“Seriously,” said Emily, from where she was perched on the far end of the sofa. “Who drinks tea when it’s poured straight into a cup? From a tea stand? It’s far too hot!”
‘Revolution of the Daleks’ begins in a roadside layby and ends on a hill above Sheffield. Its opening conceit – that the unsuspecting courier responsible for transferring the charred remains of the Dalek we met in ‘Resolution’ was ambushed – depends on a slightly convoluted chain of events, and it rather sets the tone for everything that follows, but that does seem to be the way that Doctor Who is written these days. Or perhaps it’s the way it’s always been written and we’ve only just noticed.
Dalek stories tend to follow a pattern: either the Daleks are simply trying to blow something up, or there are foolish humans who believe they can form some sort of alliance with them. ‘Revolution’ skates a rather awkward middle ground between the two; this time around it’s shady government minister Harriet Walter (Jo Patterson, who is never allowed to do anything more interesting than stand in a car park) who’s managed to reverse engineer Dalek technology in an attempt to build a robotic security force, heralding “The age of security”. To do this, she’s enlisted the help of shady business tycoon and former Presidential wannabe Jack Robertson (Chris Noth), last seen storming out of his hotel after mowing down a giant spider with a handgun, as toxic waste rumbled up from the ground beneath. Asking a man like this to be responsible for rolling out one of the biggest technological breakthroughs in decades is a bit like putting Montgomery Burns in charge of a green energy plan, but none of this seems to bother Harriet, who mumbles something about offshore bank accounts while standing under an umbrella. Clearly misery makes for strange bedfellows.
While all this is going on, Graham and Ryan are fretting about Yaz, who has established a base of operations in the spare time capsule that brought them all back to Earth at the end of ‘The Timeless Children’, and which is now covered in post-it notes. They’ve moved on, but the sleeping bag on the floor and the slightly glazed look in her eye is proof that Yaz clearly hasn’t, and that finding the Doctor is still job no.1. “I must be able to work it out,” she seethes, in the manner of Zosia March in Holby City, just before her eventual breakdown. It’s clear where this is going, and if the mental health issues Yaz is facing are only skirted around on this occasion we may assume that further fallout is coming, most likely when the TARDIS crew has shrunk a little bit.
As for the Doctor herself, she’s still stuck in the unnamed prison on the other side of the galaxy, bunged in a cell for unmentionable crime – no, really, it was seventy-five minutes long and I still don’t have a clue what they were – and forced to share a cell block with an angry P’Ting, a helpless Weeping Angel, a possessed Ood and even one of the Silence (“I forgot you were here”, she quips as the two come face to face). It feels like a missed opportunity – it’s quite sweet to have the Doctor address the security cameras as she passes them, but it would have been nice to see a little more of the effect it was having on her. A brief, clumsily-executed dalliance with Ryan later on is about all we get, and Whittaker is forced to convey the rest in a handful of awkward stares and quasi-meaningful silences.
Still, it isn’t long before she’s sprung from the joint, with the help of Jack Harkness (an increasingly craggy-looking John Barrowman), who turns up with a literal support bubble in which the two make good their escape. Said escape basically involves running down a corridor, which feels very much like home – there was a concern over whether these two would bond, but they manage to click together reasonably well (it helps that, in keeping with Doctor Who’s ongoing environmental concerns, most of Jack’s best lines are recycled). “My own TARDIS!” exclaims the Doctor as the two of them materialise within it, just in case the weird filters had left us in any doubt. Indeed, one of the biggest mysteries dropped on us last series is not whether or not the Doctor is in fact the Timeless Child, but why they can’t fix the lighting, which seems perennially off. Perhaps it’s to hide Barrowman’s wrinkles.
It’s nice – if a little predictable – that the TARDIS fam aren’t exactly thrilled when the Doctor shows up in Graham’s living room, but they don’t have long to ruminate on her ten-month absence before we’re off to Osaka, which is where the plot finally kicks into gear. Robertson has a secret factory producing Dalek clones – so secret that even he doesn’t know about its existence, prompting the incredulous industrialist to ask about how they could have signed the purchase orders. It’s all the work of the gravel-voiced, back-humping Reconnaissance Dalek, which has been breeding a secret army that can inexplicably teleport itself into Harriet Walter’s empty cases when the lighting changes. (‘Inexplicably’ may be the wrong choice of word. There is an explanation, it’s just mildly rubbish.)
Everything about ‘Revolution’ screams “Oh well, we know it’s silly, but there are Daleks”: whether it’s the Soylent Green nods in the factory, the 3D printing thing, or the Doctor’s plan to hide away from the Dalek fleet by parking her TARDIS on a rooftop just as they’re flying over (still, at least Jack will be happy). The dialogue is crammed with contemporary platitudes and self-referential gags (Robertson sneers about people being tired of experts, while Ryan proclaims that “It’s OK to be sad”). It’s fine that Doctor Who does this, but dialogue is not and has never been Chibnall’s forte, and box-ticking should never actually feel like box-ticking. There is, at least, a perfunctory attempt to flesh out Chris Noth’s character a little bit, and he evolves from one-dimensional Trumpalike to someone with the potential to be a bit more interesting and, at times, almost likeable; he waltzes off into the sunset with his reputation restored, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that the next time we see him the TARDIS will have once again landed inside the Oval Office.
Does it work? Just about. It’s preposterous and cringeworthy and you feel like a story of this nature really ought to have a little more in the way of explosions and fire fights, but it’s also a departure story and the Daleks were always going to play second fiddle to the characters. That’s not a problem when it’s done well, but it isn’t: Jack’s complicated relationship with the Doctor is touched upon only briefly, and even a couple of well-placed nods to ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’ can’t save the two companion departures from being both cloying and overly sentimental. At least they make it out alive, which is presumably so that all the development can be left to a later story. As we watch Ryan – the young man who can sink a hoop from twenty yards and fling himself from platform to platform with the precision of Mario, but who still can’t ride a bike – struggle on top of the Sheffield hill where we first met him, it’s left to Graham to point out that the two of them have plenty of other things they could be doing, and somewhere in a house in London, Nicholas Briggs is already polishing his first draft.
We were talking about box-ticking, and ostensibly this delivers on what it promises. There are Daleks galore (they even have a standoff of sorts, although it’s basically a lot of shouting and scrapping, rather like one of those viral news videos you see on Twitter) and there are assorted loose ends tied and other knots left deliberately open, and in what has become an increasingly rare turn of events the Doctor saves the Earth with an actual plan. But it’s difficult not to be a little underwhelmed – that this was a story that tried to do a little too much of everything and didn’t really cover any of its bases as fully as we’d have liked; a bed sheet that’s shrunk in the wash and that doesn’t quite fit. If I were in any way cynical, I might call the John Bishop announcement (which occurred in the episode’s immediate aftermath) a matter of impeccable timing; something to distract us from the mediocrity we’d just experienced. But perhaps that’s unfair. And perhaps it doesn’t matter anyway. Perhaps running out of steam simply means you pootle along gently, in a state of affable content rather than world-beating splendour. And perhaps affable content isn’t such a dreadful thing these days, if it ever was. Perhaps Doctor Who has always been mediocre, and we’ve only just noticed.