For reasons perhaps known only to the Time Lords of Gallifrey, such as they may or may not currently exist (it is hard to keep track), the traditional “Doctor Who” Christmas Day special was moved to New Year’s Day this year. (Which is also to say that 2018 was the Year Without a Doctor Who Holiday Special.) Ordinarily, such chronological mischief would threaten the fabric of the universe. But we are still here, seemingly.
Last year was a watershed year for the long-running (with a long break) franchise, the story of an absurdly old but generally quite fit traveler in space and time and what until 2018 had been his companions but currently are hers. It was the year that Jodie Whittaker became the Thirteenth Doctor, the first woman to play the part since the show’s premiere in 1963, when the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space, must I tell you again?) was first spotted in the vicinity of Coal Hill School. (It’s a matter of the character regenerating — we can discuss this later if you’re confused.)
All new Doctors are met with skepticism upon arrival and largely accepted thereafter, though Whittaker has faced extra headwind from fans who flat-out refuse to entertain the notion of a female Doctor (because: no good reason). I loved her casting even before her season premiered, and I’ve loved her throughout the season, shepherded by new show runner Chris Chibnall, if I haven’t always loved the season, which has seemed at times shackled by a less-than-generous budget. But I have loved it enough, enough of the time, and series viewership is reported to be up. (Rumors that both the star and the head writer were heading out, raised late last year, have been quashed.)
The Christmas Day specials traditionally — the show has been back since 2005, so “traditionally” is acceptable – have packed in some Christmas iconography: snow, trees, Victorian England, Santa Claus, narrative variations on Dickens and C.S. Lewis. Moving the special to New Year’s Day does obviate the need to scrape the bottom of that bag, at least.
And Tuesday’s episode does indeed take place on New Year’s Day, Earth Time; as we meet them, the Doctor and her human gang of three — Graham (Bradley Walsh), Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Ryan (Tosin Cole) — have been traveling, taking in multiple New Years from ancient Mesopotamia to Sydney Harbor 2000. But beyond a few holiday references and some talk of “new beginnings” and a line that begins, “Here’s my New Year’s resolution” — the title of the episode is “Resolution,” which of course also means the quality of resolve as well as a thing you resolve to do — the episode could take place any time.
Anyway, an alert comes in. All is not well on Earth. Specifically under Sheffield town hall, where some 10th-century bones are being dug up. (Sheffield has been the center of Earthly action this season; some lines of dialogue have been swallowed, as far as these American ears are concerned, in the Yorkshire accent — but it is still quite pleasant to listen to, and it is Whittaker’s own.)
With Chibnall having held back all season from dipping into the series’ historical larder of enemies — your Cybermen, your Zygons, your Sontorans, you Slitheen and, most significantly, your Daleks, it is hardly surprising that this dot on the “i,” the bow on the package of Chibnall’s first season would bring one of them back. It’s coming in the next paragraph if you want to quit now. To paraphrase the mapmakers of old: There be spoilers here.
Yes, it’s the Daleks. Or, anyway, a Dalek.
There have been, I reckon, thousands, if not tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of science fiction stories written since someone first thought to mix science and fiction, and much of what happens on “Doctor Who,” and every other sci-fi series, will mine tropes you have tripped over before. “Resolution” is no exception: There is the familiar gambit of a threat from the past, long buried and newly awakened. There is the parasitic possession of a human by an alien. There are themes of love and sacrifice and various technological deorum ex machina made up as necessary. There is a variation on the old saw about a gun in the first act going off in the third, but with a microwave oven. Some things don’t add up.
None of that matters if you’re having a good time, of course, if the cake into which these ingredients have been mixed has been baked well and frosted artfully. For decoration, there is a medieval battle at the beginning, and some rom-com banter between guest protagonists Charlotte Ritchie (in an invaluable central performance) and Nikesh Patel. If “Resolution,” which he wrote himself, is not the best of the Chibnall-era episodes, it improves on what seemed to me a messy season finale — this is a post-finale episode — and it’s exciting in the ways I want the show to be.
Whittaker’s Doctor rises from her habitual state of goofy wonder to world-protector battle mode, that attitude of nervous confidence the Daleks always bring out in her (“Me and a Dalek, it’s personal”), and does some expert springing and sprinting and sliding — “I think that was my best skid ever,” she says proudly. And though Daleks are fundamentally ridiculous — something my young old neighbor Lucas might once have knocked together for Halloween out of cardboard, a toilet plunger and a busted stereo speaker — they are also terrifyingly monomaniacal. They just don’t quit.
Meanwhile, the BBC has announced that there will be no further episodes until 2020 — “Resolution” is it for 2019. So perhaps the fabric of the universe has been disturbed after all.
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd