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Doctor Who: Victory of the Daleks (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Victory of the Daleks originally aired in 2010.

Would! you! care! for! some! TEA???!!!

– the Daleks

Ah, the Daleks. They tend to rise and fall. They get built up and then they fall back down. Like the show itself, they come and go in cycles. The Dalek Invasion of Earth has the psychotic pepperpots invade Earth, while The Chase reduces them to little more than comic foils. Destiny of the Daleks makes jokes about them being unable to climb stairs, while Remembrance of the Daleks then proves that they can. In 2005, both Dalek and The Parting of the Ways invested considerable effort in making them scary again. The show eroded that away over time, turning them into bitchy foils for the Cybermen in Doomsday for the Doctor to hover up and competing to create the most phallic monster ever in Evolution of the Daleks.

Steven Moffat took over the show in 2010, and that means that he also took over the Daleks. Tending to the Doctor also means tending to his worst enemies. And, to be fair, that’s a bit what Victory of the Daleks feels like. It feels like an obligation, a bit of business to get out of the way quickly (the first episode not penned by Moffat) so that the fun stuff can commence.

Exterminate the rainbow...

Exterminate the rainbow…

It’s telling that – after working so hard to revitalise the Daleks here – Steven Moffat wouldn’t do a proper Dalek-centric episode until Asylum of the Daleks more than two years later. It was worth the wait, but what a wait it was. The Daleks did, of course, have an odd cameo here and there. Strangely enough, they appeared in the alliance in The Pandorica Opens. A lone Dalek played a role in The Big Bang, but only so it could beg for mercy from River Song.

This wait doesn’t seem too long in the grand scheme of things. After all, the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors only faced the Daleks once each. In the classic series, Dalek appearances tended to be stretched out and scattered. Even Tom Baker only had two Dalek stories during his seven-year tenure. Even the script editor for one of the best-loved Dalek stories of all time, Genesis of the Daleks, was less than fond of the monsters.

Our worlds at war...

Our worlds at war…

According to Robert Holmes:

I’d looked at the viewing graphs for the Daleks, and saw that every time they were brought back they were popular in week one, as a lot of people had perhaps never seen them before, and then the graph would go straight down, because they were boring.

It’s a very interesting point to make, and one that really supports the idea that you shouldn’t really use the Daleks unless you have a very good reason to do so.

A hand in their plan...

A hand in their plan…

It seems that Steven Moffat would agree. Explaining his decision to “rest” the Daleks following this story, he points out that the Daleks have one very simple flaw as a monster:

There’s a problem with the Daleks. They are the most famous of the Doctor’s adversaries and the most frequent, which means they are the most reliably defeatable enemies in the universe.

They have been defeated by the Doctor about 400 times. Surely they should just see the TARDIS approaching, say, ‘Oh. It’s him again’, and trudge away.

One thing that the Moffat era has – as a general rule – been very good at is generally creating its own monsters and concepts. The Silurians have been reintroduced by (and heavily used since) Cold Blood, and the Cybermen have popped up in stories like Closing Time, but Moffat hasn’t generally built his seasons around returning concepts.

The Time Warriors...

The Time Warriors…

Russell T. Davies’ first year as producer introduced the Daleks, to climax in a second confrontation. His second year introduced the Cybermen, to climax in an invasion of Earth. His third season was built around reintroducing the Master. His fourth season finalé gave us Davros, who is pointedly absent from Victory of the Daleks. Indeed, the Daleks popped up once a year like clockwork during Davies’ tenure. He even found a way to include them (via flashback) in the specials, appearing in Waters of Mars.

The danger of this approach is obvious. The Daleks become expected. They are an annual occurrence, like clockwork. The Doctor defeats them, a small element survives, they rebuild, he defeats them again. The scare is gone. Indeed, at some points it feels like the show is just using them for the sake of using them. As great as the dialogue is in Doomsday, the only reason it features the Daleks is because it would be fun to do an episode with the Daleks and the Cybermen. The result is episodes like Daleks in Manhattan, that wind up using the creatures, but really seem to have no idea of why they are using the Daleks or what to do with them.

"Look at this way, Rose didn't get to meet a Dalek until half-way through her first season."

“Look at this way, Rose didn’t get to meet a Dalek until half-way through her first season.”

At least Victory of the Daleks knows why it is a Dalek episode. It has a very clear objective. It wants to re-establish the Daleks as a credible threat. This is only the third episode of Moffat’s first season as producer. This is just laying groundwork. Victory of the Daleks doesn’t quite succeed at doing what it sets out to do, but at least it has a clear sense of purpose, beyond a sense of “it would be nice to do a Dalek episode.”

To be fair, the show starts by acknowledging that there are problems with the way that the series handled the Daleks. “This is your final end,” the Doctor boasts, in what should be a redundant bit of dialogue. After all, any ending should – by definition – be final. However, the Doctor has wiped out the Daleks so many times in the past five years that he feels the need to qualify this extinction. The very act of saying a line like that points out how ridiculous the situation is. And Victory of the Daleks wisely avoids ending with yet another botched Dalek genocide.

Above and beyond...

Above and beyond…

Writer Mark Gatiss is – like so many of the new series writers – a massive fan of Doctor Who. And, in a broad and accessible manner, Victory of the Daleks builds quite a bit on Patrick Troughton’s first adventure as the Doctor. That seems oddly appropriate, given Matt Smith’s fondness for Troughton, with Tomb of the Cybermen apparently his favourite story. Power of the Daleks saw the Doctor recovering from his first regeneration to find the Daleks pretending to be servant robots on a human colony. The parallels with Victory of the Daleks should be obvious. (“We! are! your! servants!”)

In Power of the Daleks, show had just lost its lead actor, at a time before people had come to expect that from Doctor Who. People didn’t see William Hartnell as “the First Doctor”, he was the Doctor. His departure was a huge deal. So pitting his replacement against the Daleks immediately was a way to affirm to the audience that this was still the same show. More than that, though, it allowed the Daleks – the show’s most iconic of monsters – to acknowledge this radically new and different character as the Doctor. If the Daleks could accept Patrick Troughton, maybe the audience could.

The white idea...

The white idea…

Victory of the Daleks turns the concept on its head. Instead of the Daleks validating the new Doctor, the Doctor finds himself validating the Daleks. In his rant (or “testimony”) at the monsters before they launch the “progenitor”, he clearly articulates how firmly linked he is to them, and they to him. “You are my enemy! And I am yours. You are everything I despise. The worst thing in all creation. I’ve defeated you time and time again. I’ve defeated you. I sent you back into the Void. I saved the whole of reality from you. I am the Doctor. And you are the Daleks.”

It turns out that the Daleks needed him to validate them, a reversal of the situation in Power of the Daleks. In Power of the Daleks, the Daleks acknowledges the new Doctor after a radical change. In Victory of the Daleks, the Doctor acknowledges the old Daleks before “a new Dalek paradigm.” The thing about Doctor Who is that the show frequently changes. It’s possible to look at two episodes from two different eras and to have difficult telling that they are the same show. The actors change, the set design shifts, the emphasis alters. In a way, it reinvents itself in a manner not too dissimilar to that of its leading man.

She's being eye stalked...

She’s being eye stalked…

The Daleks must reflect that. They change as well. Compare the designs which first appeared in The Daleks to those in Remembrance of the Daleks, and compare those to the ones from Dalek. The Daleks change and reconceptualise themselves as well. It’s just that the process is seldom discussed on the screen. Here, Moffat is literalising the process – including the process of updating the Daleks in the story itself. He does the same thing with the concept of a “reset button” over the course of this season, starting here. But we’ll talk about that later.

The Daleks reflect the show. And Moffat starts off with the same Dalek models that Russell T. Davies introduced in Dalek. They are gold and finely-detailed. They look like combat robots. The design is functional, there’s a minimum amount of complication – nothing too inefficient about the design. In a way, they look grounded – they’re relatively easy to take seriously. They are imposing and effective, but they are probably the least “camp” the Daleks have ever appeared. The most exotic design came in The Stolen Earth, where the show got away with a red Dalek.

Daleks have no concept of "fabulous"...

Daleks have no concept of “fabulous”…

This reflects Russell T. Davies’ vision of the show. Under Davies, Doctor Who was weird and wonderful and magical – but it was always firmly anchored in the modern day and the real world. His companions always had families and concerns that the audience might connect with. There was a sense of fun to it all, an incredible sense of wonder, but there was also a sense that Doctor Who wanted to prove that it could be taken relatively seriously. Anchored is the word. Maybe tethered.

That’s why Davies typically ended his seasons with an invasion or occupation of the modern world. Only The Parting of the Ways unfolds in the future and – even then – it has a subplot set in the present day. I’ve argued before that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this approach to the show, and I suspect that grounding it in the real world was a major part of how it ended up so successful, but it’s one of the bigger differences between Davies and Moffat as showrunners.

Smile! You're on Dalek-cam!

Smile! You’re on Dalek-cam!

Davies is fixated on the notion of intergalactic drama on the human scale, firmly rooted in the mundane. The Daleks and the Cybermen invade Canary Warf. The Master is elected Prime Minister. The Daleks occupy the Earth, roaming through council estates. In contrast, Moffat is more about human drama on an intergalactic scale. Amy and Rory lose their baby… to a sinister time-travelling conspiracy. The Doctor is killed… as the culmination of a plot spanning the known universe. The Doctor becomes Amy’s son-in-law by marrying her daughter… who is a weapon constructed to kill him.

And so the Daleks are upgraded to match Moffat’s vision of the show. They shed the sort of grounded design adopted when the show needed to convince the audience to take them seriously. Instead, they embrace the spectacular. They’re louder and bigger and more fantastic than ever. Had these multi-coloured Daleks first appeared opposite Christopher Eccleston, people might have laughed. However, here they look truly impressive – a sort of pop spectacle.

Oh, you jammy dodger!

Oh, you jammy dodger!

Much has been made of the redesign, with the default position suggesting that Moffat made the design update in order to generate a shedload of merchandising revenue. That hardly seems fair, even if I’m sure that the BBC weren’t too disappointed that they’d be able to sell a full range of multi-coloured Daleks. I don’t think that has anything to do with the reason that Moffat made the decision, although the cynics in the audience might disagree.

These Daleks look familiar. You probably recognise them. However, these brightly-coloured Daleks never appeared in the classic television series. Well, not in colour, at any rate. These brightly-coloured Daleks are clearly inspired by the two Dalek feature films starring Peter Cushing produced in the 1960s. Dr. Who and the Daleks and Daleks – Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. were the first slices of Doctor Who in glorious technicolour. Though not officially linked with the show, they did use the same writers and the film did allow the show to use some Dalek props in black & white – in The Chase, for example.

Hm. This looks familiar...

Hm. This looks familiar…

It’s a very clear decision on the part of Moffat to sort of push the show back towards the realm of the iconic pop spectacle – one less based around the idea of a Dalek design to be taken seriously, and more about creating one that really pops off the screen. After all, if you write the Daleks well, it doesn’t matter what colour it is. The gossiping sewer-dwelling Daleks in Evolution of the Daleks might have been the same design as the one in Dalek, but that didn’t stop them from coming across as decidedly camp and ridiculous.If the Daleks are written threateningly, it won’t matter if they are bright yellow.

As an aside, it’s also worth noting that the inside of the Dalek ship is quite different from the design seen during the Davies era of the show. While those Dalek saucers were designed in a decidedly retro fashion, there’s something quite “mod” about the mostly white interior of the Dalek ship. It looks more like a loft or a studio space than the most important room on a space ship. It’s minimalist, but I think it works for what Moffat is clear trying to do. He’s trying to hark back to the sixties aesthetic that originally fostered Dalekmania.

Let's exterminate Hitler...

Let’s exterminate Hitler…

In fact, Victory of the Daleks is built around the concept that just because something is ridiculous doesn’t mean it can’t be impressive. Not everything has to be so stoic and serious to be effective. So Victory of the Daleks gives us the rather wonderful image of spitfires in space. It’s nonsense, but it’s delightful nonsense and it is very clearly cut from the same sort of “pop” clothe as the multi-coloured Daleks. It’s something that’s actually more impressive because it is so absurd.

So I like the design of the new Daleks. What about the episode itself? That’s a bit of a mixed bag. In short, it really sort of fails at the whole “victory” thing. As Moffat pointed out above, one of the reasons the Daleks aren’t scary is because they can’t win. So Victory of the Daleks is a great idea, give the Daleks a win, make them scary again. Except it doesn’t quite work like that. This doesn’t feel like a Dalek victory. It feels more like less of a Dalek loss than we’re used to.

Thos Dalek casings are so last season...

Thos Dalek casings are so last season…

“Oh, that’s it,” the Doctor sarcastically applauds at one point. “That’s your great victory? You leave?” When you put it in terms like that, it really doesn’t sound to impressive, does it? Even at the end, even when the Doctor’s flustered, it’s hard to convince us this is a big departure from the norm. “No,” the Doctor moans. “No! They can’t. They can’t have got away from me again.” So, really, this is business as usual, then? They did get away “again.” It might be on a larger scale, but this is really no different from the end of Doomsday or Evolution of the Daleks.

Moffat’s own Asylum of the Daleks executes the same concept far better. It allows the Daleks a more significant victory than merely “not dying”, while cleverly allowing the Doctor to win his own concurrent victory so that the episode isn’t excessively grim. It’s something that Victory of the Daleks really fails to do, making it seem like it’s trying a bit too hard to confirm that the Daleks are a threat while still falling back on the same old familiar plot points.

They engineered this situation pretty well...

They engineered this situation pretty well…

Victory of the Daleks especially suffers when it falls back on an old chestnut of Dalek-relating plotting. The nonsensical sadistic choice. “Then choose, Doctor,” the Dalek Supreme offers. “Destroy the Daleks or save the Earth.” Why is it a choice? The Daleks set off the bomb any way and he stops it. In fact, he seems to know that he can’t trust them not to activate the bomb if lets them go. Why call Danny Boy back to Earth? Why not simply let him finish his attack and fly the TARDIS back to disarm the bomb like the Doctor did anyway?

There’s also the cheesiness of Professor Bracewell overwhelming the bomb in his chest through the power of human emotions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed in principle. It’s a corny twist, but a fitting ending. It’s a nice way of solving the problem emphasising the inhumanity of the Daleks and handily avoiding technobabble. The problem, however, is that it’s not a loss for the Doctor. In fact, it’s explicitly a loss for the Daleks.

Plans of attack...

Plans of attack…

Even if Bracewell had just died, rather than exploding, there’d be a sense that the Daleks had won some form of compromised victory. Instead, it just seems like a standard Dalek episode ending, except there’s a ship of them instead of the mandatory sole survivor. It doesn’t feel a substantial enough shift from the format of a standard Dalek episode to really knock the show off-balance, and I think Victory of the Daleks really suffers for that.

The Second World War setting also feels a bit… incidental to everything. Of course, after The Beast Below, it probably makes sense to do a nice sincerely patriotic adventure. Gatiss’ script for Victory of the Daleks seems surprisingly earnest in its patriotism, celebrating the romantic notion of the Island Fortress holding firm against the barbarians at the gate. “We stand at a crossroads, Doctor,” Churchill states, “quite alone, with our backs to the wall. Invasion is expected daily. So I will grasp with both hands anything that will give us an advantage over the Nazi menace.”

You can't exterminate in here, this is the war room!

You can’t exterminate in here, this is the war room!

Dropping the Daleks into a Second World War story is a great idea, given that Terry Nation originally conceived of them as Nazis. However, having the Daleks fighting on the British side in the conflict would seem to be a vehicle for some sense of introspection. Perhaps it’s an acknowledgement of the fact that Churchill had to ally with Stalinist Russia against Nazi Germany? “If Hitler invaded hell, I would give a favourable reference to the Devil,” Churchill remarks of the Daleks, paraphrasing one of his remarks after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.

However, Victory of the Daleks avoids any hint of ambiguity. Churchill doesn’t know that these are genocidal aliens, so his alliance with them can’t seem cynical. He only thinks that they are obedient robots, and so there’s no real ethical dimension to their application in warfare. There are some very faint hints that Gatiss is acknowledging some ambiguity to Churchill’s character. “I weep for my empire,” he states, acknowledging that the character holds a very different world view from most modern viewers.

It's like a Dalek showroom...

It’s like a Dalek showroom…

However, that side of Churchill is never really explored. It feels a little strange, given that one of the best parts of Gatiss’ The Idiots’ Lantern was the way that it subverted the nationalist pride surrounding the coronation. It would be a brave and questioning move to suggest that Churchill might even abide a temporary alliance with the mass-murdering Daleks to ensure the survival of Great Britain. Or even to allow Churchill to consider it seriously, were it offered to him. If aliens dropped out of the sky and offered to win the war, how tempting would that be, even if you knew what they really were?

Still, I understand that it’s probably impossible for a family television show to offer an especially cynical portrayal of a historical figure who routinely tops those “greatest Britons” polls. The closest we get is the fact that Churchill wants access to the TARDIS, and the Doctor won’t let him. And, in this case, the show seems remarkably unwilling to pick sides. “Think of what I could achieve with your remarkable machine, Doctor,” Churchill pleads. “The lives that could be saved.” The Doctor refuses, but it’s clear we’re supposed to have some sympathy for Churchill, even if the things that Winston Churchill would do with a time machine are occasionally troubling to think about.

The Daleks got a new coat of paint...

The Daleks got a new coat of paint…

It seems like Gatiss avoids giving any real substance to the meaty idea of “Daleks in the Second World War.” It actually pains me to say this, but Daleks in Manhattan made much better use of its period setting. There, at least, the exploration of man’s exploitation of his fellow man felt like a decidedly Dalek plot and something that used the aliens remarkably well, feeding into the idea of social progress without a social conscience.

That’s not to suggest that Ian McNiece doesn’t do a wonderful job with the material. He plays Churchill as this sort of iconic embodiment of Britishness, which is really all the script gives him to work with. I do like that Churchill is familiar enough with the Doctor to know about regeneration. Bill Paterson also turns in a great performance as Bracewell, helping sell that admittedly cheesy happy ending for the character.

No, the Doctor would not care for some tea.

No, the Doctor would not care for some tea.

Victory of the Daleks also does something a little bit interesting that only pays off fully down the line. I talked above about how Steven Moffat dramaticised the evolution of the design of the Daleks, coming up with a reason within the show for why their appearance was changing. He does the same for the “reset button.” Taking over from Russell T. Davies, there’s a clear shift in the aesthetic and outlook of the show. And it appears that Moffat is drawing a firm line in the sand to separate his tenure from that of his predecessor, assuring a clean break from what came before.

This is what is know as a “reset button” – it allows the writer to effectively reset the show back to where it started from, and pretend that certain things did not happen. Here, Moffat uses the opportunity to make it so that the Dalek invasions of Earth in stories like Doomsday and Journey’s End never happened. Most writers would simply make the decision and carry on from there – simply pretend that it never happened in the show.

All the colours of the rainbow...

Style Supreme…

Davies himself had a tendency to do things like this, in order to maintain the illusion that Doctor Who was set in a world still reasonably like our own. Somehow the Dalek and Cybermen invasion in Doomsday did nothing to alter the landscape of London, and Donna Noble was able to miss it by the mere fact she was on holiday at the time. Of course, there comes a point where you can’t push it any further. A story like Doomsday should so fundamentally change the fictional world of Doctor Who to the point where it no longer resembles our own world that closely.

In fairness, Victory of the Daleks seems to concede that fact. One of the roles (but by no means the only role) of a companion is to allow the Doctor to provide exposition. Davies and Moffat emphasised this function by consistently picking companion characters from the modern day, where the idea is that their experiences should be reasonably close to those of the viewer. Amy can’t serve as a foil for exposition if she knows about things like Daleks.

The appeal of Doctor Who, in an image.

The appeal of Doctor Who, in an image.

It undermines the role of the companion as an audience surrogate if you have to assume that everybody knows what a Dalek is from that time the stole the Earth and plugged it into a gigantic machine-y thing. There is a point where the average experiences of a person taken from modern-day London in Doctor Who no longer reflect the frame of reference from a person in modern-day London in the real world. At that point, perhaps things have gone too far, and Victory of the Daleks acknowledges that.

One thing I like about Moffat’s Doctor Who is that he has (generally) steered a bit clear of invasions of contemporary London, which became a bit of a crutch during the Davies era. Davies tried to have his cake and eat it by featuring these repeated invasions which apparently had no lasting impression on the world. Moffat makes a conscious effort to give himself a clean slate. However, rather than simply just doing it, he clever writes it into the plot.

Not-quite-mellow yellow...

Not-quite-mellow yellow…

The cracks in the universe provide a handy vehicle for effectively rebooting the series, and do so in a way that actually makes them the focus of the plot. It’s a wonderful way on incorporating behind-the-scenes decisions as plot points. In a way, it sort of plays to the idea that Moffat’s Doctor Who is a story about stories. In the case of the redesign of the Daleks and the crack in the universe, it becomes a story about how stories are made.

Victory of the Daleks is not a classic Dalek adventure, and feels more like a bit of necessary house-keeping. It looks fantastic, featuring an abundance of iconic and memorable images – from the “Skittle Daleks” to the spitfires in space. Unfortunately, though, it can’t quite gel them into a compelling or exciting plot.

You! do! not! require! tea??!!

– the Daleks seem surprised

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