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Sympathy for the Daleks: Steven Moffat & The Shifting Status Quo

I suppose you could bring them back, but I’d be slightly puzzled, because they were robots that went wrong. Generally speaking, and maybe Russell wouldn’t agree with a word I’m saying right now, but my favorite Doctor Who story is the one with brand new monsters that you see once and once only. The moment you start crowding the universe with familiar monsters, I think it’s less interesting. Two of the words that you could reasonably apply to the Daleks are ‘reliably defeatable.’ You know those guys are going to lose at the last minute anyway, and you always know what they’re up to, so the best bit about bringing back old monsters is the reveal. After that, it’s all downhill. It’s like Agatha Christie deciding that the butler should always do it, because it was successful in the last book, so that’s not my favorite kind of Doctor Who story. I like brand new monsters.

– Steven Moffat

That answer comes from an interview he gave waaaay back in 2006 – about the time he was writing The Girl in the Fireplace, his second story for the relaunched Doctor Who. I don’t know if he knew then that he was heir apparent to the throne and would succeed Russell T. Davies, but I wonder if being positioned as showrunner has somewhat changed his perspective. In his inaugural year running the show, we’ve already had the return of the Daleks, three episodes in with Victory of the Daleks, next week we’ll witness Moffat returning to one of his own monstrous creations in The Time of Angels and previews have already confirmed that the Cybermen themselves – foes dating from the show’s first leading actor – will be returning as well (with Roman centurians). I’m not complaining at all (a writer as talented as Moffat can do pretty much whatever he wants and I’ll trust him), but I can’t help wondering if perhaps Moffat is playing his own long game with the franchise in his opening season.

Don't worry, this Cyberman is mostly 'armless...

Note: This article contains spoilers for the end of this week’s episode, The Victory of the Daleks, so those who haven’t caught it yet might want to look away or come back to this when they’ve seen the episode. You’ve been warned, so you have.

Writer Mark Gratiss assured his audience that the episode title for his first Dalek script would not me misleading – and it wasn’t. The little genocidal pepperpots won. They got away to rebuild and repopulate and to restart their genocidal campaign against the rest of the universe – “the war against the rest of the universe,” as the Doctor described it. Sure, they didn’t get to wipe out humanity or kill the Doctor or anything so drastic, but they got to survive.

Which is a damnsight more than they got to do during any of the episodes featuring them over the past five years. It happened so often I’m going to take to using the word ‘genocide’ as a verb. Before the new series even started, writer Russell T. Davies asked us to accept that they had been wiped out in an epic skirmish with the Time Lords (who have since also come back, but a lot less frequently because… well, they ain’t half as knaff as the shrill-voiced pepperpots). And then one came back a few episodes into the series (in the appropriately titled Dalek) and proved so deadly and indestructable that it had to kill itself. Then half-a-million of them returned for the first season finale, The Parting of the Ways. Through liberal application of a deus ex machina, they were erased from existence – again. But, like intergalactic cockroaches, they returned for the second season finale, Doomsday, where they were promptly genocided again. Apart from four who escaped to nineteen-thirties New York, where the Doctor promptly eliminated three of them in The Evolution of the Daleks – the fourth one escaping to resurrect the entire race again in time for the fourth season finale Journey’s End before they were promptly defeated and exterminated yet again.

And that’s in the space of four years. The genocidal pepperpots have appeared roughly once a year like clockwork since the new series came back, and – given they are effectively made extinct each time – it doesn’t really establish them as a credible threat. Perhaps they should be screaming “Oversaturate! Oversaturate!” in that shrill voice of theirs. It’s a shame, because before the relaunch there used to be years between their appearances. They only appeared once on screen with the fifth, sixth and seventh incarnations of the lead characters. And they were almost never throughly wiped out – it was seldom pretended that this was the last time they’d ever be seen.

What was most fascinating about last night’s episode – apart from the fantastic line “Would! You! Like! Some! Tea!?” – was something of a return to that status quo. I’m not really convinced about the new colour-coded-for-your-convenience Daleks (or Smarties!Daleks or Disco!Daleks or iDaleks or “we need to sell some new toys of” Daleks, depending on your preferred nickname), though they seem a particularly knaff call back to the ‘good old days’ of Pertwee – but sometimes there’s a reason such things become nostalgia. I am happier they are bigger now – and much more imposing. Still, the fact that show isn’t even pretending that it’s going to “wipe every last stinkin’ Dalek out of the sky” is a welcome change, and a nice concession to the audience – we know they’ll be back and you know they’ll be back, so don’t try and convince us otherwise, because we ain’t buying it.

Would! You! Like! Some! Primary! Colours!?

The episode itself had some problems. It was originally listed as over an hour long and I can’t help but feel that length would have suited it. There was no chance to connect with any of the human characters or to witness the horrors of the Blitz or to hammer home the threat to the world. I really could have done with more of the “servant” Dalek pretense – if only for more lines like the above. It just felt like everything was happening ridiculously fast and there was no human element to it. 

Still, I can’t help but wonder if this episode represents a sign of things to come. I wrote of The Eleventh Hour, this year’s series premiere, that it felt like Moffat was consciously writing a Russell T. Davies story. Despite all the cosmetic changes – new Doctor, new companion, new TARDIS, new credits, new logo, new theme – the first two episodes of Moffat’s opening year felt consciously familiar, a polite nodding of the head towards his predecessor. Does Victory of the Daleks – ironically the first non-Moffat script of the year – represent an idea of a more fundament shift in the style of the show?

Davies had a habit of creating villains so huge and menacing that they simply had to be wiped out before the credits rolled. He killed the Master twice, wiped out the Cybermen three times and… well, we’ve already discussed the Daleks. Moffat, despite his interest in new monsters and villains, will devote at least an episode this year to the Cybermen – I believe it will feature ancient Romans as well. I wonder if it will involve a similar concession?

I remember writing an article late last year predicting Moffat would attempt a reconstruction of the classic Whoniverse. The particulars of the article were incorrect – I figured that Russell T. Davies would resurrect the Time Lords for his finale and reestablish the old status quo for his successor (like putting the toys back in the box when you’re done with them), allowing Moffat to do what he will (as Moffat is a bigger fan of the trappings of the classic show than Davies, who borrows rather liberally). Instead, Davies did resurrect the Time Lords, only to promptly kill them off again, remaining true to his own style of grandiose storytelling.

Still, in classic Who, the Daleks were always out there somewhere – as were the Cybermen. It was never really the last of their kind or some grandiose end-of-the-universe battle, it was always a relatively minor (from their point of view) skirmish that took place in a wider context. I wonder if Moffat will follow a similar model in his own future encounters with these familiar creatures, avoiding the cliché of “the end of the Daleks” and settling for a simple “the Doctor saves the day” ending. I can understand the temptation for heightened dramatic stakes, doing it too often can become boring.

Part of me wonders if this whole season is Moffat slowly and carefully arranging the show into a style he’s comfortable with, rather than the more haphazard ‘make-it-up-as-we-go-along’ stylings of his predecessor. I don’t know. But I look forward to finding out.

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