Penned by showrunner Chris Chibnall, Revolution of the Daleks is 2021’s first – and, so far, only – TV outing for Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor and her fam. What did the Doctor of hope have to offer us after a year which saw multiple religious celebrations cancelled at short notice?
At this point I am actually pretty unconvinced by the Daleks, as a concept and as major antagonists for the Doctor. Their clunky design – those massive pepper-pot machine-bodies, those fragile eyestalks and remarkably un-maneoeuvrable deathrays – makes their origin in a different era of television obvious; in an episode that also contains YouTube and smartphones and sleekly designed modern scientific gadgetry, they stand out like a sore thumb. And attempts to modernise them have only robbed them of their specificity: how many supernatural/alien creatures have we seen that can impersonate humans, even in Doctor Who itself? The Doppelgangers in The Rebel Flesh? The Vashta Nerada? The watery Heather-creature in The Pilot? What do the Daleks stand for any more, apart from “generic Doctor Who villain”?
That said: even though it is clearly a ridiculous proposition, given their shape, the idea of the Daleks being adopted as security drones by power-hungry UK politicians is a great one, both somehow absolutely classic Dalek and absolutely something the Johnson government would do. It turns out that, thanks to the events of 2019’s New Year special Resolution, the UK government has managed to get its hands on a bit of Dalek, which is then intercepted in transit under the aegis of Jack Robertson, the slimy American businessman we first met in Arachnids in the UK. Not only have Robertson’s employees thus been able to recreate the Daleks’ shells, but his too-clever-for-his-own-good pet scientist Leo has also managed to clone an actual Dalek from organic matter found in the original casing. The cloned Dalek overpowers Leo, takes over his body and, as is traditional, embarks on a plot to take over the Earth – a plot which the Doctor and her friends must foil.
Unfortunately, then, Chibnall doesn’t spend a huge amount of time on the Dalek-Tory alliance, moving quickly on to more traditionally Dalek-y machinations involving massive Dalek warehouses, carnage among the civilian population (“EXTERMINATE!”) and different-coloured Daleks shouting at each other about racial purity. It’s all slightly tired – notwithstanding Chris Noth’s star turn as Robertson, who, in another bit of on-point political skewering, attempts to betray the Doctor to the Daleks only to claim credit for her eventual victory over them. Even this feels second-hand, though, recalling Dalek‘s Van Statten, another millionaire unwisely attempting to use the Daleks for his own ends.
None of this would matter as much, perhaps, if this were just a regular, mid-season episode; or even a standard Christmas or New Year episode, something to lift the holiday spirits without actually affecting the course of the show’s overall arc that much. But this is an episode in which we lose two major characters: Ryan and Graham, two-thirds of the Doctor’s much-loved fam, who decide to remain on Earth, to cultivate stable, normal relationships with their friends. The reheated, second-hand nature of much of the episode does their departure a disservice: neither of them have any significant role in defeating the Daleks, and their send-off is muted and unremarkable.
Is it time, then, to retire the Daleks? Perhaps, but they’re iconic enough that I can’t see the BBC ever taking the leap. And perhaps the problem isn’t the Daleks themselves, per se; it’s that showrunners and scriptwriters are leaning on their prestige and the things that everyone knows about them rather than finding new stories to tell and new things to say about them. Revolution of the Daleks isn’t, ultimately, a total write-off, but I don’t think it’s going to be remembered as a Great Episode.