As with COVID-19 (and so many things) at this stage I’m resigned to just having to ride it out. Apparently, pandemic-related filming restrictions mean this year we will get even fewer episodes of Doctor Who than were planned. I can’t say that’s a bad thing. The sooner we get through this era, the happier I will be. Dreams of Chibnall leaving early and Whittaker staying on seem to be just as fanciful as hopes that the UK government won’t screw up the vaccine rollout or the Brexit would be averted at the 11th hour. So, now we have to make the best of what we’ve got.

And – lo! – here are all the Chris Chibnall writing flaws we’re used to. Let’s take them one at a time. Firstly, he sequesters his stories into shooty-bang-bang scenes and let’s-calmly-talk-about-our-feelings scenes and the two never affect each other. Let’s-calmly-talk-about-our-feelings scenes make for good therapy but lousy drama in the first place. What’s worse is that there’s no interaction. In good writing, if you do choose to take a break from the action in order to explore a character’s emotional state, those emotions are products of the action scenes, and the conversation affects the choices that the characters make when the mayhem starts up again. Almost like it’s, I dunno, the same story. Here, none of the characters moping about the Doctor being there or not being there has the slightest bearing on the battle against the Daleks, so all that happens is that the talk-about-your-feelings scenes make the shooty-bang-bang scenes seem silly and the shooty-bang-bang scenes make the talk-about-your-feelings scenes seem dull.

And Chibnall inelegantly carves his story into unrelated segments temporarily as well as tonally. The massive cliffhanger at the end of the last episode promised us a story about the Doctor’s escape from prison as the (ugh) “fam” cope with life without her back on Earth. You know, the way that the cliffhanger involving the sudden appearance of Catherine Tate in a wedding dress was followed by a whole story involving Catherine Tate in a wedding dress. Here, the business of the Doctor being in prison is dealt with in its entirety in the first 15 minutes, never to be referred to again.

And what’s the point of bringing back a beloved character from an earlier and better-written incarnation of the show, if you can’t use that character to rob the Doctor of agency and generally belittle the character? As if the Doctor couldn’t escape from a Judoon prison on her own. As if!! This, by the way, is the only plot function for Captain Jack, even though he continues smirking around for the rest of the episode. Meanwhile the (ugh) “fam” discover there is something Dalek-y going on and massively fail to do anything useful to stop it.

There’s a lot of good story to be told about what travelling with the Doctor does to you, and what happens when it stops. But there’s so little depth to these characters, so little specificity in the writing, that all we get is that a) they look a bit mis and b) they are utterly incapable of useful action without the Doctor there to back them up. Which not only makes me wonder what the Doctor sees in them, but casts the hinted-at spin-off, The Adventures of Graham and Ryan in a different light. How long you think they’ll last with only psychic paper to back them up? A week? A day?

Speaking of characters with so little depth, and padding the running time with story threads which lead nowhere, the supporting cast of IT whizz Leo and soon-to-be-PM Jo are incredibly thinly drawn even by Chibnall’s standards. In a relentlessly uninteresting prologue, fixated on details about how the Dalek from last year’s special ends up where the plot needs it to be, there is not one hint of character detail beyond a passing reference to a generically poorly mum. This laborious sequence again never pays off, and is the least interesting, most needlessly complicated way of reintroducing the Daleks imaginable. Any other writer would have whipped off the sheet to reveal the creature, dealing with how it got there in a throw-away line, so we could have more of the actual narrative. But somebody gave Chibnall 75 minutes to fill which is why the story doesn’t start for the first 15, ends 15 minutes early and the schedulers have to pad with three minutes of trailers after it’s over.

And, christ, these characters are thin. IT whiz kid is young and Does Technology, manipulative politician is manipulative and political. Neither of them gets any growth or is altered by events in any way, and both are mown down by Daleks as soon as they’ve fulfilled their plot function. There’s barely even any conflict between the three co-conspirators. And, if you’ve come to the conclusion that Dalek-remakes-itself-by-possessing-human is literally the only Dalek story you’re capable of telling, so – fuck it – you’re just going to do it twice in a row, maybe don’t spend the first ten minutes of your screen time reminding us how fresh this all seemed last year.

Most of the rest of the episode just consists of the (ugh) “fam” trudging around after the Doctor, en masse, barely differentiated, lucky to get a line of dialogue here or there. There’s a moment in the Dalek factory, where for a second I thought the episode was going to take a turn for the hugely better. One of those Dalek mutants plops down onto Jack’s back and begins trying to take him over – you know in exactly the same way that they did last year, but then we’d never seen them do that before.

Consider what might happen if a Dalek mutant had Jack Harkness under its power? A Dalek mutant with all the hate and ferocity of a Dalek but in the body of a man who cannot be killed. The mind reels! Luckily, Chibnall was smart enough to see the possibility of a really good story coming and quickly nipped that sucker in the bud. Whew. The whole scene was just there to up the shooty-bang-bang quotient of the story. It didn’t matter that Yaz and Jack were almost taken over and it didn’t matter on whose backs the Dalek mutants landed. Lucky escape for all concerned!

Speaking of shooty-bang-bang, what happens next is basically horrible. Dozens of Daleks, whose only interest is in purging the streets of England of non-Dalek life exterminate the shit out of everyone. This is never reset, or retconned away. Hundreds of people died, maybe thousands. But nor is it ever referred to again. The Daleks end up defeated. Everybody happy. But Yaz, and Graham and Ryan aren’t even curious about whether any of their family or friends is among the prodigious towers of corpses. How long will Britons be burying the dead in mass graves for? For how long will the mourning last? What effect will this slaughter have on the national psyche? Who cares? Happy New Year!!

And then, just briefly, against all the odds, the episode did start to get good, or at least interesting. The Doctor’s plan – to summon bronze Daleks to see off the cyberpunk Daleks – is, if not wildly original, then at least arrestingly insane. It doesn’t sound very much as if it’s a product of her long incarceration, nor her newly-complicated family tree (the first, as noted is never referred to again; the second is referred to twice, firstly to dismiss it entirely, secondly to establish she’s angry, but that anger never becomes a plot point) but it is a suitably desperate measure to deal with a desperate situation. And then, Mr Big goes and fucks it up. That’s actually exciting!

While this is straight out of the Harry Ellis school of sleazy negotiations (so it appears Die Hard is actually a New Year’s film) it does fit with what little we know of Mr Big’s character, and Chris Noth sells it hard. And the eventual resolution with the spare TARDIS disguised as a police box is neat. Like a stopped clock, Chris Chibnall can’t help but write an actual story every so often, as hard as he seemingly tries not to. But if anything, this ends up being too easy, too brief. There’s no cost to any of the people we care about, whereas the cost to others is so gigantic, we can’t even contemplate it.

This all looks pretty good, I suppose. Director Lee Haven Jones keeps it all moving, Jodie Whittaker does what she can with the very limited opportunities the script offers her (first relegated to being Jack’s companion, then snapping back into generic anydoctor mode, with no hint of either of the two different massive traumas she’s just faced) and Chris Noth pitches his pantomime villain at the right level. But none of it resonates, none of it surprises. It’s Doctor Who by the numbers, but written by someone who can only count on his fingers.

And then, some people leave the TARDIS.

The Doctor, incarcerated for decades, manages to return to her (ugh) “fam” after an entirely arbitrary period of ten months. The Doctor bringing back Rose a year late in Aliens of London was devastating, drove a long-standing wedge between him and Rose’s family and served to introduce the idea that travelling in the TARDIS can sometimes come at a cost. Here, as noted, the supporting cast is never more than a bit down-in-the-dumps without the Doctor, and incapable of executing any kind of useful planet-saving plan in her absence. But the length of their separation and their reaction at the end of the story all feels completely random.

Ryan’s been a bit glum for much of the preceding season, but the character is so tissue-paper-thin and Tosin Cole so determined to underplay that it’s impossible to glean anything specific or interesting from his journey through the story or his decision at the end of it. His departure I guess makes sense if you squint at it, and thus so does Graham who wants to look after him. But Yaz seemed the most betrayed when the Doctor vanished and yet bizarrely she’s the only one who’s staying. In the hands of another showrunner, I might be excited at the possibility of this unhealthy attachment being further explored. What does Chris Chibnall have in mind for next year’s batch of episodes? Fucking John Bishop.

2 out of 5 stars
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