Doctor Who The Eve of the Daleks Festive 2021 special review: satisfying and self-contained

·3-min read
 (BBC Studios/James Pardon)
(BBC Studios/James Pardon)

Doctor Who likes a time loop. Former showrunner Steven Moffat was particularly keen on them, trapping both Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi’s Doctors inside personal Groundhog Days until they’d learned their lesson.

Now Chris Chibnall, the outgoing showrunner, has had his own crack with the New Year special Eve of the Daleks. In a lot of ways, this one-off special is a palate cleanser. Last season’s Flux storyline was, depending on your view, either an unprecedentedly ambitious moonshot or a confused, bodged-together mess.

That sprawling six-parter knitted together the Crimean War, time portals under Liverpool, giant dog-men, Weeping Angels, Sontarans, three Jodie Whittakers and a phenomenon which destroyed a good chunk of the universe.

Eve of the Daleks works with a much smaller stage – though, to be fair, Flux didn’t leave a lot of room to go bigger.

Aisling Bea is excellent as warehouse manager Sarah (BBC Studios/James Pardon)
Aisling Bea is excellent as warehouse manager Sarah (BBC Studios/James Pardon)

We start hard on the heels of the last adventure. The Tardis is all gunked up and needs a hard reset, so while it’s out of action the gang plan to kick back on the beach. Unfortunately, the Doctor, Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Dan (John Bishop) find themselves dumped in the basement of a self-storage warehouse somewhere in Manchester. As New Year’s Eve plans go, you’d take a quiet one with the Hootenanny.

The warehouse is run, begrudgingly, by Sarah (Aisling Bea), who’s got used to seeing Nick (Adjani Salmon) turn up for his annual drop-off of odds and ends just before midnight. But before the two of them can head off home, they, the Doctor, Yaz and Dan are gunned down by a rogue Dalek. Then, all of a sudden, they’re all un-exterminated again and riddled with deja vu.

That time loop that saves the gang quickly turns into a cinching noose; with each death, the gang has a minute less to work out how they’re going to escape a more permanent form of demise. The five have to work out what’s going on and escape Skaro’s own Ned Ryerson.

Nick (Adjani Salmon) is one of the most likeable characters in the show (BBC Studios/James Pardon)
Nick (Adjani Salmon) is one of the most likeable characters in the show (BBC Studios/James Pardon)

Where Flux was knotted and clenched, Eve of the Daleks is clean and neatly conceived: one locked-off building, one Dalek, a time loop which keeps resetting every time everyone’s exterminated, and absolutely no fretting about the Doctor’s childhood.

The whole thing turns on excellent guest appearances from Bea and Salmon. Both had a great 2021 – Bea’s second series of This Way Up and Salmon’s Dreaming Whilst Black were two of the year’s standout series – and here they make for two of the most likeable characters of the Chibnall era.

“I’m trying to work out which one is more unlikely,” Nick muses when the Tardis gang try to explain what’s going on, while insisting they’re just city council bods doing the rounds. “Time loop robots, or three people from the council working on New Year.”

In fact, Bea and Salmon are so good – as is Father Ted’s Pauline McLynn cameoing as Sarah’s mum – that Dan and Yaz are left with precious little to actually do. That is, until a late revelation which could shift the dynamic between Yaz and the Doctor permanently, and feels like it might drive the last few chapters of Whittaker’s Doctor.

The worst New Year’s Eve party guests ever (PA)
The worst New Year’s Eve party guests ever (PA)

It’s not perfect – after a tight first half hour, the show loses a little urgency for a while until the finale clicks into place. But then the whole thing sprints along with a renewed sense of confidence.

With both Whittaker and Chibnall off at the end of this run of three specials, Eve of the Daleks feels like a statement of intent: it’s a satisfying, self-contained adventure which skilfully steps past most of the problems which made Flux feel undercooked and offers a way back in for lapsed Who casuals too.

Doctor Who: Eve of the Daleks is now on iPlayer

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