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Doctor Who: Eve of the Daleks

The Doctor: "Time loop."
Yaz: "Time loop."
Dan: "Groundhog Day. (awkward pause) Same difference."

At the risk of damning with faint praise, this is easily the best of the New Year's Day Doctor Who specials.

No, I genuinely mean that as a compliment.

Seriously though. This is probably the strongest script that Chibnall has ever given us. It's well structured. It's refreshingly free from pointless digressions that don't go anywhere. And best of all, it holds together in the final act and gives us a coherent conclusion to the story that we've actually been watching, rather than suddenly dissolving into unrelated and unfocused chaos.

I'm not sure if COVID restrictions were a factor in the decision to keep this episode so stripped down and intimate, but the episode benefits enormously from it, whatever the impetus was. With only five characters (six if you count Sarah's mum, but she's more of a plot device than a character in her own right. We'll get into that in a minute) this episode is allowed to exist both as an 'Exciting adventures with the Daleks,' but also as a quite nice character study. The word that I keep coming back to to describe this script is 'focused,' which is both the best description and highest praise that I can give this one. Not only is it focused insofar as the story that it's telling, it's more importantly focused on using that story to examine and develop the characters involved.

Time loop stories are not exactly uncommon in genre fiction. Even the act of pointing out that every show eventually does one has itself become a cliche by this point. But they make two creative decisions with it here that really make things work. First, they have everyone in the time loop remember everything, which both saves a lot of time that's normally spent with the one character who's aware of the loop having to explain it repeatedly to the others and also allows the characters to actively change how they're responding to things to see if they get better results. That's an interesting take, and I don't recall every seeing it before. Am I forgetting an example where everyone was in on the gimmick?

The second choice that they made, and I cannot applaud this enough from a structural standpoint because it pays off beautifully, was the decision that the loop would start exactly one minute later each time around. This not only provided a nice ticking clock (historically a bit of a difficulty in time loop stories since the usual format implies that this could just keep going on forever) but it also provided the best concrete example of character growth in the entire episode. Specifically, when Sarah realizes that if she doesn't save Nick's life in the current loop, the next loop will start after he's already dead and he'll be gone. That's a really clever usage of the setup, and again I don't think I've ever seen anything like it before. The loop itself is being used quite deliberately as a vehicle to both induce and illustrate character development.

But that's really always been the main value of these time loop episodes/stories, hasn't it? Repeating the same sequence of events over and over again means that you need to prioritize characterization over plotting, as a lot of the plotting is going to get repetitive by its very nature.

Let's talk about Sarah here, as hers is the most successful example of character growth via time loop. Showing a character encountering the same circumstances that we've seen them in before and having them respond differently to those circumstances as a direct result of the experiences we've seen them undergo since the last time they were put in that position is the very definition of character growth. The Sarah that we meet in the very first time loop is fundamentally the same person we see in the final one, but she's interacting with the others in a very different way. And it's a tribute to the script, the director, and the actor that every step of her character growth feels absolutely real and relatable.

When we first meet Sarah, she's a very closed off person. She's polite to Nick when he shows up, as always, for his New Year's Eve visit to his storage unit, but she's not particularly welcoming to his friendly banter. She doesn't appear to dislike him, but neither is she particularly interested in getting to know him. She doesn't bother to even try to stop herself from mocking his somewhat ham-fisted attempt to be charming with his 'be back next year' joke. But she clearly is a decent enough person that once she notices that she hurt his feelings she feels badly about it. She has enough of a social circle that lots of friends are sending social media alerts to her regarding their evening's plans, but she also appears to reliably not attend social events herself due to work obligations. She's fond enough of her mother to take a phone call, but not so close to her that she's willing to make idle chit chat before the obligatory call at midnight.

The Sarah we meet in those opening scenes is a really interesting and human mass of contradictions, and Aisling Bea's performance carries the structure of this entire story.

Once we get to the second time through the time loop, there's really only been one significant change to her character. She's still a loner. She's still really only concerned with saving herself from the oncoming danger. She's still a little bit rude to her mother on the phone. But, and this is a big moment for the beginning of her character development, she stops herself from hurting Nick's feelings over the 'back next year' joke. And that's the first step toward the better person she becomes by the end of the story.

From there her character work is an impressively disciplined series of advancements each time they go through the loop. On loop three she allows Nick to believe that she was trying to save him just like he was trying to save her simply because she doesn't care enough about him as a person to make herself look bad by admitting the truth. Which is closely followed by the revelations about what Nick keeps in his storage unit and why, which causes her to throw an entirely understandable angry fit which causes him to commit suicide.

Yeah, let's not sugar coat that. You, I, Sarah, Nick, and the Oxford comma all know that he's going to be resurrected by the next time loop. But that doesn't change the fact that he is literally committing suicide at that moment based on her violent rejection of him. And Aisling Bea's performance makes it crystal clear that she understands that and views it that way. Which is what drives her to ignore the Doctor's plan for the next time loop and go back to save Nick anyway which is admittedly mostly out of her sense of guilt, but by loop five her view of Nick has evolved even further, and now he's a big hearted weirdo who might just be worth caring about. And so on, and so forth, each loop shows Sarah going through something that changes something essential about her for the next time around.

It's a tremendously disciplined pattern of character growth, and the fact that 'disciplined' is not traditionally one of the things Chibnall gets praised for makes me admire it all the more. Which means it's time to talk about Sarah's phone call with her mum.

Introduced as a slightly comic character beat for Sarah, the phone calls from Sarah's mum are simultaneously doing two incredibly important things, while pretending like they're just there for the laughs. Most immediately, they serve as a barometer for Sarah's character growth, her current capacity for compassion being reflected in the way she interacts with her mother at any given time. That's a really neat little trick for charting character growth, and I like it a lot.

Secondly, in terms of plot, the video calls exist to establish the existence of the phone, and to make a 'plot-appointment' with the audience for her mother's phone call to arrive at the stroke of midnight, which is of course the bait the Doctor ultimately uses to trick the Daleks into triggering the explosion that resolves everything. That's an elegant way to seed in a bit of plot resolution, and the fact that they were simultaneously using it to reveal character growth was very well handled. It's not unlike if Chekhov's gun were to interrupt periodically through the first act and say, 'Yeah yeah, Vanya, but how are you feeling about all that?'

Meanwhile, this episode continues to confirm what a great pairing Yaz and Dan are. Their mutual disapproval for Manchester was such a charming moment. It's easy to forget when there's such a disparity between screen time for the audience and experienced time for the characters, and so I was grateful that the script reminded us that Dan and Yaz have been close friends for over four years at this point. There's a playful fondness behind their interaction with one another in a way that just cements my belief that Dan is basically modern-day Jamie McCrimmon. What I like most about Dan, and what this episode takes great pains to underscore about him, is that Dan notices things, and that Dan is kind.

So yeah, we're going to have to talk about it.

The big Yaz thing:

In this episode, at Dan's gentle(ish) prodding, we saw Yaz come out to herself. We don't have a lot of specifics as whether, after sorting through her feelings on the issue, she'll end up identifying as lesbian, or bisexual, or some flavor of pan or polysexual, nor do we need to. She's allowed herself to admit out loud that she has feelings for the Doctor. There's a lot to parse out here, but this is a big deal for representation. Or is it?

Look, it's complicated. And there are plenty of valid ways to feel about it, many of them contradictory to one another. If you've been reading my reviews here for any length of time, you'll have already suffered through endless talk about respectability politics, representation, and the essential paradox behind the struggle against discrimination and erasure. If you're interested in my thoughts on those things and how they intersect with popular media you can check them out over on my Legends of Tomorrow reviews for 'This is Gus,' and 'A Woman's Place is in the War Effort.'

The short version, there's a bit of a divide among those striving for better LGBTQAII+ representation that can be boiled down to 'God, it's nice to finally get some representation on screen, it feels like we're making progress' versus 'Gee, thanks for giving the minimum possible handwave to us at the last possible moment before the characters all leave.' Personally, I lean toward the former, and I think that's at least partially a generational thing, but I can't really find fault with anyone arguing the latter.

I will say that I came across a post on Twitter in which someone said, 'Yaz came out of the closet, and the episode killed her literally nine times' which made me laugh out loud for quite some time. While I don't really think this one counts as a 'bury your gays' moment, I cannot deny that that is a very funny and well-constructed joke. If anyone knows who wrote it, please cite them in the comments.

Bits and Pieces:

-- It was much appreciated that they acknowledged the fallout from 'Flux' at least as far as it having trashed the TARDIS. It is, however, a little odd that there isn't a safer way to trigger the TARDIS reset then to pull the lever and run to the door before the process kills them all.

-- That said, the visuals of the TARDIS interior refolding into themselves were very cool looking.

-- Sarah's storage units are shockingly spacious. Also, Nick isn't making particularly good use of the space in his unit. Her rates must be incredibly reasonable.

-- I really enjoyed the detail that it was called 'Elf Storage' because the S had fallen off and she'd never bothered to replace it.

-- Let's pause for a moment to look at the few hints we get regarding Sarah's backstory. It's thrown out in a surprisingly casual way that she hasn't spoken to her mother since August and we are now definitively at New Year's Eve, which certainly implies some level of estrangement, although based on their phone interactions they at least don't seem openly hostile. Also, her Mother's uncle left her his storage facility? I have a lot of questions.

-- Also, Sarah mentions that she has many friends and close relatives that wouldn't bother to try to save her. So many questions. The script does a really good job of giving us just enough about Sarah's family to be really interesting but not distracting.

-- Seriously, Nick, just throw things away. It is a nice little detail to make him read as very kind and considerate, but come on, Nick. You have got to see how serial-killer-y all the labeling looks.

-- It was nice how thoroughly they painted the picture of Jeff, despite him never being seen. The montage revealing that he'd broken literally every rule about what could be stored there was charming. Bonus points for leaving it an open question as to whether Jeff and Sarah were romantically involved or not.

-- The whole thing about Sarah not being able to silence the messages from all her friends out enjoying New Year's was unnecessary and never really paid off in any particular way. Also, aren't there like three different ways to silence notifications on a phone that's advanced enough to send you notifications?

-- Another bonus of the time loop format, and one that I honestly hadn't thought of in advance. One of the big problems with Daleks is that while they can kill as many nameless extras as you like, and the Doctor can talk all day about how dangerous they are, they really aren't ever allowed to kill anybody important (Captain Jack notwithstanding), which blunts their impact. Here the rule is very starkly shown to be – if the Dalek finds you, it kills you. Pretty quickly and with very little fuss. It made them feel properly menacing for the first time in a long time to me.

-- The exception of course being Nick. Have we ever seen anyone pull the whole 'Duck and get them to shoot each other' trick on the Daleks? It's such an old saw, but I don't think we have. That, combined with Nick and the Doctor's glee about the situation really sold it.

-- OK, I didn't make a thing about it earlier, because this is fiction and they framed it as 'good hearted friend trying to help get an issue out in the open.' So Dan gets a pass for it this once. But let's be clear, it is not in any way cool to tell someone that a mutual friend has just come out of the closet and is experiencing same sex attraction for them. That is so not OK that I don't even know how to start. Just don't do it.

-- And to counter that criticism, his hopeful look at both of them at the end there was endearing as Hell. You can tell that he is hard core rooting for this to work out between them.

-- The direction in this one made excellent use of Dutch Angles at appropriate times. This has been your film geek weird-flex for the week.

-- One detail of the script that was very much appreciated was the way the number of time loop iterations corresponded to the number of minutes after 11:50 (or 23:50 if you prefer) that the loop started. That was of endless help in keeping straight how many times they'd been through things.

-- Shout out to whoever came up with the perfectly wonderful gag of Nick standing in front of Sarah to protect her from Dalek fire, only for her to yell at him for patronizing her, to which he responds by using her as a human shield. It was a beautiful moment.

-- Was that the crane operator from 'Woman Who Fell to Earth' watching the fireworks at the end?

I'm not crazy about Sarah's sweater.


Nick: "Won’t be long. See you next year."
Sarah: "Ugh. Have you been practicing that?"
Nick: (sadly) "...Yes."

Sarah: "No no no. Were stuck in a time loop. With killer robots."
Nick: "OK, that makes sense."
Sarah: "Does it?"

Yaz: "You have a lot of ex-girlfriends. They’re... alive still... aren’t they?"

Sarah: "You’re the reason I’m trapped here with a... a... a robot..."
Everyone: "Dalek!"
Sarah: "With a stupidly named robot!"

Yaz: "Is that a good thing or a bad thing?"
The Doctor: "Not sure. Definitely one of those."

Sarah: "That is so stalker-y."
Nick: "I prefer unrequited."

It's not perfect. Not everything tracks 100%. The bombarding social media alert thing gets dropped unceremoniously and never amounts to anything. The detail of Nick hiding behind his pile of stored former girlfriend's belongings doesn't accomplish anything other than allowing them to make the 'Ex. Terminated' joke, although to be fair that did make me laugh. Also, I suspect there are a lot of people accusing Yaz' feelings of suddenly coming out of nowhere, despite the fact that you can find traces of them as far back as series 11 if you're looking. But that's not a fight I'm interested in picking at this time.

Dammit, this is just such a huge rise in quality from Chibnall's earlier scripts. Particularly the New Year's ones. It's so much more disciplined, comes to so much clearer and more satisfying a conclusion. Just on every level, it's better.

This is a focused work that knows the story that it wants to tell, and tells that story with admirable discipline, resisting the urge to get distracted by other things.

Eleven out of thirteen Doctors. I was really pleasantly surprised by this.

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.

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