Doctor Who Brings Back the Daleks in a Stirring New Year’s Day Special
New Year's Day Special ("Resolution")Photo: James Pardon/BBC America TV Reviews Doctor Who
Matt Brennan and Josh Jackson review Doctor Who each week in a series of letters.
Happy New Year! I can only hope you haven’t encountered any Daleks over the holidays, because Daleks (and that lightsaber-type weapon they apparently wield) are terrifying indeed. Which brings me to the most important revelation of “Resolution,” for me:
Even as a Doctor Who novice, I knew Daleks were the ultimate (and ongoing) Big Bad of the series’ universe, but for whatever reason I’d imagined them as humanoid creatures—not the Alien-style, arachnid-esque backhugger we meet here, assuming control of an archeologist in Sheffield in order to take control of the entire planet, or later protected in what appears to be a mobile gun turret.
There’s so much to discuss here, from the tradition of the Doctor Who holiday special—maybe my last “first” in this little experiment of ours?—to the episode’s particular interest in Ryan (Tosin Cole), Graham (Bradley Walsh), and Ryan’s estranged father, Aaron (Daniel Adegboyega), but for starters I need to know: What, exactly, are Daleks? You know, besides “the most dangerous creature in the universe.”
Daleks are Frankenstein’s monster, encased in powerful mobile shells, engineered with all emotions distilled into pure hatred, convinced that they’re the superior race and hell-bent on exterminating all other life in the universe. Happy New Year!
The first season with the 13th Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) finished without a single encounter with one of her chief nemeses, and their omission was felt. The Daleks are collectively one of the greatest sci-fi villains of all time, a stand-in for Nazism, for forced conformity, for warmongering and the proliferation of mass weaponry. The Daleks killed millions of Time Lords in the Time War and the Doctor has had to defeat them countless times throughout the show’s history.
At this point, it’s a challenge to write a new story about the Daleks, but I thought Chris Chibnall was up to it, turning an encounter with a singular Earth-bound Dalek into a moving reunion with Ryan and the father who’d abandoned him when he needed him most. You tell me, but it seemed like this was a fine introduction to Daleks for new viewers, a new twist on an old rivalry for longtime fans.
What did you think?
In addition to being sufficiently unnerved by the “reconnaissance scout” Dalek introduced here (“I am your pilot now” is a horrifying statement)—and intrigued by the Doctor’s difficulty in dispatching it, a scenario we’ve seen very little of with regard to her adversaries—I, like you, found the appearance of Ryan’s father a stirring capstone to the season’s central ongoing arc.
Much as I’ve come to love Doctor Who, I’d rarely describe it as “unpredictable” on a moment-to-moment basis, but I was genuinely unsure whether Ryan would be able to save his dad in the climactic sequence. And, especially during the holidays, when family can be both a joy and a frustration, I thought the themes of kinship raised in “Resolution” were very apt. (“It’s complicated,” as Yaz says of Ryan and his father. “Yeah,” the Doctor replies, as if lost in thought. “Dads are. So I’ve heard.”) In fact, the Doctor trying to make “fam” happen is starting to make sense. Between Ryan and Graham, Ryan and his father, and Yaz’s current and ancestral relations, family ties are turning out to be one of Chibnall’s main areas of focus. The task now is to bring Yaz (Mandip Gill) onto equal footing with the boys: If “Resolution” has one major drawback, it’s that it underscores just how underdeveloped her story has been this season, relative to the other companions.
Otherwise, like more or less all of the other present- and future-set episodes this season, I found the New Year’s Day special solid, if unspectacular. Certainly, it’s become clear to me that Doctor Who does best when it leans into its aesthetic constraints—the distant cries of destruction at that Government Communications Headquarters—rather than when it tries to outgun its competitors—that dreadful battle between the Dalek and a bunch of British soldiers. And for every inspired bit of social commentary—I, for one, read a canny anti-Brexit message into that bit about an international entity called “UNIT” being disbanded for lack of funding—there was a lame gag—that detour into families being “forced” to have a conversation when the wi-fi goes out is beneath a future-forward series like Who.
In essence, I thought “Resolution” reflected the same areas of strength and weakness that we’ve already identified in the Chibnall/Whittaker era, instead of feeling truly “special.” But I’ve never seen any of the other holiday specials, so I have nothing to compare it to. How does this one stack up?
I groaned when the wi-fi went out. The joke about the cruelty of losing wi-fi when everything is closed was sufficient; the scene where the family has to, ugh, have a conversation was like an unfunny, played-out SNL sketch that completely took viewers out of the moment. If anyone from Doctor Who is actually reading our recaps: Please just avoid gags like that in the future.
But I actually thought the episode as a whole was a great coda on strong first season. I may just be partial to geeking out over Dalek episodes, though. When he took his poor hostage to the warehouse full of scrap metal and said, “Let the work commence!,” I couldn’t wait to see Junkyard Dalek finally emerge. The longer format allowed the human story as much space as the alien one, and it showed why Tosin Cole, who I thought was fairly unremarkable during the season, was cast. His emotional confrontation with his dad was the highlight of the episode and particularly meaningful in a holiday season fraught with family tension on both sides of the pond.
Sadly, this was the first and last episode of Doctor Who in 2019. It’s been a pleasure helping introduce you to one of my favorite sci-fi shows this year. Now go watch “The Empty Child” and “Blink.”