DOCTOR WHO – ‘Eve of the Daleks’
The Doctor and friends become stuck in a time-loop with Daleks on New Year's Eve…
This year’s Doctor Who New Year’s Day special was first touted as something of a romantic comedy with Daleks. The words ‘romantic comedy’ don’t usually spring to mind with Doctor Who, so my expectations for “Eve of the Daleks” were, to be honest, not particularly high. Prejudices aside, and we’ll get to the romantic comedy aspects of the story in due course, it’s worth crediting head writer Chris Chibnall for turning in an economic, pacy, funny time loop narrative conundrum… with Daleks. Daleks with a penchant for dead-pan, often ironic, responses and Gatling gun exterminations.
It’s a tense ‘bottle episode’; a battle of wills and strategies between a squad of Daleks and The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), her companions Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Dan (John Bishop), Sarah (Aisling Bea) the cynical owner of the rundown ELF storage company, and her last remaining, if somewhat odd, customer Nick (Adjani Salmon). We’re introduced to the latter couple on New Year’s Eve as Nick checks in to access his unit at the Manchester company (an annual ritual, it seems) and asks Sarah to remind him what can’t be stored with them. As soon as Sarah defines hazardous as “if I set fire to this item, will it have potentially explosive or devastating consequences?”, it’s no stretch of the imagination to expect the very same will light a fire under a rather odd relationship and a relationship that fans have been pushing for.
It’s a story with one setting, a small cast, and a singular threat compared to the frenzy of the preceding six-part “Flux” series, and benefits greatly from this sense of confinement as the Daleks hunt down The Doctor to repay her in-kind for destroying millions of Daleks in Series 13 finale “The Vanquishers“. Faster than you could sing “should auld acquaintance be forgot”, they’ve tracked her down after a plot point, left hanging from the finale, is resolved when she self-resets the TARDIS to repair the damage inflicted by the Flux. The process not only brings her presence to the Daleks’ attention but it creates a shrinking time loop, at nine minutes to midnight, where events are repeatedly reset until the loop closes.
Like the ‘Doomsday Clock’ issued by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the countdown to midnight plays out as a dark New Year joke, complete with Sarah’s mum (Pauline McLynn) arguing about ringing her before the bongs, and as a metaphor for the global slide towards the apocalypse thanks to Omicron, Brexit, and the gloom in general that’s settled upon us. The Doctor, her companions, Nick, and Sarah are all aware of what happened on previous iterations of the loop, each ending like a video game reset—or, being topical, phasing in and out of lockdown?—after being exterminated by Daleks, and their goal is to outwit the Daleks and get out of ELF storage before the loop finally closes. The narrative constantly runs against the clock, perhaps in homage to the ‘real-time’ thriller element in Chibnall’s own 2007 episode “42”, is a bit Groundhog Day (1993) but isn’t quite, plays with déjà vu and feels similar to the time loop conundrums of the 1992 Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Cause and Effect”.
The loop also suggests that The Doctor’s fate, with the Thirteenth’s yet to be seen in the BBC Centenary special due in the autumn, is forever tied into a continuous cycle of life, death, and rebirth. “Eve of the Daleks” replays this remit and she arrives, is killed, lives again, is killed again, and will definitively perish unless she can break this cycle. Although she manages to best the loop and escape, there will be a situation, inevitably, where only a regeneration will allow The Doctor to cheat death. Naturally, she and the Daleks have been tied together in an infernal relationship since the series began, providing us with a longlasting romantic comedy of a different hue.
That The Doctor, her companions, and innocent bystanders run up and down corridors over and over again to outwit the Daleks is a witty encapsulation of the series recurrent motif, and perhaps Chibnall decided to have a word with his 16-year-old self, whose comments made about Doctor Who on a 1986 edition of Open Air (“it was very clichéd, it was very routine —running up and down corridors and silly monsters”), have no doubt haunted him ever since. Indeed, the challenge with these types of stories is to avoid falling into over-repetition, and director Annetta Laufer just about manages to make this visually interesting given the characters are gunned down every two or three minutes and confined within a specific set of corridors over and over. She and director of photography Robin Whenery use the camera to prowl constantly through the various levels of ELF storage and they certainly emphasise the Dalek menace by shooting and lighting them in distinctive ways. Laufer uses lighting creatively, too, drenching corridors and spaces in primary reds and greens.
Chibnall and his production team are also having some fun when Sarah thinks she is speaking to Nick after she hears the lift open on the ground floor. “You all done Nick?” is greeted by a Dalek grating “I AM NOT NICK”, courtesy of Nicholases Briggs and Pegg, vocalist/performers extraordinaire. These Daleks are bit flippant, arrogantly turning the tables on The Doctor when she attempts to scramble their weapons and proclaiming “Daleks learn!” from their experiences and encounters with the Time Lord. Thereby hangs a thread because the story is about human intuition and the capacity to defeat the inevitable and confound the logic of fate. While the Daleks’ strategic thinking takes into account the predictability of human behaviour, it’s a two dimensional rationale compared to The Doctor helping her human friends to think beyond the predictable. It recalls the logical impasse that the Daleks and the Movellans found themselves locked into back in 1979’s “Destiny of the Daleks”, an impasse that could only be broken by the human ability to think illogically.
Certainly the immediate acceptance of the situation by Sarah and Nick (“stuck in a time loop with killer robots” ) is illogical, but there’s only nine minutes… sorry, eight minutes to midnight left and we’re just splitting hairs. The capacity for humans to operate in fight or flight mode, use the resources available, and repeat their mistakes until they learn from experience is front and centre and their need to anticipate and out-think Dalek cunning is inspired by The Doctor and her friends, working under the guise of council building inspectors. Again, as Nick theorises, what’s the most unlikely… “a time loop with robots, or three people from the council working New Years.” Not only does this apply to outwitting Daleks but in many respects it may explain why Sarah decides a relationship with Nick is her best option given that he spends a lot of time filling his storage unit with the unclaimed items of his ex-girlfriends, “just in case they ask for it back.” Yaz, thinking what we’re thinking, is brave enough to ask him if all his exes are still alive.
Granted, Sarah’s rather unhappy to discover she’s being hunted by Daleks because Nick wants to catalogue his relationships in this way. It’s a slightly unnerving form of compulsive behaviour, but then Sarah’s already trying to process the intentions of the mysterious Jeff, whose own idiosyncrasies are represented by several units filled with stuffed animals, holiday goods, a lifetime’s supply of out-of-date tinned beef n’ beans, and canisters potentially more explosive than the combined consumption of said food. Nick impulsively risks giving himself up in order to save the others and it’s this gesture that makes Sarah think again when she discovers Nick has a crush on her. Similarly, Dan takes it upon himself to distract one of the Daleks, in a humourous exchange about automated staff and reporting their behaviour to the manager, to buy time for the others to reach the fifth floor to search for something to stop them. The unpredictable variations of human relationships offer the key to breaking the Dalek strategy.
Nick and Sarah’s unusual dating experience runs in parallel with the important development in Yaz and The Doctor’s relationship. Yaz is still looking for that moment when The Doctor will tell her everything that happened to her during the events of “The Timeless Children” and “Flux”. They’ve been circling around each other for some time and Yaz’s gathering emotions have not gone unnoticed in fan circles. The Yaz-Doctor shipping (or ‘Thasmin’ as it’s been labelled) may or may not have influenced Chibnall’s development of the characters but it seems their wishes have been granted and “Eve of the Daleks” finally broaches the subject. Dan, perceptively, has picked up on Yaz’s feelings after the many years of travel without The Doctor that they endured during the crisis with the Flux, particularly when all Yaz had to remind her of The Doctor was a hologram.
The scene where he raises the subject with Yaz reflects Nick’s own confession to Sarah. Nick’s decision to express his three years of unrequited love for Sarah is a result of the immediate crisis, the feeling he may never get the chance if he is killed again and is “worried that one of these times I won’t make it back.” As they debate whether Nick’s behaviour is “stalkery”, ironically he’s atomised by a “stalkery” Dalek, a creature incapable of understanding the feeling of being sorry. Later, when Sarah is rationalising to the others about rescuing Nick because “good hearted weirdos are the keepers” there’s a shot intercut, of Yaz, that speaks volumes about the unspoken feelings she has for The Doctor thanks to Mandip Gill’s acting skills.
Bishop and Gill are excellent in “Eve of the Daleks”‘s most crucial scene and Dan, sensing the consequences, advises Yaz, “I took way too long to tell someone I liked them and then the universe ended… I wouldn’t want that to happen to you.” But Yaz doesn’t know what to do or how to speak to The Doctor about her feelings and coming out, for that is what this is, in essence, is difficult and always an ongoing process. It never ends. Their intimate scene is then cut short by Daleks reiterating that The Doctor will never save them. Is Chibnall also flagging up that any putative relationship between her and The Doctor is doomed? We only have two further specials to explore any such positive relationship and Mandip Gill won’t be continuing through into Russell T. Davies’ second era, so odds are it’s going to be a turbulent ending. For now, kudos for upping the LGBTQ+ representation in the series. After The Doctor apologies to Yaz for shouting at her, because the Time Lord’s actions are suddenly catching up with her, Dan then explains exactly what’s going on with Yaz and accuses The Doctor of pretending she doesn’t know the extent of those feelings. Given the final shot of that scene, The Doctor does understand but is keeping any such feelings at arm’s length. She fears the consequences.
The explosive climax is well earned. Sarah gives up on a business that was foisted upon her and Nick commits his collection of ex-girlfriends’ belongings to the fire, giving a whole new meaning to “ex-terminate”. Fooling the Daleks with a decoy loop ends the emotional fireworks with a particularly impressive New Years Eve display. Although knowing looks are exchanged between the characters in the glare, it’s a romantic display that in itself intimates that the cycle of life, death and rebirth is nearing completion for Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor. The man she saved from Tzim-Sha, in her debut episode “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” just over three years ago, Karl Wright (Jonny Dixon), is watching in admiration as the sky over Manchester fills with fireworks. Change is in the air and the circle is about to be completed.
UK | 2022 | 45 MINUTES | 16:9 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
writer: Chris Chibnall.
director: Annetta Laufer.
starring: Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, John Bishop, Aisling Bea, Adjani Salmon, Pauline McLynne & Nicholas Briggs (voice).