from their time with the Doctor. And what's the point of being home if they're constantly jetsetting to investigate things? (And how are they paying for all of that travel?) Maybe they'll come back for future episodes and get a more satisfying ending. Or join Torchwood if Jack and Gwen get that started up again. I thought Chibnall was going to kill them off on the Dalek ship (especially since they made the brain-dead plan of having them go with Jack - Chibnall seems to like pointless deaths, would fit well with the stupidity of Grace's death). Their choice to stay might have made more sense if we'd seen anything of their home life anytime recently (Can You Hear Me? only offered a bit, and that aired almost a year ago.)

I really liked Jack's role in this episode. Yaz was kind of annoying with blaming the Doctor for being gone - I wished they'd given both her and Graham a reflective moment with the Doctor like Ryan got. But her conversation with Jack was one of the best moments of the episode.

Anonymous said...

Well..the Trump parody is timely right now. Noth was good if annoyingly over the top. But so's the orange one.
Loved seeing Jack and having him mention Gwen and Rose.
The farewells were moving and apt.
The Dalek factory bits were scary and nice clawback to Jack's first death.
But on the whole..a bit of a mess.
Loved your review.

Nonei said...

Finally just watched this one. I mostly enjoyed it but had a vague dislike.
Agree w the lack of sense of having the dalek 'farm' revealed twice....
I also enjoyed the prison scenes, but I do wish we had seen more of an attempt to escape by her, or more of Jack's escapades to reach her.
I think I was most bothered by the fact that the 'fam' was mad at the doc for being gone from them for 10 months, but... she said she was in an alien prison and it didn't occur to them to ask how long she'd been there? I mean, really guys. Some friends. I figured at least it would have occurred to Graham.
Just a note - the comment "Do you really want to know?" was relating to how Jack smuggled the item into the prison, rather than how it worked.