Déjà vu is at the heart of the Doctor’s latest adventure. Not just onscreen, with our heroes trapped in a time loop with Dalek assassins, but for the viewer too. “Really, another New Year special with the Daleks as the baddies?” But any complaints, or most of them at least, soon evaporated as the episode picked up steam and it became clear that Eve of the Daleks is not only the best festive Doctor Who special in recent memory but perhaps even the best episode of the show for years.
Flux had its moments but ultimately devolved into an absolute mess, its final episode being a painful watch. The serialised arc was an interesting experiment but showrunner Chris Chibnall’s continued attempts to reinvent the wheel have yet to pay off. What makes Eve of the Daleks so engaging is that it feels like a direct response to the unwieldy nature and scale (and budget) of Flux. It’s a totally stripped-back, simplistic, and contained episode where most of the action happens in a single building. What is more Doctor Who than the Doctor and their companions simply running down a hallway away from a scary alien?
The time loop is a classic concept and one every franchise needs to resurrect every few years. Star Trek loves the idea, it being the central conceit to one of TNG’s best episodes and even one of Discovery’s best. Time loops have been everywhere in 2021, particularly in video games, so sure, get in on the repetitive action, Doctor Who. Eve of the Daleks doesn’t offer an inspired use of the concept but there are a few details I enjoyed and felt somewhat fresh. The loops getting shorter by a minute each time was a good way to build momentum and amp up the drama, and while characters learning new information that they can use in the next loop is obvious, I don’t remember seeing the inverse of that before: having characters feed wrong information to the Daleks in one loop so they head in the wrong direction in the next. Yet the more you think about the episode the less sense it makes. Why is midnight the end of the loop when they always die before then, and why do they say Nick will die at 23:55 each time when he doesn’t?
What surprised me most about Eve of the Daleks is how much I enjoyed the characters. Nick is maybe not quite the totally sympathetic guy the episode wants us to believe – I was expecting some Inside No 9 twist at the end and it be revealed that he had killed his former girlfriends – but he had a clear, defined arc, and his “Ex-terminated” line was cheesy fun. I really like Aisling Bea and she was great as the funny, grumpy, out-of-her-depth-but-ultimately-capable Sarah. She too had a clear if simplistic arc (look at that, Chibnall can actually do it!) even if she ends the episode in what is likely not the healthiest of relationships. I hope this is a Donna Noble-like introduction and she returns as a future companion, or, hell, just make Aisling the Doctor already.
I do like Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor but, as usual, she was underserved by the writing and left with little to do. Dan however is great and his everyman humour is a highlight, as are his interactions with Yaz which feel like they are informed by the unseen years they spent together, something that is dangerously close to being glossed over. Yaz discussing how she feels about the Doctor and her discovering her sexuality is a good scene and well performed, particularly the line about how she’s never told anyone, not even herself. And while I’m discussing the characters, what was with that weird Karl cameo at the end? Twitter had to remind me who he was. Is his appearance just to bring Whittaker’s Doctor full circle before she departs this year?
We all know where the brewing romance between the Doctor and Yaz is going and it was good to make headway, but is this not too little too late? The two characters barely spend any time together. I’m begging for a scene where they just talk, about anything, for more than 5 seconds. With two episodes left I’m guessing Whittaker’s tenure will end with a kiss and then a regeneration but that feels cheap. If they are developing this relationship then I want them to commit to it rather than just do the gay kiss, get the media attention and praise, and then end it. Hopefully Russell T Davies keeps Yaz around for a while and gets some good character drama out of the regeneration.
One of the many things I disliked about the ending of Flux was that, after episodes of lecturing about how you don’t kill other lifeforms, even in war, the Doctor pretty much committed genocide against multiple races at the same time and the show didn’t even comment on it. Thankfully, Eve of the Daleks makes it seem like the show is actually, yet briefly, aware of what it is doing, and has the Daleks try to kill the Doctor in retaliation. The actual discussion about the Doctor’s actions, which she claims was just a desperate plan she hijacked from the Sontarans, is far too brief and lacks any emotion of any sort but, at this point with the overall quality of the series, I was just happy it was mentioned. Although, I’m still baffled by the lack of explanation of what is going on with the wider universe. Is it still destroyed by the Flux or has it been undone somehow? What a mess.
A common criticism I’ve seen online about the episode is that the Daleks now have the aim of stormtroopers, missing even in tight hallways except for when the plot demands. I understand this but I also excuse it. The plot comes first and this is just what happens in these stories, you can level that criticism at almost every sci-fi show, or action movie for that matter. I am sick of the Daleks overall but in Eve of the Daleks they were fine and totally perfunctory. More funny than scary, although I did like seeing them actually be able to kill the Doctor because of the TARDIS-induced time loop. They fail at the end but its enjoyable seeing them savour their success throughout the episode.
Eve of the Daleks could have used an extra twist to the time loop; more clearly defined rules; more for the Doctor and Yaz to do, preferably together; more commentary on the Doctor’s genocidal actions that she seemingly feels no guilt for. What we got was a pretty decent episode that could have been better but, after the last few series, I’ll take it. An average episode in years past is now a godsend and I enjoyed Eve of the Daleks more than any Doctor Who episode in a long time. Even the best bits of Flux, like War of the Sontarans, were brought down by the pervasive serialised aspects that were both confused and confusing, and Eve of the Daleks did well to tell a classic, small sci-fi adventure that maybe held added nostalgia because the show was finally back in its Saturday evening slot for the first time in years.
What are your thoughts on the latest Doctor Who episode Eve of the Daleks? Let me know in the comments and be sure to geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.