New year, new start? After a series that was hobbled by convoluted plot lines and a Rolodex of unnecessary characters, Doctor Who returns with a New Year’s Day special brimming with fast-paced jokes, hilarious slapstick and impeccable comic timing. Yes, there’s still a time loop, but it’s deployed far more effectively here and is mercifully easy to follow. We watch the same things happen over and over, yet things never feel boring. If anything, this is the most gripping Doctor Who has been in years.
The clocks are about to strike midnight and the Doctor has made plans to ring in the new year with Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Dan (John Bishop) on some stunning, far-off planet. Imagine her disappointment, then, when she opens the doors of the Tardis to a storage warehouse in Manchester. Even for Time Lords, New Year’s Eve is anticlimactic. The building is empty apart from Sarah (Aisling Bea at her most charming) and her colleague Nick (Adjani Salmon), until a Dalek appears and shoots Nick dead. And then the scene replays again, with a niggling feeling in the back of Sarah’s mind that she’s done this before. “We’re stuck in a time loop with killer robots,” Sarah cries, as the pair fail to escape once more. For a festive episode, this special packs in more close-up deaths at the Daleks’ hands (plungers?) than any episode in memory.
As Doctor Who specials go, this one is decidedly less flashy than those we’ve grown used to. Aliens aren’t taking over the world, we’re not in Victorian London, and the Doctor hasn’t been transported to an extra-terrestrial replica of the Titanic containing Kylie Minogue. “Eve of the Daleks” is almost a bottle episode, set in one space and with a very limited cast of characters (although we do get a nice FaceTime cameo from Father Ted’s Mrs Doyle herself, Pauline McLynn). But it doesn’t suffer because of this. We actually get to know Sarah and Nick and root for their relationship, while our lead trio are allowed some of the character development Flux so desperately missed.
The point that fans will (understandably) fixate on is the long-awaited confirmation of romantic feelings between Yaz and the thirteenth Doctor (known as Thasmin). There have always been hints, longing looks that could be interpreted one of any number of ways, yet it’s often felt like borderline queerbaiting to keep fans happy. Yet “Eve of the Daleks” sees it finally spoken into existence by, of all people, Bishop’s Dan. “Have you ever told her how you feel about her?” he asks Yaz, who’s quick to deny it before sheepishly asking: “Is it that obvious?” as tears roll down her face.
It’s a tender, touching scene, but I can’t help wishing this moment was shared between Yaz and the Doctor without Dan as the middleman. Since she joined in 2018, Yaz’s writing has been one of the most consistently weak parts of Chibnall’s Doctor Who. It’s hard not to feel hard done by that this wasn’t brought in earlier. By the end of the episode, we’re back to coy looks, wry smiles and will-they-won’t-they? subtext. But the seeds have been sewn now. Yaz’s attraction has been put out into the universe and to the Doctor herself. It’s thrilling to think how it might play out.