REVIEW: “Doctor Who – Revolution of the Daleks” (2021 New Year’s Special)

It feels like ages since a new episode of Doctor Who has aired. I know season 12 finished airing this past March, but it feels much longer than that. After a year like 2020, it feels good to have a new Doctor Who episode to look forward to. And, let’s be real, a new episode of Doctor Who is always something to be excited for, even if you’re not loving the current run. Every episode of Doctor Who is a blank slate. There is a chance for that episode to be something great or, conversely, to be less-than-stellar. And that’s the joy of the show—you never know what you’re gonna get. It’s with this mindset that I approached the 2021 New Year’s Day special, Revolution of the Daleks. I enjoyed the previous New Year’s special, Resolution, so I was pretty excited going into this. Plus, there’s the added excitement of the proper return of John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness and the drama of two companions departing by the end of the story—Bradley Walsh’s Graham and Tosin Cole’s Ryan. Revolution of the Daleks had a lot going for it, but how did it fare as a story? Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks is a rollicking adventure. Filled with action, drama, a surprising amount of introspection, and plenty of heart, it’s an excellent special that should prove plenty pleasing. (4.5 out of 5 wands.) 

(NOTE: This review features spoilers. Read at your own risk.)

Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks (written by Chris Chibnall, directed by Lee Haven Jones)
The Doctor is imprisoned halfway across the universe. On Earth, the sighting of a Dalek alerts Ryan, Graham and Yaz. Can the return of Captain Jack Harkness help them stop a deadly Dalek takeover?

Revolution of the Daleks is simultaneously a sequel to 2019’s Resolution and to the series twelve finale, The Timeless Children—and, with that in mind, it’s worth rewatching both episodes to ensure you’re up to speed. The episode begins a few hours after Resolution’s climax, showing the UK government transporting the remains of the reconnaissance Dalek’s casing to a lab for further study. However, the transportation of the Dalek is interrupted by a woman (presumably working for returning antagonist Jack Robertson’s (Chris Noth) company.) This woman steals the Dalek and we jump some time into the future where Robertson and the soon-to-be prime minister, Jo Patterson (Harriet Walter), are meeting. The two have struck a deal where Robertson’s company will manufacture security drones based on the reconnaissance Dalek’s design in exchange for Patterson and the UK government not looking into Robertson’s taxes. He expects to have the security drones ready within a year, and as we cut to Robertson’s R&D Department, led by Leo Rugazzi (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), we can see this is a doable goal.

While we learn that these new security drones are not technically Daleks—they’re just casings controlled by an artificial intelligence—it is soon revealed that Leo has been experimenting with cloning the reconnaissance Dalek’s remaining DNA, much to Robertson’s dismay who orders Leo to destroy it. Of course, when there’s even a single Dalek in existence, there’s trouble ahead—a premise as good as any for a fun sci-fi romp. What are the ethics of using robot drones to police one’s citizens? What is in this for Robertson—is it just the money or is there some kind of political gain? And what will the Daleks, who are obviously going to appear, going to end up doing? Honestly, it’s a great setup. It’s nice seeing Robertson in a role that’s more than just a thinly-veiled Trump caricature and the idea of using Dalek casings as part of the police force feels dystopian in a very classic Doctor Who kind of way.

Meanwhile, Ryan, Yaz, and Graham have been back on Earth for ten months (their time) following the events of The Timeless Children. In all that time, they’ve had no contact with the Doctor who, unbeknownst to them, has been imprisoned in a Judoon prison for multiple decades (her time). While Ryan and Graham have mostly adjusted to life without the Doctor, Yaz isn’t doing so well. She spends most of her time in the TARDIS the three of them were sent home with, trying to find the Doctor. As always, I am thrilled when Yaz is given something to do or something meaty to grapple with, and Revelation of the Daleks ends up focusing quite a bit on her—much to my delight. The Doctor, similarly, isn’t faring so well in prison, spending her monotonous days doing the same activities and conversing with her other co-prisoners—who end up being a delightful who’s who of Doctor Who villains. Much of the Doctor’s time here has been spent missing her friends and reflecting on the monumental information about her past she learned in The Timeless Children. It’s nice that this special takes the time to properly establish both the plot and the character states of mind before the narrative proper. A big complaint I had regarding the series twelve finale was the lack of impact the Doctor’s uncovered-past seemed to have on her, so it was a wonderful development to see her struggling with those revelations some—an arc I hope will be continued in series thirteen. 

It can’t be all quiet introspection, of course, so the plot kicks in pretty quickly. Ryan and Graham show Yaz a video of Robertson and Patterson testing the security drones, shaking her out of her reverie and giving the gang a renewed sense of purpose—someone has to stop the Dalek and if it’s not going to be the Doctor, then it might as well be them. Meanwhile, Leo has been taken over by the cloned Dalek—in a manner similar, and still as creepy, to the one used by the reconnaissance Dalek in Resolution—and we learn that the Dalek has been busy cloning itself, a revelation which is really bad news. While the gang investigates the goings-on with the Dalek, Captain Jack Harkness appears in the Judoon prison on a mission to rescue the Doctor. While it would have been nice to see the Doctor break herself out of prison, I can’t deny how fun it was to watch Jack and the Doctor team up like this. And, with the Doctor freed from prison and returned to her TARDIS, it takes very little time for her to be reunited with her friends and the main thrust of the episode to begin.

The bulk of the rest of the episode sees the Doctor, Jack, Yaz, Ryan, and Graham figuring out what Robertson is doing with a Dalek, what the Daleks want, and how to stop them. At the same time, the special explores the emotional fallout from The Timeless Children felt by all four of our leads. All three of the companions are a bit reluctant to trust the Doctor again so quickly, with Yaz physically shoving the Doctor away after her reappearance. But the episode separates the group—sending Jack and Yaz off to investigate a factory in Osaka filled with cloned Daleks, while the Doctor, Ryan, and Graham interrogate Robertson about his involvement—allowing each character ample time to reflect on everything. Jack and Yaz discuss the pain that being left behind by the Doctor inflicts, with Jack reminding Yaz that they’ll never know when their time with the Doctor will end, so they should relish it while they have it. Meanwhile, both the Doctor and Ryan notice something is off with the other one and confront each other. Ryan tells the Doctor of the life he’s reshaped on Earth in her absence while the Doctor tells him of the doubt she feels about herself in the wake of her uncovered past.

What’s interesting about these conversations is how well they lay the groundwork for future events. Here, we see the beginnings of Ryan’s departure from the TARDIS while discovering Yaz’s reliance on the Doctor and their adventures and the Doctor’s uncertainty with herself. The latter two of these open intriguing doors for series thirteen to explore—I’d love to see the Doctor continuing to uncover her past and grapple with what that means to her while Yaz grapples with the lifestyle that comes with traveling with the Doctor. These scenes are the emotional center of the special. They are filled with a nuance one might not expect from Doctor Who. The Doctor seeming so affected by what she’s learned of her past is exactly what I wanted to see in The Timeless Children, and seeing it here has honestly begun to redeem that episode for me—but only a little. With more exploration, these ideas could still potentially win me over, though. Ultimately, these scenes are my favorite aspects of the special. I’d happily take these quiet, character-driven moments over explosive Dalek battles any day.

Speaking of the Daleks and their plan, they’re sort of the weak part of the special. The cloned Dalek’s controlling of Leo is less effective here than it was in Resolution sheerly because we’ve seen it before and this special leans less heavily into the Body Snatchers aspect than Resolution did. The utilization of Dalek casings as security drones by the UK government seems rife for some kind of commentary—especially after a year filled with discourse about police brutality—but this never materializes as the cloned Dalek’s plan is quickly revealed (after a confrontation with the Doctor and company, who have joined Yaz and Jack and the Osaka Factory). The cloned Dalek teleports countless clones of itself into all of the security drone casings, creating an army of mutated Daleks. The episode pretty quickly devolves into a more standard Doctor vs Daleks story, with the Doctor having to figure out a way to stop these Daleks before they destroy humanity and take over the earth.

Her solution is pretty clever though, as she signals a squad of RTD-era Daleks from deep space, knowing they will exterminate any Daleks they deem impure. While watching Daleks fight other Daleks is quite enjoyable—as is seeing Jack, Ryan, and Graham sneak around a Dalek saucer, planting bombs to destroy this new squad—it amounts to nothing more than a bit of mindless fun that doesn’t hold a candle to the ideas introduced by the special’s premise or the character moments delivered in the episode’s second act and climax. This isn’t to say the plot is bad. It’s not; it’s perfectly serviceable and often quite enjoyable. But there are a lot of threads left unexplored in favor of exploring more character-driven things. Normally, that might annoy me but the character stuff in Revolution of the Daleks is so good that I can easily excuse the Dalek plot not being as well-explored. Ultimately, it’s still a fun Dalek story but not one that’s particularly memorable. 

What people will remember about Revolution of the Daleks are its character moments. All of the returning characters—with the exception, perhaps, of Graham—are utilized brilliantly. Robertson is far less of a caricature this time around, and better developed as a genuine, smarmy threat. Ryan and Yaz both have meaty subplots, as I’ve previously mentioned, and it’s nice seeing Jack in an episode where he’s not just a throwaway cameo teasing a future plot point (ie: Fugitive of the Judoon). Jack doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do here, but he’s still written with a fair amount of depth and I love the rapport he has with both Yaz and the Thirteenth Doctor. While I’d never want Jack on board as a full-time companion, I’d be game with him returning in season thirteen for another adventure. Of course, the most anticipated part of the episode is probably Ryan and Graham’s departure. And I gotta say—I think it worked remarkably well.

Both Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat’s eras were filled with dramatic and heartbreaking companion departures, so it’s nice to see Ryan and Graham simply choose to leave of their own accord. Ryan wants to pursue the life he’s built in the Doctor’s absence on Earth and Graham wants to stick by his grandson’s side. The special feels like a definitive ending for these characters and their arcs while still leaving the door open for them to return someday as it’s shown they intend to investigate weird occurrences across the planet and have been gifted psychic paper by the Doctor. To add an extra bow to this storyline, they even circled back around to a plot point introduced in the season eleven premiere—Ryan trying to overcome his dyspraxia and ride a bike. Here, at the end of his final episode as a regular companion, he continues to try—this time, complete with an emotional glimpse of Grace (Sharon D. Clarke), his grandmother, beaming at him. It’s a suitably emotional ending that perfectly straddles that line between joy and sadness. 

And, honestly, that’s a great way to describe Revolution of the Daleks as a whole. It’s a well written, well directed special that perfectly straddles the line between joy and sadness, between excitement and introspection, and between action and quiet, character-driven moments. As a Dalek episode, it’s nothing particularly special. The premise is something unique and interesting, rife with potential avenues for social commentary, but the episode doesn’t do much with those ideas. What it does do, though, is provide a lot of excitement, energy, and action. The VFX are excellent, even outside of the usual standards one must apply to Doctor Who. The physical Dalek Mutants appear to be fully functional practical effects—and it shows. Segun Akinola’s score is excellent, bringing even more energy to the episode. Overall, even with the Daleks not amounting to much, Revolution of the Daleks looks, feels, and sounds great. 

But where the Dalek plot is lacking, the character arcs more than make up the difference. It’s well past time we got to see all of these characters given something weighty to play with, and all of the actors prove more than up to the task. The episode is a long one, clocking in at around 71 minutes, but that length is what gives the episode time to explore all of these character beats. Jack’s return was great and the door is open for him to return. Ryan and Graham’s departure was poignant and emotional without being emotionally devastating—and the door is open for their return, too. While I’ll miss them, I’m deeply looking forward to what the show does with Yaz’s growing reliance on the Doctor and the Doctor’s uncertainty about herself. There’s so much there that’s rife for exploring and I can’t wait to see what they do with it—especially with the addition of a new companion (revealed in a post-credits scene), Dan (played by John Bishop). Revolution of the Daleks is a great Doctor Who special. It’s so good that I’m genuinely excited to see what comes next—a statement I couldn’t fully say when season twelve ended.

4.5 out of 5 wands.

2 comments

  1. I enjoyed Revolution of the Daleks a lot. Its certainly one of the stronger stories of the Chibnall era and a great ~Dalek story as well. Fun to see Captain Jack return, and there was a nice leaiving scene for Ryan and Graham. Will be interesting to see where the 13th Doctor’s era goes for here.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved this episode, it made me so happy. I think it made plenty of social commentary – if it did more it would be heavy handed. Jack was wonderful, and I loved all prison scenes with the Doctor and escape. Personally I think they have excellent chemistry, you can feel centuries old friendship. I wouldn’t mind him tagging along longer.

    I think the Doctor’s reaction was perfectly appropriate in Timeless Children (she was still in shock,. didn’t have time to process it), and that her complete reaction comes now felt true to the character.

    All characters’ bits were great, except Doctor-Ryan came a somewhat out of the blue. They barely talked before. Graham would be more organic choice but I understand why Ryan was pickted. All in all I enjoyed this finale. It had many things I enjoy, it was like cosy blanket and hot cuppa. If anything else biggest complaint is I wish it was even longer, with more characters’ interacting, mainly the Doctor, fam and Jack but that’s just me being greedy. Good episode after such a long pause (couple centuries of 2020) and possibly before a another long pause.

    BTW good review even if I didn’t agree with everything:-)

    Liked by 1 person

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