“Daleks. I sometimes think those mutated misfits will terrorize the universe for the rest of time.”
Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor, following yet another skirmish with the cockroaches from Skaro, uttered the above quote near the end of his reign as the Time Lord. If he’d known then that he’d still be dealing with them in his Eleventh incarnation, he may well have decided to forego his impending regeneration, and just gone ahead and called it a millennium. Many “Doctor Who” fans would likely have sympathized with him had he done so. Having been writing these recaps for five years now, I am exhausted by Daleks as well. What else is there for me to say about them that I haven’t already said, or hasn’t been said by countless others time and again? And yet here I am, once again backed into a corner by some angry pepperpots demanding that I find something fresh to say on the subject. Of course, if the series can’t be bothered to do so, I don’t really see why I should, either.
Surprisingly, “Victory of the Daleks,” written by Mark Gatiss, is drenched in promise at its start. Surprising not only because all ground concerning the Daleks seems so thoroughly trod at this point, but also because the last thing Gatiss wrote for the series, “The Idiot’s Lantern,” was a forgettable misfire. The idea of subservient, benevolent Daleks isn’t a new one. It was first explored in Patrick Troughton’s first story “The Power of the Daleks,” but since that serial was junked by the BBC ages ago, only the most hardcore of fans are going to care about this. For all intents and purposes the idea is new, or at least new to us. And the show has a field day with the notion for about ten minutes. Professor Bracewell’s (Bill Paterson) Ironsides are going to win the war against the Nazis, and they’ll serve you tea as well. Just the notion that the Daleks will become this story’s Inglourious Basterds is a fun one, since the Nazis are what the Daleks were based on in the first place. With “Victory of the Daleks,” on some obscure meta level, the entire concept of the Daleks has seemingly come full circle.
But the jig doesn’t last long, and after the Doctor (Matt Smith) beats the crap out of one while shouting, “I am the Doctor and you are my mortal enemy the Daleks!,” they shift gears and revert to their dastardly, Daleky ways. Something about a testimony from the Doctor, which seems like an interesting idea, but it’s so quickly glossed over that we barely have any time to register it. The episode begins unraveling and loses its way, which is too bad because I was pretty dazzled by it for the first 15 minutes, even with a grotesque caricature of Winston Churchill idling about on the periphery of these events. I’m not sure what is going on with this season so far – this season that held so much promise at its start.
So what goes wrong? For starters, once again the story splits up the Doctor and Amy (Karen Gillan), which is nothing less than frustrating. We’re being denied one of the basic tenets of the new series, which is the relationship between the Doctor and his companion. Even in previous seasons, when the stories weren’t so hot at the start, at the very least we were given a friendship to hang onto and guide and keep us interested. But these two people right now don’t seem particularly interested in one another. I guess it’s developing off-screen, but fat lot of good that does the viewer.
“One ship survived. It fell back in time.” Stop me if you’ve heard those words before. Those two phrases, either together or apart, need to be banned from any and all future “Doctor Who” stories. It’s gotten very tired. (Hell, I’m pretty sure it was tired back in the ‘80s.) Surely it needn’t be pointed out exactly how lazy this development is? And speaking of lazy, have we gotten to the point on this show where historical figures are no longer to be taken even remotely seriously? It was as if Ian McNeice’s Churchill stumbled in from some sketch comedy series. Then again, this is the same episode that features the Doctor threatening the Daleks with a Jammie Dodger for what seems to be an interminably lengthy time. Might have been cute as a quick gag, but here it’s used for so long it enters the realm of preposterous.
But where the episode really lost me was with the dogfight in the stars. Oh sure it looked pretty cool, but there was no logic to any of it whatsoever. Supposedly Bracewell had come up with the idea of the gravity bubbles just earlier that day, and then it’s somehow created and implemented in a matter of minutes! Further, it’s entirely too hard to swallow that any pilots from the time period would have the skills required to suddenly, at a second’s notice, be able to fly up into space and destroy the dish or the ship or whatever. A trip to the moon was fiction to these people, let alone what transpires here. I can buy the technology of the gravity bubbles within the world of “Doctor Who” (silly as they may be), but I cannot buy into everything that surrounds the way it was used here. If you’re going to play with history in “Who,” great, but please don’t “play” with it.
I propose, at this stage, to not solely blame Gatiss’ script, but to point a finger at the director, Andrew Gunn, who also helmed “The Beast Below.” Both episodes lack any kind of elegance that so much of the Davies era, as well as “The Eleventh Hour,” possessed. Back in the “old” days of RTD, even if an episode was clumsily written, it would typically skate by on some solid direction. Neither of the last two episodes has come close to rising above, or at least making the most of the scripts they’re based on. They’ve both felt rushed and poorly put together. I don’t believe Gunn is returning for any more episodes this season, so let’s hope this is the last of this. I don’t want to pick on the guy, as he has helmed some good stuff in the past, such as the final two episodes of “Life on Mars,” but perhaps he’s just not a good fit for this series. That happens sometimes. (Keith Boak, who directed three episodes early in the first season [including “Rose”], may be another example of such a director.) I’m loath to criticize Moffat at this stage, but it’s rather puzzling that two such subpar stories have followed his wonderful opener. The season must gain some serious momentum from here on out.
Mention must also be made of the new Daleks themselves. I don’t read a whole lot of criticism of new episodes during the two week gap between them airing in the U.K. and on BBC America, as I don’t want anything to sway my views on the material (and believe me, I can be easily swayed) before I write these recaps. But there was simply no way I could get away with not noticing how incredibly unpopular these new Daleks already are for a vocal, grumpy segment of fandom, which is fine, although I don’t share the sentiment…at least not yet. They seem influenced in their look, size and certainly their rainbow color scheme, by the Daleks that featured in the Peter Cushing Dalek movies of the ‘60s. This is unsurprising since Moffat seems to have a massive hard-on for the design of those flicks; the new TARDIS, both inside and out, is based heavily on the TARDIS from those films as well.
They could build a Dalek out of mashed potatoes and trot it across the screen and I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised because nothing really surprises me anymore about these villains. Understand, I do not hate or even dislike the Daleks, and I eagerly await the day this series finds something new and bold to do with them. I’d like to imagine these new Daleks have some new tricks that will be unveiled at a later date. It may or may not be this season, but don’t be surprised if they show up in the finale (and if it does happen, you of course won’t be). If there are no new tricks upon their return, and it’s all just business as usual, I’ll happily acknowledge that the vocal, grumpy set was correct. (Looking back over this review, I’m not entirely sure that I’m not some kind of splinter faction of them.)
Oddly, despite my little bitchfest here, I actually thought this episode was slightly better than the previous one, if only for the first fifteen minutes of it. I enjoyed the character of Bracewell – who in an RTD script would’ve probably been about three times more sympathetic – as much as possible. They tried, they really tried here to do him some justice, and yet Bill Paterson, who’s such a fine actor, could have done so much more with this had the character been given a little more care. I’d like to see him pop up again, maybe when the Daleks return. And then there’s the big question, which seems to be the only thing that really matters in this story, and that’s why Amy has no idea who the Daleks are, given that they invaded her planet not too long ago. I think we can safely assume this doesn’t fall under the obliviousness that Donna was prone to.
Once again, Matt Smith came out looking pretty good, and I’m beginning to see what Moffat was talking about when he told the press how he seems like “an old man in a young man’s body” (or words to that effect). He’s really beginning to remind me of Troughton, which is very cool. In this episode, the line that did it for me was “No, no, no! I won’t let you get away this time! I won’t!” I could totally hear Troughton saying that, inflection and all. I’ll even go so far as to say that despite how little has transpired in the season so far, Smith is already a better Doctor than either Eccleston or Tennant. Bold, fightin’ words I know, but I’m standing by it (for now anyway). If only he could sink his chops into a good script…
NEXT TIME: The return of the Weeping Angels as well as Alex Kingston’s River Song in “The Time of Angels,” which is directed by Adam Smith, who did such a splendid job helming the season opener.
Classic “Who” DVD Recommendation of the Week: I went ape over and highly recommend the recent box set entitled “Dalek War,” which contains two linked Jon Pertwee stories, “Frontier in Space” and “Planet of the Daleks.”
(Thanks as always to Sonic Biro for the screencaps.)