This special has a lot of extra weight unfairly placed upon it now, as it’s a bright spot in a dark time and depended upon by many fans to give us the joyful reunion with our favorite heroes that we so desperately need. It’s a shame then that although there’s a lot to enjoy in this 75-minute epic-length story, it all feels a bit underthought and disappointing. There are pacing issues to say the least, with some very long conversations that do afford the characters some emotional space, but at the cost of shoving most of the heavily teased Dalek action off screen. Apart from one limited engagement on a bridge between drones and death squad Daleks, the entire conflict ends off camera with a line of dialogue. And once one side has taken the other out, the Doctor easily mops up the remaining Daleks with a trick that takes all of five seconds to accomplish. It’s a clever one, make no mistake, but it’s also fleeting. And although we’re shown plenty of strangers being indiscriminately exterminated, the stakes feel oddly small and contained.
It doesn’t help that this Doctor, perhaps one of the series’ most clever and dynamic incarnations when puzzling out a plan or figuring out a villain’s intentions, is wrong-footed by her prison stay just enough to make her question herself throughout when she should be in charge. Fortunately, she doesn’t have to work at it; the Dalek running the takeover literally just tells everyone the entire plan in two minutes, thus saving us the tedious process of enjoying a story in which that plan unfolds in a dramatic and entertaining fashion. As for the Doctor’s ennui, given the previous story’s explosive showdown with the Master, and all the new information revealed about the Doctor’s vast new past, those revelations seem surprisingly unimportant except for some perfunctory acknowledgement in one mopey conversation with Ryan (which is about as much as those two have talked since he joined the team).
And yes, Ryan leaves at the end of this story, having never really had much of a chance to grow. Graham joins him, which takes the heart of this team with him. There’s a somewhat satisfying symmetry to Graham and Ryan’s final scene, although it also includes a note that some might consider overly manipulative in the way that a Hallmark Christmas movie would avoid for seeming too over-the-top. As for Jack, you can’t fault Barrowman for his reliable exuberance, but he seems underused and too often separated from the Doctor despite the hype about the reunion.
There’s no denying that the production values and acting are excellent across the board. Everyone is bringing their A game, and the Daleks look particularly good this time around in their two design variations. The MVP of the story is Noth, who’s clearly enjoying the opportunity to chew the scenery as a slightly more lucid Trumpian lunatic with delusions of grandeur. But while his performance is high energy and delightful in its way, his character’s utter lack of consequences for selling out the human race is – particularly at the end of 2020 – a very disturbing and unwelcome resolution. This is not the year to save your villain for another day; he should have suffered for his horrific behavior.
There’s a bizarre bit of fan “wisdom” that’s built up over the years that asserts Doctor Who holiday specials don’t need to be substantive or even particularly well put together – they barely need to tell a story, they say; just flash Who-shaped lights in everyone’s face while they’re eating figgy pudding or whatever it is people do on Christmas while watching TV specials. They’re meant to be quickly-forgotten confections, just to add a bit of timey-wimey joy to the day. Strange then how often these specials have dealt with the darkest subject matter of the entire show – the death of one Doctor in preparation for the arrival of another, for example, making for some very funereal proceedings (three times so far!). You can’t have it both ways – either they’re meant to float through your brain without impact and leave you with warm fuzzies, or they’re dramatic lynchpins of each Who season that take stock and then launch the story forward.
And then there’s this one, which features the on-screen massacre of countless people by Dalek drones, the heart-wrenching departure of two regulars, two incidental characters introduced as having family for the express purpose of making you care just long enough to make their deaths hurt (a recurring gambit in producer Chris Chibnall’s Who that’s my one standing complaint about this era), a long morose conversation about the Doctor’s lonely sojourn in prison and the events of last series that have shaken her sense of identity to its very core, and one of the final lines of the show audiences are left with as they get back to their festive food: “It’s O.K. to be sad.”
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