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Doctor Who: Eve of the Daleks (Review)

“Here we are again.”

“Yeah, here we are again.”

In hindsight, it’s surprising that it has taken Doctor Who this long to do a proper time-loop episode. After all, this is a show about a literal time machine.

Time-loop stories are inherently fun. As Dan points out, Groundhog Day codified a narrative template that is easy to replicate while also being fun to play with. As recently as last year in the United Kingdom and the previous year in the United States, Palm Springs demonstrated how such a story could resonate in this era of a global pandemic, when the feeling of being stuck in an unending loop living the same day over and over again tapped into a fairly widespread feeling.

Shelf storage, am I right?

On a more basic level, these sorts of stories are fun for writers, directors and audiences. It has become increasingly common for television shows to have timeloop episodes. Star Trek: The Next Generation had Cause and Effect, which perhaps remains the gold standard. Stargate: SG-1 had the charming Window of Opportunity. The X-Files had Monday. Even Star Trek: Discovery had Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad. These sorts of stories are that rare blend of a simple high concept with an incredible range of narrative opportunities; they can be funny or tragic, straightforward or complicated, character- or plot-driven.

So it is strange that it has taken Doctor Who so long to attempt something like this, even if the results are depressingly familiar within the larger context of the Chris Chibnall era. It feels very much like a repetition of the era’s most glaring flaws, squandering a fun supporting cast and playful concept on a script that seems completely disinterested in capitalising on either. Instead, it just plays the clichés of these sorts of stories over and over again.

Lifting the holiday spirits.

In some ways, it makes sense that Doctor Who hasn’t really told a story like this. Generally speaking, time travel is just a plot device within the world of Doctor Who. The TARDIS is a mechanism that takes the Doctor and the rest of the cast to a particular time and place where adventures can happen. The show has occasionally played with that within an individual story, most notably in early adventures like The Edge of Destruction or The Chase or The Ark, but by and large the time travel aspect of Doctor Who is a way of linking the show’s stories together, rather than a storytelling device of itself.

As the show has evolved over time, production teams have grown more comfortable playing with the implications of that, with things like the Doctor arriving after an unseen adventure in The Face of Evil or the TARDIS-within-a-TARDIS in Logopolis, but it’s notable that it wasn’t until the Davies and Moffat eras that the phrase “timey-wimey” became part of the vocabulary of Doctor Who. Indeed, it’s notable that perhaps the closest antecedent to Eve of the Daleks in the larger Doctor Who canon is something like Heaven Sent.

Of course, Heaven Sent isn’t really a time loop story. The entire point of the story is that time continues to move outside the pocket universe in which the Doctor finds himself. However, the Doctor is constantly reset within Heaven Sent, forced to live the same day over and over again. Progress is incremental at best. The character is destined to repeat the same mistakes, to learn the same lessons, to face the same threats. The world constantly resets around them, and there’s a sense of both futility and exhaustion to this, like being trapped within the same repeating loop.

There are many ways to read Heaven Sent, but it read convincingly as the story of a writer who felt like he was reaching the end of what he could do with Doctor Who as a television show. By the time he wrote Heaven Sent, Moffat was the most prolific writer in Doctor Who history. He had been writing the show for almost five full seasons. He had overseen the fiftieth anniversary. He had spent years looking for a possible replacement, and had finally found one in Chris Chibnall. Heaven Sent was in some ways a story about how it felt to be showrunning Doctor Who, to have do this incredible task over and over again, and then reset.

A screwdriving force…

In this context, it’s notable that many of these time-loop episodes arrive quite late in the runs of these television shows. Cause and Effect arrived towards the end of the fifth season of The Next Generation, as the production team were getting ready to launch Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and as the series had committed to two more seasons to complete a seven-year run. Monday arrived late in the sixth season of The X-Files, as the production team had just moved from Vancouver to Los Angeles, with many expecting that the seventh season would be the last.

Eve of the Daleks arrives just three stories from the end of Chris Chibnall’s tenure as showrunner of Doctor Who. In some ways, it feels similar to Heaven Sent. It feels like a showrunner working through the exhausting frustration of having to continually get stuck in these repetitive loop, resetting at the end and starting over again. For all that Groundhog Day popularised these sorts of stories, it’s notable that time-loop narratives have become ubiquitous in television. Few stories so effectively convey the exhausting repetition of having to churn out television episodes as effectively as a time-loop story.

There are clear hints of this within Eve of the Daleks. The entire premise of the episode is based around the idea of the “self-reset”, with the TARDIS effectively restoring itself to factory settings to “clear out all the Flux debris.” The time-loop within Eve of the Daleks isn’t part of the Daleks’ evil plan, but instead stems from the Doctor’s attempts to restore the damage done to the TARDIS during the events of Doctor Who: Flux. At its core, Eve of the Daleks is a story about how Doctor Who won’t let the Doctor die. No matter how much damage is done, Doctor Who will always reset itself back to a standard and reliable template.

There’s an interesting thematic tension at play here. In some ways, Eve of the Daleks feels like Chibnall in conversation with some of the bolder decisions of his tenure as showrunner, particularly the changes made to the franchise continuity in The Timeless Children. After all, the big twist of the episode is that the Daleks are actively pursuing the Doctor. They have tracked her down to “Elf Storage” and are consciously trying to murder her. The Doctor hasn’t accidentally stumbled into a plot involving the Daleks like she did in Resolution or Revolution of the Daleks. In this case, the plot has come hunting for her.

A can-do attitude.

By their own admission, the Daleks are targetting the Doctor to avenge her use of “the Flux to destroy the Dalek War Fleet.” Ignoring for a moment that this feels like the rare case where the Daleks might possibly have a point and that the Doctor’s insistance that “that was a Sontaran stratagem” is both an awkward title drop and an unconvincing argument, Eve of the Daleks treats the Daleks as the living embodiment of consequence. The Daleks are continuity. They are characters carrying over from the events of The Vanquishers, motivated by the events of that episode and acting accordingly.

In her final scene on Atropos in The Vanquishers, Time taunted the Doctor, “You can leave here, but you won’t outrun me. Your time is heading to its end.” In Eve of the Daleks, the Doctor makes the connection between the Daleks and the consequences for her past actions. “My actions are catching up to me,” the Doctor admits to Yaz at one point in the narrative. “Time is catching up to me.” There is a clear attempt to imply a sense of cause and effect to the plot of Eve of the Daleks, with the reset of the TARDIS serving as a temporary disruption to that. There can never be consequences. The show must go on.

Of course, like a lot of Chibnall era choices, a lot of this feels like an unconvincing echo of narrative choices made during the tenure of Russell T. Davies. Most notably, the Tenth Doctor spent a lot of his specials desperately outrunning his own fate – haunted by the prophecy of his downfall and the implication that he would play a part in his own destruction. Eve of the Daleks plays very broadly with these same sorts of ideas, suggesting that the Doctor’s actions cannot be without consequence – even though they must inevitably be.

After all, the Doctor’s destruction of the Dalek fleet in Eve of the Daleks isn’t even especially noteworthy in terms of the character’s history of wiping out entire alien species. The Tenth Doctor committed mass murder all the time, often with little or no consequence, such as with the Daleks and the Cyberman in Doomsday or the Racnoss in The Runaway Bride. The Thirteenth Doctor has committed similar actions against the Cybermen in The Timeless Children or the Daleks in Revolution of the Daleks. It has never been a problem before, and the Doctor has never faced consequences, which makes Eve of the Daleks feel quite pointed.

Gliding through corridors.

This is the tension that Chibnall plays with in Eve of the Daleks. It’s notable that the episode ends with the complete destruction of the storage unit. In order to escape the trap, Sarah has to blow up her entire life and destroy the literal structure within which she is trapped. In order to be free, Nick has to destroy his carefully catalogued and considered history of his life. It’s hard not to read some of this as a metaphorical justification for Chibnall’s rather aggressive and dramatic reworking of the Doctor Who mythos, with the introduction of elements like the Timeless Child, Division and Tecteun.

Chibnall seems to be constructing a bold argument for his radical departures from what came before, arguing for the need to truly shake things up in order to avoid getting trapped in the same familiar routines and patterns over and over again. It’s not a bad argument, and it perhaps works within the context of a time-loop episode. After all, Chibnall is much closer to the end of his tenure than he is to the beginning, and this feels like the kind of place to take stock of this sort of thing. Eve of the Daleks argues that perhaps it’s necessary to blow up he past to ensue the future.

That said, if this is the point that Chibnall is making, Eve of the Daleks is somewhat thematically muddled – perhaps illustrating the push-and-pull of this sort of argument, the need to balance the past and the future of a property like this. The Daleks are a big part of this. The Daleks have traditionally represented death and decay within Doctor Who, and often through the process of stagnation and decay. The Daleks are monsters that are fundamentally incapable of change, even as they become monstrous mutants. The Doctor constantly regenerates and evolves, but the Daleks are a fixed point.

Indeed, even within Eve of the Daleks, it’s notable that Chibnall returns to the “classic” design of the revival Daleks, the gold design introduced in Dalek. These are not the new remodelled versions from Resolution or Revolution of the Daleks. They are a literal embodiment of the franchise’s past. To many modern viewers who would have started watching with (and even those who would have only gone back as far as) Rose, these are basically the “original” Daleks. They are continuity and history. They are canon.

Lifting spirits.

One of the smarter choices within Eve of the Daleks is the idea that the Daleks don’t actually mind the time loop. They aren’t as horrified by it as Sarah or Nick. They don’t seem to treat it as a priority. On some level, they might even enjoy living the same few minutes over and over and over again. When the Doctor points out that they are trapped in this repeating loop, the Daleks insist that they will win because they “are relentless.” The Daleks like the stasis. They like the familiarity. They even strategise around it, memorising the key beats and moments from past loops like obsessive fans watching the same episodes over and over.

This is why it’s clever that the Doctor disregards the past in order to escape the Daleks. “Just throw stuff away!” Sarah shouts at Nick at one point early in the episode, and the episode’s climax hinges on all of the characters just letting go of things. It seems like an argument that Doctor Who should maybe be a little less precious about its own history, and be willing to embrace change and disregard canon in order to move forward. It’s an interesting and compelling central metaphor.

In some ways, it’s possible to read Sarah as a possible stand-in for Chibnall. Chibnall is notable among the three showrunners of the revived Doctor Who as a producer who largely treats the series as a job rather than an almost religious calling. Russell T. Davies almost killed himself trying to get the show off the ground and to keep it running during his stewardship. Steven Moffat famously took a step back from working with Steven Spielberg on The Adventures of Tintin in order to step into the role of showrunner. In contrast, there was always a sense of obligation to Chibnall’s tenure running Doctor Who.

Notably, Moffat had spent years looking for a replacement before Chibnall was announced. When Chibnall was announced, he joined the show at his own pace. Moffat produced an entire season and a holiday special in order to buy Chibnall time to finish up work on Broadchurch. Chibnall’s tenure as showrunner feels appreciably smaller than that of Davies or Moffat. He has only overseen a single iteration of the Doctor. There have been no spin-offs launched during his time overseeing the franchise. He has publicly stated that he always planned to leave after three seasons and was uninvolved with the search for his successor.

Couching its metaphors.

To be clear, none of this is unreasonable. Showrunning any television series is an incredible obligation. Showrunning Doctor Who is an impossible task at the best of times. In some ways, Chibnall’s approach to Doctor Who – while perhaps seeming more detached than that of his two predecessors – is arguably reasonably healthy. There is a solid argument that Doctor Who is a show that should be able to sustain a showrunner like Chibnall, that it shouldn’t require the fanatical levels of devotion that both Davies and Moffat poured into it.

As such, given how self-reflective the rest of the episode feels, it makes sense that Sarah feels like something of an analogue for Chibnall. At one point, Nick asks how she came to run this gigantic institution. “It was a family obligation,” Sarah confesses. “Everyone was grieving and then I sort of stepped in to help. It just sort of became my life, really.” It seems like a concession that Chibnall’s stewardship of Doctor Who might always have been intended as a stopgap move rather than something that called to him on some profound level.

At the end of the episode, Sarah tells her mother, “I ran a business by myself for almost five years.” That would seem to overlap conveniently with Chris Chibnall’s tenure running Doctor Who. The gap from the final scene of Twice Upon a Time in Christmas 2017 to the Thirteenth Doctor’s final story in New Year 2023 will be about five years. There’s even a wry joke in Sarah’s mother’s admonishment that Sarah took that business and “burnt it to the ground”, reflecting the various conspiratorial narratives around the perceived decline of Doctor Who under Chibnall. “There is more to that story than you know,” Sarah responds.

The antepenultimate scene of Eve of the Daleks features a surprise return of Karl from The Woman Who Fell to Earth, played by Jonny Dixon. “All for me,” Karl notes as he watches the fireworks, perhaps suggesting that there’s a resonant personal subtext this demolition of the storage unit. It feels fitting, then, that the final scene of the episode finds Sarah and Nick setting off on their own adventure, now that they have been freed of their obligations and their baggage. The TARDIS flies away overhead. Sarah and the Doctor go their separate ways. Doctor Who continues, as it always must.

Red for stop.

So it feels strange that the loop doesn’t result from the Daleks, whether intentionally or accidentally. The Daleks aren’t the ones controlling this cycle, even unintentionally. It’s all down to the Doctor and the TARDIS. The implication seems to be that the Doctor is just as stuck as the Daleks, that the Doctor is just as incapable of real change as the Daleks. More to the point, by actually holding the Doctor to account for her actions in The Vanquishers, the Daleks are inadvertantly agents of serialisation – something that the series has long historically avoided. Even stuck in a repeating time loop, the Daleks are something new-ish.

This gets at the ways in which Eve of the Daleks feels thematically and narratively clumsy. Like a lot of Chibnall era scripts (and Chibnall scripts in general), there is a big bold idea there that doesn’t quite cohere into a convincing argument. It seems like Eve of the Daleks is constructed as a justification for the bold choices that Chibnall has made to flesh out the canon and continuity of Doctor Who, despite the protestations of certain traditionalist fans. However, it’s unconvincing because it seems rooted in contradictory assumptions.

Despite the protests of certain fans about The Timeless Children, the bold choice that Chibnall made had nothing to do with erasing or rewriting continuity. After all, the entire premise of that episode is rooted in throwaway fan speculation over The Brain of Morbius. Instead, the bold choice that Chibnall made in The Timeless Children was to impose any continuity at all over the character’s history. The Timeless Children didn’t destroy Doctor Who canon, it imposed one. That was the radical departure from the show’s history – to insist that the character had a history and a continuity that was worth exploring on television.

After all, the history of Doctor Who is full of loose threads and implications about the character’s history and back story. What does “Theta Sigma” even mean? Is the Doctor’s “real” name truly “Doctor Who”? Was the Doctor ever “a little girl”? For all that fans got frustrated about Moffat playing with these questions, most of the implications were left deliberately and pointedly open-ending. After all, for Moffat, “the oldest question in the universe” was the name of the show, and he had no intention of answering. The very title of The Name of the Doctor was a provocative piece of wordplay.

Stuck in a loop.

So there is something unconvincing and internally contradictory if Eve of the Daleks is to be read as a metaphor for Chibnall’s creative process and his decision to develop an entirely new and detailed backstory for the character. As much as Sarah might berate both Nick and Jeff for filling up the storage lockers with completely useless crap that serves as emotional baggage, that’s never historically been a problem for Doctor Who. The show has always kept its history vague enough that none of that sort of baggage actually takes up any meaningful space or limits any stories that any writer might want to tell.

As easy as it might be to read Eve of the Daleks as a metaphor for Chibnall’s bold choice to blow up the decades of history of Doctor Who with the revelations in The Timeless Children, the particulars of it can also be read in reverse. With plot elements like Tecteun and Division, Chibnall has arguably done more to clutter up the show’s internal continuity with absolute continuity and concrete history than all of the previous showrunners put together. So perhaps Eve of the Daleks might be read as a more cynical metaphor for Chibnall’s understanding that his own continuity will eventually be demolished so the show can move on.

Both of these readings of Eve of the Daleks seem eqully reasonable, given how the story presents its themes and characters. This is a problem. The Daleks are both embodiments of nostalgic continuity and a newfound respect for longform storytelling, meaning that defeating them can mean both the demolition of the show’s pre-existing history and an understanding that longform serialisation must eventually give way to the familiar episodic narrative template. After all, the time-loop in Eve of the Daleks is both blessing and curse. It does trap the cast, but without the reset all of them would have died the first time around.

After all, there is some small irony in an episode that casts the Daleks, the show’s longstanding metaphor for death and decay, as capable of growth and development. “Daleks learn,” the Dalek boasts in the episode’s teaser, even if their creativity seems limited to the introduction of a(n admittedly cool) new rail gun feature. It’s still an idea at odds with stories like Evolution of the Daleks or Revolution of the Daleks. As the characters iterate through the loops, the Daleks prove considerably more flexible than the humanoid characters. “I anticipated your change!” the Dalek boasts as it catches Sarah on the second loop.

More like a scan-do attitude…


They quickly start sending multiple units to maximise their efficiency within the narrow parametres of the time-loop. The Doctor notes that the Daleks have “learned and applied it across the loops”, faster than the prey that they are chasing. The Daleks aren’t entirely static. They aren’t completely stuck. They are capable of improvisation and elaboration, arguably better suited to it than the rest of the cast around them. It’s a narrative choice that somewhat muddles the central metaphors of the episode.

It’s difficult to figure out exactly the point that Eve of the Daleks is trying to make. It’s hard to know whether this is because of Chibnall’s clumsiness as a writer, or whether it reflects an understandable ambivalence on his own part. It is, after all, entirely possible that Eve of the Daleks believes that Chibnall’s formalist experiments with longform serialisation are necessary for the evolution of the show and that these same experiments might end up as an evolutionary dead end for the show once Chibnall departs and the show resets. Any Doctor Who fan knows that “Eve” can be an incomplete form of both “Evil” or “Evolution.”

Of course, there is a more universal logic underpinning these stories outside of the introspection that comes from a television writer dramatising the process of iterative evolution. After all, Heaven Sent resonates beyond the experience of showrunning an institution of British television. These time-loop stories work as metaphors for any person who has been stuck in a particular situation over a long period of time. Both Sarah and Nick are stuck in loops long before the Daleks arrive, familiar patterns of behaviour that aren’t allowing them to grow or develop.

Even outside of its murky themes, there is a frustrating clumsiness to the structuring of Eve of the Daleks. To put it simply, and despite the best efforts of guest stars Aisling Bea and Pauline McGlynn, Eve of the Daleks simply isn’t as much fun as it should be. Like a lot of Chibnall era episodes, the show doesn’t really have a teaser designed to catch the audience’s attention. Eve of the Daleks is horribly paced. The entire opening act of the story plays out before the opening credits, meaning that Eve of the Daleks takes over ten minutes (or a sixth of its runtime) to hit the familiar premise of “it’s a time-loop story!”

What’s the future go in stor(age)?

Because this is an episode that plays with the flow of time, the default point of comparison will always be something written by Steven Moffat. Moffat would have taken one of two approaches to a story like this. The most obvious approach would have been the approach that demonstrably exists, that taken by Heaven Sent, where the bulk of the episode is given over to a single time loop, with the climax then building off that to tremendous emotional effect. However, it’s also possible to imagine a Moffat script that would take the opposite approach, speeding through and doubling down like The Big Bang or Day of the Moon.

There’s a lot of fun to have with time-loop stories. They lend themselves to montages and subversions and deconstructions. They are potent metaphors for the human experience, capturing everything from exhaustion to resilience. However, Eve of the Daleks never exploits any of the opportunities of a story like this. It never seems to be having fun. It never really plays with the expectations of the audience and the characters. It never capitalises on one of the key strengths of a story like this: the disconnect between how the characters live a story and how the audience watches it.

The opening iteration of the loop could easily have been cut down to a much more striking and effective teaser, one that would be all the more shocking to casual audience members for just killing the characters immediately and then resetting. The length of that opening loop kills a lot of the episode’s momentum. The script then undermines the potential effectiveness of that opening loop by having all of the characters immediately recognise that they are trapped within a repeating loop.

This feels like the laziest possible take on a classic time-loop story. After all, the idea of a story like this is that characters can get trapped in these repeating loops for seeming infinities – living the same moments over and over, making the same mistakes time and time again, only gradually figuring out how to break the patterns and cycles. Instead, Eve of the Daleks has the characters immediately figure out that they are trapped within a time loop, which removes a lot of potentially interesting tension.

Groundhog Day of the Daleks…

There’s no real sense of wonder of majesty – or even horror – to Eve of the Daleks. All of this seems frustratingly like business-as-usual for everybody involved. Almost immediately, despite having never encountered either Daleks or time travel before, Sarah is able to succintly sum up the episode’s high-concept to Nick on the third loop, “We’re stuck in time loop with killer robots.” Everybody gets with the programme remarkably quickly. This would be fun if the episode were going to build on that, but it really just means that the characters are able to exposit to the audience at home.

As with a lot of Chibnall era scripts, there’s a strong sense that Eve of the Daleks is being written with an expectation that it is only being half-watched, with a lot of dialogue given over to repeating explanations of fairly familiar concepts. On finding Nick’s body during the second time loop, the Doctor handily exposits, “Second time I failed to save him. Second time the Dalek’s been cleverer than us.” To be fair, Davies era holiday specials like Voyage of the Damned were clearly written with an understanding that half the audience were older family members with no interest in Doctor Who, but they never seemed condescending.

Again, in terms of identifying carelessness in Chibnall’s writing, he gives the Doctor a big pay-off to a set-up that he gave to Sarah. At the start of the episode, Sarah outlines exactly what the rules say about “hazardous” materials, with a very particular emphasis on “if I set fire to this, would it have potentially explosive and devastating consequences?” This obviously sets up the climax, which hinges on the group blowing up the storage facility. “This is the sort of stuff that you should ask, if I set fire to this, would it have explosive and potentially devastating consequences?” the Doctor remarks, despite never hearing Sarah’s set-up.

Similarly, the sequence with Dan and the Dalek at the reception feels largely pointless outside of providing an opportunity for John Bishop to showboat for the camera. It is nice to give Dan something unique to do, even if Bishop is much more effective in the smaller character beats that Dan gets with both Yaz and the Doctor later in the episode. It’s a choice that doesn’t seem to exist for any greater reason than to eat up screentime, which feels like a waste of the time loop premise. The episode should be bursting with originality, not stalling to run down the clock.

On the rails.

In keeping with this carelessness, Eve of the Daleks is structured so that the audience sees every iteration of this loop. There is no sense that the characters have spent significantly more than the fifty-eight-minute runtime of the episode reliving these events over and over. Eve of the Daleks doesn’t feature any montages. It doesn’t feature any sense of desperation or exhaustion. There are a few throwaway lines from Sarah and the Doctor about how tired they are of dealing with the Daleks, but that doesn’t feel like the sort of existential ennui that powers a narrative like this.

After all, as exhausting as it is to be hunted by the Daleks through a storage unit for an hour, Eve of the Daleks is broadcast to a world that has been stuck living through a pandemic for almost two years. Of course, the celebrations that Sarah is skipping seem to imply that this version of Earth hasn’t been ravaged by both the Flux and the coronavirus. On some level, this is an interesting choice. On the one hand, it makes sense that an escapist science-fiction show like Doctor Who wouldn’t want to acknowledge the real horror that people have been living through. Shows like Succession have also ignored the pandemic.

However, it is a strange choice given that the Doctor specifically dates this adventure to “New Year’s Eve, 2021” and the revival’s historical efforts to remain in-step with contemporary Britain, such as Davies’ hard continuity reset at the end of The Last of the Time Lords and the convenient reset button of “the crack” during Moffat’s first year as showrunner. It will be interesting to see whether later seasons of Doctor Who retroactively acknowledge the pandemic as a thing that happened in the show’s universe, leading to a twenty-first century version of “the UNIT dating controversy.”

Still, in the context of time-loop stories, traditionally these narratives trap characters for what feel like eternities. Both Groundhog Day and Palm Springs imply that their heroes have been trapped in their repeating loops for decades or longer. In Cause and Effect, the Enterprise has been replaying the same scenario for “seventeen-point-four days.” In Heaven Sent, the Doctor trapped living the same cycle for “four and a half billion years.” In contrast, Eve of the Daleks is a time loop that lasts eight or nine iterations.

Nick of time…

It really feels like Eve of the Daleks misses the most simple and most effective trick of these kinds of stories: to illustrate why the passage of time is important, and how draining it can be to be stuck in a constant cycle of repetitive behaviour. Even towards the climax of the episode, within the Doctor offers her big motivational speech about how important it is to keep trying in the face of failure, it’s not particularly convincing. The next iteration of the loop is a brutal failure, but the next one goes perfectly. It’s hardly the most convincing metaphor for resilience. If at first they don’t succeed, they’ll try just three more times.

“Something seems impossible,” the Doctor states. “We try. It doesn’t work. We try again. We learn. We improve. We fail again. But better. We make friends. We learn to trust. We help each other. We get it wrong. We improve together. And then ultimately succeed. Because that’s what being alive is.” It’s not a bad thematic hook for a story about being trapped in a temporal loop, but the episode never really sells the idea that this is a truly iterative process. There is a clear countdown in effect.

In some ways, this countdown makes thematic sense. In keeping with the larger themes of the era around it, Eve of the Daleks seems to argue for a very moderate and very deliberate sense of progression. There is forward movement, but it’s never too fast or two hasty. Each time the characters live through a loop in Eve of the Daleks, they advance by one minute, getting closer to the finish line. It’s a concept that is fitting for a version of Doctor Who that has largely avoided the radicalism of something like Oxygen. This is the outlook of a show that produced Rosa, sure in the belief that things eventually move forward.

More to the point, it also feels like a somewhat optimistic conclusion to Chibnall’s meditations on the evolution of Doctor Who. The “one minute forward” concept insists that Doctor Who never truly resets. Even if the show regresses or retreats, it retains some of the gains that were made under previous showrunners. It still learns, however gradually, from these experiments. Regardless of what Chibnall did to the show’s internal history in The Timeless Children or what Davies might do with Chibnall’s additions to the lore, those choices were always made and will always be part of the show’s internal history. It will learn from them.

A stitch in time save Thirteen.

That said, despite these significant structural issues with the episode, there are a few small moments of charm. Chibnall does have some fun the the Daleks themselves. He understands that the Daleks are inherently silly, even if he seems to have completely erased their plunger arms. Much like Victory of the Daleks got a lot of mileage out of Nicholas Briggs screaming “WOULD! YOU! CARE! FOR! SOME! TEA!?”, the best moments of Eve of the Daleks include choice Dalek quotes like “Daleks do not have managers!”, “Daleks do not store stuff!” and “Exit the ascension device!”

As ever, it is worth acknowledging Chibnall’s skill as a producer while perhaps conceding his limitations as a writing. Eve of the Daleks is an episode that is very obviously written around the production constraints of making television in the middle of a pandemic. It is an episode that uses a lot of interiors, but which features a very small cast. Pauline McGlynn could film her cameo separately. The Dalek operators are reasonably well protected. It also seems like an episode that perhaps saved on the budget after the scale and spectacle of The Vanquishers.

Similarly, it’s also nice to see Eve of the Daleks explicitly acknowledge the homoerotic subtext between Yaz and the Doctor. After all, fans have been speculating about that since The Woman Who Fell to Earth, and Chibnall has been aggressively leaning into it. In The Halloween Apocalypse alone, there was a bed in the console room and a set of handcuffs that opened to the code word “relief.” That sort of cheeky playfulness might seem cynical if Chibnall weren’t willing to at least commit to it. The Chibnall era does deserve some acknowledgement for at least committing to these sorts of ideas.

That said, it is perhaps a little frustrating that this conversation arrives just two episodes before the end of Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whittaker’s tenures. It seems likely, based on past experience, that Mandip Gill will also be departing the TARDIS. So this is very much the last possible moment that Chibnall could have acknowledged the unrequited relationship between Thirteen and Yaz. There is still a lot of value in making this subtext part of the text itself, but it also feels a little calculated in terms of its timing. There is no reason that this couldn’t have been rendered text in The Halloween Apocalypse, for example.

New Year’s Dalek.

Still, Chibnall seems at least cognisant of this. “We’re never going to get that moment on beach, are we?” Yaz asks early in the episode. While she is literally and technically talking about a moment where the Doctor exposites the plot of Flux to her, she is also implicitly talking about a moment of emotional intimacy that the Doctor has been deliberately and aggressively witholding from her. Indeed, this is perhaps the smartest character choice within Eve of the Daleks, and one that provides some long overdue characterisation for the Thirteenth Doctor. Eve of the Daleks acknowledges this emotional distance is a deliberate choice.

During one of the loops, Dan tries to explain Yaz’s attraction to the Doctor. “I don’t understand what you’re saying, Dan,” the Doctor responds. It is the sort of excuse that the Thirteenth Doctor regularly offers for her social awkwardness, and historically the show has tended to excuse it as a genuine alienness. However, in Eve of the Daleks, Dan actually calls the Thirteenth Doctor out on her nonsense. “You do,” Dan tells the Doctor, bluntly. “But for some reason you pretend to me – and to her – that you don’t.” It’s a line that provides more characterisation for the Thirteenth Doctor than the previous three seasons.

There’s an argument to be made that Eve of the Daleks is retreading familiar ground. After all, the Twelfth Doctor’s first season played out a similar little arc with the character’s “no hugging!” declaration, eventually revealling that the character’s discomfort with physical expressions of emotion was rooted in his difficulty emotionally communicating without seeing his partner’s face. Here, the twist is something similar. The Thirteenth Doctor isn’t actually aloof and emotionally unaware, she instead acts aloof to conceal her emotional awareness.

It’s a good dynamic to play, particularly now that both Dan and the audience have explicitly identified it. However, it also feels like a late addition to the dynamic. The Thirteenth Doctor only has a single standalone adventure left between Eve of the Daleks and her regeneration story, and so there’s no room to let this dramatic tension play out. More than that, there’s no room to both resolve that dramatic tension and build on it to do something more interesting – there’s no space to see an actual romantic relationship between the Thirteenth Doctor and Yaz, and no space to deal with the emotional fallout of an explicit rejection.

Storage wars.

That said, the romantic subplot involving Sarah and Nick isn’t nearly as cute as the episode thinks that it is, in large part because the episode seems weirdly defensive about calling out the weirdness of Nick’s behaviour towards Sarah. When Nick acknowledges his attraction to her, Sarah makes a big scene about how “weird” it is. This serves to make the big discussion about her reaction to his behaviour rather than the behaviour itself.

There’s an unconvincing hypocricy at play here. “He is standing right there,” Yaz chastises Sarah after she dramatically calls out Nick for his behaviour. It’s a moment that feels particularly unconvincing given that just moments earlier Yaz had responded to Nick’s cataloguing of his ex-girlfriends’ stuff with a wry, “All of them still alive, I hope?” There’s a sense of the episode wanting to have its cake and eat it. It’s a choice that feels uncomfortably calculated, particularly with Nick’s weirdly specific and defensive dismissal of Sarah’s observation that he was “so stalkery” by insisting that he prefers “unrequited” or “shy.”

It’s all frustrating, because the entire dynamic between Sarah and Nick exists because Chibnall thought that it should be in the episode. So if Eve of the Daleks didn’t want a dynamic that seemed weird and uncomfortable, it could have written a completely different dynamic. However, it seems strange to write that dynamic, and then to acknowledge it as weird and uncomfortable, but then to insist that any discussion of how it is weird and uncomfortable unfairly mischaracterises it. It’s as if the script has figured out it can’t create a convincing romantic dynamic, but has committed and and so leans into the skid.

Then again, that might just be Eve of the Daleks all over.

22 Responses

  1. I really enjoyed Christopher Eccleston’s Big Finish run that’s come out recently. The last story, in particular, had a Cyberman stalking the set of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”! Catnip for film history buffs– for as flawed as Big Finish can be, John Dorney is a superb Doctor Who writer.

    ….There was a Doctor Who episode on tonight?

  2. You’re right. Still…
    – Everyone had at least a little characterization.
    – The plot wasn’t full of holes or convenience-driven. (Well, any more than any other time loop story.)
    – Everyone had agency.
    – The dialog helped develop the characterization.

    As I said, you’re right. But I’ll call it a win.

    • Yeah, I liked it. Liked all the people, Yaz got emotional focus.

      • I did like the Yaz stuff, even if it feels worryingly late for Chibnall to be acknowledging it. I can’t imagine he can do too much satisfying with it in two episodes, but I guess we’ll see. It is best to travel hopefully and all that.

    • That’s fair. It’s certainly a better script than Once, Upon Time, Survivors of the Flux or The Vanquishers.

      • What’s the worst Chibnall script, do you think? I’m still putting my money on Spyfall Part 2. The Timeless Children, Survivors of the Flux, and The Vanquishers bringing up the rear.

  3. When The Halloween Apocalypse teased the Doctor/Yaz homoerotic subtext (which I do not think was there in the previous 2 seasons, because Yaz was lacking in terms of characterisation and place in the narrative, though my memory might be deceiving me), I was sure it wouldn’t move past good ol’ queerbaiting. So actual props to Chibnall that he is explicitly engaging with it. Shame, I’m not really invested though. Like I said Yaz was such a non-character in the first 2 seasons (still is, but less so) and her relationship dynamic with The Doctor has always been ill-defined and surface level. I will never scoff at positive queer representation, but I would also like to care about the characters in my favorite show.

    The episode as a whole was fine, great concept, meh execution. I wonder what you think about the slow “Legend … of … the …. Sea Devils” reveal during the next episode teaser. It seems to be playing into that same instinct that you described with the Sontarans, where Chibnall thinks all that if it’s from the classics it must be portrayed as big, important and serious, no matter how small in the grand scheme of Doctor Who it actually is. But then again, all I know about the Sea Devils is that they are Classic era monsters, but I don’t remember the Silurians, Zygons or even the Ice Warriors being brought back with this much importance, as the selling point of the episode. But maybe I’m reading too much into what’s gonna be just a fun, pulpy romp.

    • Yep. One of the underrated aspects of the Moffat era is that, despite having a host of returning monsters (Nimon! the Great Intelligence! the Zygons!), it rarely made a big deal of them. To a certain extent, the return of the Silurians in Cold Blood and The Hungry Earth was the last time that the show made such a big deal of a returning monster. The Nimon are an in-joke in The God Compelx, like the Macra in Gridlock. The Great Intelligence is a delightfully crappy villain, and revealed to be a prequel to its appearances in The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear. The Zygons are maybe the fifth most important thing in The Day of the Doctor.

      Moffat’s talked about how Mark Gatiss spent years trying to convince him to bring back the Ice Warriors, and Moffat really needed a pitch that was more than “the Ice Warriors… again!”, with Gatiss eventually selling him on the novelty of seeing an Ice Warrior outside their armour. That was something I loved about the Moffat era: if a monster was coming back, there was generally a good reason for it beyond nostalgia. You arguably even saw that with the Daleks and Cybermen, where Moffat was constantly trying to reinvent them and do new things with them, for better and worse.

      And, look, maybe Legend of the Sea Devils has a brilliat and ingenious take on the eponymous monsters. I thought Village of the Angels did a really good job with the Weeping Angels, to be fair, and this is apparently an episode on which Chibnall is sharing a credit. But the structuring of that reveal really felt like, “It’s everybody’s fifteenth favourite Doctor Who monster, finally returning after all these years!” Hell, I’d expect the Yeti to make a comeback first. (Again, a nice illustration of the Moffat era’s indifference to that sort of nostalgia: the Great Intelligence brings back snowmen because that’s a cool visual, not Yetis for cheap fan service.)

      • I agree. And when it came to the Daleks or the Cybermen I loved how Moffat pushed them to the background, appearing as a part of a larger ensemble of villains and only foregrounded them when he thought he was doing something new with them. Not always to the best effect, obviously, but when it comes to the Cybermen their Capaldi era 2-parters are the best they’ve been since season 2 (and honestly even better).

      • And of course Cold Blood/Hungry Earth was also penned by Chibnall

  4. “The antepenultimate scene of Eve of the Daleks features a surprise return of Karl from The Woman Who Fell to Earth, played by Jonny Dixon.” Who?

    • The crane driver being hunted by Tim Shaw in The Woman Who Fell to Earth.

      • A callback almost as powerful as Tom Baker’s cameo in The Day of the Doctor.

      • “When Karl isn’t on screen, I want the audience asking, ‘Where’s Karl?'”

        To be fair, I suspect that Chibnall is reminding us of Karl, so he might pop up in the regeneration episode. I also figure that including Karl is Chibnall’s way of signalling that this is something designed to bring his era full circle – that we’re supposed to read Eve of the Daleks in the context of his work since The Woman Who Fell to Earth. For all its flaws, this is probably the most introspective Chibnall’s been on Doctor Who, which I guess is something.

  5. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Removing link to YouTube channel The Amazing Racist. For obvious reasons, I don’t want that link on my blog. You can google it, if you really want to add views to a channel that brands itself as openly racist.]

    Cut to 3:28 dude picks up about 7 illegals in like five seconds but yes we don’t have a border problem and should bow down and suck Latinos dicks to be pc.

    • Yeah, I’m not exactly taking somebody who brands themselves as The Amazing Racist as a credible source on this. (When somebody tells you who they are, trust them, and all that.)

      • I’m fascinated by this. Is Sebastian a long time fan of yours and/or Doctor Who that has decided to take objection to that one specific point? Or does he hunt down blogs that make any sort of comment on immigration so that he can have a small rant?

      • I wish I knew.

  6. Took longer to read the bloody reveiw than watch the episode. D00d you are really long winded.

    • No worries. I am what I am, and this review is what it is. You could see the length of the article before you started reading it, and you didn’t have to read the piece if you didn’t want to. I just though it was worth giving the episode some thoughtful analysis rather than simply falling into broad critical clichés or simply reiterating tired arguments. I think Chibnall was actually trying to do something interesting here, so trying to understand what and why that was felt like a worthy exercise for me.

      • I enjoyed the episode, but I enjoyed this review more, for whatever that’s worth.

        I never mind length when combined with quality.

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