Doctor Who Delivers A Killer Time Loop Episode On The 'Eve' Of Jodie Whittaker's Departure

New year, new "Doctor Who." But this might be the last New Year's Day with "Doctor Who" for a while, as the show prepares to enter a new era and set the stage for a new Doctor. (For the record there are two more "specials" left before Jodie Whitaker departs the role.) But it doesn't quite feel like the end is nigh for Jodie Whittaker's Thirteenth Doctor, who finally got into her groove with the energetic but flawed 13th season, "Flux." Perhaps that's why the 2022 New Year's special, "Eve of the Daleks," is a refreshing return to basics for the show: the Doctor, some murderous Daleks, and lots of running down corridors. But it's the clever conceit of the episode that puts it a step above Chris Chibnall's two previous Dalek New Year's specials and reins in some of the showrunner's worst impulses — the time loop.

"Eve of the Daleks" finds the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Yaz (Mandip Gill), and new TARDIS inductee Dan (John Bishop) stuck in a time loop with a handful of vengeful Daleks in a cavernous storage unit. To make matters worse, two other people have been caught in the same time loop, which keeps shrinking with each reset. The Doctor has only nine minutes until midnight until the time loop closes and they all perish at the hands (or whisks, because these Daleks no longer have their plungers!!) of the Daleks.

Do You Get Déjà Vu When She's With You?

It's New Year's Eve and ELF Storage is possibly the only storage unit open so close to midnight. But Sarah (a standout Aisling Bea, practically rolling her eyes throughout the entire episode) is begrudgingly burning the midnight oil for her best and only customer, Nick (Adjani Salmon), who has an annoying habit of visiting ELF Storage every New Year's Eve with new trivial items to store. He tries to flirt, she harshly shrugs it off, same old same old. But something is off about tonight – it feels like they've done this dance before, and not just the year before.

That's because the Doctor and Team TARDIS have arrived at the darkened garage of this storage unit, the Doctor having set the TARDIS to self-repair in the wake of the damage done by the Flux. But this means that they will have to flee the TARDIS (in a thrilling little action sequence) and wait it out on the alien beach where the Doctor has landed them. Except they're not at the beach, but in ELF Storage, where they quickly encounter the dead bodies of Sarah and Nick, killed by a single Dalek. It doesn't take long for the Doctor, Yaz, and Dan to encounter this Dalek too and, despite the Doctor's attempts to stop it with her sonic, join Sarah and Nick in being killed by the Dalek's rays. "Not like this," the Doctor says, in her last words.

Just kidding, they're alive! But what a cold open that is! (Have I mentioned I'm glad Chibnall brought the cold open back after doing away with them in season 11?) Killing the Doctor and their companions all in the span of a couple of minutes, while introducing this era's best one-off character in Aisling Bea's Sarah, who is so thorny, and funny, and wry that she elevates the entire episode — it's the kind of tight character and plot writing that we've seen too little of in Chibnall's era. And for the most part, the rest of the episode keeps it up.

Daleks Do Not Store Stuff

One refreshing aspect of this time-loop episode is that everyone immediately clues into the fact that they're stuck in a time loop. It's the kind of genre savvy that you expect characters in the "Doctor Who" universe to have and, coupled with Sarah's constant annoyance at being stuck in a time loop, you've got yourself a fun hour of sci-fi TV.

Once the characters arrive at the beginning of the second loop, they start to act differently — Nick running to find Sarah, Sarah running to find a weapon, and the Doctor and co. running to stop the Dalek before it can kill the pair of them. But alas, the Dalek finds Nick and Sarah even more quickly, somehow, and kills the two of them before also gunning down Team TARDIS once again. The second loop is the sequence that takes the most stylistic advantage of the time-loop conceit, with director Annetta Laufer using those different angles and wide shots for repeat scenes that you get in a lot of time-loop stories, but the episode quickly abandons the visual quirk as the plot picks up steam.

It's quickly made clear why the Daleks are finding them so quickly: another Dalek has joined the first, and the loop is shortening by a minute with each reset. Dan is the first to realize that another Dalek has joined the fray, in one of the episode's standout moments. He declares "there's two of them," before smashing the button of the elevator and stepping out to act as bait as the Doctor and Yaz search for Sarah and Nick on their own. John Bishop proves himself to be a worthy new addition to the TARDIS in his face-off with the Dalek, acting the confused customer and prompting the Dalek to proclaim, "Daleks do not store stuff!" before getting gunned down. But in the span of five minutes he gets to show off his action chops and his comedy chops, which is already more than what Yaz got to do in her first two seasons.

Another refreshing aspect of this episode is how Sarah is immediately mistrusting of the Doctor once she finally finds her and Nick and informs them that the attackers are not "killer robots" but mutant aliens called "Daleks." Sarah blames the Doctor for bringing the Daleks here, and she's kind of right. The Dalek Executioners were sent by the survivors of the Flux to kill the Doctor after they tracked down the time distortion caused by her TARDIS — the time loop, which the TARDIS created to protect the Doctor. The Daleks believe the Doctor harnessed the Flux to destroy all Daleks, and are enacting their revenge, once and for all. While the Daleks in this episode are probably the least interesting iteration of the iconic "Doctor Who" monster that Chibnall has presented, they do the job. And despite their spotty marksmanship, they do succeed in killing the Doctor at least eight times this episode.

A Ticking Time Bomb

Because of Sarah's misdirection (sending the Doctor on a wild goose chase through Jeff's fifth floor emporium), it takes a few time loops for the gang to all get together and agree to a plan. The Doctor has found Jeff's very explosive stash of stuff and decided that the best course of action is to use the New Year's Eve phone call from Sarah's mom as a trigger to blow up the building while they escape through the garage, thus freeing them of the time loop while destroying the Daleks! The Doctor even caps off the plan with an inspirational speech about how "we improve together and we ultimately succeed!" Easy peasy, right?

Of course, the sixth time loop is where everything goes wrong. A third Dalek joins the battle, throwing another wrench in the Doctor's plans, and the Daleks shut off the lights to the building — which means this is the (literally) the darkest timeline. Amid the eerie atmosphere and blinking lights, everyone gets killed quickly and hopelessly, and the Doctor is brought to her lowest point once again.

With time slipping away from them, it seems like their plan is impossible — but more determined than ever, the Doctor pulls a solution out of her pocket. With their seventh and penultimate loop, they're going to run through a "decoy loop," luring the Daleks down false paths so they can enact the real plan in the final loop. They all take a particular glee to giving the Daleks chase in this decoy loop, with Nick getting something to do other than look perplexed, by getting a Dalek to burn up all the items in his storage units — items that belonged to all his exes — and making the pun "Ex-terminate!" before he gets killed.

Chibnall pens this episode as a solid, if not foolproof, piece of clockwork storytelling, with a few red herrings thrown in that actually serve as red herrings for both the audience and the characters. But the best part about the time-loop conceit is that it allows Chibnall to both limit his worst impulses and take advantage of them. In every "Doctor Who" story he's penned, Chibnall has made a practice of giving himself an arbitrary ticking time bomb (see: the 42 minutes before the ship flies into the sun in "42," the cubes counting down in "The Power of Three," etc.) and throwing in several new twists throughout the episode to artificially raise the stakes. In "Eve of the Daleks," both of those elements are already built into the time-loop conceit, and it ends up working to the episode's advantage — what better than a countdown to midnight on New Year's Eve? But Chibnall's worst sin, his love of unwieldy large ensembles, is the one thing that this episode doesn't fall victim to — likely because of Covid shooting restrictions — and the episode's character writing is so much stronger for it.

From Auld Acquaintance to More Than Friends?

I'm talking, of course, about the romance of it all. More than a time-loop adventure, "Eve of the Daleks" is a rom-com, both between Sarah (perfect, no notes, should be the next companion) and Nick (meh, really can't shake the awkward stalker vibes no matter how much the episode lampshades it) and between the Doctor and Yaz. The "Thasmin" (the fan term for the ship of Thirteen x Yaz) of it all is hinted at when Sarah begrudgingly confesses that "good-hearted weirdos are the keepers," and the camera lingers on Yaz's pensive face, but it's finally made canon when Dan gently encourages Yaz to tell the Doctor how she feels. "I never told anyone, not even myself," Yaz admits, confirming that Yaz has long been harboring a crush on the Doctor. We all saw it since Yaz confessed to having a "special person" in "The Haunting of Villa Diodati" but it was most clear to us — and to Dan — whenever Yaz's face would soften when she watched the Doctor's hologram message during their time stuck in the past in "Flux." But "Doctor Who" can escape any accusations of queer-baiting (though, I do feel like it's not out of the woods just yet) with this confirmation of Yaz's feelings.

Whether those feelings will be returned is another question though, as Dan does his same gentle nudging, this time to the Doctor. But the loop is closing soon and the Doctor doesn't have time to acknowledge Yaz's feelings, or even show that she's anything more than oblivious. And honestly, while I think it's powerful to have Yaz come out as canonically queer in this moment (even though we've had several major LGTBQ characters up until now, including a gay companion with Bill), I don't think it will amount to anything more than unrequited love. The Thirteenth Doctor is the most chaste Doctor we've had since the Classic era, and that likely won't be changing soon. As long as Thirteen keeps her companions at arm's distance, as she has her entire run, this crush will probably remain unrequited.

But feelings aside, the episode ends on a satisfactory note. The Doctor manages to lead the Daleks on a wild goose chase while bringing the group down to the basement last-minute, rigging Jeff's collection of fireworks to blow. With the help of Sarah's phone and her mom's New Year's Eve phone call, the Daleks shoot at the fireworks, just as the group get clear of the building through the garage door. And it all goes up in a glorious display of fireworks that even Karl (Jonny Dixon, making a cameo after Thirteen's very first episode "The Woman Who Fell to Earth") can glimpse from Sheffield.

We're all familiar with the time-loop movie: one character is stuck reliving a single day or event, and must change either their fate to break themselves out of the figurative and literal doldrums of their lives. Sometimes it's a character thing like in "Groundhog Day," and sometimes it's a wacky sci-fi thing like in "Happy Death Day 2," or sometimes it's a little bit of both like "Palm Springs." In the case of this "Doctor Who" episode, it's about all of the above — but mostly it's about blowing it all up. While there's no strong thematic reason about the Doctor and co. being stuck in this time loop, at the end of the day, it's really just an excuse to set off a bunch of fireworks.

Tidbits in Time and Space

  • Sarah ordering the Dalek to "shoo!" cemented her as my favorite one-off character of the Chibnall era. And she wants to travel! Companion upgrade when?
  • Dan continues to be my favorite, even if his whole personality is "loves Liverpool" (though now he can add LGBTQ ally to that). His dig at Manchester, "New Year's at Manx...doesn't she understand?" is funny, even for someone who has no idea what that means.
  • Getting Nicholas Briggs, the voice of the Daleks, to shout "I am not Nick!" is the perfect "Doctor Who" in-joke.
  • I wish there was more of a TARDIS remodel at the end of this episode, as I continue to not be a fan of the weird crystal-spider design. Oh well.
  • The Doctor returns to deflecting answers when the episode ends with Yaz asking, "What did you mean when you said your actions are catching up with you?" Looks like we'll have a plot throughline to Whittaker's finale!