Precisely one year after “Revolution of the Daleks,” we get yet another Dalek episode. Are we at overkill yet? The Daleks were nearly done to death under Moffat and Davies, and then we've had a Dalek special every New Year's Day since 2019 under Chibnall (saving 2020, where we had the first episode of series twelve with the Master instead). While it's fair to say we're now at the end of a trilogy, we're seeing the Daleks far too often. Once, maybe twice per Doctor would probably do, since they're just about the only villain each Doctor has to face in order to really count. Thankfully the Daleks were kept at a minimum in Flux, being there primarily to act as antimatter fodder for the Doctor.
All that being said... “Eve of the Daleks” is a cracking episode, easily the most enjoyable special of this era. While they have a particular reason for being there, this isn't an episode about the Daleks. They're simply an easy and recognisable monster to use, requiring little explanation. This isn't a bad thing; this episode rattles along beautifully and while the Daleks could feasibly be swapped out for the Cybermen, Sontarans or Voord, they work very well in the context of the episode. They're not taken too seriously, but after all this overuse, that's probably for the best. They're relentless enough and gloating enough to be menacing, but silly enough to keep this whole adventure light-hearted.
Which is the best way to take it, after all. While it's not the same as having a Christmas special, the New Year's specials have been entertaining, but this is the first one to feel festive. It's actually about New Year's celebrations (the only time since the TV Movie, set primarily on New Year's Eve 1999 but which came out in the summer of '96). An episode in which time counts down to midnight, when events will come to a head meaning life or death is one thing. An episode in which time is constantly counting down to midnight, resetting each time and repeating the nightmare over and over, that's something else. I do love a time loop episode, but by its nature there's a serious risk it cane become repetitive and thus boring. In spite of being virtually a bottle episode, with a limited cast and very limited, low budget location, the episode remains fun, exciting and surprising throughout.
A lot of this is down to the guest cast, who really do carry the episode through much of its runtime. Aisling Bea is by far the stronger of the two, making Sarah, the unlikely proprietor of Elf Storage (surely a holdover from a time when this was planned for Christmas?) a fully fledged character in her first scene. Charming, put-upon and not particularly nice, Sarah is a likeable but deeply flawed person who becomes more selfless, open and accepting with each iteration of the loop. Adjani Salmon is almost as good as Nick, and in fairness he has the harder job. Nick is written as a deliberately strange and off-putting character, and while he's clearly the nicer, more good-hearted of the two, his oddness is designed to be alienating for Sarah and so it comes close to being so for the viewer. It's down to Salmon that Nick is able to become a three-dimensional and loveable oddity, a “weirdo with a good heart.” He's in love with Sarah – and who wouldn't be in love with Aisling Bea? - but his actions come perilously close to creepiness, which at least he recognises. The script gets away with it on the same sort of knowing good will as most absurdly-plotted romcoms, and by the charm of the cast.
The regulars get some of their best material too. Whittaker has to less of the breathless exposition this time, even though this episode is breathless by its nature and requires a fair bit of explaining. I'm really enjoying the more unlikeable side to the Thirteenth Doctor's character that we've seen in recent episodes, and that comes to the fore here: her short temper, her need to be obeyed when the stakes are high, and her apparent emotional illiteracy. It's an interesting and refreshing choice for the first female Doctor, who we might have expected to be more emotionally aware than her predecessors, but the suggestion in this episode is that she's more aware than she lets on. It's an interesting side to the character that deserves more exploration.
Faring very well is Mandip Gill as Yaz, who shoulders a number of the more emotive scenes. Her brief but understandable anger at the Doctor for abandoning her time and again is well-played, but where she really stands out is in the scene where she accepts her feelings for the Doctor. Her gradually admittance to Dan, and to herself, is beautifully played. It's possible this was all planned from the start, but more likely, Chibnall has responded to the chemistry between the two actors and the relentless shipping by fans. Either way, it's a promising development for the two characters, given that it's actually been given time to develop rather than being forced in. Combined with the personal drama of someone coming to terms with their sexuality, it's strong, effective material. While it's unlikely that Yaz will stay on to travel with the Fourteenth Doctor – Davies likely wanting a clean slate when he takes over – it would be interesting to see how the character reacts to a regeneration.
Bishop doesn't get so much strong material, with Dan mostly being the comic relief, something he is obviously suited to. However, his scenes connecting with Yaz and confronting the Doctor are beautifully played, and his moment of bravery against the Dalek is a nice one. His lighter style suits this episode perhaps better than it did the heavier stuff in Flux. A moment, please, to applaud Pauline McLynn, for making the most of a very limited role as Sarah's mum and somehow stealing scenes from the other end of a smartphone.
Plotwise, the episode is slim, but it doesn't need to be hugely complex stuff for a festive one-off. While the story takes some explaining, as noted, Chibnall assumes that viewers are savvy enough to grasp the idea of a time loop from previous sci-fi and fantasy adventures and hit the ground running. (Dan referencing Groundhog Day helps for anyone lagging behind.) The idea to have the loop shorten by a minute each iteration is a clever one, adding an extra element of danger to the concept. While it's true the plot doesn't quite hold together logistically – when do these kinds of stories, really? - it's enough to swallow on the vital first viewing. Wisely, the usual part of a time loop story, where the characters slowly become aware of the loop, is almost completely skipped over. The characters all understand what's happening to them very quickly, which makes the episode far pacier than it might otherwise have been. While it's slightly harder to accept that they wouldn't be a bit more traumatised by being painfully killed by Daleks over and over, it's just about believable that Sarah and Nick would accept the nature of their predicament given the evidence of their own senses.
It's also gratifying to see the Doctor having to face up to her actions in Flux. While there's still a lot of explaining to be done, not least about the state of the wider universe, her actions against the Daleks, Cybermen and Sontarans clearly still happened, and the few remaining Daleks are now out for blood. Not that they've ever needed an excuse to hunt the Doctor down before, but their anger against her is palpable and, frankly, understandable. Try as she might to blame it on the Sontarans, she wiped out three races without a second thought, and there's no other way to see it. As ever, Nick Briggs makes the Daleks sound powerfully intimidating, even as they bitch and complain (and having the Dalek state “I am not Nick!” is funny on several levels – we were shouting “Yes you are!”) The tweaked design of the executioner Daleks is rather nice as well. A direct blast from a Dalek ray is one of the few things that can kill a Time Lord outright, and the rapid-fire machine gun style looks like a good way to ensure it, where it not for a damaged TARDIS taking matters into its own hands by recycling time. We've already seen the TARDIS reset during the events of Flux – a consequence of rewrites not lining up? - but it's a strong enough reason to put the characters in this situation. It's a bit of a pity this wasn't used as an opportunity to redesign the TARDIS interior altogether though, rather than a minor rejig.
Altogether, a solid, very enjoyable bit of fun for the season. Let's give the Daleks a little rest now, eh? Until the next Doctor is well-established at least. We've got the Sea Devils to look forward to next, and they've not been on the screen since 1984. Far more deserving (and don't they look lovely?)