It's been ten months since the end of Doctor Who Season 12, both on-screen and off. But first, the New Year's Day special leaps back in time to a different Dalek-centric New Year's Day episode from 2019. The Doctor and her fam have just defeated the reconnaissance Dalek in "Resolution."
Six hours ago, to be precise. They've left, but the promised GCHQ cleanup doesn't go as planned: The truck driver is waylaid, poisoned, and the remains of the Dalek stolen.
Jack Robinson: "This is a PR disaster."
It's a neat conceit: What happens to the remains of the battles the Doctor leaves? In this case, it's the Doctor's irritating nemesis, Jack Robinson (Chris Noth) who ordered the burnt-out casing hijacked, handing it off to one of his newly bought AI subsidiaries, run by Leo Rugazzi (Nathan Stewart-Jarret) to rebuild. But Robinson was tipped off to it by the newly-appointed Technology secretary, Jo Patterson (Harriet Walter), who sees an opportunity to get herself to Number 10.
It's a two-year journey from stolen Dalek to Prime Minister. But the election comes just in time for Robinson to her make an army of "Defense Drones," with Patterson deploying them to "solving the security crisis" ahead of Brexit. But unbeknownst to them, Leo has innocently cloned the organic material left inside, guaranteeing there will be living Daleks to take over those cases, and they do, attempting to subjugate the Earth on New Years Day 2021.
Good thing the companions are back on Earth, waiting for the Doctor. At least, Yaz still is. Watching her in the second TARDIS, trying to solve where the Doctor's gone, is a bleak picture of the abandoned companion. Of course, the Doctor hasn't left them; she's just locked in Judoon jail (where 19 years have passed in comparison to Earth's ten months). But the fam doesn't know that. As far as they're concerned, they've been left behind.
Oddly, Ryan's ok with that. He's got a new focus: Defending Earth, Granddad at his side. Once he gets a load of PM Patterson's Dalek Drone project with Robinson, he and Graham are on it, recruiting Yaz to join them. But the fam is in over their heads pretty quickly, getting nowhere when they confront Robinson in hopes of answers, unable to pull Doctor-like tricks to break in and stop Patterson's plan.
Luckily, the Doctor has just been broken out of jail by a second return of everyone's favorite immortal 51st century former Time Agent, Captain Jack Harkess. It took quite a few crimes to get himself arrested and next to the Doctor in adjoining cells. (The who's who of Whovian villains the Doctor encounters in the Judoon prison is an utter delight, by the way.) With Jack by her side, the Doctor returns to her fam to save Earth.
The episode is a solid entry in the Chibnall era. There's nothing particularly innovative about it (or the Doctor's second TARDIS solution), but that doesn't matter. It's a well-grounded plot propping up what matters — the characters' emotional journeys. The scene between Jack and Yaz as she faces the reality one day the Doctor might never come back, and he talks about how to live without her, is one of the episode's highlights.
Daleks off Patterson and Leo, but Robinson survives, and is on track to run for President by the episode's end, suggesting it's not the last we'll see of him. Most importantly, the fam survives. Knowing Ryan's Tosin Cole and Graham's Bradley Walsh are leaving once would have put a target on their backs. But not this time. Ryan decides he wants to live his life on Earth. He's found his purpose, to keep his planet safe. Graham wants to be with him; Ryan is, after all, his family.
It's been a while since we've seen companions choose to step off the TARDIS, reaching a point where they've grown out of it. It was a regular staple of Classic Doctor Who. But since the reboot, Martha is the only companion to do it. From Rose in a parallel universe to Donna forgetting the Doctor, most companions don't get a choice. They sacrifice themselves instead. Even Clara, heading out in her own TARDIS after the Doctor forgets her, is doing "the right thing."
And it ends with yet another first for Doctor Who: two women as Doctor and Companion. The show has teased the possibility before. (Clara and Me, for example.) When Season 13 arrives, it will be a historic ride. (The pandemic delay suggests we may not see it until 2022 and the next New Year's Day special.) Until then, this was a lovely outing to tide fans over for the long wait.
(Also with Jack now hanging out on Earth with Gwen Cooper, perhaps a Torchwood special with Graham and Ryan making an appearance wouldn't be out of the question either? I live in hope.)