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April 23, 2010

Don't Mention the Time War

Doctor Who: Victory of the Daleks

Review by John Williams

Gatiss On last week's Doctor Who Confidential, a rather weary looking Mark Gatiss trotted out the ingredients that Steven Moffat had asked him to put in his script - Daleks, Fat Daleks, World War II and Winston Churchill.  As if that wasn't enough Moffat, rather oddly, also wanted Gatiss to make the Doctor and Churchill old friends, with the implication that they had met many times before and had shared the odd adventure together.  I don't know what Moffat thinks Churchill was up to for much of his life before the war, but on the face of it, he's hardly an obvious character for the Doctor to hang around with.  Was the Doctor in the background mouthing "No...Winston...forget it" when Churchill pushed forward with the disastrous landings on the Dardanelles?  Did he pop in to give Winston a telling off when he suggested using machine guns on the striking miners in 1926?  Or maybe he just nipped around to Chartwell occasionally for a meal and a few buckets of claret?  Either way, apart from some tomfoolery about the TARDIS key there didn't seem to be much in the script that hinted at any genuine past, and so the relationship wasn't convincingly realised, much like many of the other things on Moffat's list.  That's not to say there wasn't a lot to enjoy about the story, but for too much of the time it felt like an exercise in box-ticking and a series of set-ups for a probable series finale.

Did he pop in to give Winston a telling off when he suggested using machine guns on the striking miners in 1926?

This was a real shame, as Victory of the Daleks had everything you might want from an opening ten minutes: laughs, intrigue and Daleks clad in khaki.  That's how you redesign the Daleks - paint them a different colour, stick a union jack on them and then LEAVE WELL ALONE.  The subservient creepy Daleks were obviously a nod to those used in Patrick Troughton's debut story, but at least in The Power of the Daleks they actually got violent towards the end and killed lots of people.  The Ironsides may have shot a couple of guards, but then they spent what seemed like four hours spouting expository dialogue while facing a man armed with a Jammie Dodger.  Granted the Jammie Dodger was a touch of genius, but the big, fat, stupid-looking replacement Daleks didn't even try to kill him after he'd eaten it.  Is this anyway to teach the nation's children to fear the Daleks? 

Fatty Matt Smith was brilliant again for most of this episode, but even he seemed to struggle a bit with dialogue that consisted of him telling the Daleks what they had planned, especially as all that guff about the Testimony, the Progenator Device and impure Dalek DNA was the kind of thing that might have been rejected for a Virgin New Adventure because it was too involved.  But I can forgive all the New Paradigm Dalek phooey if it allows the show to move on from the Doctor and a handful of Daleks being the sole survivors of that bleeding tiresome Time War.  There were occasions during this episode when the Doctor's cries of "They can't have escaped me again" reminded me of Dick Dastardly trying to stop the pigeon, and I found myself yearning for the old days when the Daleks got on with building their empire and had occasional tussles with the Doctor, rather than indulging in this dual monomania.  As far as I'm concerned if the new lot want to enslave a few worlds on the edge of the Universe and test drive the odd planet while trying out the Hip and Thigh diet then they have my blessing.

like Dick Dastardly trying to stop the pigeon

While all this was going on, Gatiss was doing his best to include the reality of war and its sacrifices alongside all the pre-defined elements he'd been asked to incorporate.  The results were variable.  I thought the Spitfire battle worked well, because it nicely paralleled the actual Battle of Britain.  Earlier in the episode we'd seen the German planes embarking on a daylight raid which was then the biggest threat to Britain's success in the war, hence Churchill's desperate need to use the Ironsides. This seemed a bit harsh on the RAF who, of course, actually fought off the Germans, so I was pleased that Gatiss wrote the Spitfire battle in such a way that the pilots were fighting the Daleks, but were also in effect battling the Luftwaffe who were about to bomb an illuminated London. 

What worked less well were cringe-making scenes of stalwart Londoners shouting "Do your worst Adolf!", and the inclusion of a rather perfunctory crying widow in the Cabinet War Rooms.  It would be interesting to know how much, if any, of Gatiss's unused Series Four script (also set during WW2) found its way into Victory of the Daleks, and why Russell T Davies eventually rejected it.  It's pure supposition on my part, but the new series had already featured the Second World War as a backdrop in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, and Davies perhaps thought that it was too soon for another episode in that setting.  Even now its hard not to compare the stories and although Victory of the Daleks had all the superficial trappings such as Spitfires and Churchill, it's Moffat's two-parter that, albeit somewhat obliquely, is much more successful in conveying both the emotional and physical landscape of wartime Britain.

they really have to start doing something a bit more subtle with Amy's crack

Padding But it's not as if the story didn't try to have emotional moments.  The whole Bracewell sub-plot was there to present a moving climax after the flashy space battle, and it's to the credit of Matt Smith and Karen Gillan that they managed to make the defusing of Bracewell's oblivion continuum bearable even if it was all a bit too Tin Man for my tastes.  Unfortunately the more lasting memory of the story was of the padded out final sequence, particularly the bit when the Doctor and Amy explained to Bracewell that they were letting him go - at one point I expected them all to start...speaking...more...and...more...slowly just to eek out a bit more time.  Did Moffat want to call this Series One as an in-joke since all the episodes are running short just like they did in 2005?  And intriguing as Amy's ignorance of the Daleks might be (good title that by the way - The Ignorance of the Daleks) they really have to start doing something a bit more subtle with her crack.  The final shot in the last two episodes has managed to make Queen Victoria shouting "Torchwood" in Tooth and Claw look like a subtle manifestation of a story arc. 

Having said all this, I'm enjoying the series, and really hoping to see an episode soon that matches up to the performances of Matt Smith and Karen Gillan, who are knocking themselves out every week.  I'm not giving Matt Smith an entirely free pass however, as I'm still reeling from the news that he's going out with Daisy Lowe, the step-daughter of Danny from Supergrass.  As far as I'm concerned Danny from Supergrass is about 17, possibly 18 at a push.  How can he have a daughter that's old enough to go out with Doctor Who?  Could I finally be getting old?  Anyway, I'm off to play some dominoes, have some Ovaltine and listen to some Vera Lynn records.

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