The last season of Doctor Who, subtitled Flux, had more downs than it did ups — a mess of plot threads, unconvincing resolutions, and nebulously high stakes that never really lived up to the series’ attempt to return to a serialized story format. Thankfully, its return on New Years Day was pretty much the exact opposite.
“Eve of the Daleks” might be in the wake of Flux, but it feels altogether unlike it. Set in the final minutes of the year at a storage unit in Manchester, it feels far removed from the thought of the death of most of the universe, the Doctor teetering on the edge of discovering their hidden past, zillions of beings hoovered up into walking prison-forms, and whatnot. After a season of prophesied encounters and dire omens of the end of all things, it’s incredibly refreshing to have an episode where the Doctor and her friends just happen to show up as Something Weird Happens. That “something weird” is, as the only two people in the storage unit discover — put-upon employee Sarah (Aisling Bea) and the only customer who somehow visits every New Year’s Eve, Nick (Adjani Salmon) — is a time loop that resets every time they are murdered by a horrifying alien death machine. So as the Doctor, Yaz, and Dan are likewise drawn into the killer loop and Daleks roam the halls of Elf Storage, the stage is set for them to find out what caused the loop, break out of it to save Sarah and Nick, and try not to get killed by Daleks too many times.
It’s a simple premise, but executed incredibly well. The mechanics of the temporal loop give “Eve of the Daleks” a compelling sense of structure, even if it is one that has to be defined by our heroes failing and getting blasted by the Daleks time and time again. Even as the tension is ratcheted up by the discovery that the loop resets one minute closer to midnight, giving the Doctor and friends even less time to escape until they’re stuck in a perpetual cycle of execution, the stakes never stray into nebulously high territory in the way they did with Flux, making us actually care about them. When it’s revealed that the Daleks established the loop to trap the Doctor and execute her for the destruction of their fleet at the end of Flux, it still feels contained and low-key. Thank god they’re not invading earth or wanting to conquer the galaxy as the Daleks are so often wont to do; here they’re simply petty pepperpot planners who saw an opportunity to get back at the being they hate most in the universe and thought, “It’s New Year’s Eve, why not?”
These low stakes and a compellingly small central mystery mean that “Eve of the Daleks” can actually focus on its characters — a cast that, after Flux threw legions of people at us to ostensibly care about, is just a similarly refreshing five people in total. The bulk of that attention is, of course, given to new characters Sarah and Nick, enough to give us a starcrossed meet-cute that sees their arcs start out as people who barely know each other outside of their peculiar “work” relationship, to people who actually can take the time to get to know each other and develop a meaningful connection. Their arc (Sarah’s in particular, as her tribulations force her to let people into her life again) give “Eve of the Daleks” actual stakes to be invested in instead of some dire threat to all of reality, and give our heroes something to fight for even as they keep trying and failing to break the loop. But the small scale of the story and its simple narrative conceit in the loop also mean that, for what feels like the first time in a considerable while, we get to spend time and further explore the Doctor’s own relationship with her friends.
Admittedly, this is only really to focus on one pairing in particular — Yaz and the Doctor, as Dan’s role in the episode, when he’s not reminding everyone of his most important and delightful character trait (that he’s from Liverpool), is mostly to show up to a New Year’s special acting like it’s a Valentine’s Day one. In separate moments alone with the Doctor and Yaz, Dan pushes the two of them to realise a subtext that has been sitting in the background of all of Chibnall’s run on Who, now finally pushed to the forefront: Yaz has feelings for the Doctor. It makes sense, given that one of the ongoing frustrations Chibnall’s time on Who has been that Yaz has had little focus outside of airing the annoyance she has over the Doctor refusing to let her into her life more, keeping things secret all the time. And it makes sense for the Doctor in turn, whose reaction to Yaz’s revelation is more of an “oh no” rather than anything particularly romantic — after all, they’ve been through this before — to now have to face the consequences of not just hiding things from her friends, but navigating the awkwardness of dealing with her actual feelings for them. But it’s one that has taken up until now to get dug into because lately Doctor Who is, usually, running around at a mile a minute screaming about the end of the world/universe/time itself. Even if we’re still in the early stages of exploring this development in the Doctor and Yaz’s relationship, the fact that we actually got time to breathe in an episode and explore it is reason enough to celebrate the simplicity of “Eve of the Daleks.”
And that’s the thing, in general: After Flux tried, and largely failed, to throw big plot reveals and story stakes together across its six-week-long tale, “Eve of the Daleks” feels like something of a reset as we head into Jodie Whittaker’s final year in the TARDIS. There is no grand mystery here or overarching plot connection, beyond what emotional ramifications there will be for the Doctor and her companions moving forward. There’s a simple, effective use of a familiar villain that feels justified beyond the “event” status of them showing up. There’s a whole lot of love in the air, too, which is Doctor Who’s most powerful weapon against any monstrous threat (outside of questionably legal amounts of fireworks and flammable chemical materials). As Chibnall and Whittaker’s time on the series begins to draw to an end, Doctor Who seems to be heading back to basics — and just in time, too.
- It’s going to be very interesting now that the Doctor is aware of Yaz’s feelings for her, insomuch as we the audience know that there’s only going to be two more episodes they can explore them with — one of which includes the object of Yaz’s affections “dying”! Will Yaz continue to travel with the new Doctor and have to navigate her complicated feelings like Clara, or will she exit before time’s up for the thirteenth Doctor? We’ll find out… at some point this year!
- The Dalek’s latest technological development is a Gatling-gun-esque extermination blaster that is, depending on if you need to reset a time loop or are just running down a very long corridor, either the most horrifyingly overkill portable weapon or the least accurate laser gun in Doctor Who history.
- There’s a very weird cameo at the end of this episode in the form of an onlooker to the explosive end of the Daleks and Elf Storage in general: Karl, the random dude targeted by Tzim-Sha in Jodie Whittaker’s very first episode. Certainly… a reference!
- Next time, at least in a couple of months: the return of the Sea Devils! The classic Who race first appeared in the ‘70s, and have become commonly associated with the Silurians. Given that it was Chris Chibnall himself who re-introduced them with a very different take way back in season 5’s “The Hungry Earth,” it’s interesting that this time around the Sea Devils actually look pretty faithful to their classic design.