UK TV review: Doctor Who: Eve of the Daleks
Mark Harrison | On 02, Jan 2022
This is a spoiler-free review of this year’s Doctor Who New Year’s special – scroll down after you’ve watched the episode for more spoilery analysis.
“Time loop.” “Time loop.” “Groundhog Day.”
Although Chris Chibnall’s previous New Year’s specials were more closely connected, this year’s seasonal Doctor Who offering, Eve of the Daleks, is a more self-contained story. This feels like a deliberate cooldown from the six-part epic, Flux, setting Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor against a Dalek execution squad that’s roaming around a rundown self-storage facility in Manchester.
The Doctor, Yaz and Dan arrive on-site late one New Year’s Eve, just in time to be inconveniently exterminated, along with facility owner Sarah (Aisling Bea) and her most loyal customer, Nick (Adjani Salmon). Fortunately for them, the facility seems to be caught in a time-loop, giving them several chances to attempt to outwit the Daleks. But in these ever-decreasing cycles, there’s limited time to unscramble this countdown conundrum before midnight strikes.
It’s been a while since we had a Dalek episode where the headliners weren’t the biggest thing in the story – both of Chibnall’s previous episodes have been about finding and stopping them. Here, they’re the filling for a template that you’d think a time-travelling adventure series might have tried on before now. Like Edge of Tomorrow and Happy Death Day, this is Doctor Who doing a Groundhog Day riff with more action and horror elements thrown in.
Director Annetta Laufer balances those elements well, although it’s the much-touted “romantic comedy, but with Daleks” logline that falls short. Bea is a sensational guest star, bringing the humour and personality that’s been missing from some of Chibnall’s one-off characters, and Salmon enlivens a more thinly sketched character. Their dynamic isn’t massively convincing as written, but there’s an off-kilter chemistry between the actors, and both characters have room to grow and develop over the hour rather than merely circling the plot.
That all lends to the theme of making mistakes and learning again before the next midnight countdown – that’s just life. There’s more room to experiment with the time-loop format than Chibnall’s script does, but then it’s unusual for a seasonal special to be a low-key affair with a small cast of guest stars and a single location in which to play. Plus, it feels like a needed moment of reflection for the Thirteenth Doctor, with only two more specials to go after this.
Stylistically, this is more like the first season that Chibnall ran than anything else we’ve seen since 2018. On the plus side, Whittaker is on strong form, with her Doctor extemporising in between the Daleks exterminating everyone. Any situation where she’s funny and clever and coming up with solutions on the fly is preferable to her reacting against a Great Unknown Something, as was the tone for most of Flux.
As with so much of this era, Eve of the Daleks leaves some potential unfulfilled in its time-loop noodling. But after the epic scope of the previous story, this is designed as a palate cleanser and it absolutely succeeds at that. With a straightforward plot hook and some lovely performances, this is a funny, low-key runaround that does what it says on the tin – to borrow from the labelled tins in one of the storage units, it’s “beef and beans” Doctor Who.
Doctor Who: Eve of the Daleks is available on BBC iPlayer until January 2023
Doctor’s notes (contains spoilers)
Since becoming showrunner, Chris Chibnall has rarely come to a Doctor-ish plan without explaining it first, and this New Year’s resolution is no different. The Daleks adapt with each loop but they don’t close that one door they left open for some reason, which makes it all the easier to dupe them and blow them all up, courtesy of unreliable squatter Jeff’s hazardous goods.
This was not a stellar episode for Dalek dialogue, with too many negative call-and-response gags in a row (“I AM NOT NICK” is comfortably the highlight), but they are consistent. The Daleks may do different things on each go-around, and it’s their constant nature that must be resisted in order to break the cycle. As the first of three specials leading up to the regeneration, it’s a decent thematic starting point, but that’s not the subtext that sticks out…
“Have you ever told her… how you feel about her?” Observers of Season 11’s “bury your gays” trope will not be amused that Yaz’s sexuality and attraction to the Doctor is confirmed in the same episode that she gets killed eight times. It’s an important development in terms of representation, but with only two Thirteenth Doctor specials remaining, might it be a bit late to properly play out? It’s also not a great sign that the Doctor and Yaz only talk to Dan about these things, instead of each other.
For classic-series spotters, Doctor Who has broached time-loops before in The Claws of Axos (Season 8, 1971) and Meglos (Season 18, 1980) and the TARDIS has turned back time on New Year’s Eve too, in Doctor Who: The Movie (1996). Plus, the title of this story references Day of the Daleks, (Season 9, 1972) which began on BBC One 50 years ago in the same week of the special’s broadcast and similarly saw the pepperpots embroiled in a timey-wimey situation that’s not of their design.
That’s Karl (Johnny Dixon) enjoying the fireworks at the end of the episode. You may remember him as the crane operator and almost-Stenza-trophy from 2018’s The Woman who Fell to Earth, the Thirteenth Doctor’s debut. Quite what he’s doing in the middle of Manchester, alone at midnight, we’re not sure. He’s far down the list of returning characters we expected to see here!