I have been gushing about the new Doctor Who (if you look at most of my reviews of the RTD/Tennant era calling it ‘watchable’ is a tall order for me) to my mates and it still feels odd. The feel of the program has been reduced to children’s entertainment but Matt Smith and Karen Gillan shine as the Doctor and Amy, selling me on the concept by honoring it with their performances. I was often furious when Tennant mugged or did a send-up of the program, it devalued Doctor Who and made something that is admittedly hard to take seriously at the best of times just silly old rubbish. My wife has referred to Doctor Who as watching your friends play pretend in the backyard and so long as they play their parts with conviction and the story is interesting it works. So far, this is what Moffatt has given us and i’m fine with that. It is still a rather dim program written down to the viewers but that may change as Moffatt finds his footing in this new take.
The Daleks have been called Doctor Who’s most famous monster and even generated so much buzz in the program’s second story in 1963 that it assured Doctor Who’s longevity. There have been 14 appearances by the Daleks in the classic series, two feature films, and the Daleks have crossed paths with the Doctor four times since the program returned in 2005. Terry Nation wrote the Daleks as xenophobic monsters of hate that survived an atomic war on an alien world by mutating into horrible creatures forever confined to rolling armored shells. Since their first appearance, the quality of the Dalek stories have varied from superb to dire. Let me explain what separates a great Dalek story from a bad one. In order for a Dalek adventure to really work there needs to be a good script with plenty of suspense (a good supporting cast helps too), an interesting setting and the Daleks themselves need to pose a real threat. This is what makes stories like Dalek Invasion of Earth and Genesis of the Daleks really work for me. Resurrection of the Daleks comes close but the script is a quagmire of ideas while The Chase is just goofy. Once in a blue moon the program even created some unusually brilliant stories such as Evil of the Daleks. The new Doctor who is still waiting for a great Dalek story that may be on its way, but first Moffatt has to clean the very stinky garbage that RTD has left him with.
It often seemed to me that Russel T Davies had one worthwhile Dalek story in him and then just kept bringing them back for no other reason than the fact that they NEEDED to be in the Doctor Who every year. Even 2005′s Dalek, while well executed, is a post-modern navel-gazing story that is more of a mediation on the creatures than anything else and it reduces them to sympathetic misunderstood monsters. 2006′s Doomsday featured a very interesting set up that went nowhere in the end, 2007′s Daleks Take Manhattan is best forgotten and the bloated 2008 finale Journey’s End is simply an exercise in how much distorted screaming you can handle. The events of each Dalek adventure in the new series has left the Daleks as hardly Daleks at all, but butchered human parts masquerading as the classic monsters. In Victory of the Daleks, that situationis rectified.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The adventure opens with a woeful Winston Churchill impersonator greeting the Doctor and Amy in the confines of the British Armed Forces War Room. The Doctor has arrived a month after Churchill summoned him and what was initially a call of panic is now one pf pride. He has found a secret weapon that could end the war overnight, Project: Ironsides. Of course, the project is actually a Dalek and the Doctor is furious. He tries to call the monster’s bluff, but is met with stout resistance as the creature proudly declares, ‘I am your sol-dier!’ (a reference to Power of the Daleks- a story lost to the furnaces of the BBC).
The Doctor pleads with Churchill to reconsider using these creatures but can’t get through. The Prime Minister is terrified that the Nazis will invade London and is desperate for any kind of advantage he can get. The Doctor’s story that the Daleks are aliens falls on deaf ears as Churchill presents extensive evidence that they were created by the pleasant Scots scientist Bracewell (alongside the silly Churchill, the other major flaw in this episode). The relationship between the Doctor and Churchill is playfully competitive which is a little tired (must the Doctor be intimate with ALL historical figures?), but the actors play it well. In the end, the Doctor loses his cool and attacks a Dalek physically when it offers him tea.
Smith portrays the rage of the Doctor here very well. Whereas the classic program seldom showed that much of an emotional response from the Doctor regarding his enemies (with one key exception being Davison in Resurrection of the Daleks), the modern Doctor is an emotional and neurotic mess. He has, after all, seen these monsters turned into dust and hurled into a void TWICE. At this point, he’s losing his grip. I can understand this as the Doctor cherishes all life, even the Daleks to some extent. To view them as subhuman scum worthy of being exterminated like pests is a big commitment from the Doctor.
The insistence that the Ironsides are actually the Daleks sparks off the second act of the story. Two Daleks cheerfully teleport to their mother ship after revealing that Professor Bracewell is actually a Dalek android. Leaving Amy behind in the bunker, the Doctor races to the mothership where he confronts his nemesises as they play their end game. The Daleks have a wee bit of pure Dalek DNA to revive their race in all its glory. Not being pure Daleks themselves, they could not activate the pod so they tricked the Doctor to arrive and identify them. It’s all a bit ropy but played well. The new Daleks are revealed and the internet exploded with anger from fans. Much taller and broader than their modern cousins, these Daleks are massive! They even destroy the inferior Daleks (who gladly give their lives for the cause)!
Lacking the firepower to destroy humanity, the Daleks activate all electric lights in Britain, making them an easy target for Nazi bombers. It’s an odd plot idea that will likely sail past many younger viewers as history becomes hazier and represented by video games and goofy TV programs like this. The remainder of the episode is even ropier as Professor Bracewell struggles with his identity and while he accepts that he is a crazy robot creation, he insists on being a loyal British crazy robot. Hastily installing gravity bubbles in a squadron of Spitfires, the RAF launch an impressive space battle. It makes no sense but visually it’s great.
However the Daleks have a fall back plan involving a bomb placed inside of Bracewell. Somehow the defusing of the bomb involves Bracewell embracing his humanity and denying that he is a robot. Given that the Daleks use the voice of their nemesis as a part of their security devices, maybe this makes perfect sense.
2005′s excellent The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances took place in a war-torn Britain and showed viewers a grim vision of a country under siege. While there is a brief moment where Amy shudders at the thought of London under attack from the Nazis, the WWII setting is mainly forgotten which is a shame. It’s a popular setting for science fiction and I’m sure that Mark Gattis had lots of great ideas that never got used. For once, the episode feels like it could have been stretched out to two parts but instead is squeezed into one.
With an admittedly convoluted script and a wasted set piece of WWII, Victory of the Daleks comes across as part one of a multi-part story that we have yet to see the rest of. It’s a clever idea and gets the program out of the rut it has been stuck in regarding the Daleks as their last four appearances have amounted to ranting and screaming then getting vanquished at the last minute by a magic button hastily pressed by the Doctor.
I’m not saying that Victory of the Daleks is the best episode ever, but it is the most enjoyable Dalek story since 2005′s Dalek. The menace and threat that these monsters pose has finally been returned. Granted, they look very odd and are more kiddie-oriented than I’ve seen them since the 1963 Peter Cushing films.
But for the first time in a long while I am actually looking forward to the next Dalek episode if only to see what they do with the creatures next.