It’s no coincidence that during the screening of this week’s Doctor Who I started thinking about The Iron Giant. Specifically there’s a scene at the end of The Iron Giant where the shattered leviathan lies strewn and scattered across the world, having been partially incinerated in an atomic blast, only for its fragments to jiggle and wobble and then gravitate towards the disembodied head, buried in the ice like a decapitated Statue of Liberty, gradually and painfully reassembling. Assuming you’ve seen the New Year’s special – specifically its opening scenes – you will know why this moment sprang to mind. You will also remember that The Iron Giant was about an unorthodox family dealing with advanced alien technology and military bureaucracy, at which point the analogy more or less breaks down. But still. The jiggling components remain: a loose collection of nuts and bolts knitted together into something that shouldn’t make sense, and yet somehow does.
‘Resolution’ is ostensibly a remake of ‘Dalek’, which was in itself a remake of ‘Jubilee’, making it a cannibalised slip of a thing: a hotchpotch of ideas and themes that crawls from the belly of post-hangover prime time entertainment like something that doesn’t know quite what it wants to be. Part domestic, part love story, part Nationesque action adventure, part sprawling epoch-jumping drama, it has a go at everything, trying on a variety of outfits over the course of its hour-long running time, and just about gets away with it. The result is a light, airy affair, with discussion points kept to a minimum. The links to ‘Dalek’, for example, are slighter than they may appear, and are largely about setup rather than thematic elements – being restricted solely to the concept of a lone, conveniently superpowered travel machine that has been cut off from its fleet and is understandably desperate to phone home.
But ‘Dalek’ – whatever Russell T. Davies may want to tell you – was never about introducing Nation’s finest to a new audience. It was about reinventing the damned thing so it was improbably potent, drawing a huge number of parallels with the man who was trying to kill it. In many ways it was a strange choice for a first Nu Who Dalek story: this creature that was more like the Doctor than anyone had previously cared to admit, setting the stage for a dozen similar confrontations over the next decade, all saddled with the curse of diminishing returns. There is none of that here; no soul-searching from the Doctor, save a couple of hurried lines – Whittaker confessing, over furrowed brow, that she “learned to think like a Dalek a long time ago”, before seeking affirmation from her companions that she’s given the Dalek sufficient warning before trying to melt it with bits of an oven.
But that’s all you get. For the most part, there simply isn’t room. There is a lot of fetch and carry, but it occurs at breakneck speed: the Doctor flies back and forth along the vortex, events seemingly transpiring in real time, parking the TARDIS with newfound precision in front rooms (crushing at least one chair, which will have the Facebook groups arguing for weeks about continuity) and on city streets and in the confines of GCHQ come the episode’s fiery finale. There is technobabble but the Doctor seems infused with a new sense of purpose, someone who’s been given a tangible and unambiguous enemy to fight, when she gets the chance. It is not until the eleventh hour that she actually gets that chance, but it is worth the wait, just.
This is, once more, a story about family, Chibnall sidelining some of his characters during the episode’s downtime so that they can deal with personal issues. Early on, Ryan – who apparently can’t decide whether to call Graham ‘Gramps’ or ‘Grandad’ – takes his estranged father (Darren Adegboyega) to a familiar-looking cafe so that they can not quite bond, Aaron’s prepared monologue about running from your mistakes apparently falling on deaf ears. A few minutes later Graham has a go, with considerably more success, although the net result is unavoidably cloying. They make for the weakest moments in an otherwise decent script; it’s not that Chibnall can’t write domestic, more that…actually, look, Chibnall can’t write domestic. On the other hand, neither could Davies; Camille Coduri just about walked out of series one with her dignity intact but ‘Love and Monsters’ was – for all its other brilliance – simply embarrassing at times, at least when Jackie was on screen. Moffat wasn’t much better, decorating his heartfelt monologues and teary exchanges with a barbed wit and layered emotional pathos that frankly never felt real or authentic, becoming the sort of approach that outstayed its welcome long before the man who actually turned in the scripts.
Is it fair to say that Doctor Who’s family scenes only really work when they happen offscreen? Perhaps it is. Perhaps we’re being overly harsh. Nonetheless it is the family scenes that grate this week, and it’s a pity in a way that the story’s climax hinges around the possibility that we might lose a supporting character who was there largely to provide narrative closure and a convenient (not to mention clumsy) plant and payoff. That this doesn’t happen – the seemingly inevitable self-sacrifice of Aaron postponed, at least for a year or two – is, at least, quietly refreshing, even if Ryan’s old man is far too happy to accept that his son travels the cosmos in a flying police box with a whole tick sheet of BBC diversity rendered flesh.
Elsewhere, there’s the usual fan-baiting. The Doctor waxes lyrical about her own father, in a deliberately ambiguous exchange that provides a Rorschach of possibilities. Ryan is ‘a kid with dyspraxia’. There is also a line about Rels that had me on the floor. Still, you feel as if you’re being toyed with, each new location that the tentacled parasite visits providing a potential hotspot for the inevitable reunion with its casing. Surely it’s buried somewhere in UNIT headquarters? No, there is no UNIT – the taskforce conveniently sidelined as a result of Brexit-inspired shenanigans – and the nation that held its breath when Kate Stewart’s name was mentioned can let it out again in a hiss of disappointment, and then nip back on to iPlayer to watch ‘The Power of Three’.
That we do not see the Dalek proper until the fourth act is a risky stunt, but one that pays off: Briggs’ deep-throated growl is effective, and the sight of Lin (a watchable Charlotte Ritchie) shooting out speed cameras with an untethered ray gun undoubtedly had Top Gear fans cheering into their pint glasses, but it’s like watching an Avengers film where Bruce Banner can’t Hulk out (actually, did that happen? somebody told me that happened). There was a deep-rooted fear that it would be reduced to little more than a cameo, the sort of thing the BBC show as little as possible because they’ve only got the props for one afternoon. That would have been a reasonable assumption given the little we’ve seen of the TARDIS this year, but thankfully it’s unfounded – and following the sort of dimly lit montage that could have occurred on an episode of The A-Team (for the second time this series), the new Dalek emerges from the smoke like the prototype suit that Tony Stark built in the first Iron Man, all welded metal and anger. For a cobbled alien built with junk by an archaeologist it is almost comically robust, right down to the jet pack thrusters and the tank-breaking rockets hidden behind its bumps. It is an excuse for an explosive showdown with the army from which the Dalek emerges unscathed, flying off into the sights of military jet planes and angry Twitter users who complained about ‘needless reinvention’. (For the record, it’s not needless and it’s not a reinvention; it’s an improvised Dalek made from scrap and you know perfectly well that you’ll buy the bloody thing when it comes out in May.)
Somehow, none of it matters. This is as high octane and blazing as we’ve got this series – and even if that’s not a great deal, it somehow feels like enough. Whether it’s the galactic firework display that opens the narrative, the TARDIS crew standing at the doorway wearing expressions of unbridled, childlike joy; Segin Akinola’s pleasingly retro score; the numerous offscreen adventures the Doctor and her companions have been having that will have fan fiction writers reaching for notebooks…just the sheer joy of the thing, it all zips by in an hour of silliness, a metal dustbin doing ridiculous things before getting covered in lashed-together circuitry in a scene worthy of Scrapheap Challenge. It feels like the most overused monsters in the canon are fun again, and for all the clunky dialogue and jokes about the internet and narrative shortcomings (are we really supposed to be worried about the fact that the Dalek is about to call a fleet that isn’t there?) this is that rarity in Nu Who: an episode that I not only enjoyed but would actually watch again. ‘Twice Upon A Time’ had us asking whether there could be any such thing as a good Dalek, when perhaps the question we ought to have been asking was whether, in today’s day and age, there could still be any such thing as a good Dalek story. If ‘Resolution’ proves anything, it’s that the answer is ‘yes’. It wasn’t as good as The Iron Giant, but that’s OK. Nothing is.
An earlier version of this article, published 01-01-2019, contained an error of judgement. It mistakenly attributed UNIT’s suspension to a funding crisis, rather than a retrospectively obvious Brexit gag. This has now been updated.