Doctor Who Review: Eve of the Daleks

Screenshot of a Doctor Who title card. In shiny gold font, centred on a black background, it reads: EVE OF THE DALEKS Written By CHRIS CHIBNALL

We’re running out of time, Doc.

There’s an implied sequel to this episode – Dawn of the Daleks, perhaps – that begins with Nick arriving at another, very similar storage locker, making small talk with a desk clerk played by, let’s say, Sara Pascoe. Nick introduces himself, she explains the rules, he makes a bad joke, she asks what he wants to put in storage.

He hands her a white-and-yellow striped jumper and gives a hollow, dead-eyed smile.

I don’t know, I don’t know. I’m finding it difficult to engage with Eve of the Daleks – I’ve seen it twice now – because of how fundamentally broken its foundations are. The romance between Nick and Sarah, such as it is, is surely one of the most toxic dynamics Doctor Who has ever committed to screen; certainly, it’s one of the worst Chibnall has ever offered in his tenure as showrunner. That’d be one thing if it was just a stray detail in a wider piece that had more going on – Mitch in Resolution, for example, is a little clingy, but I can’t say it’s ever really bothered me because that episode is also about Ryan and his dad, it’s about the Daleks, it’s about having a third go at a finale for Series 11. It’s a typically chaotic and busy Chibnall story, and that can come with certain flaws, but it often also has a sort of inherent counterbalance to any one element that might not be working.

Eve of the Daleks – which, as a time-loop story, surely should’ve been called Repetition of the Daleks – doesn’t enjoy the same advantages. Structurally speaking, it’s probably the simplest piece Chibnall has written since The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, with its comparatively few characters, plotlines, and locations. In concept I think that’s clever, a necessary relief after Flux (it also cuts interestingly against the usual maximalism of holiday specials, contributing to the sense of Eve of the Daleks as one of the first to have its own distinct identity as a New Year’s piece specifically). But equally that does also mean that its core building blocks are exposed, with absolutely nothing to distract from them. You can’t get away from the fact that Eve of the Daleks, in terms of plot, structure, character, and theme, revolves around this relationship – a relationship which, through what it parallels and alludes to, takes on an even greater significance.

Nick (Adjani Salmon, wearing glasses and a denim jacket) in a darkened red-lit corridor, the beam of his torch illuminating the bottom right corner of the image.

Let’s dwell on this for a moment, if only because it’s winding me up so much I feel the need to really break it down into its constituent parts. Nick has a crush on Sarah; to contrive excuses to meet and spend time with her, he very regularly turns up at her place of work. In particular, he’s worked out when she’ll be alone, and makes a point of being there then as well. Their conversations are strained – she seems to find him quite irritating at best – and their back and forth is a customer service obligation (“Can you remind me of the list of things that can’t be stored?”), a professional conversation in a context where Sarah cannot get away from him.

We later learn that, in his storage locker, he keeps an exhaustively catalogued collection of possessions that used to belong to women he’s dated (but presumably, in each case, isn’t on good enough terms to speak to them and offer them their board games and binoculars back). Sarah, quite reasonably, finds that creepy, and Nick… well, it’s intended as a grand moment of self-sacrifice, as he throws himself at the Daleks out of embarrassment, but the narrative holds that over Sarah, and you get the sense that their subsequent relationship is predicated on some sense of obligation or guilt. It’s also established that Nick’s crush on Sarah has lasted three years (overlapping, interestingly, with several of the relationships suggested by his sticky notes), and he is very quick – rehearsed, even – to explain to her why she’s wrong to call it stalking. Really, keeping all the possessions is the least creepy thing Nick does this episode!

Now, I’ll readily grant there’s some ambiguity here, with more than a few lines that could be interpreted in different ways – “You’re the reason I’m here” suggests to me that the storage locker is only open on New Year’s Eve because Nick will turn up – as well as what may well just be some unhelpful set dressing. Actually, let’s go a step further with that: the script, the director, the set designers, and even the actors weren’t all on the same page for this one. Aisling Bea (and Mandip Gill, come to that) really goes for it in the initial “are these women still alive?” scene; Adjani Salmon plays the whole thing with a slight knowing edge, which in another context would be sweet but here seems secretive; Chris Chibnall very likely started with “Ex Terminated” and worked his way back from there; Segun Akinola puts together this really lovely, light bit of romcom music to score their scenes; director Annetta Laufer doesn’t manage to knit all those contradictions together. (That said, Laufer does some really excellent work otherwise, doing a lot with a setting that doesn’t easily lend itself to compelling visuals.)

Very likely this is because the script was written quickly, possibly when pre-production had already started; there maybe wasn’t the time for the level of course-correction needed. (That said, here’s a quick one – these should’ve been one ex-partner’s possessions, preserving the “letting go of baggage” idea, while minimising some of the character’s internal contradictions.) Or maybe this big, broad comedy for a festive special wasn’t deemed worthy of that level of scrutiny, and it’s as simple as that.

But Eve of the Daleks goes to some lengths to parallel Nick and Sarah with the Doctor and Yaz, meaning it takes on an outsized significance – the episode that canonises Thasmin being grounded in something as uncomfortable as this feels like a fatal flaw.

A Dalek at the end of a darkened corridor, lit from behind.

So, I quite like Thasmin, as a concept. I think romantic relationships in Doctor Who are, generally, a good thing worth doing; I think that, at the start of Jodie Whittaker’s tenure as the Doctor, it’d been long enough since the last Doctor/companion romance to be worth doing it again. Indeed, I was always surprised that, despite the Davies-era nostalgia that informs his era, Chibnall didn’t build a Doctor/companion relationship as the explicit spine of his populist reboot of Doctor Who.

“Explicit spine” being a carefully chosen phrase there, incidentally. I tweeted after the episode finished that I would’ve liked to see Chibnall introduce these ideas and themes much earlier, and a lot of people replied to tell me it’s been there since the beginning. (Actually, more than one person told me I needed to pay more attention to Doctor Who, which is, forgive me, very funny.) People pointed to Arachnids in the UK in particular – I rewatched it earlier, and it’s a lot better than I remembered or ever gave it credit for, but it’s about as concerned with alluding to a Yaz/Ryan romance as it is a Yaz/Doctor one. I think had this always been Chibnall’s plan, he’d have made it much more explicit much earlier; as Andrew Ellard pointed out, Chibnall is a writer who typically introduces details like that upfront immediately. (Which, relatedly, is why I don’t think the “actually, Nick is a sensitive portrayal of neurodivergence” defence is worth dignifying, aside from all the other reasons.) It seems more likely to me that, if Thasmin can be traced back to Arachnids in the UK, it’s in the response to that episode rather than its content – it’s Chibnall being influenced by the fans, rather than fans reading tea leaves he’s left for them. (Thasmin: it’s the people’s project!)

I think it’s a good thing to make it explicit; I think it’s neat that those moments do take on an extra textual resonance now, and I think it’ll make rewatching Series 11 and Series 12 a much more rewarding experience. Honestly, I like the idea that on some level I can watch the show that the Thasmin stans have been watching the past few years – if nothing else, they seem to have been having more fun than I have – but nonetheless it’s a shame for Chris Chibnall to have left it as late as he has to delve into it like this.

Even if you do read into some of the more subtle tea leaves (Yaz like Yasmin like Jasmine like Rose; the house in It Takes You Away is a triangle; so on) surely those are details that give Mandip Gill and Jodie Whittaker very little to do? It’s great that, finally, Mandip Gill is getting material like this, beyond her usual mechanical and perfunctory expository questions – that scene where she talks to Dan is sensitive and mature, certainly her best performance in the role. But still, I don’t think it’s unfair to wish this had been paced differently – couldn’t Graham have had that conversation with Yaz at the end of Revolution of the Daleks, asking her if she’d ever tell the Doctor how she felt before they went travelling together again? – to allow her more space to actually act.

The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and Yaz (Mandip Gill) in a storage locker, surrounded by junk.

What I’m more interested by, at this point, is what Chris Chibnall is reaching for here, and how we’re meant to actually read Thasmin. Certainly, it’s striking that Chibnall keeps paralleling Thasmin with less-than-healthy relationships; there’s Nick and Sarah here, deeply uncomfortable for how both Yaz and the Doctor are positioned as equivalents to Nick, who as we’ve already established is terribly creepy. But this isn’t the first time that’s happened – Survivors of the Flux draws similarities between Yaz and the Doctor and the Doctor and Tecteun, repeated lines of dialogue suggesting a similar dynamic in each case. (It’s an odd allusion to make, but it’s as grounded in the text as any prior hints of Yaz’s feelings were, so it deserves the same level of emphasis.)

But even then, setting aside the interpretive in favour of something more straightforward, the Doctor is often very mean to Yaz. She’s patronising and condescending, quick to anger, at times borderline manipulative in The Halloween Apocalypse, distant and detached long past the point she opened up to Ryan; Yaz has more affectionate relationships with Graham, Ryan, and Dan. The way the Doctor speaks to Yaz routinely makes me wince, honestly. On the face of it, it’s as bad as the Tenth Doctor’s now much-criticised treatment of Martha; taking Dan’s suggestion that the Doctor knows about and deliberately ignores Yaz’s feelings at face value, it’s surely worse. Frankly, if you’re looking for a Thasmin anthem, it’s probably No Children. (Someone make the fanvideo, go on.)

Perhaps that’s the point: Russell T Davies wrote his romances as tragedies, never escaping the curse of the Time Lords. Maybe Chibnall is reaching for the same ideas, trying to suggest that Yaz and the Doctor could never really be together, that the fundamental distance between them is too great – and perhaps also that Yaz, like Karl, might find a greater level of self-confidence and self-assurance without the Doctor in her life. It’s… well, interesting I suppose, but I must admit it wouldn’t be my preferred take in this instance, especially with such little time left. Knowing as we do that this was almost the penultimate episode of the Chibnall era, and at one stage would’ve led directly into Whittaker’s regeneration, it raises the question: where is this going?

That idea that the Doctor’s “actions are catching up to her” is interesting in that respect, because while it ostensibly seems to be about the Daleks pursuing her, it’s actually about her conversation with Time, isn’t it? She’s worried she’s going to die soon, that’s why she’s shutting Yaz out on this particular occasion (it grates somewhat that Chibnall keeps playing the same beat, giving the Doctor a new secret to keep over and over – Gallifrey’s destruction, the Timeless Child, now her coming death, each one leading right into the next).

In a way, that positions Can You Hear Me? (a personal favourite, largely for what it does for Yaz) at the centre of the Chibnall era – that episode is all about the value of openness and communication, so perhaps Thasmin should be understood in the same light, all about what they could’ve had if either had opened up to the other earlier. (Incidentally, Dan’s “you’re not socially awkward, you just pretend to be because you don’t want to engage” casts the end of Can You Hear Me? in an odd light, doesn’t it?) Maybe it’s Chibnall’s attempt at a critique of Series 2, in the same sense that Hell Bent was Moffat critiquing Series 4, which is actually quite an interesting thought to consider – though again, short of a Six Feet Under style montage, I don’t think Chibnall has left himself enough time and space to explore that in the depth it deserves.

At the moment, that seems to me like it’s still going to end, if not tragically, certainly sadly (and with a few unfortunate implications too). I worry this is only being given central focus now as a shortcut to a more poignant regeneration later this year.

“You can leave here, but you won’t outrun me. Your time is heading to its end. Nothing is forever. No regeneration, no life. Beware of the forces that mass against you, and their Master.”

I wonder if that has a dual meaning, incidentally. It might not refer to the end of a regeneration and a life, implying the Doctor’s final death, but rather a regeneration and a life – the Doctor’s regeneration, and Yaz’s life.

Related:

Doctor Who series 13 reviews

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You might also be interested to read reviews from friends-of-the-blog Will Shaw and Audrey Armstrong, both of whom strike a much better ratio of insights to word count than I did above.

Meanwhile, you can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter

3 thoughts on “Doctor Who Review: Eve of the Daleks

  1. This is stupidly long, really – should’ve saved big chunks of it for the sometime-soon overall Flux review – and yet there was still a whole bunch more I wanted to try and say.

    Evidently I am just a massive Thasmin, basically.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You know, you said something about low expectations in your last Who review, and now I’ve fallen into the same. I was so glad to see characters with actual characterization that the creepiness and so on just went right by…

    Like

    1. Oh, I get that, for sure – I suspect for a lot of people the amount of personality that Aisling Bea (and Adjani Salmon, I do think he’s quite good here) bring to it sort of obscures how absolutely awful the underlying substance of it is

      Like

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