Doctor Who Review: Revolution of the Daleks

doctor who revolution of the daleks review chris chibnall lee haven jones jodie whittaker john barrowman bradley walsh chris noth police

When have I ever let you down before?

I will shortly be suing Chris Chibnall for plagiarism.

That’s a joke, obviously, but let me explain. About a decade ago, I wrote an episode of Doctor Who. (Yes, I am and have always been exactly as cool as you thought.) It was called Legacy of the Daleks, and it was about a politician using Daleks as state police – not real Daleks, but fake, robot ones, cobbled together out of hollowed out and abandoned Dalek shells. The idea was that the imagery and iconography of the Dalek alone – the concept of a Dalek – was enough to create this culture of fear and suppression. It doesn’t last, anyway, because the Doctor shows up, and shortly after that so do the real Daleks, here to clean up the mess.

Sound familiar?

I was so pleased with this that I printed it all out and posted it to BBC Wales. (Like I said: I am, and always have been, exactly as cool as you thought.) Some months later I got a letter back in the post, with a signed picture of Matt Smith – signed by Steven Moffat, I think, though I was never clear – and an explanation that, for legal reasons, they couldn’t read any old rubbish someone sent them in the post, in case an episode they put out later had any resemblance to it whatsoever. Which struck me as basically reasonable, anyway, and I went about my life otherwise, only ever thinking about Doctor Who an appropriate and healthy amount from that moment on. (Um.)

What I didn’t realise then, of course, was that they were playing a long game, waiting a decade before brushing the cobwebs off the script and recycling it for Revolution of the Daleks. So, like I said: lawsuit pending, I want my 10%. (Again, I’m joking – they did say I wasn’t allowed to sue them, after all – but genuinely, this is the best idea I’ve ever had, and they beat me to it! I’ve been going silently feral since the first promotional pictures of Daleks with the police dropped. Sigh.)

In fairness, I will grudgingly concede that after Chibnall found my work down the back of a sofa, he did bring a few good ideas of his own to it. Legacy was set on a colony world in the far future; Revolution moving it to present-day London, with thinly veiled analogues for Theresa May and Donald Trump, is plainly a marked improvement. With the layers of metaphor pared back, the imagery of Daleks alongside police, using tear gas and water cannons to quell protestors, is all the more potent and striking than it might’ve been otherwise.

Granted, I’m not convinced Revolution of the Daleks actually did a great deal with that imagery. It’s a genuinely great concept, the best idea anyone’s had for the Daleks in about a decade – well, I would say that – but it’s just imagery. The sheer frisson of Daleks as border guards and police officers goes a long way, but I want it to go further: what does this episode have to say about fascism or about policing, what does it have to say about authoritarianism and security, what does it have to say about government use of force? Ultimately, I think Chibnall just isn’t actually especially interested in my his idea here; it’s a clever trick to contrive some Dalek infighting, as opposed to anything deeper. (Even setting aside the politics, he struggles with what it would mean for his characters: is Yaz still a police officer?) So, what fills that space instead? If this isn’t an episode Daleks, fascism, the surveillance state, and the contested aesthetics of each – sounds good though, right? – what is Revolution of the Daleks about?

Well, this and that. Like all the best Chibnall episodes, there’s a lot going on here; Revolution is reliant on, if not momentum exactly, certainly the fact that a lot of plates are spinning all at once. Where one aspect falters, there’s always the chance to cut to something else – the special is always moving, at least, a bit of structural sleight-of-hand that goes some way towards papering over the more obvious cracks. Not much insight with the Daleks? Cut to Chris Noth chewing scenery (brilliantly, in fairness). Bored of that? Here’s John Barrowman doing all his old jokes again. Heard it all before? Well, let’s see what Jodie Whittaker’s up to at the moment – more than last time, hopefully?

On one level, this is nominally a story about the Doctor finding herself after The Timeless Children. Revolution was always going to find itself in a difficult spot there, caught awkwardly between a need to function as a special for a general audience, and a need to follow-up on the series’ most insular, inward-looking plotline since 2005. As is so often the case with Chibnall’s scripts, there’s the shape of something that might almost work: the Doctor, lost and insecure, redefining her identity against the Daleks. He revisits something I really liked about Resolution, too, this sense that being around the Daleks drives the Doctor to be wildly more reckless than she would be otherwise – last time almost throwing Aaron into a supernova, this time ringing up the Daleks and calling for more (in my version, they turned up on their own; there was a joke about copyright infringement).

But we return to the same problem we often do – dialogue that doesn’t play to Jodie Whittaker’s strengths, continuing to hold the Doctor at a strange remove from the narrative, character writing that’s inconsistent at best. For all that the script gestures at the idea of the Doctor having an identity crisis, she doesn’t really… do that. So maybe there’s more going on with our companions?

Again, Revolution is caught trying to meet two demands, not quite managing either: it has to serve Ryan and Graham’s final episode, while also re-centring Yaz, leaving her character ready for more dramatic weight going forward.

There’s a sense, watching these scenes, that Chris Chibnall has little recollection of his own era. So much of Revolution of the Daleks is reliant on groundwork he hasn’t laid, character development that’s simply never happened. The moment Yaz pushes the Doctor, for example, is genuinely quite exciting – but it shouldn’t be? Mandip Gill is doing some of her best work here, to be clear, and I’m excited to see where that goes; between this and Can You Hear Me?, there’s a thread starting to develop that posits being a Doctor Who companion essentially as an unhealthy coping mechanism. The thing is, though, this is Gill’s twenty-third episode as Yaz – far past the point where something like that push be notable, let alone remarkable. I’m not sure Chibnall quite realises that though, clearly hoping – or worse, believing – Revolution can stand on the strength of its character writing.

Similarly, look at that heart-to-heart conversation between Ryan and the Doctor. We’ve noted before how rarely the two of them share scenes together, leaving what arguably should’ve been the core dynamic of the show feeling thinly sketched at best; Revolution relies on a relationship that simply doesn’t exist. Tosin Cole (reliably the most interesting actor of the main cast, and the one I’ll miss most) plays the scene as though he’s trapped talking to an acquaintance he doesn’t particularly like, and it’s hard to blame him. His and Graham’s exit worked well enough, at least; I appreciated that Chibnall didn’t kill either of them off, as it looked like he might at times. I can’t say I cared particularly for the “maybe we’ll fight aliens” part, which feels less interesting than the climate activist/community organising thread hinted at last year. (Really, this episode needed Tibo to pop up again – as written, there’s not enough sense of Ryan newly established in a life he doesn’t want to leave anymore.)

And that’s that! We’ve turned the page on a particular chapter of the Chibnall era, Revolution of the Daleks in many ways the equivalent to Doomsday and The Angels Take Manhattan before it. Whatever returns, whenever it returns, is going to be manifestly different from what came before. I enjoyed this episode well enough (even the bits I didn’t write!), and I’ll miss Cole and Walsh going forward, but it’s hard not to welcome a change – any change – at this point.

Related:

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You might also be interested to take a look at Will Shaw’s review of the episode, over at his new substack, or Tom Byrne’s review of the episode from an alternate universe, over at his new substack.

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Doctor Who Review: Arachnids in the UK

doctor who arachnids in the uk review spiders jodie whittaker bradley walsh tosin cole mandip gill chris noth chris chibnall sallie aprahamian

Now if you’re so great, explain this.

Again, I’m confronted with the need to change my approach to these reviews.

Broadly speaking, there’s a familiar structure I tend to follow. The reviews are divided into three sections, meaning I tend to talk about three ideas: acting, writing, and directing; two strengths and a weakness; two weaknesses and a strength; themes, concepts, and symbols. I try, too, to write them in the first person, to be a little more casual and conversational about it in contrast to the articles I write for Yahoo (in my mind, there’s something very different between an article and a review) – it’s meant to be, I guess, a piece that’s not a million miles away from having an actual discussion with someone, either in person or on a forum or something.

More or less, I think this usually works. Not entirely; more often than not, I tend to feel like I’ve missed something, as though there was some observation I’d have liked to make but didn’t quite manage to fit in. That’s not really the end of the world, though – better to have too much to say than too little. Which is, of course, the time when these reviews really don’t work, and I end up posting them more out of a faint sense of obligation than anything else.

If you hadn’t worked it out by now – an opening along these lines, which I refer back to more often than I should, tends to be a bit of a giveaway – I don’t really have a lot to say about Arachnids in the UK.

I enjoyed it! It was mostly a fairly good and entertaining piece of television; I’ve watched it twice now and didn’t feel like I was wasting my time on either occasion. Jodie Whittaker remains wonderful, as do Tosin Cole (wasn’t that shadow puppet bit brilliant?), Mandip Gill and Bradley Walsh. It improved on certain things I’ve found frustrating so far – I really enjoyed Sallie Apraheim’s direction, I think it was the best of the series so far – and managed to generally maintain the level of quality the show has so far. There are critiques I’d make, certainly – one big one in particular – but for the most part, this was a good episode of Doctor Who.

(I really, really do want to stress that, particularly as I’m realising that, as I write the rest of this review, it’s probably going to be a fairly negative one – I did enjoy Arachnids in the UK, I would watch it again gladly, and it’s actually been one of my favourites of the series so far.)

doctor who arachnids in the uk review spiders jodie whittaker bradley walsh tosin cole mandip gill team tardis chris chibnall sallie aprahamian

So, I want to talk a little about Jack Robertson, the Trump analogue who’s arguably one of the more memorable aspects of the episode.

Immediately, there’s something interesting about the way he’s positioned as a Trump analogue – not just a diegetic equivalent, a way to talk about Trump while still talking around him, but established as a counterpart and a rival, another blustering American businessman and arch-capitalist with presidential ambitions. Presidential ambitions specifically prompted by Trump’s own, more to the point.

It strikes me as potentially quite a compelling way for the series to actually engage with real world politics – if nothing else, it’s interesting to see that this sort of engagement is something Chibnall is willing to do. It’d have been easy to ignore Trump (as the series appears to be ignoring Brexit, probably for quite obvious reasons) so the fact that there’s a willingness to foreground him as a villain speaks volumes; it is, I would maybe even argue, actually somewhat more telling of the aims and concerns of this era than Rosa is, which felt, at least a little, somewhat neutered through its conspicuous lack of reference to the present. The character doesn’t always work, not exactly – his big villainous moment, shooting the spider, falls flat, and I’m not entirely convinced the episode does the best job it could have of conceptualising his wealth and his evil (see here) – but Chris Noth gives a great performance, and Robertson will be quite interesting as a new type of recurring character we’ve not quite seen befo-

Recurring character?

Ah, yes. So that brings me to the main issue I had with this episode: it just sort of stops, rather than ending. Robertson shoots the spider (in what’s probably the most poorly directed sequence of the episode – does the Doctor, like, try and stand in front of it? Does she do anything other than tell Robertson not to shoot the spider? There’s a lack of clarity that hurts the scene), and then walks off, his petard thoroughly unhoisted. There’s no resolution to Robertson’s story, or indeed the story as a whole – the next scene is some time later, the companions about to leave again, basically suggesting that after Robertson shot the spider everyone just walked away, leaving the big spider corpse in the ballroom and the smaller (but still big) spiders in the downstairs panic room.

Perhaps that’s to set Robertson up as a returning character; I admit, I am kinda intrigued by the idea of “Doctor Who does the West Wing” in series 12, with Robertson as a villainous president. It wasn’t, though, my immediate thought – because actually, when you think back on it, The Woman Who Fell to Earth and The Ghost Monument both had sort of the same issue.

So maybe it’s not a problem with Arachnids in the UK, it’s a problem with series 11 – and a problem with Chris Chibnall.

doctor who arachnids in the uk review spiders chris noth jack robertson donald trump mr big peter florrick jodie whittaker bradley walsh team tardis chris chibnall sallie aprahamian

Back when Chibnall was announced as the new Doctor Who showrunner, I was a lot more positive about it than other people were – I liked Broadchurch, generally speaking, and his Doctor Who episodes previously. And that positivity felt validated in the run up to the new episodes – the female Doctor, the marketing campaign, it all spoke to an era that I felt like I was really going to enjoy.

And I am enjoying it. It’s Doctor Who, of course I enjoy it, and I’m kinda always going to enjoy it irrespective of things like “quality”, or “basic dramatic structure”.

The redemptive reading, as some people have put forward, is that the Doctor’s inability to stop Robertson is much like her inability to stop racism last week – a suggestion that there are certain structural problems that a fantasy hero like the Doctor can’t combat, that her role is different. That’s something that seems genuinely fascinating to explore, depending on what “her role” eventually turns out to be; if nothing else, it’d be a new way of articulating that character that’d form quite a stark contrast to both Moffat and Davies’ takes on the Doctor.

I am not wholly convinced that’s the case. Even if it was the case, there’s still a certain sloppiness to Arachnids in the UK and its almost conscious lack of any meaningful resolution. The fact that the Doctor hasn’t technically stopped or defeated any of the villains yet doesn’t seem intentional, it seems like the same sort of oversight that saw the first three episodes in a row involve implanted technology, or that whole mess with Pythagoras’ sunglasses in The Ghost Monument, or Ryan using a gun (a space gun, but still a gun) in Rosa.

I don’t know. I am enjoying the new series of Doctor Who! I really am; I wouldn’t be writing about it if I wasn’t, even if some of these reviews have, so far, trended a little negative.

But I’m also not wholly enjoying it, or enjoying it with caveats, to the point that I’ve devoted a fair amount of space in a review of an episode I mostly liked to criticising the series as a whole. It’s not that I don’t like it – I’d just like to see it be a little more ambitious, to finally have an episode that’s an outright classic, a genuine 10/10.

7/10

Related:

Doctor Who Series 11 reviews

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