Leave means leave? – The themes of Revolution of the Daleks

Image Credit: Ian Aberle (CC BY-SA 2.0Flickr)

Image Description: A Dalek stares at the camera

By Ian Bayley

Despite its status as a New Year’s special, Revolution of the Daleks will inevitably be remembered most of all for being a companion departure story, so how does it compare to other episodes of that sort? In Parting of the Ways, Rose, the proto-typical NuWho companion, declares that “the Doctor showed me a better way of living your life … You make a stand. You say no”. One year later, she tells us the story of how she died, and while her death is figurative because she is merely trapped in a parallel universe, it is undoubtedly meant to be tragic. Donna’s fate is equally pathos-inducing even though she reverts to the person she was before the Doctor met her. Clara and Bill leave in triumph having cheated certain death; their rollercoaster journeys end in an immense payoff for those still invested. Ryan, in contrast, joins and leaves the show trying to ride his bike and since this narrative decision seems to single out his dyspraxia as the key thread in his personal story, it seems that the Doctor has had no effect on his life at all during his travels with her. 

Looking more closely, we can acknowledge that his relationship with Graham has improved (all in his first season) and we can see he is pushing himself to ride the bike rather than being pushed (Graham even exclaims Ryan will “be black and blue”) but this is squinting at subtleties. This scene also leads me to worry that Ryan has been treated like a schoolboy at times, rather than an adult, and I worry that the obsession with a rite-of-passage for primary school children is infantalising for him. 

Ryan’s reason for leaving is summarised by the Doctor as “[she] made it back too late”. It’s as if he has simply moved on in the meantime. He proclaims that he has been changed, just as Rose once did, but his insistence that both his mates and planet need him rings hollow for me. You have to go all the way back to his scenes with Tibo, the only friend we’ve met, in Can You Hear Me? for evidence of this. He, apparently, knows what he wants to do with his life but I feel this has come out of nowhere. Graham’s reason for going, that he’d miss Ryan, represents him as a mere plus one rather than a companion in his own right, and if he is less enthusiastic about his time with the Doctor because it began with the death of his wife, then that suddenly puts a new complexion on the years he has spent on the TARDIS.

Ironically, this episode that ends with, for me, such a disappointing conclusion to Graham and Ryan’s arc begins by reveling in the underwhelming with a Star Wars gag where “a long time far, far away” is revealed to be Cheltenham in 2019. The space fantasy of intergalactic battles is contrasted with the mundanity of parking lots and roadside cafes. Later, the trip across space to the galaxy far, far away where we find the Doctor ends in a gloomy cell where the only lightsabers are the bars of her cage. In between, plot exposition on Earth reveals that ‘the Establishment’, an organisation we gain no insight into other than through one government figure, is in constant fear of revolution for some reason. Their saviours are Robertson’s drones that just happen to look exactly like notorious killing machines without their occupants. They feel like a solution looking for a problem if ever there was one, and the implausibility of their adoption is so strong that it can only be justified as an allegory, perhaps too charitably. Liberal defenders of human rights often accuse the state of grabbing powers they don’t need that could be abused by future governments; in this way, they would argue, we may unintentionally create the apparatus that the monsters of fascism could travel in. 

The political messaging is more clear-cut elsewhere. Robertson tells Leo to “embrace the uncertainty” while Patterson promises the country she will bring “stability and security to every part of national life”. There seems to be some echo here of the arguments surrounding Brexit, a transition finalised on the day of broadcast, which are presented by some as nostalgia for a comforting past and others as a huge upheaval. Robertson’s scornful comment that “people don’t like experts” is a more obvious echo though, and it is Leo’s Frankenstein-like enthusiasm for science, and remote detachment from potential consequences, that has caused him to grow the Dalek creatures that have endangered the whole human race. Both are more subtle as Brexit references than the widely panned claim in Resolution that UNIT was disbanded because of the UK’s quarrels with its major international partners. 

This comparison to the one-letter different prequel, however, brings me onto the major reason why it is difficult to love the story: it is too derivative and delivers too little that is new, despite having a running time only six minutes shorter than The Day of the Doctor

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