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Doctor Who is full of fireworks in its exhilarating New Year’s Day special

Photo: BBC America
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It turns out there’s a reason “The Battle Of Ranskoor Av Kolos” didn’t feel like much of a season finale—it was one in name only. “Resolution” offers much more, well, resolution for this game-changing season of Doctor Who, wrapping up the dangling thread about Ryan’s strained relationship with his dad and giving the Doctor a proper big battle to end the season and start the New Year. And while showrunner Chris Chibnall didn’t technically lie about his debut season featuring no returning baddies, he did conveniently leave out the fact that his New Year’s Day special (a switch from the traditional Christmas Day one) just happens to center on the Daleks—Doctor Who’s single most iconic villain. In fact, it would be fair to say that a new Doctor doesn’t truly snap into focus until they’ve gone up against those genocidal pepperpots. And Jodie Whittaker gets to end her debut season on a real high note as her Doctor battles her biggest foe and saves the world on the first day of a brand new year.

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“Resolution” offers all the cinematic bombast that was missing from “The Battle Of Ranskoor Av Kolos,” although it takes a bifurcated approach to delivering a story that’s both exciting and emotional. The excitement comes from the Dalek-half of the episode, a rollicking whizz-bang adventure set in and around Sheffield, naturally. Meanwhile, the episode’s emotional heft comes from a separate story about Ryan’s dad Aaron (Daniel Adegboyega), who shows up on New Year’s Day hoping to turn over a new leaf with his son. In the most literal sense, it’s an example of two halves making a whole, although there’s not necessarily a ton of thematic cohesion between the two storylines. Still, at least Aaron’s arrival gives the episode an excuse to more seamlessly split up its central TARDIS Team than the “you look into this, while we look into that!” approach that most episodes this season have taken.

Other than a Brexit-aimed jab about UNIT being suspended due to funding withdrawal by the UK’s international partners, there’s not really a ton of thematic depth to the Dalek half of the story in general. The Daleks want to conquer the universe and the Doctor wants to stop them. But what it lacks in depth, it makes up for in originality. Dalek stories can get a bit repetitive at times, but “Resolution” finds a new spin on the material. This particular Dalek is a form we haven’t seen before, one of the reconnaissance scouts that were the first to leave Skaro once the Daleks set their squid-like hearts on exterminating the universe. The Recon Dalek landed on Earth in the 9th century where it was eventually conquered in medieval battle by the unified efforts of Earth’s mightiest warriors. Divided and spread across the planet, the Recon Dalek was effectively defeated for centuries until a pair of lovelorn Sheffield archeologists decide to spend the first day of 2019 accidentally reviving it.

Photo: BBC America

The opening medieval prologue is just one place in which director Wayne Yip lends an epic, cinematic flair to this New Year’s special. I noted in my review of “The Battle Of Ranskoor Av Kolos” that this season has operated at more of a walk than a run, but “Resolution” is filled with the action pacing I was missing elsewhere. There’s a zippy energy to “Resolution,” which manages to make the Daleks feel scarier than they have in a long time. Before it can rebuild its outer shell (in a sequence that plays as a twisted parallel to the Doctor’s construction of her sonic screwdriver in the premiere), the Recon Dalek operates in its squid form for much of the episode, taking control of archeologist Lin (Charlotte Ritchie) and using her body as its puppet. Kip’s direction depicts that with a mixture of horror and action thrills, which continue once the Dalek enters its newly constructed, waist-cinching casing and singlehandedly takes down a group of soldiers and a tank in open combat. With their bulky designs and monotone voices, Daleks can sometimes come across a little bit silly, but the military battle drills home the Doctor’s warning that the Daleks truly are the most dangerous creatures in the universe.

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As NuWho has proven over and over again, Daleks are often at their most interesting (and most terrifying) when there’s a lone straggler operating on its own, and “Resolution” is smart to keep its focus on one Dalek rather than a whole fleet of them. It also helps that it’s actually been quite a while since we’ve had a truly Dalek-centric episode. They only made a brief cameo in season 10 and took a backseat to Davros in the season nine opener “The Magician’s Apprentice”/“The Witch’s Familiar.” You have to go all the way back to season eight’s “Into The Dalek” (Peter Capaldi’s second ever outting as the Doctor!) to find an episode truly centered on a Dalek. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder, and keeping them out of season 11 proper to save them for this special is a great example of Chris Chibnall making smart big picture choices as a showrunner, even as he still sometimes struggles to bring that same intelligence to his episodic writing.

While the Recon Dalek delivers this episode’s thrills, the Aaron stuff is there to offer some emotional heft. It’s a fairly familiar story about the return of an absentee parent, elevated by some rich details and standout performances from Adegboyega, Bradley Walsh, and especially Tosin Cole. One of the episode’s best scenes is the tense café chat between Aaron and Ryan, in which Ryan lays out the apology he wants his dad to give him while Aaron struggles to explain the mess he’s made of his life. It’s a scene that demonstrates just how much Ryan has grown since his early days of passive aggressively taking out his frustrations on Graham. In “The Witchfinders,” the Doctor extolled the value of communication, and Ryan channels that lesson beautifully here. It’s clear that his time in the TARDIS has given him a newfound confidence and emotional maturity when it comes to speaking openly, honestly, and unapologetically about his feelings.

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Photo: BBC America

The two halves of the episode eventually intersect as Aaron gets swept up in the Dalek adventure and uses his engineering skills to turn his combination microwave/oven into a Dalek-melting device. But when the loose Dalek manages to take Aaron hostage, it’s up to Ryan to save his dad from being sucked out an airlock with the unwanted creature. Both resolutions are a little too quick and easy, especially the emotional reunion between Ryan and Aaron. Yet there’s some metaphorical resonance to the moment Ryan rescues Aaron too. In a perfect world, Aaron would be the one to step up to the plate to fix their broken relationship, as Ryan asks of him in that café scene. Yet the world isn’t perfect and if Ryan wants to have a relationship with his dad, the reality is that he will probably have to meet Aaron in the middle. Risking his life to save his dad feels like a metaphor for the emotional work Ryan decides he wants to put in to having a relationship with Aaron. I hadn’t thought of this season as one about Ryan maturing into adulthood, but looking back that’s actually been one of its strongest throughlines.

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It’s also possible that I’m giving the episode a little too much credit for what’s simply a pat emotional resolution. This is certainly far from a perfect episode. Lin and Mitch (Nikesh Patel) are woefully underutilized guest characters, even if Charlotte Ritchie turns in a fantastic performance as Dalek-Lin. And speaking of underutilized, Yaz is barely even a presence in this episode—a season-long problem that’s embarrassingly egregious here. As has so often been the case this season (particularly in the episodes penned by Chris Chibnall), “Resolution” has storytelling flaws and narrative deadends that become more and more glaring the more I think about them, even if they didn’t particularly bother me while I was actually watching it.

Thankfully, “Resolution” is saved by its strong execution, particularly Yip’s exhilarating direction. There’s an energy here that was missing from Chibnall’s other episodes, and frequently from the season as a whole. Most importantly, “Resolution” is a fantastic episode for the Doctor, who continues building on the more proactive personality she developed during the second half of the season. Whether telling off Aaron, standing up to the Recon Dalek, reaching out to Lin with empathy, or sliding across the floor like a full-on action hero, “Resolution” sees the Doctor at the most dynamic she’s been all season, which doubles as a fantastic showcase for Jodie Whittaker. “Resolution” is ultimately about a team of people working together to defeat one of the biggest evils in the universe—as the Order of the Custodians did before them. But it’s also an episode that proves this Doctor is more than capable of standing up to a Dalek on her own too.

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Photo: BBC America

“Resolution” is a strong capper for an imperfect season of Doctor Who. There are still some kinks for this new era of the series to work out, particularly when it comes to developing Yaz as a character and creating more complex interpersonal dynamics among the TARDIS team beyond just “pleasant friendship.” But considering that Steven Moffat began his tenure as showrunner with a near-perfect debut season and then struggled to recapture that same magic, I’m actually a little bit optimistic about the fact that this new era of the show clearly has so much more room to grow. Hopefully, there’s nowhere to go from here but up.

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Stray observations

  • I loved the scene of the Doctor, Graham, Ryan, and Yaz binge-visiting New Year’s Eve celebrations across time and space.
  • I’m genuinely shocked that both Mitch and Lin made it out of this episode alive, as they seemed like prime “kill them off for pathos” Doctor Who guest characters. Talk about a New Year’s Day miracle!
  • The scene where Graham brought out all of Aaron’s childhood stuff that Grace had kept was really devastating, especially because I’d forgotten that Grace was Aaron’s mom (I was thinking she was Ryan’s maternal grandmother).
  • In addition to the return of the Daleks, we also got the return of Nicholas Briggs as the voice of the Daleks! Though I’m in favor of the many changes the show has adopted this season, I’m really glad Briggs is still here to provide a little note of continuity as well. And I’m hoping that the mention of Kate Lethbridge-Stewart means Jemma Redgrave might eventually return to the series one day too.
  • I rewatched the whole season in preparation for this special, and while none of my opinions about its individual episodes particularly changed, my love for Jodie Whittaker (which was already strong) grew about three sizes.
  • The ominous namedrop of the “timeless child” back in “The Ghost Monument” remains a dangling thread for future seasons to pickup.
  • The gag about the family being horrified at the thought of having to talk to each other after the internet goes down was pretty bad, but for some reason my tolerance for corny jokes is always higher around holiday specials. Speaking of which, I’m perfectly fine with Doctor Who switching from Christmas to New Year’s Day for its yearly special (and selfishly, I’d much rather write a review on New Year’s than Christmas), but I’ll be curious to hear if anyone else feels strongly about the switch.
  • Alas, this special will be our sole episode of 2019 as Doctor Who’s next season isn’t slated to debut until early 2020. I’ll see you back here then, and on Twitter in the meantime. Thanks for reading along with these reviews this season and Happy New Year!
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About the author

Caroline Siede

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.