It is with great relief that I declare that Resolution, the Doctor Who New Years Day special, and the last episode of Doctor Who that we’ll be getting until early 2020, is…pretty good! I was braced for disappointment after a thoroughly lackluster series, and if it had been bad, I may have found myself marinating in bad feelings about the show for a full year, which would not exactly be setting myself up to give series twelve a fair shake. Fortunately, Chris Chibnall surprised me by pulling out a surprisingly enjoyable and fresh-feeling take on a classic Who monster, producing what is almost certainly his best Doctor Who script ever. It has some issues, but I think with only a few minor edits Resolution could have been an all-time classic story.
The title of the episode feels a little truncated, having now watched it in full. Resolution absolutely cries out to have ‘of the Daleks’ attached to the end of it. It’s not as though the BBC did a great job of keeping the Daleks’ presence in this episode a secret, anyway.
Resolution is a single-Dalek story, in which the threat is not an army of Daleks or a fleet of Dalek ships, but a single foot soldier. Perversely, the Daleks always seem more threatening in this scenario; the single Dalek in 2005’s brilliant Dalek, or the four-Dalek Cult of Skaro in 2006’s Doomsday come across as much more threatening than a whole sky full of Dalek ships in The Stolen Earth. Resolution goes a step further, stripping the Dalek of its weapons and armour, and the result is utterly terrifying. This Dalek mutant is weaponless, but attaches itself to a young woman’s back, digging its tendrils into her body and puppeting her around while she remains conscious and aware, but unable to resist. Charlotte Ritchie does an admirable job as Lin, capturing in her performance terror, conflict, and finally smug hatred as the Dalek takes over entirely.
The Doctor and a steadily increasing circle of companions (including Ryan’s dad Aaron, who shows up to try to make up with his estranged son and gets roped into all the shenanigans) are stuck tracking the Dalek’s trail of destruction across the country, always one step behind as it steals old Dalek parts, builds itself a new shell, and sets about trying to summon the Dalek fleets to Earth.
Resolution unquestionably has some rough edges, and with a slightly tighter and more focused script could undoubtedly been even better. But it kicks the hell out of every other Chibnall script this year, and is a much stronger note to end the year on than The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos or however you spell that.
This lone Dalek was absolutely terrifying, as a Dalek should be. Voiced by the ever-brilliant Nick Briggs, who has done the voice for the Daleks and Cybermen since Doctor Who’s 2005 resurrection, but with different modulation that makes it seem all the more sinister. Even when it is simply attached to the wall, pulsating as the curious Lin steps forward and inspects it, it’s horrible to look at, as an uncased Dalek ought to be.
I’ve said in the past that I think that the best Doctor Who episodes are structured, at least partially, like a mystery story, and although Resolution is, in many ways, fairly straightforward, it maintains tension by doing the inverse of a classic Doctor Who trick.
The Dalek has nothing. No weapons, no armor, nothing but a single human hostage and some vaguely-defined extra powers by dint of its status as a reconnaissance unit that make it difficult to track. By any reasonable standard, the notion that this lone creature represents a threat to the planet is absurd; if they can get it off Lin’s back, they could just kick it to death, no problem. And yet, it is just as arrogant and assured of its superiority as any Dalek. It’s acting with purpose, and it certainly seems to believe that it can conquer the planet. So what does it know that we don’t?
The atmosphere of dread around the Dalek is helped by the fact that the Dalek-possessed Lin is treated by the camera like a slasher movie monster. There’s two shots in particular that I like. The first comes when Lin is stopped by the police for driving like a crazed fool. The Dalek attacks the cop as he leans in the front window, and we cut to his partner, in the cop car, reading a newspaper while in the background, the first cop is pulled halfway into Lin’s car, his legs kicking frantically as the Dalek does something unspecified but presumably fatal to him. The second is at the MDZ warehouse, where we cut directly from the young security guard revealing that he has access to the archives, to Lin dragging his inert body over to the fingerprint scanner. I have some quibbles with the direction (like, why is everything tinted so blue?) but in many respects, it’s very effective.
Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor finally gets to play an active role in combating a threat, rather than simply standing by and serving as an observer, as she has for much of the series. And although she’s still not allowed the kind of bone-deep anger that Peter Capaldi regularly brought to the role (I suspect that the creative team is worried that audiences will react badly to expressions of female anger; a worry that is, regrettably, not ill-founded), her performance shines in this more intense writing mode. This just confirms my long-held belief that Whittaker is brilliant for the part, but the material she’s been given is lacking.
Finally, Segun Akinola finally seems to have gotten over his fear of letting his compositions drive the emotion of the scene. This episode features what is easily his best work on the series to date, save perhaps Demons of Punjab. Most of his work on Doctor Who has been fine, but not particularly memorable , but this episode has some real bangers, particularly the rock track that plays while Lin and the Dalek are tearing up the road.
Let’s get the most obvious flaw out of the way first: the WiFi scene. That really was completely rubbish. Not only is it an unfunny cutaway to a new set of characters that completely breaks the tension and the pacing, the show had already done a more successful version of this gag just before cutting away. It’s not just bad, it’s redundant!
In general, I would say that although the core of this story works very well, its lesser appendages aren’t as strong and are not integrated particularly well. The subplot about Ryan and his dad has no tension to it; they both kind of just say what their feelings are, and then reconcile at the end without Aaron doing much to earn it. That first scene between them, in the cafe, has negative tension because it’s so clearly fenced off from the actual plot of the episode. Just like I mentioned in my review of The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos, this is more an emulation of the feeling of drama than actual drama.
Likewise, the bit where the story comes to a screeching halt while the Doctor tries to call up UNIT and finds herself in the middle of an extended Brexit joke (a joke that landed with me, but it seems a lot of people found confusing, incidentally) felt jarring. Even if that had just happened in the background while the Doctor was in the middle of doing something else, it would have felt better. And, actually, better question, why bother to exclude UNIT at all if you’re going to have a bunch of unidentified soldiers attack the Dalek in ten minutes anyway? Why not just have those be UNIT troops? I liked that scene as a display of the Dalek’s destructive power, but it certainly felt ripped out of context, and tying those soldiers to UNIT could ameliorate that. If you can’t get Jemma Redgrave to make an appearance as Kate Lethbridge-Stewart for whatever reason, there’s plenty of ways to write around that.
The only side bit in the story that really feels well-realized is Graham and Aaron’s little conversation, which is funny because it just makes the weakness of the Ryan/Aaron relationship all the more clear.
I know I say this every review, but Yaz is still badly underused. There was a bit towards the beginning where she was using her cop training to properly handle the civilians, but that’s really her whole contribution to the episode. Which is weird, because…like, they are in Sheffield! Unless she resigned offscreen without anything in the show indicating it, she’s still actually a police officer in this jurisdiction! I would have expected her to pull out those credentials to explain their presence to Lin and Mitch, but no such luck.
I feel kind of bad harping on Yaz, because I like the character and I think Mandeep Gill’s done a good job playing her…but it’s the most consistent problem this series. The writers just don’t know how to juggle three companions, and Yaz is frequently the odd one out.
It feels a little odd that Ryan wasn’t even a little mad at the Doctor for putting his dad’s life in danger like that without telling him. Also, it’s a little disappointing that the fiery section of space she brought the Dalek to was just a random supernova; I was expecting her to say that it was the wreckage of the greatest Dalek fleet of all time, burning forever where the Doctor left it in the Time War’s aftermath. Maybe that would have been a bit too much information to introduce to the new viewer (this series hasn’t so much as mentioned the Time War before!) but it would have had a lot more oomph and felt a good deal more clever than just…random supernova.
Finally, no fewer than three characters step inside the TARDIS for the first time, and we got not a single ‘bigger on the inside’. For shame.
In general, other than the weird colour correction, I think the direction is pretty good in this episode – and they’ve finally learned how to do a rack focus instead of just leaving the subject of the shot blurred, thank god! – but the scene where the Doctor is explaining what a Dalek is makes me laugh. It’s actually appropriate to use some dutch angles here, but the angle is so steep, and held so long, and retained across multiple cuts, that it starts to feel silly very quickly.