After a season of all things brand new, from the Doctor herself to companions to monsters, Doctor Who brings back a classic to ring in 2019.
Graham: Anywhere exciting?
The Doctor: Sheffield
There are classic Doctor Who monsters, and then there's the classic Doctor Who monster, the one everyone knows, even if they've never seen the show before: the Daleks. The series bills them as the Doctor's oldest enemy, and it's not wrong. These alien creatures were initially conceived alongside the Doctor before the show premiered. Their first appearance was in the Doctor's second-ever adventure of the first season, where they are revealed to be an evil race of fascist individualists (a.k.a Nazis). Each sports their own armored tank to exist within, the ultimate in fear-based apparel in the famous "pepperpot" design, with the ping-pong ball eyestalk, and the kitchen'n'bath eggbeater and plunger arms.
Throughout the reboot, each showrunner has handled these creatures differently, with varying levels of success. But even in episodes where the Daleks have failed to be particularly frightening, there's still a thrill everytime a new Doctor reencounters their oldest foe, and their companions experience the first chant of "Exterminate."
The continuity of Dalek history has not just been complicated over the course of 55 years and 11 Doctors, but non-linear, due to the vagaries of time travel.
In this episode's case, there was a great showdown in prehistory, the Battle of Hunt Valley, which occurred not far from modern day Sheffield. All of mankind came together to fight a Dalek and won against impossible odds. The creature was split into three pieces, with one piece buried in the South Pacific, and one in Siberia, but the last was shot down as the rider crossed through Sheffield. It has now been unearthed by two very well-meaning archeologists Lin (played by Charlotte Ritchie, whom Call The Midwife fans will recognize as Nurse Barbara) and Mitch (Nikesh Patel, a.k.a Indian Summers' Aafrin).
Call Centre Operator: All UNIT operations were put on hold following financial disputes and subsequent funding withdrawal by the UK's major international partners. Other armed forces are available if you can answer a couple of questions.
With the Dalek shorn of its armor, this is one of the few episodes where the squidlike creature is given full form. (Much of the time, when the Dalek's body is seen, it looks like a bath toy or vague splat of a creature lying atop the bottom half of his or her pepperpot transport.) Chibnall's genius is to allow the Dalek to take on a genuine alien-like look, down to wrapping itself around the unsuspecting Lin and using her body as its temporary digs. Giving the Dalek this kind of heretofore unseen body horror capabilities adds back a lot of the terror of these creatures, which was lost much of the time under the last showrunner, who preferred to play up the humor in their appearance and the ridiculousness of their fascist ways.
And, of course, if the Daleks weren't complicated enough, returning to Sheffield gives Ryan's dad Aaron (Daniel Adegboyega) a chance to turn up as well. Though it's been a whole season for the companions, it's only been a few weeks since Grace's passing in the regular world, and Ryan's dad has turned up on New Year's Day in an attempt to reconnect with his son and perhaps turn over a new leaf. It's a bit of an odd juxtaposition, this family reunion versus the end of the world scenario. But the point is well made that it's these family connections and the time they need that the Doctor is fighting for, with a surprisingly long two-hander scene between Tosin Cole and Adegboyega trying to reconstruct a broken relationship while the Dalek menace is slowly building in the background. The later scene between Aaron and Graham is not quite as long, but just as emotionally powerful.
Leaving Graham and Aaron to chat is the first step in the Doctor's shedding of her mates ahead of the final showdown mano-a-mano. (Or perhaps more accurately, woman v. pepperpot.) By the time the Dalek has rebuilt itself and is ready for action, the Doctor is alone, standing face to face with her oldest enemy, again. There have been complaints this season the Thirteenth Doctor is too lighthearted, not serious enough, and has no inner turmoil to drive her. But one look at the Dalek DNA, and there's no question this is the same character who has stood toe to toe against the scourge of Skaro time and again.
The Doctor: What do you call this look? Junkyard chic?
But the Doctor cannot do this alone, because of course she can't. While the Dalek starts taking out the things humanity assumes to be important, armies and internet and the like, she's picking up Graham and Aaron, and Aaron's surprisingly useful microwave oven. Between Mitch's historical drawing of how those in the ninth century took down the obnoxious pepperpot and the microwave elements, the extended Team TARDIS takes out the Dalek's outer shell, saving the planet, and of course, Netflix, who are very thankful everyone can watch Black Mirror: Bandersnatch on New Year's Day, as intended.
Unfortunately, the Dalek inside once again escapes, this time taking control of Aaron's body, and forcing the Doctor to bring him back to Skaro to keep Aaron alive. The problem, of course, is the show destroyed Skaro, so the Doctor takes them to a supernova-ing sun with no planet, and a trap to suck the Dalek out into space, while Ryan pulls his father to safety. Not bad for a kid with dyspraxia, indeed.
The episode concludes with Aaron deciding a trip on the TARDIS is far too much for him, leaving him behind to wait for Ryan's return, not unlike Rose's mum in eariler seasons. Meanwhile, Lin and Mitch are ready to go out on their delayed New Year's date. This leaves Team TARDIS back on the road, where we'll find them come 2020.