Remember when the Doctor was the last of the Time Lords, traveled with just one companion, and sometimes dropped in on Captain Jack Harkness? For longtime Whovians, that set-up describes the David Tennant era of Doctor Who from roughly 2006 to 2008. But now, oddly, the logistics of that era of Who has been not-so-subtly rebooted. By the end of the new 2021 Doctor Who New Year’s Special “Revolution of the Daleks,” the titular Time Lord’s status quo is pretty similar to the way things were over a decade ago.
Thanks to an off-handed comment from Captain Jack (John Barrowman), and a pivotal decision from the TARDIS ‘fam, “Revolution of the Daleks” pushes Doctor Who toward a very familiar format and casually plants seeds that could bring back the alien-hunters of Torchwood.
Spoilers ahead for Doctor Who’s 2021 New Year’s Special, “Revolution of the Daleks.”
Jodie Whittaker's 2018 Season 11 featured almost zero callbacks or significant Easter eggs to the recent past of Who, but Season 12 was practically brimming with Time Lord nostalgia, and some pretty rowdy, timey-whimey retconing. During the events of the Season 12 finale — "The Timeless Children" — the Doctor learned she several lives prior to her canonical regeneration cycle, which effectively changed the entire mythology of the planet Gallifrey, but also, oddly made a wacky 4th Doctor episode from 1976, "The Brain of Morbius," suddenly way more relevant. By the end of all of it, the Doctor was locked-up in a space jail for "crimes" committed by her previously unknown incarnation, the formidable new Doctor, previously disguised as a woman named "Ruth." The season 12 finale also killed-off all the Time Lords, seemingly undoing everything the various Doctors did in "The Day of the Doctor," when Doctors 1 thru 12 (plus the War Doctor) teamed-up to save the planet from total annihilation.
So, as "Revolution of the Daleks" begins, the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) is more or less, in a similar position as Christopher Ecceslton's 9th Doctor or David Tennant's 10th. She's alone, she's the last of the Time Lords, and she's processing a lot of grief. She's also surrounded by several familiar Who monsters, all serving time in the same space jail. We get a glimpse of a Weeping Angel, an Ood, a Sycorax, and even one member of the Silence, who the Doctor jokingly says "forgot you were in there." Basically, the entire episode is presented as a kind of Doctor Who grab-bag, and when Captain Jack comes to bust the Doctor out from prison, the call-backs just keep coming. How has Jack managed to get in the same prison as the Doctor? How did he hide his vortex manipulator in a different room? Where has the TARDIS been this whole time? You barely have time to think about it, because the rest of the plot has to happen.
When the Doctor and Captain Jack return to Earth, the Doctor's contemporary companions — Ryan (Tosin Cole), Yaz (Mandip Gill), and Graham (Bradley Walsh) — are all equal parts hurt and confused by the Doctor's absence. For longtime fans, this frustration echoes cries of abandonment from literally every famous companion ever, including, of course, Captain Jack himself. Later in the episode, Jack tells Yaz straight-up that, at some point, the Doctor is going to bounce, and that feeling of loss is going to be really hard. Yaz, of course, is only half-listening, because like Rose Tyer talking to Sarah-Jane Smith in "School Reunion," she, of course, feels like her connection with the Doctor is different and special. She's not wrong, of course, all of the Doctor's relationships with their companions are different and special. That still doesn't mean the Doctor won't lose companions along the way.
The plot of "Revolution of the Daleks," largely borrows from the 2010 Matt Smith Who episode, "Victory of the Daleks," in which the Daleks were seemingly assisting Winston Churchill in the war effort against the Axis Powers. Here, it's the same gimmick, only this time, the corrupt businessman, Jack Robertson (Chris Noth) has sold the British government a bunch of Dalek-tech under the belief that these can be turned into an effective form of riot police. While the tone of "Victory of the Daleks" was kind of playful, the tone of "Revolution of the Daleks," is more chilling. For a brief moment, as we see the Daleks being used as crowd control on protesters, for the first time, in a very long time, the Daleks are legit scary again.
But, because the episode moves swiftly, these pseudo-Brexit-Daleks are quickly destroyed by "real" Daleks, which the Doctor has lured to Earth in order to get rid of the new Daleks because OG Daleks hate "impure" or mutated Daleks. Again, this Dalek-versus-Dalek plot device is straight from "Victory of the Daleks," in which Matt Smith used the neon-Daleks to obliterate the faux-Churchhill Daleks. The Doctor then, uses a back-up TARDIS (left on Earth after "The Timeless Children") lures all the Daleks inside of it, and then, destroys it.
DOCTOR WHO HAS REBOOTED ITS OLD FORMAT
Watching the Doctor crush the back-up TARDIS and destroying all the Daleks inside is a pretty neat metaphor for what "Revolution of the Daleks" actually did. We've established now that the old Daleks are back and living out there in "the Void" (a place between dimensions) and we've also established that there's really only one TARDIS in the vicinity of the Earth, and the Doctor is the one who has it. The Doctor is again, the Last of the Time Lords, and the Daleks have (again) been shown who's boss.
By the end of the episode, Graham and Ryan also tell the Doctor that they're done traveling on the TARDIS because there's more of their Earthbound life that they want to experience. Yaz stays on the TARDIS, which means the next season will just be the Doctor and Yaz traveling together, which echoes the 1:1 Doctor-companion ratio from several of the most popular seasons. Because as much as fans would like Captain Jack to stick around, it looks like he's returning to his roots, more or less.
JACK AND GWEN COULD, HYPOTHETICALLY, REFORM TORCHWOOD
It's not exactly clear what happened to Jack in between Torchwood: Miracle Day and the events of both "Fugitive of the Judoon" and "Revolution of the Daleks." But, in terms of where things stand now, it hardly matters. Jack tells the Doctor he's going to visit Gwen Cooper, who was basically Jack's most trusted confidant when he was part of the alien-hunting group known as Torchwood. In fairness, Gwen is also, like the only member of Torchwood other than Jack who is still alive, so she's kind of the rest of Torchwood by default. We don't see actress Eve Myles in the episode but mentioning that Jack is going to visit her is kind of like the Whoniverse version of a retired Tony Stark going to drop-in on Bruce Banner. Doctor Who isn't saying outright that Jack and Gwen will reform Torchwood, but it's also not not saying that either.
Back in the season 12 debut, "Spyfall," Torchwood was name-checked as something that used to look out for the best interests of Earth. But, in the time of the 13th Doctor, both Torchwood and UNIT have been disbanded because of budget cuts. This has meant that during the entire tenure of Jodie Whittaker's Doctor, she's had precisely zero allies whenever she's returned to 21st Century Earth.
But, not anymore! Now, Jack and Gwen are having a chat, and Ryan and Graham are remaining on Earth, too. For the first time since the David Tennant-era, there's an entire group of Time Lord-allies secretly living on Earth, waiting to help the Doctor in her moment of need. Or, possibly, get their own new spin-off TV series. In the opening narration of the TV series Torchwood, Jack Harkness said: "21st century is when everything changes." And yet, after "Revolution of the Daleks," the 21st Century seems to be closer to Doctor Who's good-old-days than ever before.
Doctor Who seasons 1-12 (including Jodie Whittaker's 2020 season) are all streaming on HBO Max. Doctor Who season 13 is currently filming.