And there I was thinking I was going to get nothing to grumble about. No, I didn’t really like ‘Victory of the Daleks’ that much – so here we go again. And fear the spoilers…
It was going to happen sooner or later – but it might have been nice if we’d been able to wait a little bit longer to hit a disappointing episode of Doctor Who, considering how fun and satisfying both The Eleventh Hour and The Beast Below were. Because let’s not beat around the bush – Victory of the Daleks is a disappointing episode that’ll be great fun for all the eight-year-olds in the audience, but does lay to rest any remaining foolish assumptions that Steven Moffat’s rule as Exec is going to be non-stop brilliance from start to finish. There are a whole heap of problems here, and it certainly makes me increasingly concerned that we’re approaching the six-episode non-Moffat section of the season – there’s a genuine wobble in the writing here, and I’d be interested to know if Moffat is being more or less hands-on than RTD (who would largely rewrite every episode – except, apparently, Moffat’s, which he almost always left untouched).
It’s a terribly New Who episode as well – while the first two episodes have been distinctly fairy tale, this is essentially an RTD-style episode with a slightly more eccentric spin (giving us the daft but undeniably fun sight of space-bound spitfires taking on a Dalek saucer). It’s pretty close in many ways to S3’s New York Daleks two-parter (the Daleks in an early Twentieth Century locale, an attempt to reboot Dalek civilization), and there are certainly the ingredients for a fun story – but there’s a lot here that tells me that the big, bold “Let’s entertain everyone” blockbuster episodes are inherently flawed and problematic from the get-go, and that telling this kind of story in only 45 minutes is incredibly difficult to do without making it nightmarishly rushed.
Indeed, one of Victory of the Daleks’ biggest problems is that it’s too short. It’s interesting that what would normally have been an ideal candidate for an early-season big-scale two-parter has been kept at a single episode (in exchange for which, we’re getting the much creepier-looking Weeping Angels two-parter), and stretching this out to two episodes wouldn’t necessarily have solved its problems… but there’s simply way too much going on here. The biggest sign of this is that the episode has a fantastic set-up, and a truly intriguing mystery – Daleks turning up in the Second World War, and pretending to be fighting on the side of Churchill – that gets completely solved and then virtually forgotten about within twelve minutes. We’ve barely gotten used to the setup when it’s suddenly over in a flash – there’s something terribly effective about the Daleks being both sneaky and polite, and the concept is wasted here, treated as a bit of throwaway business before we get to the absurdly lengthy (and very traditional) sequence in the Dalek saucer. We don’t get to know anyone, we barely get to register the situation so there’s little tension, and the whole thing sprints past at a worrying speed.
Added to which, there’s a definite lack of sparkle in the writing. Gatiss is more than capable of wit – although his last Who episode, S2 adventure The Idiot’s Lantern, was also a big disappointment – but here the whole thing feels a bit flat and lifeless in comparison to Moffat’s brilliant work last week, and almost like a completely different series to The Eleventh Hour. There’s also another example of ‘Nostalgia Writing’, the kind of approach that annoyed me in S4’s The Unicorn and the Wasp, and which comes over in both the writing and the presentation. Essentially, this is a wartime story that’s being deliberately played as a pastiche of war movies, and a frequently knowing pastiche at that. It occasionally works, but it feels a bit weird to be trying to do a tale of Churchill and the Blitz as a chirpy, let’s-fight-the-Daleks romp (contrasting with the much more serious Empty Child/Doctor Dances two-parter in S1). There’s some decidedly purple dialogue here, and the attempts at seriousness come over as rather overwritten – there’s no real sense of gravitas to the story, especially from Churchill, who’s played as a cartoon rather than a real person (compare this with the treatment of Queen Victoria in S2’s Tooth and Claw, one of the few aspects of that episode I actually liked). And while some sections of the story are way too short, others are uncomfortably over-extended – like the ‘Jammie Dodger’ scene, which is a fun and Doctorish thing for the Doctor to do, but it really should only have lasted for a couple of minutes at the very most. Keeping it going for as long as they did just makes the Daleks look like complete idiots, robbing them of their threat and keeping the tone away from anything that might disturb or frighten.
The plot itself… well, in certain ways it works quite effectively. There’s a sense of progression and logic to most of it (even if certain chunks of the plot go waaaay too quickly, and it’s only when the Doctor and Amy start trying to defuse a human-sized bomb with psychotherapy (rather than, say, using the TARDIS to dump the bomb on the Dalek saucer) that things take a turn for the seriously ridiculous. And yet, when you actually stop and think about it, this episode revolves around the Daleks deciding that they’ll deliberately insert themselves into history when they don’t belong (and where they somehow presumably know that Churchill has a hotline to the Doctor), and then spend their entire time being terribly helpful and nice, which will hopefully annoy the Doctor so much that he’ll be forced to say “But you’re the Daleks!” and their problems will be solved. Which is a nutty, difficult-to-believe tale by any stretch of the imagination, even when dealing with the loopier tone of post-Eleventh Hour Doctor Who (Moffat’s episodes have been oddball and crazy, but they haven’t thrown logic out quite as far as this).
On top of that, there’s the odd reference to the Daleks being ‘impure’ , and not being recognized by normal Dalek technology, which I initially thought was nicely done and well-thought out… until I realized that the last time the Daleks were ‘impure’ was back in S1’s The Parting of the Ways – the part-human, religious maniac Daleks who were destroyed by Rose. Now, there’s nothing in Victory of the Daleks to state that these are survivors of those Daleks. Any watchers are going to assume they’re survivors of the most recent Dalek excursion, in Journey’s End. But the Daleks in Journey’s End were created from Davros’ own cells – they’re pureblood Kaled, official 100% Dalek. The Daleks have been pureblood original Skaro Daleks since the Cult of Skaro turned up in S2’s Doomsday, so I can’t see exactly how this lines up, except as a spurious bit of engineering to drive the plot. Okay, this is dangerously geeky Who-obsessive territory, but why construct the entire plot around something which (as far as I can see) seems to be a whacking great continuity error?
Admittedly, it’s the weak direction and flat scripting that’s much more of a problem, and this mix-up isn’t New Who’s worst sin, it’s just a bit baffling. The storytelling is remarkably slapdash in a number of ways, leaving some truly perplexing logic holes, and while a stronger tone may have made this seem less of a problem, the cartoon ‘Bank Holiday War Movie’ approach just makes the whole thing seem off-kilter in the wrong way.
And then, we come to what have become known in various circles as the iDaleks. And I’m a longtime Who fan, so I’m naturally wired to dislike any significant redesign (especially on something that’s remained largely unchanged for nearly fifty years). The changes on the new Daleks are certainly significant enough to count, and I’ll be honest – I don’t like ‘em. There’s nothing technically wrong with giving the Daleks a new look, and I can understand going for bright shiny and colourful Sixties movie-style Daleks to contrast with the gun-metal armoured soldiers of recent years, but the changes to Raymond Cusick’s classic design are not pretty. They’re not huge, but they’re not pretty either – certain sections have been shrunk, while the base has been stretched upwards and extended at the back (giving the Daleks a very odd, slightly hunchbacked appearance). I guess it’s not impossible that I might get used to them at some point, but right now they’re just an excellent example of why Russell T. Davies was very wise not to do a redesign on the Daleks when he brought them back – because if you stray from the design, it stops looking like a Dalek. And while the iDaleks have a certain Sixties look (especially with the thick banding rather than the slats, which harkens back to the very original versions), they look like Daleks built by someone who didn’t quite know what they were doing, and got some of the angles wrong. I’d really rather they hadn’t gone this far – it makes sense to redesign the Cybermen, as they’ve varied frequently over the years, but this is the most significant change to the classic Dalek design anyone’s ever done, and I wish the results were nicer to look at (especially since it looks rather like we’re stuck with them).
At least at the end of the story, we get a setup that’s slightly different from usual, with repowered Daleks away and ready to build themselves into a force to be reckoned with, rather than simply being blasted into nothingness once again (although I do hope we don’t see them again this season, at least). The Daleks are becoming problematic – they’re an understandable draw and guarantee attention, but they’re also easy to overuse, and few of their stories have reached the level of impact that Dalek managed back in S1. I can’t help feeling they need something genuinely new in storytelling terms, rather than just being given a new and rather more colourful look.
To be honest, I think the most disappointing aspect of Victory of the Daleks is simply that underneath all the attempts at glorious nonsense, it’s very generic, and this even applies to the handling of the Doctor/Companion relationship, For the last two episodes, we’ve been getting something nuanced, engaging and new – but as soon as Mark Gatiss takes the helm, we’re slap back into a setup that feels like just another iteration of RTD’s usual New Who formula. Both Smith and Gillan are still very good here (although not quite as good as the previous episodes), and they do get some nicely played and distinctive moments, but they’re not given very good material. The Doctor’s journey is especially odd – most notably, when he angrily decides to antagonize the Daleks, despite the fact that he doesn’t actually have any way of stopping them if they do turn, and that the WW2 British Army aren’t going to be much of a match for creatures who could take out all the life on the planet. It’s an angrier, less eccentric and more angsty version of the Doctor, that could probably be swapped for Tennant’s Tenth Doctor without too much trouble. And substituting Amy for either Rose or Martha really wouldn’t take long at all – it’s a testament to how strong the writing and Gillan’s performance have been in episodes 1 + 2 that there’s a sense of culture shock to there being no real emotional journey for Amy this episode. Even with the potentially interesting revelation that she doesn’t remember the Daleks (which makes me even more convinced that (a) something very sinister is going on with the Cracks in the universe and (b) the Earth that the Eleventh Doctor arrived on in The Eleventh Hour is different from the one the Tenth Doctor left), Amy is stuck in generic companion mode – she doesn’t even react that strongly to meeting her first actual alien race, and I hope other writers are able to give her the same treatment that Moffat can, because I’m praying episodes like Victory of the Daleks are going to be kept to a minimum.
So. Not an outright disaster, but not particularly good either. It shows clearly that Doctor Who is a show that’s very much affected by the quality of its direction (compare the cinematic visual style of The Eleventh Hour with the far more televisual approach here), and that the entertaining blockbuster style of episode is very difficult to get right. I know it’s going to be a rollercoaster ride. It also shows that the more child-centric, wackier and less SFnal storytelling can have its off days as well (just for the record – I have no problems with Spitfires in Space, but I just wish they hadn’t apparently knocked the prototypes together in 30 seconds). However, I’m still looking forward to the upcoming two-parter, and am hoping that the characterization bounces back to its previous heights after this minor speed bump. Three episodes down, ten to go…