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April 23, 2010

Spitfire From Space

Doctor Who: Victory of the Daleks
Review by Tom Dickinson

ChurchillWhy trot out the Daleks? Because of a perceived need to build hype for a new iteration of the series in which the BBC had little confidence? To justify a Dalek redesign so that new toys could be produced under the new franchise branding? As a set-up for an explosive return for the Daleks in the two-part finale to Matt Smith’s first series? To promote the launch of Doctor Who: The Adventure Games, the first of which is entitled City of Daleks?

History will reveal the truth, or a version of it, on the special features of some future release of this story, or in an interview in Doctor Who Magazine Issue 752. For the moment, it's obvious that this episode did not come about by simply the need to tell this wonderful, fantastic story about the Doctor and Churchill and Daleks. Because it's not really driven by the need to tell a story, more by the need to shoehorn the Daleks into the series, whether for the above reasons or just because Moffat wanted to reset their status quo as quickly as possible by redesigning them and bringing them back into continuity for real this time.

Which is not to say that it’s necessarily a poor story. Despite prioritizing checklists over drama, it manages to provide a rather enjoyable adventure with just enough running, shouting, and clever lines to keep me interested for a little over forty minutes. It's not a bad story by any means, and there's nothing really objectionable in it aside from the Dalek redesign. This episode is unlikely to go down in Doctor Who history as a particularly remarkable story, but there are some moments that will be well remembered, most particularly the Doctor facing the Daleks armed with a Jammie Dodger ("but I was promised tea!"). I might be less charitable if not for its early placement in the series, as I’m still in the process of falling for Matt Smith’s Doctor. Calling a Dalek “sweetheart,” referring to Amy as “Pond,” and all of that. His furious yelling and attacking the Daleks in an attempt to get them to confess their identities gives us another glimpse at the less kind and calm side of his character, something that seemed like a one-off in The Beast Below but may well be a consistent trait of his Doctor. No, I don’t think he reaches the emotional rawness of Eccleston in Dalek. Still, I'm increasingly convinced that, while Eccleston and Tennant are better actors, Matt Smith simply is the Doctor.

ChurchillKaren Gillan is fine insofar as Amy is given anything to do, but she’s sadly pushed to the margins of this episode, along with everyone but Matt Smith and the Daleks. Ian McNeice gives us a spirited if cartoonish Churchill, but he seems to exist only to flesh out the World War II setting which serves as a backdrop to an unrelated adventure. And flesh it out he does. Quite well. Even a bit too much. Lots of extraneous flesh involved. Ahem. Moving on. In any case, his role in the story is less important than Bill Paterson, who impresses as Bracewell. At first Bracewell seems a rather familiar sort of unwitting Dalek confederate, but the revelation that he is actually an android is surprising and gives the story what little emotional weight it has. The final scene in which Amy talks Bracewell down from exploding is quite a bit better than you’d expect such a scene to be, and Patterson sells it simply by being ordinary and likeable, which is just what the scene calls for. It's a little like Tennant's "John Smith" in The Family of Blood, with the gravitas turned down

For a moment in that scene, when Amy leans down and asks him, “have you ever fancied someone you knew you shouldn’t?”, I was worried that the story was about to take a turn for the creepy. Honestly, I believed for a moment that Amy was going to awaken Bracewell’s humanity with her kissogram credentials. I was relieved that she didn’t, but it might actually have been more interesting if she had. It’s a strain on my suspension of disbelief that Amy can easily figure out what the Doctor can’t (apparently he remembers tyranny and cruelty but not burnt toast, bus stations and unrequited love) but it’s nice to see Amy have something to do at least in this episode. Amy stepping in with a sudden flash of insight, picking up where the Doctor left off after he fails, isn’t an awful resolution, but even so, must we use the same resolution for two episodes in a row?

I don’t like the new Daleks, although I'll get used to them just as I did that awful theme tune. The “old” Daleks work much better here, with the Power of the Daleks references appreciated and some real moments of creepiness as they perform mundane tasks cheerily. But despite the screen time they receive, the Daleks do rather little here. Missed opportunities abound: why would you do a Dalek story in World War II and not highlight the Nazi connection? The ill-explained notion of racial purity works well enough in the story but it practically begs to be fleshed out. It was no surprise to see the new Daleks destroy the old model, but the way in which it played out was interesting enough. I was expecting the story to pit Dalek against Dalek. While that would have been a good demonstration of the purported superiority of the new Daleks, Dalek civil wars are old hat and the willingness of the old Daleks to submit to destruction was surprising and scarily perverse. Gatiss made the right choice there, it's just not developed into anything interesting beyond that one moment. It’s probably also notable that our year-to-date body count for meaningful character deaths still totals zero, even though this story makes a feeble attempt at showing the severity of war by having a throwaway character mention the death of her sweetheart. The new Daleks don’t even bother trying to kill the Doctor, and therefore miss the opportunity to show any real menace or dramatic weight.

ChurchillAnd with that Dalek fat joke, I believe I've fulfilled my obligations. Most of my points have been repeated over and over, and there's little going on in this story to merit extensive analysis. It didn't disappoint me like The Beast Below did, it’s just that there’s really not much in the episode that excited me, and as a consequence it's not as conducive to discussion as most episodes are. Which is perhaps why Confidential was also dull this week. Overall, I did like the episode, and I found it enjoyable for what it is, but “what it is” isn’t much of consequence.

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