Sunday, 18 April 2010
Reaction: VICTORY OF THE DALEKS
Written by Mark Gatiss, directed by Andrew Gunn, 2010
A slightly different version of this article can be read here, on Kasterborous.
Let’s not beat around the bush. Yes, Victory of the Daleks features an entirely successful redesign of the Daleks. Unfortunately, it’s the British Army versions, which are as striking as the iconoclastic gold-and-white of Revelation and Remembrance. Who ever thought green Daleks would work?! The Union Flag is a neat little touch too.
As for the new new Daleks, I must admit my heart fell at not only the idea of redesigned Daleks, but also the initial pictures, when I stumbled across them on the Radio Times’ site. (Who had clearly decided to continue their sterling tradition of spoilerising up-coming stories.)
These gay pride Daleks will undoubtedly have some fans squeeing in their Tom Baker Y-fronts - but equally, Marmite-like, they’re not going to appeal to everyone. The colours particularly may well prove contentious. However, it goes without saying an overhaul of such a classic design is a brave move (certainly compared to previous cosmetic changes), and shows Steven Moffat’s willingness to put his own stamp on every aspect of the series.
Where the previous twenty-first century incarnation was injected with a bulk and realism, making them credible bits of hardware, there’s certainly something very sixties about these versions, perhaps a nod to their TV Comic antecedents. At least the production team isn’t trying to make them look cool, which is death to Doctor Who.
Moffat has talked about the magic of the show being its ability to appeal to our inner eight-year-old, and these Daleks seem unabashedly targeted at that mentality. It’s appropriate, then, that their clearest antecedent within the program is not one of the TV series’ designs proper, but rather the Aaru movie version hijacked for a role as the Supreme in Planet of the Daleks…
The wisdom of having the balls – or hubris? – to tamper with something as iconic as the Daleks is quite staggering, but we’ll wait and see whether it comes off. There’s a sort of bulbous purity of form which, interestingly – and not unpleasingly - sweeps away all the detail added to the bare bones of the design in 2005.
Actually, despite my initial distaste, it took me about, ooh, half an hour to kind of fall in love with this new design (...if not the colours). I’m a bit of a sucker for variants on the familiar; I like them exactly because they genuinely have a totally new look, and there’s something to be said for how scandalous that should seem. (The organic eyes are a nice touch, too.)
Used - as under Russell T Davies - to illustrate the show’s potential and variety, Victory of the Daleks’ unassuming slot makes for a surprisingly early excursion for the Daleks in this run. As the creation of the dodgem-Daleks is its entire raison d’être, amounting to an expository set-up for further encounters, it’s perhaps unsurprising that this feels like a slightly hollow Victory – and perhaps it’s for the best that this was got out of the way early. It may be too slight to be an entirely satisfying story in its own right – and manages to feel rather rushed, despite not a great deal actually happening - but let’s reserve judgement for when these Daleks really come into their own.
The traditionalism of Mark Gatiss’ script also feels a little inadequate after Moffat got stuck into the format in the last two stories; by comparison this is very insubstantial – do robots and averted countdowns cut it any more? Having said that, it is the riffs on Power of the Daleks, recasting the creatures as something insidious, with only the Doctor knowing the truth, which are arguably the most effective elements of this story. It’s a shame this, and their unlikely dialogue (“WOULD YOU CARE FOR SOME TEEEA?”) couldn’t have been taken further.
Trying to cram an epic resurrection and Star Wars dogfights into the runtime is perhaps less effective. Although, spitfires in space – along with holding the Daleks at bay with a jammy dodger (“Don’t mess with me, sweetheart”) are memorably daft Doctor Who concepts… Although I can’t shake a cynical feeling that they are a bit too manufactured.
Where The Eleventh Hour felt like every element had been lovingly oiled and put together meticulously, Victory’s combination of trad and new series styles is more uneasy. Also, notably, as the first non-Moffat-penned Eleventh Doctor adventure, it lacks the much-vaunted ‘fairytale’ feel of the two series openers. However, it isn’t unsuccessful as a rollicking wartime adventure.
Where those previous two stories were hung around Amy getting to grips with the Doctor, this could almost be slotted anywhere in the run. Consequentially – and slightly disappointingly – Ms Pond feels far less uniquely ‘Wendy Darling’ here. And, once again, despite her instrumental part in saving the day, Amy feels marginalised; we need a story which has space to breathe (perhaps a return to Leadworth?), where she – and we – can take stock of her still-new situation.
The Blitz is a surprisingly specific period to return to relatively soon after The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, especially given how effectively it was used there. Nevertheless, it completes the set of contemporary, future, and past settings, and it is welcome to effectively get to see behind the scenes of the earlier story’s milieu. Some less tokenistic characters besides Churchill and Bracewell would have been welcome, but that just goes to show that the series can still struggle with the 45 minute format.
Obviously, the Doctor’s ticket into the war rooms is the concept of his having had previous adventures with Churchill – to the extent that the PM is blasé about the Doctor’s change of face. This is not only a brilliant twist on the Doctor’s inveterate namedropping (the Doctor and Baroness Thatcher versus the Vervoids in series six, anyone…?), but, only three stories in, also continues a trait for characters already knowing the Doctor. (Liz Ten and the inhabitants of Leadworth knew him by reputation, while perhaps the ultimate example of this, River Song, returns next week.)
As Gatiss rightly pointed out on Confidential, Churchill is a controversial, ambiguous figure, but, while I'm slightly uncomfortable with his being turned into a jolly caricature, it’s appropriate that these issues aren’t raised here, and that we are instead presented with a canny distillation of ‘the Churchill of legend’. Miraculous too that the series was allowed to show him smoking. (How many years has it been since someone last lit up in Doctor Who?! Resurrection? Answers on a postcard.)
(Picky point, but, I found it quite distracting that Ian McNeice is the wrong sort of fat for Churchill. Which, I suppose, is the disadvantage of celebrity historicals for whom the characters’ real appearances are a matter of record, but I’ll let it go.)
Anyway, I don’t think it’d be fair to damn this as series fnarg’s first stinker; it’s a step down – or maybe back – but as we’re returning to Moffatland next week, I’m not going to despair just yet. Also, I feel inclined to let this story off because I like Mark Gatiss’ three-piece suits.
One thing I did find interesting, in addition to the newfound prevalence of the Doctor’s reputation preceding him, is that the Moffat administration have reacted to the ubiquity of large-scale alien activity over the last few years by seemingly resetting this knowledge to zero. As with the new Daleks’ destruction of their predecessors, the willingness to take a sledgehammer to the past five years if necessary is startlingly apparent. If only a qualified success in other areas, in this at least, Victory is victorious.