Doctor Who‘s 2021 New Year’s Special Was Exciting, Ridiculous, Heartbreaking Fun
In other words, Doctor Who at its bestPhoto Courtesy of BBC America TV Features Doctor Who
From 2005 to 2017, Doctor Who had kept an over decade-long Christmas tradition, where the legacy sci-fi franchise would have a festive episode—sometimes serious, sometimes silly—in which the Doctor and friends would go on some sort of Christmas-themed adventure. In 2019, that tradition was replaced with a new one, where we can now expect a new special to kick off each New Year’s Day. Although showrunner Chris Chibnall has had his ups and downs in guiding the 13th Doctor on her path since 2018, the New Year’s specials have all been successes so far, with “Revolution of the Daleks” being the best one yet.
Running just over an hour, the episode crams enough twists and plot points to be worthy of the show’s many two-parters. Yet by having it be in one special, the pacing is dramatically improved, keeping viewers engaged and surprised throughout. I’ve been highly critical of the Doctor’s (Jodie Whittaker) lower moments in her current regeneration, but beyond a few questionable scenes in the wake of recent events the episode failed to predict, I have very few issues here. “Revolution of the Daleks” contains the best elements of Doctor Who’s current iteration and leaves behind the worst, resulting with something that made me laugh, gasp, and even tear up a little.
For a show all about time, “Revolution of the Daleks” isn’t very timely. Filmed in 2019 along with the rest of Series 12, the episode exists in a parallel universe to ours where the coronavirus doesn’t exist—at least not when it takes place on New Year’s Day of 2021. Given Doctor Who’s increasing tendency to comment on current events, I’d be shocked if they don’t incorporate the virus into the show’s canon at some point, especially with confirmation that writing continued after the outbreak in March.
However, the virus isn’t the only thing the episode fails to predict. As bizarre as it sounds, the special’s premise centers on the U.K. government discovering the half-destroyed shell of the Dalek which attacked Earth in the 2019 New Year’s special. Trump-wannabe Jack Robertson (Chris Noth), and candidate for Prime Minister, Jo Patterson (Harriet Walter), then create an army of remote-controlled Dalek shells for “security” reasons.
It’s as ridiculous as it sounds, but fortunately, the episode leans into the absurdity for great comical effect. The first time I ever saw a Dalek, I couldn’t help from laughing in derision. The things are ridiculous; they literally have a toilet plunger for one arm and a whisk for the other! Over time, Doctor Who fans have adapted to seeing them so many times that they can actually appear menacing, but it’s good that the show is still willing to not take itself seriously all the time.
The episode also works thanks to the hilariously hammy performances of Noth and Walter as replacements for the U.S. President (for 17 more days at the time of writing, thank god) Donald Trump and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, respectively, but certainly not respectfully. It seems that simply alluding to the failing leaders wasn’t enough for Doctor Who, so the show has replaced them with fictional leaders who can now make appearances. It’s been fascinating to see how the series goes back and forth between fictional and real leaders, depicting a fake president instead of Bush, then having Obama (who infamously turned into the Master along with the rest of the world’s humans in the 2009 Christmas special) and Trump, and now likely Patterson instead of Biden. Despite its strangeness, Noth’s mustache-twiddling as Patterson makes him a character I love to hate, and I can’t wait to see him inevitably return in the future.
Speaking of returns, the special gives a full taste of the immortal Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), who springs the Doctor out of space prison after the tease we got in the previous series’ episode, “Fugitive of the Judoon.” (That description may be a bit suggestive, but it’s what the horndog Jack would have wanted.) Up there with River Song (Alex Kingston) as one of Doctor Who’s longest-running companions, fan’s undying love for the undying bisexual hero gave him his own spin-off series with Torchwood, and now that he’s back in the main series, he’s just as lovable as ever. It’s not clear if he’ll be making any more returns in the near future, but few companions are as worthy of it as Jack. If this is fan service, it’s the best kind of it.
Also returning are the Doctor’s three regular companions, lovingly referred to as the “fam,” some for the last time. I’ve complained in the past about three being a crowd aboard the TARDIS, but while I’m happy the remaining companion has more room to breathe, the farewell to the departing ones is still affecting. The TARDIS has perhaps never been as diverse as it has been since 2018. In addition to allowing audience members of different races, religions, and abilities to see themselves onscreen, each companion has also become a lovable addition to Doctor Who in their own rights, and those leaving will be sorely missed.
Although the special episode was great, its premise smells a bit of plagiarism, because believe it or not, this isn’t the first time Daleks have teamed up with the prime minister and used their integration with the U.K. government to come back to power. That exact thing happened in the 2010 episode “Victory of the Daleks,” in which Winston Churchill utilizes the help of a camouflaged Dalek to fight the Nazis, which went similarly poorly. You really can’t make this shit up. Whether an allusion, coincidence or some copying, prime ministers need to stop teaming up with these genocidal trash cans with plunger-hands! Don’t you get any ideas, Boris!
Finally, there’s some troubling imagery early on in the episode, in which a Dalek is repurposed to be an aide to the police force, dispersing tear gas in order to clear protestors. Of course, protests have been a part of life as long as organized government has been, but they reached new heights this past summer during the outrage following the police killing of George Floyd, in which protestors were battered and even killed by police and counter-protestors. Written and filmed before these events, how viewers interpret this unfortunate imagery is up to them. Is it an apt description of what real-world governments are doing, with military-grade gear and weapons being used to disperse protestors in real life? Or is it a poorly judged, insensitive way to insert a silly alien into a dead-serious issue that has killed, maimed, and traumatized countless people, especially Black people, long before the episode was written? I’m not sure myself, but it definitely made me uncomfortable.
Despite these issues, I came away from “Revolution of the Daleks” loving nearly every minute of it, and am even more excited for the show’s future after its bombshell finale from Series 12. With Series 13’s filming being delayed and shortened by COVID-19, the BBC has promised more episodes before year’s end, which will include the show’s 300th story since the 2005 revival, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Whenever they air, I look forward to where—and when—the Doctor and friends journey next.
Joseph Stanichar is a freelance writer who specializes in videogames and pop culture. He’s written for publications such as Game Informer, Twinfinite and The Post. He’s on Twitter @JosephStanichar.
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