By Mark Laherty
Doctor Who’s New Year Special was a step up from the preceding season finale – but then, almost anything would have been. While Ryan has a difficult reunion with his absent father, the Doctor must deal with the return of an ancient threat, the most dangerous creature in the universe.
Somewhat obnoxiously, the promotional materials didn’t share what that creature was, so I feel obligated to not give it away. There’s a solid chance you’ll have heard by now or even pieced it together for yourself, but I should play by the rules all the same. I will say that it’s a nifty symbiote thing like Venom but not as silly as Tom Hardy’s version. In a sequence that’s only a little bit male-gazey, it latches onto innocent civilian Lin (Charlotte Ritchie) and takes control, forcing her to do its bidding. We spend much of the episode with Ritchie as a badass villain with an aesthetic recalling Medusa. The symbiote is cool and intimidating and I’m sure someone somewhere has had their sexual awakening as a result.
Anyway: ‘Resolution.’ This is a solid, well-paced hour of television on par with ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth.’ It starts by showing the defeat of the (still-unseen) villain many centuries ago. Three pieces of it are taken and hidden around the world by a secret organisation, the Order of the Custodians. If this all sounds like a cool idea, don’t get too excited: it almost immediately disintegrates into a much more standard monster run-around. Also, minor point here, but the font for the location titles is comically terrible, especially compared to the ones back in Series 7.
On the upside, we immediately see the strengths of director Wayne Yip. A creepy space below London (always a fun Victorian setup) contrasts with the bright overworld, and there are lots of fun shot transitions. There’s an impressively cool car chase which gets extra points for working in a Men In Black reference (a series I’ve talked about on this website before). Doctor Who still has a great knack for consuming and absorbing other sci-fi stories like a metatextual Kirby. Plus, Akinola’s score continues to impress, especially if you like rock-n-roll percussion and guitars in your soundtrack, although the villain’s theme is comically close to the Undertale music.
This story is important to the overall progression because it introduces us to Aaron (Daniel Adegboyega), Ryan’s absent dad, who’s been discussed but unseen until now. The result is that the plot comes to a halt now and again so that Aaron can talk to Ryan, and then Aaron can talk to Graham, then Aaron can talk to Graham again. It’s not as bad as the scene in ‘Tsuranga Conundrum’ when Ryan and Yaz had a chat about his dead mum and a bit of a wander around the spaceship with no regard for the killer alien on the prowl. After all, in this episode, Ryan and Aaron go for a coffee. Going for a coffee is something that real people do all the time; you can’t say it feels fake. But you can say that it’s clumsy plotting and pacing.
The character beats themselves, once you get there, are more solid. Sure, this new era of the show occasionally struggles with monologues, but it’s a relief that the ‘absent black father’ character is done in one of the less offensive ways. This, after all, could have been a real botched job. It’s easy to imagine an alternate version of the episode where Ryan entirely rejects Aaron in favour of Graham. After the fridging of Grace, this was a real worry. Instead, we see a story about Ryan and Aaron rebuilding their relationship with new trust. It’s quite sweet in parts. Your mileage may vary as to whether it’s all a bit soap-opera but it’s a good way for the show, having needlessly boxed itself into a corner, to box itself back out again.
Graham also gets a couple of good scenes with Aaron in which the show basically compares their different approaches to family. Graham gets a corker of a line: “Family isn’t just about DNA or a name, it’s about what you do.” This is essentially the thesis statement for Ryan’s whole story in Series 11. As morals go, it’s a sweet one.
Mercifully, after a season of hogging the limelight, Graham is very much playing second fiddle here. But pity poor Mandip Gill, who is given so little to do as Yaz. There are whispers on the wind that she’ll have a real story next year. Here’s hoping, because she’s an utterly forgettable presence here – and that’s not Gill’s fault in the slightest.
The dialogue, though mostly functional, has occasional blunders. There’s the classic pratfall of the Doctor babbling off some tech-speak followed by Graham saying “In English?” There are also moments where characters do things they wouldn’t do because the plot demands it, like the Doctor letting Aaron, who she dislikes, join them on the TARDIS in the middle of an emergency. Aaron’s first appearance is a real clunker too; the Doctor immediately berates him even though Ryan and Graham and Yaz are all in the room, Graham nods and looks generally sombre, and Ryan doesn’t even look especially embarrassed. That’s not how people behave.
Easily the worst bit of scripting is when the villain takes down all the wi-fi and telecommunication signals in England, the show cuts for about thirty seconds to a family of four entirely new characters to make the ‘I suppose we’ll have to have a conversation’ joke. This isn’t inherently the worst joke in the world; before the cutaway, when the Doctor said the wi-fi was down, I even laughed and said, “Oh no! Disaster!” So, I’m not gonna take the high ground. But, the execution comes off as quite patronising and it seems utterly unaware of the irony of a TV show bemoaning TV.
As far as politics go, this episode is no ‘Kerblam!’ but it does contain a very quick scene which sums up the problems with the new era’s approach to diversity. The villain runs into a security guard, a nice young lad who makes a joke that lets us know he’s gay. Then, the villain immediately murders him. When LGBT+ folks on the internet say they want more representation, this isn’t what we had in mind. Jack Graham of Eruditorum Press tweeted: “Y’all know I’m not one to let Moffat off the hook. But the fact is, if he’d summarily massacred as many tokenistic LGBT characters as Chibnall has so far, certain people – many of whom seem mysteriously impressed with Chibnall’s era – would’ve roasted him for it. Rightly.”
Another frustrating point – and this is me being a big nerd, I’ll admit – is a scene where UNIT is shut down as a joke. For those who don’t know, UNIT is a secret government organisation that investigates alien activity. Depending on the writer, they either study alien tech and deal with invaders diplomatically or they just blow everyone up. Though their importance has gone back and forth, they’ve been a significant part of the show since the early days and were central to the plot as recently as Series 9. It can only be hoped that this budget-cut gag is quietly setting up an actual story for next year rather than unceremoniously chucking a huge slice of Who’s worldbuilding in the bin for a joke that wasn’t even funny. While the show survives by changing and breaking its own rules, there is – and, again, I’ll admit this is subjective – such a thing as sacred turf, such a thing as land that you shouldn’t piss on.
So, that’s ‘Resolution.’ It’s a functional Who episode hindered by significant flaws like clunky dialogue, the Bury Your Gays trope, and a general lack of anything too surprising. I find myself a little bitter that this is what passes for a good episode nowadays. But, compared to ‘Battle of Freesh Avoca Do,’ it’s left me in a relatively optimistic place about its future.