(Between the demise of the old Starburst and the birth of its new incarnation, there were fourteen Doctor Who stories broadcast that the magazine never got around to reviewing. This is one of them.)
After invoking comparisons with anything from The Ark in Space to The Christmas Invasion in the previous two episodes, it was inevitable that old school traditionalist (and author of The Unquiet Dead) Mark Gatiss’ third story of the new series would itself raise memories of some classic from the series’ past, and Victory of the Daleks soon finds itself in very similar territory to that once occupied by The Power of the Daleks, in which the eponymous pepperpots pretend amicable servitude in order to inveigle their way into a position of superiority. So far so familiar.
Problems immediately arise. “I am your soldier,” might be a catchphrase designed to evoke memories in those whose knowledge of Doctor Who spans the previous 44 years, but the original, “I am your servant,” – that chilling motto uttered by the Daleks in such sinister fashion in Patrick Troughton’s debut serial – at least resembled something these mechanised cuckoos might be called upon to say. “I am your soldier,” is simply an unwieldy contrivance, and is an example of many such devices that dog what might otherwise have been an excellent script. Another is the flip and abrupt dismissal by an otherwise excellent Ian McNeice as Winston Churchill, of the very reason he called upon the Doctor to visit in the first place. It’s an illustration of how Doctor Who in 2010 seems to be working: if they wanted Churchill to make a surprise appearance at the tail-end of the previous episode, then they’re not going to let having a good reason for him so to do get in their way.
It’s one of those episodes that so desperately needs for its audience to suspend their disbelief, that the only way to reasonably talk about it is to hang that disbelief from a nearby lamppost and give it a good tar-and-feathering. Most of what’s on display in Victory of the Daleks – and we’ll come to that name and its dual implications in a moment – simply beggars belief of any kind.
However, if you’re eight-years-old (and we must still assume that Doctor Who is primarily aimed at the under-twelves, regardless of Churchill’s exhortation of all and sundry to “keep buggering on,” – this week’s example of inappropriateness from the production team), then Victory of the Daleks is almost certainly a simply magical experience. Despite a near two-year absence, the vast majority of children will know who and what the Daleks are (and even if they’ve not seem them before, the reputation and publicity surrounding the Doctor’s arch-monstrosities would leave very few in any doubt), and the moment they appear on screen – in a thoroughly appropriate battlefield green – pretending to be everyone’s friends, children everywhere must have been squealing at their television sets. Forget the “Bank Holiday war movie,” that Gatiss had in mind when fingers first met keyboard, Victory of the Daleks is nothing less than full-on pantomime, with McNeice as the grand Dame and Karen Gillan as the principle boy. There are more moments in this 40-minute story that call upon the audience to thrill to the notion of screaming, “It’s behind you!” or whoop with delight at a turn in the action – the spitfires versus Daleks dogfight in space being the prime example – than can be recalled from many a recent mid-term, single-episode adventure. There are even many similar delights for the adults in the audience (especially those men brought up on a diet of war movies, and assuming spitfires in space isn’t delightful enough), one such example being the “To Victory!” posters bearing a 1940s-stylised representation of the Daleks, another being Matt Smith’s threatening the Daleks with his Jammie Dodger. It’s just a shame the elements couldn’t have been knitted together more thoroughly or more convincingly. The Daleks’ purpose in setting all of this up, and it’s quite a convoluted plot (that would leave David Whitaker’s The Wheel in Space hanging its head in shame), seems rather flimsy to say the least, and the way the Doctor leaves Amy behind at the crucial moment – simply, it seems, for no other reason than to enable everybody in being in the right place at the right time – is exceedingly weak. Another insubstantial apparatus for facilitating under thought-through plot contrivances, then.
Don’t get me started on Amy Pond talking a walking time-bomb out of self-destructing. It’s on a par with the old fellows keeping the universe together by reciting numbers in Logopolis.
What of this Dalek “Victory,” then? Well, for once you can say, at the very least, that it is a victory. There’s no denying the Daleks make good their escape at the end of the story, fully intent on re-establishing their race and their war on all that is good and Doctorish. But it’s a mightily strange victory, to be sure; this new Dalek Paradigm see themselves as the true continuation of the Dalek line, even though they’re built from 100% synthesised, artificial DNA. The Daleks they destroy on their path to power, on the other hand – the ones they consider ‘impure’ – have been built from 100% pure Kaled DNA, sourced from the Daleks’ own creator, no less. In engineering a new continuity for the Daleks, Moffat and Gatiss seem to have confused (or deliberately ignored) the significance of the old.
As for the Paradigm themselves, the colour scheme is wonderful (if you grew up with the Peter Cushing movies, you’ll appreciate it all the better), but boy are the newly-redesigned Daleks ugly. Too big, too artificial-looking, too differently-shaped. It used to be said that the Daleks had the most easily-recognisable silhouette in Western cultural iconography; not so any more.
And what’s with Amy Pond not knowing what the Daleks are?
Three episodes in, and in spite of managing to maintain the entertainment levels as set by Russell T Davies over the previous five years, there’s also a very real sense that Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who has failed to properly forge an identity for itself as yet. Moffat’s first two-parter under his own auspices is next; maybe that will mark a turning point. Victory of the Daleks, on the other hand, might have made a brilliant impression if given the RTD once-over (and would have fit quite easily into Series Three, in place of the Manhattan Fiasco), but under the new regime, it’s a bit of a bomb. A thoroughly watchable bomb (and great if you’re young enough not to follow the story very closely), but something of a stinker nevertheless.
(If you’d like to go further into the programme’s past, I’ve collected together various reviews and articles that I’ve posted online over the years here: http://watchingdoctorwho.weebly.com/)