Doctor Who recap: The Doctor faces her deadliest foe in a delightful New Year's special
The news that Doctor Who would be moving its annual holiday special from Christmas to New Year’s Day was met with mixed reactions. On one hand it marked the end of an era, a beloved festive tradition that saw the Doctor facing off against everything from killer Christmas trees to killer snowmen. But at the same time, a New Year’s special offered an opportunity for the newly instated Thirteenth Doctor to form a few traditions of her own. And after a middling season that was marked by some high highs and some forgettable lows, “Resolution” was a chance for Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor to go out with a bang, especially since the show won’t be returning until 2020.
Luckily, “Resolution” is a blast from start to finish, a zippy adventure that sparkles like a New Year’s firework. Not only is it a return to form after the so-so season finale “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos,” but it’s also the best episode since Whittaker took over the TARDIS, period. After a season’s worth of adventures, the Doctor and her crew have settled into a comfortable rhythm, and “Resolution” plays to their strengths, all while introducing a few familiar Whovian elements — particularly a familiar villain.
That’s right, everyone’s favorite monotone, homicidal pepperpots are back. Showrunner Chris Chibnall decided to focus Whittaker’s first season on all-new villains, most of whom didn’t exactly make an impact. (Good riddance to the thoroughly boring Tzim-Sha.) With the season over and done, “Resolution” allows for the return of the Doctor’s oldest and most notorious foe: the Daleks.
More specifically, one Dalek. A concise but effective opener reveals that back in the 9th century, an alien warrior fell to Earth, where it wreaked havoc until it was burned and destroyed by a human army from around the world. Its body was split into three pieces and taken by three human guardians to the South Pacific, Siberia, and Yorkshire, where those guardians would bury it and watch over it until the end of time. The Yorkshire man, however, never reached his destination, as he was killed by bandits and forgotten — until his body was uncovered by 21st-century archaeologists under modern-day Sheffield. These two adorable archaeologists, Mitch (Nikesh Patel) and Lin (Charlotte Richie), are more concerned with the New Year’s kiss they shared the night before than the alien they’ve just uncovered, and when they leave the partial Dalek under an ultraviolet lamp, it soon reconstructs itself and starts waging war.
Centering “Resolution” on a single Dalek instead of a whole invading army reminded me a lot of the 2005 Ninth Doctor episode “Dalek,” which reintroduced the baddies to a new generation. Like the titular Dalek of that episode, this so-called recon scout has been separated from his fleet and sapped of his strength, making him all the more dangerous. A Dalek army is a nightmare, but a solitary Dalek is still dangerous enough to wipe out an entire planet — especially when it’s alone and desperate.
Even if you’ve never seen a Dalek before, “Resolution” serves as a step-by-step introduction to the bloodthirsty species, from their obsession with racial cleansing to their technologically advanced armor. But this Dalek has a few new tricks up its sleeve — particularly the ability to survive outside its armor by clinging, parasite-like, to a human host. The Dalek latches itself to poor Lin and soon begins controlling both her body and mind, adding a nasty body-horror twist. (It’s basically a bleaker Venom, minus the scenes of Tom Hardy eating raw lobsters.) The creature soon sets out to recover forgotten Dalek technology from around Britain, before reconstructing its armor from Sheffield steel (not unlike how the Doctor reconstructed her own sonic screwdriver) and attempting to contact Dalek HQ for a full-scale invasion of Earth. There’s a creepy patchwork quality to the new Dalek, a sort of rusty, steampunk deviation from the sleek machines we’ve met before — while still just as deadly.
So far, the Thirteenth Doctor has met most of her adventures with whimsy and curiosity, but the return of the Daleks is the greatest threat she’s faced so far, and finally — finally! — Whittaker gets to tap into a little of her predecessors’ rage. When the Doctor positively identifies her foe as a Dalek, there’s a simmering anger and a ruefulness in her voice as she says, “I always think I’m rid of them and never am.” This Doctor isn’t as emotionally unstable and consumed by grief as some of her previous incarnations, but the return of the Daleks — who’ve murdered so many of her friends and caused her so much pain — still stings.
For help against one of her oldest foes, the Doctor tries to turn to one of her oldest allies, only to find out that UNIT has been shut down. Why? International funding disputes after Brexit, of course. (A primer for Who newbies: The Unified Intelligence Taskforce was a military organization formed to help combat extraterrestrial threats, and the Doctor worked with it in various capacities over the years.) UNIT’s disbanding meant that we didn’t get a cameo from the Doctor’s old colleague Kate Stewart, but the good news is that the helpline operator only referred to UNIT as “put on hold” and “suspended pending review” — meaning that we may not have seen the last of our UNIT friends.
Still, the TARDIS team has a new, unexpected ally — albeit one who’s not exactly welcome. Ryan’s estranged father, Aaron (Daniel Adegboyega), shows up on Graham’s doorstep after skipping Grace’s funeral, and neither Graham nor Ryan are particularly thrilled to see him. (Everyone else sort of awkwardly dances around the subject, but the Doctor gets right to the point and bluntly tells Aaron that he let Ryan down, in typical Doctor fashion.) The end of 2018 has the absentee father feeling remorseful and eager to reconnect with his son, but as Graham reminds him, being a father is more than just blood. Aaron himself is a complicated character: Rather than just being a caricature of a deadbeat dad, he’s a man who loves his son but is also selfish, and he’s the kind of person who runs away rather than facing complex emotions (like the death of his mother, Grace). The quieter scenes between Ryan and Aaron allow the episode to breathe amid all the explosions and world-threatening Dalek schemes, and they lend the story a much-needed human element.
Ultimately, this ragtag team tracks down the Dalek (who has unexpectedly let Lin go after building his new armor). There’s a powerful moment where the Doctor and the Dalek have a solo standoff, sizing each other up until the Doctor reveals her identity. “I’m the Doctor. Ring any bells?” she asks with a smirk, and the Dalek actually recoils at the name, before attacking with renewed vigor.
Eventually, the Dalek is defeated with a microwave (really), Ryan has an emotional moment with his dad, and all more or less returns to normal. There’s also a silly, out-of-place interlude where a horrified family discovers that the Dalek has taken down all the Wi-Fi in Great Britain, and they’ll actually have to spend New Year’s Day talking to each other. (Gasp!) Is it all slightly cheesy and feel-good? Of course. But there’s also something deeper beneath all the New Year’s platitudes and alien carnage. After a season of entertaining but mostly forgettable adventures, “Resolution” re-injects the sense of epicness that the new Doctor Who has been missing.
The Doctor even gets to deliver a classic, chill-inducing Doctor speech, warning the Dalek, “No matter how many times you try, no matter how long you wait, I will always be in your way — backed up by the best of humanity.”
With the Daleks back, it remains to be seen whether or not we’ll watch the Thirteenth Doctor face off against any other familiar foes when she returns in 2020. (Cybermen? Weeping Angels? Slitheen? Okay, maybe not that last one.) But whatever threats the future may bring, the Doctor and her friends will be there to fight back — and if their future adventures are as much fun as “Resolution,” I can’t wait.