Given how long the series has been on the air, it’s a little bit surprising that DOCTOR WHO has never done a time loop episode before, especially since the concept became mainstream in the film Groundhog Day so long ago. But then, for all that time travel sits at the heart of the series, playing around with that concept isn’t anything the show has done much with. As Stephen Moffat, the showrunner who played around with the conceits of time travel the most, once remarked, the time travel in DOCTOR WHO is primarily used to get the main characters to the site of theri latest adventure, and little else.
After the appalling FLUX season which was bloated, disorganized, scatterbrained and unfulfilling, I went into this episode with incredibly low expectations. And yet, it turned out to be one of the most solid adventures within the Jodie Whittaker era. The script was tight and lean, and while it was perhaps a bit schmaltzier than typical WHO, given that it was another Holiday special I was more than willing to give the episode a pass on that.
Writer/showrunner Chris Chibnall here took one of the things that I’ve been saying for years to heart: Daleks are scary in an inverse ratio to their numbers. A single Dalek can be an implacable, inhuman foe, where a dozen of them or an army of tem wind up getting toppled like tenpins. While we did get a number of Daleks by the end of the episode, by exercising restraint and sticking with just a single murder machine, the episode allowed that one Dalek to become scary again, easily capable of wiping out the entirety of the human cast not just once, but repeatedly.
My usual complaints about the Jodie/Chibnall era were still in evidence, though a bit more damped down than normal. The Doctor at least was trying to assert some command over what was going on, even if she often wasn’t all that effective at it. It bugged me to no end that the clever notion that Nick had to be saved in a particular iteration of the time loop or else the contracting nature of the thing would have him dead for real wasn’t put forward by the Doctor, but rather by Sarah, the owner of a self-storage operation. Surely the Doctor would have been the first to have used that out, given her much greater experience with the nuances of time-travel. And then, when the Doctor goes to act on that knowledge and races to save Nick, she arrives to find that he’s done in a pair of Daleks through the expedience of dropping to the ground and letting them annihilate one another, which felt a bit facile (I was waiting for the Dalek slug we briefly glimpse in this sequence to come back into play as a bit of a comeuppance for Nick, but it never did.) The Doctor might as well not have been in these sequences at all for all of the impact she had on the story. One more time: Let the Hero be the Hero.
Even worse served, sadly, was Yaz, the long-suffering Mandip Gill. At the very least, the episode did move the running background subplot that Yaz had developed romantic feelings for the Doctor to the fore (and both Gill and John Bishop were good in that scene) but otherwise she was a fifth wheel in this episode. She got to do nothing, accomplish nothing, take charge of nothing. ll she wound up being was somebody for other characters to explain the plot to. I’m frustrated with the manner in which this administration treats Yaz, as I think she could be a fabulous character–I like all manner of things about her backstory and set-up, but she’s rarely ever given any chance to shine.
Here in part, that’s because John Bishop’s Dan has proven so facile at both comedy and more serious emotional moments. Like Graham before him, he’s got a built-in role within the structure of the core cast and his personality is such that he’s able to make something out of the most inconsequential moments. I quite liked him calling the Doctor on her BS where Yaz is concerned (though I did find myself wishing that the episode had gotten back to this in some way, that Yaz was permitted to have some agency in her own plotline.)
The guest cast was good, if a bit broadly drawn. And certainly, you could watch only the very first scene between Sarah and Nick and be able to predict exactly where their relationship was going over the course of the episode. But because there were fewer players on the canvas, they each got a greater opportunity to shine (apart from designated bag-holder Yaz.) I genuinely liked the fact that initially Sarah hadn’t rushed into the complex to save Nick but rather in an attempt to save herself. That struck me as a profoundly human reaction, and the fact that she fesses up to it even while they were still in the midst of danger seemed a bit unearned (even if Nick, improbably, had tried to give his life to save the others just before.)
The message of the episode about “Good-Hearted Weirdos” finding a way through and saving the day by falling and getting up again seemed like it was directed squarely at the show’s core constituency, and was welcome. Of late, DOCTOR WHO has tended to talk the talk when it came to such matters, but in the episodes themselves, when the time came to walk the walk, it would often balk.
Bottom line: this was a very solid entry after a messy season and a welcome return to form for the show. Hopefully, the remaining two Chibnall specials will be able to build effectively on what was laid out here so that the regime of the 13th Doctor can stick the landing of her tenure, at least.