Victory of the Daleks

23rd April 2010 • Review by Seb Patrick •

I can certainly pick ’em, can’t I? When dividing up reviews for the early part of this series, I was happy to sit back and let Cappsy and Ben take the first two eps, so excited was I about covering a Rollocking Dalek Adventure (nb – not to be confused with a Rolykins Dalek Adventure). But as it turns out, while they got to gush forth about a pair of Moffat scripts that collectively made for the most scintillating season-opening combo we’ve had since the series’ return, I’ve somehow left myself in the position of having to write a balanced review of what might just be the most controversial episode, in terms of fan reaction, since “Love & Monsters”.

And yet. Despite being unable to refute just about every criticism levelled at it… I rather liked it.

I’m of the opinion that Gatiss is still yet to write a truly great Who script – I found “The Unquiet Dead” a little dull, and “The Idiot’s Lantern” a little completely rubbish – and that hasn’t changed here; but “Victory” is certainly the best story he’s so far come up with, and more successful in what it sets out to do than not. It’s flawed, certainly. There are pacing problems, structural problems, even plot holes (although I doubt any of them couldn’t be solved by a line of dialogue here or there – and if the viewer has to perform a simple act of closure, then it’s not exactly a plot-wrecking chasm). A common viewpoint in the immediate aftermath is that it felt like it wanted to be an old-style four-part story – and I can certainly see that. The obvious point of comparison – as a historical Dalek story with the RAF running around – is the peerless “Remembrance”, and you can see Gatiss toying with introducing minor characters and subplots of the sort that would have been developed more fully in one of those stories. But in a 45 minute running time, they simply don’t stand a chance – and so you wonder what exactly we’re supposed to feel about the radio operator girl introduced at the beginning, who subsequently fades into the entire background before showing up crying over her dead boyfriend at the end. It doesn’t have quite the same resonance as Mike the amiable, blue-eyed, casually racist soldier, does it?

Suffering even worse from the pacing issues are the Daleks themselves. The opening scenes are utterly cracking – and there’s something entirely compelling about watching Daleks milling about among humans like servile robots. Yet it’s but a quarter of an hour in before their hand is played, their plan revealed, and their old personalities restored. Following that, there’s woefully little time given to get to grips with the new bastards – only two of them speak more than a single line, and considering that they’re introduced exactly halfway through, they should simply be onscreen more. Not least because it’d give us a bit more time to figure out whether we like them or not (and no, I still haven’t decided. I love the colour scheme, but am less sold on the shape – I think it looks great from the front, and utterly appalling in profile). And yet many precious minutes are devoted to a rather anticlimactic conclusion – Gatiss feels obliged to drive home the idea that letting the Daleks get away feels like a massive loss to the Doctor (why? It used to happen all the time. It was only with “Remembrance” that he started to feel the need to eradicate every last one whenever he met them), so he needs to give him a cliched dilemma. It’s nice that Bracewell gets a proper resolution, but it takes so long to happen you just wish the Daleks had stayed round a bit longer.

And yet there are so many great moments or aspects that you simply want to like the episode. The jammie dodger. “You do not require tea?” The intrigue of Amy not knowing about the Daleks. Bill Patterson’s performance (overshadowing Ian McNeice’s Churchill somewhat), and indeed the revelation of Bracewell’s true nature (a cracking twist, and a well-judged moment of reveal). “Oi, Churchill!” The Dalek model on the map. The sheer bonkers brilliance of the (particularly well-framed by director Andrew Gunn) moment when the new Daleks pour forth. There’s great stuff in here, and a surfeit of ideas. But at the same time, so much of it seems to want to shoot itself in the foot. Take the in-space Spitfire dogfight. This should be an awesome moment, and looked as such in the trailers. And it almost is. The rousing, movie-esque score by Gold works well, it’s a lovely conceit, and a brilliant image – it’s almost like an issue of Eagle put on the screen. But the way that it’s shot, with the Spitfires swooping in and out like generic spaceships, firing generic laser beam things, it just ends up feeling like Star Wars – especially when they come around for the old “another pass”.

But while it’s not the grade-A epic we might have hoped for (was it ever going to be, in just 45 minutes?), and it doesn’t quite do justice to everything that it’s cramming in, the wilful exuberance makes it hard to actively dislike (and, while I’m trying to use the review to discuss the episode rather than engaging with the fan reaction that’s got there before me, I am struggling to see why there’s a significant amount of outright hatred for it going on online). As does the fact that it’s trying gainfully to do something with the Daleks, and to change the established rules of contact that the new series has generally laid down (i.e. Daleks show up, try to conquer/destroy Earth, Doctor thinks he’s wiped out, one or two secretly escape to survive another day). I also like the idea of them being sort of “reset” to a more classic setup, rather than perpetually living in the shadow of the Time War (but that’s a series-as-a-whole thing, rather than specific to this episode, I suspect).

And really, it’s hard to have too much negative to say about an episode when we’re still being treated to the early days of Matt Smith. The man is a miracle, frankly. It’s far too early to start talking about his place in the pantheon, especially with his distinct character still in the process of being established, but he just gets it. He is the Doctor – it’s telling that he seems to echo so many of his predecessors at different times, but it’s as if he’s studied them all, and adheres to Moffat’s notion that “there aren’t eleven Doctors – there’s one Doctor with eleven faces” resolutely, in a way that Tennant (who had echoes of one or two, particularly (of course) Davison, but generally felt specifically Tennantish) never really did. He’s got a brilliantly nuanced awkwardness to his poise that makes him feel like the old man in a young and unfamiliar skin. He’s got the comedy fingers. He’s got the mixture of genuine authority and perpetual-verge-of-getting-called-out bluff that the Doctor should carry into any environment. He’s absolutely at home in the role, and to have been so from his first moments onscreen is an astounding feat. My only hope for him is that he can keep it up.

You might argue, of course, that Doctor Who stories – especially under Moffat – should aspire to more than simply “at least it’s a damned sight better than Daleks In Manhattan”. And maybe you’d be right. But “Victory” is what it is – an entertaining romp, lacking in depth and slightly faltering under intense scrutiny, yes; but I’d rather have something jam-packed with ideas that doesn’t quite pull off the execution of all of them (yet spectacularly does with some) than something that succeeds only at being uninspired and insipid. This perhaps wasn’t the story we were expecting, but it’s still very much a sort of Doctor Who that I enjoy. And still exactly the sort of good-natured fun that in its current status and timeslot, it absolutely should be.

Seb Patrick once met Paul McGann, who immediately pretended to be Mark McGann. He writes for Den of Geek, BBC America, Film4 and the official Red Dwarf website, among others. He owns over thirty toy Daleks and wishes the Dapol factory tour was still open.

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