A Classic Enemy Returns in Thrilling ‘Doctor Who’ New Year’s Special (RECAP)

Doctor Who Series 11
Spoiler Alert

Happy Who Year!

Christmas just didn’t feel right this year without the annual festive Doctor Who episode, but thankfully, the show’s first ever New Year’s Day special is the perfect hangover cure. It’s fun, fast-paced, and at times thrilling; the kind of alien-versus-earth adventure which was sorely missing from season 11. It’s almost hard to believe this is the same Chris Chibnall that wrote the terribly mundane “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” season finale.

Chibnall intentionally avoided using old-school Who villains in his first season as show-runner. He wanted a fresh start with new characters and new monsters, and while not all of them landed, the idea of establishing a new era of Who was an admirable goal. It’s perhaps that lack of familiarity across ten episodes that helped build anticipation and made the return of the Daleks (or, at least, a Dalek) so exciting. The show’s most iconic villain facing off against Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor for the first time gave this episode some real pep.

‘Resolution’ is essentially a Dalek origin story, and Chibnall, somewhat surprisingly, adds some new twists to the tale. The episode begins in the 9th century in a scene resembling something out of Game of Thrones. A voiceover tells us that these ancient warriors defeated an opponent so dangerous that its body had to be sliced in three and buried in separate areas around the world. Of course, one of those places was Sheffield, and on New Year’s Day 2019, part of the body is uncovered by two archaeologists excavating in the sewers beneath Sheffield Town Hall.

The squid-like mutant has been separated from its Dalek casing and so suckers itself to one of the excavators, Lin (played by the excellent Charlotte Ritchie), controlling her like a puppet. Ritchie is fantastic as she flits back and forth between terrified hostage and ruthless killer. There is a sense of joyful menace to her performance as she helps the tentacled bodysnatcher gradually put itself back together. Her colleague, and budding romantic interest, Mitch (Nikesh Patel), has less to do, but Patel plays the role of concerned friend admirably with his limited material.

Photo: BBC America

In a way, the episode mirrors “The Woman Who Fell To Earth,” the season 11 premiere which saw the Doctor rediscovering herself and her surroundings. It’s almost a Dalek regeneration episode. There is even a scene of the mutant rebuilding its metal shell using Sheffield steel, much like how the Doctor constructed her new Sonic Screwdriver. “Junkyard chic” is how the Doctor describes the new look, and honestly, that’s a pretty apt description. It’s not the most intimidating version of a Dalek we’ve ever seen, but at least it isn’t the multi-colored monstrosities from “Victory of the Daleks.”

Despite looking like something melded together on Robot Wars, this rusty Dalek is shockingly destructive. It completely obliterates a troop of soldiers and blows up a tank in a brilliantly entertaining sequence. No other villain in season 11 posed this kind of threat nor brought this much enjoyment. It also allows for Whittaker to truly define her iteration of the Doctor. Standing up to against her greatest foe, we see just how tenacious Whittaker’s Doctor is, a determined hero who can think her way out of a situation without giving way to anger and frustration, like Doctors of the past.

Photo: BBC America

‘Resolution’ hits the emotional beats too, striking a nice balance between the high-octane action and the heartfelt character moments. Ryan (Tosin Cole) is caught off guard when his absentee father, Aaron (Daniel Adeboyega), turns up on his doorstep hoping to make amends – and sell his new oven-microwave combo. Cole was hit-and-miss throughout season 11, but he absolutely nails the uncomfortable reunion, particularly the scene in the cafe where Ryan explains to his dad the apology he expects. It’s perhaps a little soap-opera-ish, but that’s probably why Cole, who has soap experience, delivered such a solid performance.

Graham (Bradley Walsh), the easy standout of the new companions, also gets a sweet scene with Aaron, sharing the kind words the late Grace said about her son and reminding the troubled father that there is still time to change. Whether the redemption for Aaron comes too soon is a question up for debate. Ryan ends up forgiving his dad after he’s almost sucked into a supernova in the episode’s somewhat rushed conclusion. It works as a happy ending for a New Year special, but it certainly feels like there is more to explore in this complicated father-son relationship.

Photo: BBC America

Yaz (Mandip Gill), however, is once again short-changed in the character department. The show just doesn’t seem to know what to do with her. She is merely a conduit for exposition. It’s such a shame when the other characters are really coming into their own. I mean, as great as Ritchie was in this episode, why couldn’t Yaz have been the one taken hostage by the Dalek? It would have given her a central role in the episode and allowed for Gill to show off a wider range of her talents. The scene where Lin attacks the police officers would have been especially effective given Yaz’s job in law enforcement. The Yaz problem needs to be fixed in season 12.

That said, ‘Resolution’ is by far Chibnall’s best episode of Who since he took over. Yes, there were still cases of clunky dialogue and underwritten characterization, but this was a confident hour of Doctor Who which ramped up the tension, nailed the emotion, and delivered a refreshing take on the Dalek story. There was even a solid Brexit joke about UNIT being disbanded! It may be a long wait until the next season (not until 2020!), but I’m now far more excited about the future of the series than I was after the lackluster “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.”

Doctor Who, Sundays, 8/7c, BBC America