Initially the Doctor Who 2020 New Year’s special seemed to me like a collection of things that the writers wanted to happen at this juncture, mixed together with a revisiting of well-worn Doctor Who plot, and stirred into a mixture that didn’t quite turn into a meringue. Given how much there was that was interesting and enjoyable, I wasn’t quite sure why I felt that way. On further reflection, I feel that the question of whether there is a story parallels and encapsulates the mood and experience of the Doctor. She has just discovered that she doesn’t know her own life story. Nothing else imaginable could trigger as severe an identity crisis, right? Yet she is forced to ponder this in a prison, surrounded by a Weeping Angel, a Silence, a couple of Ood, a Pting, and eventually Jack Harkness who arrives to perform a jailbreak. Meanwhile on Earth a situation involving a Dalek is playing out. The combination of this extensive rogues’ gallery of nemeses of the Doctor and the pairing with Jack Harkness is perfect for helping us, the viewers, to ask the underlying question: what are memories and narrative details to immortals? Jack, we learn, got himself arrested in order to get inside the prison and then took 19 years to get to the cell next to the Doctor. The Doctor seems bored and troubled by the monotony but that length of time is a mere drop in the bucket for an individual whose lifespan is far longer than even the longest previously indicated on the show. The Doctor would also spend 19 years to accomplish a rescue. It isn’t the time passing that is the problem, it is having an identity crisis and not her fam or any friends to talk to. The planet she thought was hers has had all life wiped out and almost simultaneously she has discovered it isn’t her place of origin. It’s a lot to cope with.
The episode approaches this topic playfully despite having somber moments. It begins with what turns out to be a satirical allusion to Star Wars. We see on the screen “A Long Time Ago…Far, Far Away” only to have the first phrase explained as indicating 2019 and the latter Cheltenham. That is the setting for a few moments of back story in which the Doctor and fam make quick work of a Dalek. However, an arbitrary number of minutes later we learn that the remains of the Dalek were afterwards intercepted and repurposed to become a “security drone” with water cannon, CS gas sprayer, and also capable of generating an audible deterrent. Jack Roberts (“spider guy”—remember him?) is involved and says “It’s the security equivalent of the iPhone.”
Then we’re told that 79 billion light years away the Doctor is in prison. On Earth, the fam has been trying to figure out what to do in the Doctor’s absence and how to help her. We see Yaz working in a classic TARDIS interior with rondels on the walls. The Doctor apparently left a duplicate TARDIS with them of sorts, but not a fully functional one and without a supply of psychic paper, as they have to investigate things the old fashioned way.
Meanwhile Leo who works for Roberts found organic traces inside the Dalek shell and did what any curious science type would do: he cloned them. Roberts is horrified and tells Leo his problem is, “You’re too clever. This is why people don’t like experts.” Roberts is consistently the embodiment of stereotypes about Americans in general and ruthless capitalists in particular, but for the most part that works. Once the Doctor shows up (Roberts is continually puzzled by the word “Dalek”) he insists he is 3D printing “security drones.” They’re empty, remote controlled, but with a cloned Dalek they are obviously not going to stay that way. In Osaka, Leo under the control of the Dalek has created a Dalek clone farm. The new prime minister pledges to bring an age of security and launches the use of the new “security drones.” The Doctor says of Daleks, “Like hate they will spread if not stopped.”
Jack says that being with the Doctor you don’t get to choose when it stops. “Enjoy the journey while you’re on it, ‘cause the joy…is worth the pain.”
The Doctor says, “I’m not who I thought I was.” She was imprisoned by the Judoon for “being me” but isn’t sure what that means any more. She doesn’t know her own life story. Pressed to be honest she acknowledges she mostly feels angry.
Things unfold in a manner that is fairly predictable at first. Weaponized Daleks take over 10 Downing Street. The reaction of Roberts to things is to say,“This is a PR disaster.” The Doctor, on the other hand, finds a sense of identity in the crisis, after some initial hesitation: “I’m the Doctor. I’m the one who stops the Daleks.” She opts for an unexpected “nuclear option.” The Doctor sends a reconnaissance signal to death squad Daleks that are currently in the time vortex. These are Dalek enforcers and they will eliminate the clones which have non-Dalek elements (“imperfections”) in their DNA. Bring Daleks to get rid of Daleks! The newcomers say, “The Dalek race must have purity.” The observation is offered that for a race born out of mutation the Daleks sure are obsessed with purity. This makes the connection with the episode theme. Unlike the Daleks, the Doctor’s identity doesn’t depend on the things she (and we) thought we knew about who she is and where she comes from. DNA has nothing to do with it.
Entrepreneur that he is, Robertson goes to talk to Death Squad Daleks to try to work things to his advantage. Meanwhile the Doctor uses the spare TARDIS to lure them in, then makes it fold in on itself and disappear into the void. When it is all done, Jack Robertson is hailed as a hero. Jack stays to catch up with Gwen Cooper of Torchwood. As the Doctor proposes a visit to a galaxy that is a restaurant entirely of meringue, Ryan tells her he has decided to stay, saying he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life before he met the Doctor. Now he does. He wants to be there for his own planet. Graham chooses to stay too, not wanting to miss Ryan’s life and not wanting to experience the wonders of the universe and then instinctively try to say something about it to him, only for him not to be there. While only the Doctor has the literal biology to match, the entire fam could say what she says: “Two hearts. One happy, one sad.” The Doctor leaves them with psychic paper, but before going to investigate oddities in Finland and Korea, Ryan first turns to continuing his effort to learn to ride a bike. As the sun shines for a moment they both glimpse a vision of Grace. Their story on the show comes to an end in a fitting conclusion. The way it mirrors the Doctor’s visions of past companions when dying and about to regenerate highlights the deeper point. We often think of loved ones or have our life flash before our eyes when death looms. How much better to catch such glimpses when life looms? That is when such visions can be a source of inspiration and hope rather than regret.
This having reflected on the episode further I find it works really well and is quite profound. My one lingering issue is that it doesn’t really feature a “Revolution of the Daleks,” at least no more so than any other story featuring Daleks. The episode is much more “The Identity of the Doctor (and of the Daleks,” “Revolution of the Doctor,” or simply and ultimately most fittingly, “Doctor Who?”
What did you think of “Revolution of the Daleks”?