3.5 out of 5 stars
 
Here’s the top line. That was pretty good. Plenty of the faults of this era are still present, but many were mitigated and all of the extra special Flux and Timeless Child annoyances visited upon us have been temporarily set aside. This was a simple story which – just about – sustained 60 minutes. It wasn’t told in a pointlessly confusing way, nor was it egregiously padded out (much) to fit the running time. There’s a problem, it gets worse, there’s a solution. And, we’re blessed with a couple of guests stars who really elevate the material – Aisling Bea in particular really makes even the poorest dialogue sing.

It seems as if Chris Chibnall’s chief contribution to Doctor Who may be having episodes air on the dates the stories are set, which makes this episode all about New Year’s Eve but transmitting on New Year’s Day all the odder. With any lucky, Rusty will bring back Christmas episodes (and Saturdays, although today is a Saturday). Anyway, let’s meet Sarah whose job is a) running a storage facility and b) doling out exposition while on the phone to Mrs Doyle.

This is a good idea for a story – a storage facility is a great spooky location for an adventure (especially with lighting and direction as good as this) and time loops are fun. But almost immediately there is stupid overwriting. Does this facility really have more employees (two) than customers (one)? And yet, being reliably staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, is still an absolute priority for the owner? The same is true of the needlessly high stakes TARDIS fix. Why not land first, then get everyone out, and then trigger the reboot? And just how long does it take these super Daleks with their fancy upgraded super weapons to blow a hole in one thin aluminium door? (They can also teleport it seems – so why not just teleport on to the other side of the door?)

And why does nobody know what a Dalek is? Dan acts like he’s never seen one before and yet he was an active (or at least present) member of a story in which the Doctor deliberately plotted to wipe them all out. (Seems like she needn’t have bothered.) And Sarah and Nick presumably slept through last year’s New Year’s Day special in which the streets of the UK were crawling with the buggers. Also, Sarah (who basically has to run this place singlehanded due to her feckless staff) has never once walked down the corridor in which her only customer has his storage unit until tonight. But her trying to face down a Dalek is some of the best writing we’ve seen in years (at least on episodes credited to the show-runner), and her fumblingly getting to know Nick really does work. “We must have missed each other,” she pathetically lies, hating herself. LOOK! A LINE WITH SUBTEXT! IN A CHRIS CHIBNALL SCRIPT!! IT MUST BE CHRISTMAS!!

Seeing both Nick and Sarah get offed so early is quite shocking – but the lead in to the titles is actually great, even if the other shoe drops almost immediately. Though this isn’t quite a Groundhog Day situation in which people in the time loop remember everything, nor is it TNG’s Cause and Effect where discovering you’re in a time loop is the biggest problem. Here people kind of remember but also kind of don’t, until they definitely do, all of which feels like the weakest possible choice. And the rules of the time loop are desperately fuzzy. Time keeps resetting closer and closer to midnight, which does something to mitigate the inherent lack of drama when you know you’ll always get another go. But reaching midnight is never something we notice – the time loop resets when everyone’s dead, regardless of what time it is, so we have a ticking clock which never counts down to zero.

Now, come on, Chris, you’ve only got five characters to service. You must be able to find something for Yas and Dan to do this time. Sadly, not. There’s lip-service paid to the fact that they need to work together as a team (although the Doctor’s rousing speech is desperately shit and then immediately undercut by the fact that the next go through is their least successful yet). And sure, all five are present and doing… stuff at the end – even Sarah’s mammy. But whereas Sarah and Nick light up the screen as fully rounded characters with agency and appeal and an arc, Yas and Dan just traipse around after the Doctor, as usual. Yes, Dan goes off to “distract a Dalek” at one point but this is just busy-work. It doesn’t change anything. He doesn’t learn anything useful, and the Doctor isn’t noticeably helped by this noble act. In fact, until the climax, she’s even more useless than usual, taking ages to cotton on to what’s happening, alienating everyone and unable to get there in time to save Nick who has to figure out how to duck all by himself.

As usual, there’s a patented story-grinds-to-a-halt-so-characters-can-talk-about-their-feelings-but-not-in-a-way-which-affects-the-plot scene. But if we’re going to have one of those, let it be this one. Poor old Mandip Gill who has stuck with this thankless part for seemingly ever, finally gets to show what she’s capable of. Yes, the line about her and Dan having travelled together for four years is just absurd, and yes, the episode ends by kicking the can down the road yet again, and no this scene doesn’t connect with the rest of the episode thematically or in plot terms – but it does work as a bit of television drama. If only the story it was telling wasn’t one about an abusive relationship. Hey-ho. The fact that Sarah and Nick’s relationship can be developed so smoothly without the plot needing to stop so they can chat makes this device even more irritating. Why is this so easy with characters we’ve only just met and so hard with characters one of whom we first saw in October 2018?

Sarah is not just defined in terms of her relationship to Nick either. Her not trusting the Doctor is very neat. True, it once again undermines the Doctor, but it makes sense, speaks to her character, and complicates the plot without any kind of “special pleading”. And that’s this episode all over. As the story of how Sarah and Nick met under bizarre circumstances and were freed from the time loop and spared from the Daleks by a not very likeable blonde lady in funny clothes who probably caused all this to happen – it’s exciting, looks great and is even funny at times. Not only that, it all just about makes sense, and it’s quite hard to guess the ending. Dragging it down are two extraneous characters who add nothing and quite often just stand around mute, engage in dreadful “bants”, or repeat what other people have already said, but as they’re not on-screen much, the amount of damage they can do is limited.

As usual then, this is first draft stuff, with inconstancies and silliness which a quick script-editor’s pass would have easily fixed. But this is a hugely promising first draft. Unlike pretty much everything from Spyfall onwards (with the possible exceptions of The Haunting of Villa Diodati and Village of the Angels) this doesn’t have any major problems which hole it below the waterline. It works. It’s a story. So Happy New Year everybody.

Trekaday #000: The Cage
Trekaday 001: The Man Trap, Charlie X, Where No Man Has Gone Before, The Naked Time