A new year brings a new episode of DOCTOR WHO, which is quite welcome after the long drought since the previous season wrapped up. And it’s a solid enough entry, though a bit frustrating as recent installments have been in terms of not quite making the best use of all of its pieces. There are sparks of greatness scattered throughout this extra-long episode, moments during which the show and its cast hit the sweet spot. But somehow, the show just doesn’t seem to be able to keep things together, and so this winds up being another outing that’s slightly underwhelming, for all that it wasn’t awful.
We’re hitting some of the same problems that have been emblematic since the start of the Jodie Whittaker series. The biggest issue is still that the Doctor tends not to play as the hero of her own story. This episode was better in this regard than some in the back half, but before that we need to buy into the idea that the Doctor has spent months, years, locked up in Judoon prison without having extricated herself. There’s a bit of business about her using the time to reflect on the revelations made in “The Timeless Children” about her past and true origins, and I could even buy into that if it was sold to me properly. But it really wasn’t–it feels as though the Doctor is hopelessly incarcerated until Captain Jack Harkness shows up on his own initiative to break her out. Maybe it’s just my interpretation of the character, but I cannot see anyone, in particular the dopey Judoon (who don’t so much as put in an appearance here, though there are cameos from other past monsters) holding the Doctor for any length of time if she doesn’t want to be held. So I wish the episode had done more to underline that. If it had, that could have been an element that played into the abandonment that Ryan, Yaz and Graham were feeling.
Let’s talk about Captain Jack for a few minutes. It’s always nice to see him again, and John Barrowman was in fine form, clearly delighting on being called back to active duty. In some ways, he was more a driver than the Doctor was, especially in the first half of the episode. I did feel as though both his sudden appearance and then his exit at the end felt just slightly perfunctory, and I would have shown, rather than simply talked about, his ability to defy death in the course of the adventure. And his bonding with Yaz and their exchange about how traveling in the Tardis changes a person, and how you don’t necessarily get to decide when the ride is over was very well done, and a standout sequence.
The three Fam characters all came across well in this outing, though their best moments were inevitably when they were in one-on-one situations, with the Doctor, or Captain Jack, or each other. Which points to the recurring difficulty of the show having too many lead characters. While it’s always sad to see people go, I’m very positive about the idea of going into the next season with just the Doctor and Yaz. The tighter focus is likely to give the character many more opportunities to shine, and she had enough good moments in this story that this will be welcome. (Although, Yaz sleeping in the Tardis immediately raises questions in my mind. Wasn’t she studying to be a police officer? Has she been skipping out on work to stay here and look for the Doctor? I’d hate to lose that aspect of her character, as it’s one of the more interesting and distinctive things about her, that and the fact that she tends to be heedless and jump in feet first.)
The best scene in the adventure was probably the extended exchange between the Doctor and Ryan (though again, the logistics of it made me come up short. It really takes the Tardis four-plus minutes to go from England to Osaka? Really?) It felt nuanced and genuine, and I liked Ryan more in that moment than I had over the course of the past two seasons. I was also glad that his here-again-gone-again aphasia was remembered this time out. I did feel a bit sorry for poor old Graham, though–he clearly wanted to stay on board the Tardis but chose to man up and do what he considered the right thing. And while I know he seemed happy at the end, being together with his grandson and getting ready to start saving the world on their own, I would have liked to have seen him stick around. Graham was always the easiest of the Fam characters to get a handle on, given both the character’s background and the performance by Bradley Walsh.
What else? The Daleks were the Daleks. They ticked every box on the Dalek story checklist here, but nobody’s really known quite what to do with the aggressive little pepper-pots since “Dalek” in 2005. The fact that sheer multitudes of them are dealt with painlessly and expediently underlines just how ineffective they tend to be as an adversary. I’m a big believer in the notion that fewer Daleks are scarier than hordes of Daleks. And I just found the quasi-Donald Trump antics of the returning Jack Robertson annoying. I kept waiting for somebody, Dalek or otherwise, to zorch this cretin, but I was sadly denied that pleasure. I’m sure that he’s fun to write, but I found him even more annoying to watch here than in his first outing.
So, all things considered, this was an undistinguished episode but not a terrible one. It certainly entertained for its 70 minute run time. And given that it’s likely to be close to another year before we see any further episodes, it’s going to have to sustain until then.