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April 18, 2010

Reach for the Skaro

Stuart Ian Burns loses himself in Doctor Who: Victory of the Daleks.

New New New Doctor, New New Daleks.  There was fascinating article in the party newsletter (or Doctor Who Magazine to the rest of you) last year at about the time Steven Moffat had been announced as show runner about the treatment of mythology in the series which spent much of its duration underscoring that the show has been at its best when its ignored what has gone before and that it was up to poor souls online and in books to try and rationalise it all should they feel the need to.  It speculated on how Moffat could proceed once he took over, would he choose to forget everything essentially producing his own Rose, offering us the people of Earth enjoying first contact once again, new new versions of old monsters unaware of the previous few years and what not?

Eventually, the conclusion the article came to (if I remember rightly) was that this would be more difficult to do with the spin-off shows spewing extra continuity all over the place and that Moffat would have to offer a continuation of some sort because soap-addicted/addled viewers can’t accept massive changes in continuity (just small ones possibly like the uncertain age of Ian Beale in EastEnders) but that he was unlikely to want to carry on with any of Davies’s characters or designs.  What Victory of the Daleks does, aptly given the atmosphere in the country at the moment (and I don’t mean as a result of the Iceland volcanic ash which is clearly the result of Pyrovile barbecue) offer a third way, mixing elements of old and new Who more clearly than before.  I mean look at the majesty of that title.

Pyrovile barbecue

Firstly, a new design of Dalek.  At some point in the future someone will write a longer essay on what the different Dalek designs say about each of the men in charge of the series.  Briefly, Davies’s brief had been to “beef up the design” according to Gary Russell’s The Inside Story, make it look like a tank, with its rivets and whatnot.  But despite the later revisions its always seemed a bit – anonymous?  Is that the word? -- only really gaining individuality in the Cult of Skaro.  But with the exception of Dalek, the pepperpots on mass have really just had the same function as the Orcs in Lord of the Rings, giant indomitable army offering “insurmountable” odds.

In the Moffat/Gattis model, there’s a new individuality (of sorts) up front, with a return of the big primary colours not just from the Cushing movies but they're also heavily influenced by the 60s TV-21 strips.  That’s where their commanding presence comes from and like those stories, as Confidential revealed, he and Gattis were keen to see the return in the television series of these hierarchical versions with a proper chain of command and model codes like “drone” or “eternal”.  Not just a fabulous merchandising opportunity, their new bulk gives them even greater weight and menace within the studio, and it was rather amazing to see so many practical examples spinning around in one shot, this half dozen having more substance than a thousand computer generated versions.

the Kit Kat commercial

The basis of the story was once again to show the clash between our humanity and the pluralism of the Daleks.  Like Power of the Daleks (also referenced in dialogue), Time of the Daleks (the Big Finish audio) and the Kit Kat commercial ("Peace and Love!") this was initially achieved by having the ring modulator speak all too human phraseology to underscore the wrongness of it (“Would you like a cup of tea?”).  But later, once inside the Dalek ship we could see the contrast between the empty cold lifeless interior they called home and the map room in the allied bunker with telephones and cigars and life strewn everywhere.  Standard sci-fi trope to be sure, but the rapid cutting between the two was very evocative.  Plus they’re bobbing their heads again when they talk.  I’ve missed that. 

And they’re, as Moffat and Gattis have observed, “crafty”.  This whole story was the scene in the sewers from Daleks in Manhattan in which a couple of members of the cult decided to gang up on Sec extrapolated across forty-five minutes.  The plan was typically convoluted.  The last remaining time-travelling members of the race create an android shaped bomb to infiltrate the allies during World War II so that the appearance of two Daleks in disguise makes sense so that Winston Churchill is impressed enough to invite his friend the Doctor along to help make some more, knowing the timelord wouldn’t believe it enough for them to have a reason to have his desperate voiceprint identify himself and them so that they could convince a new  Paradigm generating doo-dad to produce a brand new species. 

a Jammy-Dodger

Phew.  It’s ingenious and no less incredible than scooping out the centre of the planet in order to turn it into a space ship.  Of course, it’s perfectly convenient that they should choose a time period that provides the opportunity to see spitfires in space attacking a Dalek ship, Independence Day-style, but like the city of the back of a star whale, this version of the series is revelling in its curious visuals, its Josh Kirby approach to plotting.  I stand by my assessment of the new era as a huge fairy tale, with the addendum that I might need to apply the Britannica definition from time to time: “Fairy tales may be written or told for the amusement of children or may have a more sophisticated narrative containing supernatural or obviously improbable events, scenes, and personages and often having a whimsical, satirical, or moralistic character.”

None more improbable than keeping the Daleks at bay with a Jammy-Dodger.  Matt beat the Dalek test hands down capturing all of the fear and violence inherent in Eccleston’s performance from the seminal interrogation room scene in Dalek with the sarcasm of Tennant’s first meeting (somewhat thrown away) in Doomsday.  Granted much of his time with them was spent waiting for information and watching impotently as the game changed, but he was entirely magnetic and certainly had those moments Troughton was so good at, in which he stood perfectly still and even without the aid of editing we watched his mind deducing what their plan would be and the horrible consequences even though in this case it was to escape and regroup.  When he later said that the Daleks had beaten them, it was the quite resignation that it twas and will forever be thus.

waxed

As the first piece by a non-Moffat it's our first chance to see his methodology for the series in the wild. How different was this to The Unquiet Dead?  The episode did offer a new approach to the celebrity historical (based on Moffat's suggestion) as the Doctor and Winston are old sparring partners (beautifully underscored by the chemistry between Matt and Ian McNeice standing for Robert Hardy) whereas before, it was the first time he’d bumped into Dickens or Queen Victoria.  Except the Doctor has always waxed anecdotally about this or that historic figure and what we have here, finally, is an example of that within a story.  If you take a full franchise view of their previous encounters they originally met when the Doctor looked like Colin Baker to foil the Players in a Terry Dicks novel (wikia for more details) which seems to fit somehow, two brash personalities butting against one another (with some added interested that the Seventh Doctor spent a lot of time around Hitler).

The episode was also not about Churchill particularly learning anything about himself.  He found aliens a perfectly natural happenstance of life, approaching the Doctor and the TARDIS openly and mostly coming across in narrative terms like a historical version of the Brigadier sending a message to the Doctor when he was particularly required.  In a Russell T Davies guided version of this story, I’d imagine Winston becoming increasingly desperate to have his hands on the Doctor’s technology or for the Doctor to take sides in the war with an added meditation (ala the Larry Miles’s novel Interference) on why he chooses to become involved with some conflicts and not others (only briefly touched on towards the end) and what gives him that authority with a side order of ‘web of time’ style rationalisation and an explanation as to where the fuck he was during Children of Earth

a fabulous shoom

Or was it simply that with the Dalek material, the episode was stuff already and that's whey decided to go the other way?  Oh the joys of auteur theory.  The episode did end on an emotional beat.  Handed the usual moral conundrum of saving the Earth or destroying the Daleks, the Doctor chose us again allowing his mortal enemy to skip off again (with a fabulous shoom into hyperspace).  The ensuing scene offered another example of Amy filling in for the newly divested human part of the timelord, realising that the way to a man’s oblivion continuum is a woman.  Once again, we’re seeing the Doctor following Amy’s lead as though the spirit of the Tenth Doctor has spread between the two of them.  Bill Patterson was predictably extraordinary here, realistically capturing his robotic skip between the pain of grief to the tragedy of unrequited love. 

Finally, the clearest indication that Moffat has thought about potential for a mythological reset is Amy’s inability to recognise the Daleks.  There’s a certain vagueness to this.  We don’t know yet if it’s just her that doesn’t remember the events of Journey’s End or the whole planet; certainly she seems quite comfortable with the idea of aliens in general and the implications of the universe teeming with life so she might have experienced one of the dozens of other invasion events.   She can’t have been picked up before Journey’s End was occuring because the Doctor would surely have known about this and wouldn’t have decided to turn it into a plot point.  But he doesn’t seem particularly perturbed at least not in the same way Eighth did in the second series of his Big Finish audios when it became apparent neither Orson Welles or Charley had heard of Shakespeare and went off to investigate.  It’s not like she can claim to have been scuba diving.

Perhaps I’m reaching, but what if the crack that’s either following the Doctor around or as I suspect the Doctor is following around (A month later?  Really?) is a revisionist switch, a chance for Moffat to pull back on some of the more eccentric mythology from the Davies era or even eep, the nu-Who equivalent of the Faction Paradox, a way of explaining some of the inconsistencies?  Three episodes in there are mysteries afoot and they’re character based, not disappearing bees and planets.  My brain, so full of stuff, is now casting about and wondering if he’s even reaching as far back as The Next Doctor, when Tenth wondered why a giant Cyberman stomping London isn’t in the historical record or if Churchill’s apparent ignorance of Torchwood is also connected.  Probably not. Either way, it's an indication that Moffat isn't ready to put a lid on his predecessor's work just yet, not completely ignoring continuity or totally embracing it but something else.  Good here, init?

Next Week:  Let the River RUN!

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