Saturday, 17 April 2010
DOCTOR WHO 5.3 - Victory of the Daleks
One of the more unanimous niggles about the resurrected Doctor Who has been the fact that the Daleks have returned, regular as clockwork, every single season. And even though none of the four specials last year were tales concerning Skaro’s finest, those pesky pepperpots still managed to get their polycarbide shells back on the old goggle-box with a generous cameo in The Waters of Mars.
And I have to say, I broadly agree with this popular sentiment that we are seeing them far too regularly these days. Now don’t get me wrong, I love the Daleks to bits but I do think that things were better when you couldn’t set your watch by their reappearances. In the classic series, despite the great public appetite for Dalek stories, they rationed their appearances and so a new battle between the Doctor and his arch enemies was a big deal – what we would now call ‘event television’ – rather than an expected feature of every season.
However other diluting their screen power, there is another problem tied up with the overexposure of the Daleks, and I suspect, a major source of the annoyance with their constant returns in the new show. And it’s this: in every appearance, they rebuild their ranks from a handful of survivors only to be completely wiped out again.
Now way back in 2005, when Who had just returned this was acceptable; when the Emperor and his hoard were dissolved by Bad Wolf/Rose it made for an epic and thrilling finale to the first series. The mass destruction of the Dalek fleet had an almost operatic feel to it and neatly provided closure to the back-story arc concerning the Time War and its effect on the Ninth Doctor. And from a production point of view, considering that no one foresaw the huge success of the show would turn out to be, it made sense to tie up all those loose ends neatly. More to the point, as it was very possible that the new Who could end up being axed, Russell T Davies could afford to go for a real Götterdämmerung ending and exterminate the Daleks completely.
However repeating this formula every series since is less forgivable. Firstly, even though we always expect arch enemies to cheat death and return again and again, does every outing have to end with their final end? Couldn’t the Doctor just defeat them for a change? Foil their plans and force them back, rather than commit another act of genocide. Secondly, these constant Dalek apocalypses create a real pain in the arse for the unlucky sod that has to find a way to conjure up another hoard of Daleks to menace the universe.
And for this latest Dalek return, the aforementioned unlucky sod is Mark Gatiss. Although perhaps best known for being one of the League of Gentlemen, he also is a long time Doctor Who fan who has ended up realising his dreams to be involved with the show. In the regenerated series, he penned The Unquiet Dead - a personal favourite of mine from Series 1, The Idiot’s Lantern in Series 2, and starred as the villainous Professor Lazarus in Series 3’s The Lazarus Effect.
Furthermore, during what Gatiss himself wryly refers to as ‘the interregnum’ – that dark time between 1989 and 2005 when the good Doctor had vanished from our screens - he wrote four Who novels. Two were for Virgin Books’ continuation of the series, furthering the adventures of the Seventh Doctor in Nightshade and St Anthony’s Fire. And the other pair were for the later BBC range of Past Doctor Adventures; The Roundheads which was a historical outing for the Second Doctor, and Last of the Gaderene which was a tale set in the UNIT era of the Third Doctor’s life. Plus he also scripted two audio plays for Big Finish (who were also furthering the travels of the Doctor while he was away from television) -Phantasmagoria and Invaders From Mars.
And if all of that wasn’t enough Time Lord credibility for you, his favourite book in childhood was the Target novelisation of the Jon Pertwee classic Planet of the Daleks. And perhaps this is most relevant thing on his Who CV…
But more on that later! On the episode itself…
Considering the first two episodes have effectively been new pilots for the revamped series, Gatiss was a good choice to helm the third, the point when the show can just get on with the action. And being very familiar with most of his previous Who output, and indeed the rest of his canon, I was hoping an old school adventure but packed with fresh ideas rather than lapsing into a mere pastiche of past stories. And indeed this is what he delivered. In spades!
My initial reaction is that this is perhaps the best of the three episodes he has penned for new Who. Let’s face it, when you give a writer who understands stories and genre tropes as well as Mark Gatiss the brief 'write a script involving Daleks and Churchill', you’re bound to get something good out the other end.
So we have a wonderful portrait of Churchill, that is both fun and respectful, and brilliantly performed by Ian McNeice, Bill Paterson shining as the slightly bumbling but quite brilliant Dr Bracewell, the Daleks being subtle and cunning, and all wrapped up beautifully in the wartime setting. Throw into the mix an impressive set piece consisting of spitfires taking on a Dalek saucer plus some clever plot twists and we have a winning episode here.
Also it was nice to see Amy getting plenty to contribute throughout the story and again it was good that the resolution involved some old fashioned quick thinking rather than the magic solution new Who has relied on too heavily in the past, particularly when the Daleks are involved.
However I do have some negative points to raise. I don’t whether it was down to the traditional adventure yarn structure or the fact that this is an early outing for a new incarnation, but the Doctor himself felt a little more generic. Now Matt Smith was wonderful as ever, but some of the time his part could have been played by any of the other Doctors. And I am perhaps being a little nitpicky - after all we get the superb scene where he bluffs the Daleks with a jammy dodger!
On reflection, I think the problem was that the episode was so fast paced that at some points there just wasn’t the time for the Doctor’s new personality to shine through as much as the previous two episodes. Of course, stories not having the space to breathe is the curse of modern Doctor Who.
To be honest, I really think that the BBC should bite the bullet and extend the running time and make each episode an hour long. As the specials last year proved, that extra fifteen minutes does make for better pacing and story telling. I appreciate that in an effects heavy show like Doctor Who the mandarins at Broadcasting House will be worried about the extra expense but really the additional time doesn’t need to be more explosions and eye candy. In fact, the extra time would ideally be more of the cheapest scenes - people talking and mood shots; all those little details that flesh out the plot and the characters.
And certainly I feel that this episode was deserving of more a little more time. Perhaps not stretching it out to a two parter, but an extra quarter of an hour would have given the plot more room to breathe and for the script to spread its wings a lot further. For example, I'm not sure we get to spend enough time with Bracewell for his ultimate salvation to have all the proper dramatic impact it could have.
Secondly, those spitfires in space… They were marvellous but - and this is not a criticism of the episode itself - I did think it was a bit of shame that they’d showed snippets of this impressive set piece in the trails. Now obviously as it’s a brilliantly executed sequence that looks truly cinematic it's only natural the BBC wanted to show it off in the previews.
But as stunning as it was - and I heartily concur with a tweet I’ve just seen by comics author Andy Diggle that reads ‘Hard to focus on the aerial dogfight in tonight's DR WHO because I was literally weeping with joy’ - imagine how much more amazing it would have been if you didn’t know it was coming...
Last niggle - the new Dalek design. Now I don’t mind the bright colours - after all, these are a set of Dalek leaders. The Stolen Earth/Journeys End has shown us a Supreme Dalek in red livery, and in the classic series we've seen colour coded Daleks in command positions - a pertintent example here would be the Gatiss favorite, Planet of the Daleks which features another Supreme Dalek in gold and black. Similarly the loss of the slats around their waists and the enlarged bumpers is a return to the designs of the Hartnell days - check out this Dalek Commander from their second outing The Dalek Invasion of Earth and compare it with tonight's newcomers.
My problem is they seem to be, well, a little too chunky for my tastes... Oh sod it, I’ll just come out and say it - to my eyes it looks like they’ve got fat arses now! Exterminated all the pies, did you? Maybe the new look will grow on me - I hated the new Cybermen the first time I saw them but love the design now - so time will tell.
Of course, not all future Daleks may follow the new design - these were a set of founding father models remember. Which brings me to the biggest issue I had coming into this episode and the one I addressed in the opening of this review - were the scourge from Skaro back again only to meet another ‘final’ end?
Thankfully no! As I’d hoped, the new Moffat broom isn’t repeating the same lazy pattern of threat to the universe/destroy the Dalek race. And as I suspected Mark Gatiss was the perfect man to break the cycle. Remember I mentioned his love for the Third Doctor story Planet of the Daleks? Well, the pertinent point here is the portrayal of the Daleks in this outing. This six parter’s plot takes place in future history when the Daleks are plotting an major intergalactic campaign, one of several they launched in this period. On the mysterious planet Spiridon, they are secretly building up an army to conquer the galaxy and carrying out covert experiments to replicate a unique ability Spiridon’s natives possess - the power of invisibility.
Now while the Time War and the elevation of the Daleks to universe destroyers was a logical extrapolation of their ultimate plans, it is a limiting factor for story lines. After all, after they have attempted to obliterate the rest of creation, how do you top that? And the cycle of return/total destruction was just as constricting.
Now with Victory of the Daleks Gatiss has returned them to the status they held in the classic series - a constant menace to other civilised worlds, building empires and hatching fiendish plans to conquer galaxies. And the redesign, which harks back to these earlier days, reflects this back to basis approach. The way is open once again for smaller stories - the small defeats and thwarted schemes we all want to see again. Indeed skirmishes like this one, where the stakes are high but not apocalyptic.
And for this reason, despite a few niggles, I rate this episode very highly. Victory of the Daleks is well named - it restores the Daleks to their rightful place in the show’s mythology, but more importantly, the Daleks actually win this one! Yes, the Doctor and Amy may have prevented them from destroying the Earth but that was never their real objective. Their true goal was accomplished - to build a new Dalek race and even as I type this they are no doubt making planet fall on their old home world Skaro, ready to begin hatch further diabolical plans…