Doctor Who: Victory of the Daleks
Review by Paul Kirkley
If Private Eye is correct - and I’ve been brought up to believe it usually is – BBC Worldwide, having saturated the Dalek market by flogging £15 million worth of the buggers over the last five years, recently demanded a re-pimp of the tinpot terrors as a condition for ponying up some cash for the new series.
This, on the surface, is A Worrying Thing, in so much as it suggests much cart/horse, tail/dog confusion. But before we – and when I say we, I mean the Daily Mail – start to get too exercised about sacrificing the artistic integrity of The Show in favour of selling more stuff to kids who already have too much stuff anyway, let’s be realistic. Like every other BBC drama, this year Doctor Who's budget took a hit (at the very same time the suits in marketing blew a million on that 3D trailer everyone hated), and the production team weren’t exactly in a position to look a gift horse (is this enough animal analogies for you?) in the mouth. At the end of the day, it’s all about finding ways of producing a show that’s already proved its integrity – its heart, its soul and its place at the centre of British family life – a hundred times over. So even if this story is true, comparisons to cynical marketing exercises like Transformers – where the Happy Meal comes before the script – are a bit disingenuous, to say the least. (Which is probably why no-one’s made them. Until I did just now. I’ll shut up.)
This is the first script apparently adapted from a 12-year-old boy mucking about in his bedroom with a bunch of Character Options figures
So that’s all fine. If Moffat and co had run their plans by me – and, frankly, I’m a bit offended they didn’t – I’d have said yep, what the hell, go for it. Take the money and run. What I wasn’t expecting, though, is that the entire episode would play like an extended toy advert – you know, like those ones you used to see on morning telly during the school holidays, where two kids would demonstrate the powers of He-Man or Zoids against an impressively big budget backdrop that made your bedroom carpet look a bit rubbish.
Because that’s exactly how Victory of the Daleks felt. In recent years, we’ve had Who stories based on novels, audio plays, a short story and (coming up) a comic strip. But this is the first one apparently adapted from a 12-year-old boy mucking about in his bedroom with a bunch of Character Options figures.
Look at the evidence: The story, if you can call it that, is basically just a series of confrontations in which the Doctor and the Daleks shout perfunctory plot points and empty threats (“I won’t let you get away!”) at each other. There's even a bit where the Doctor physically attacks a Dalek (imagine our bedroom dramatist enthusiastically smashing his figures together at this point), not to mention some good old-fashioned aeroplane action (runs around the room, arms outstretched, going “eeeeooooowwwwww”). And that was about as much as there was to it. You know how fans sometimes recreate scenes from the series with toys and post the results on YouTube? This felt like someone had done it the other way round.
The most hopelessly convoluted trap imaginable - a way of getting the Doctor’s attention that even Anthony Ainley’s Master would have written it off as a bit of a faff
It wasn’t the worst nu-Who story by a long way. It didn’t make me want to dig my way through the carpet in hot shame like, say, New Earth. But it was definitely the flimsiest episode we’ve seen since ’05 in the sense that the story wasn’t so much bad as barely there at all. Give it even a gentle poke and it collapses like a Heston Blumenthal helium soufflé. A hollow Victory, if you will.
For example, it wouldn’t have been so bad if the whole Churchill / World War 2 setting could have been written off merely as superfluous window dressing – plenty of Who scenarios have been guilty of that. Instead, the entire thing was doomed to exist as part of the most pointless plot device / hopelessly convoluted trap imaginable - a way of getting the Doctor’s attention that even Anthony Ainley’s Master would have written it off as a bit of a faff. Surely "the greatest Briton" deserved better than this for his Who debut?
Speaking of Anthony Ainley, this story also featured another unwelcome 80s throwback, in the form of continuity references that only makes sense to the diehard faithful. In fact, the biggie here – a casually dropped-in but really quite crucial bit of exposition about the Daleks’ DNA not being pure – probably only made sense to Andrew Pixley, cos I spend more time thinking about Doctor Who than is healthy in a 38-year-old man and I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. Was it a reference to the “stink of humanity” thing in The Parting of the Ways? Or was it some bit of guff I missed among the sea of guff that was Journey’s End? They might have been talking about a deleted scene from The Sensorites for all the sense it made to me.
Got room for more? The pacing was all over the place. With five minutes to go, I was still waiting for the dramatic final face-off, until I realised we’d already seen it, in the heart-stoppingly dramatic form of the Daleks switching some lights on. Oh, and a Spitfires-in-space dogfight that might have been exhilirating if they’d made even a token attempt at verisimilitude. (As it was, they went from the theoretical concept of hyperspace travel / gravity bubbles / blah blah blah to a manned flight in under five minutes. And wasn’t that ship on the other side of the moon? I’m no astronomer but even I know that’s, like, really far away.) Even the Doctor seemed embarrassed by the lack of a decent climax: “So this is your big plan, is it?” he asked, as his mortal enemies announced their diabolical scheme to, er, bugger off and leave everyone alone.
The Doctor and Amy could make a killing (or, indeed, a bomb) on the self-help publishing market: Be Your Own Man: How To Defuse The Ticking Time Bomb In You
Okay, so they actually buggered off and left everyone with a bomb. But that was such a bury-through-the-carpet moment I’ve tried to put it out of my mind. Especially the “defuse a bomb by showing it its humanity” bobbins, which has to be the single dumbest thing on TV since… well, since the Spitfires in space a few minutes earlier. Talk about the power of positive thinking: The Doctor and Amy could make a killing (or, indeed, a bomb) on the self-help publishing market: Be Your Own Man: How To Defuse The Ticking Time Bomb In You. A vaguely similar scene with Sally the Cyberman worked quite well a few years back, but this hackneyed Tin Man routine had the unwelcome stench of Star Trek about it (and that can be very difficult to get out of your clothes).
I’m sorry to say it, but even Matt Smith seemed a bit lost in this one. He’s such a quirky, professorial type of Doctor, he doesn’t suit the running about, frantic action stuff nearly so well as Tennant did. It was also the first time that, for me, his age seemed an issue - but that’s not his fault so much as the script’s, which required him to spend most of the episode shouting petulant Kevin and Perry-style “I hate you!”s at the enemy. But what can you expect when even an actor of Bill Paterson’s experience is clearly struggling with the material? When he wasn’t invoking the spirit of Private Frazer (“They. Made. Me? I'm doomed I tell you. Doomed. ") he was floundering over Mark Gatiss’ failed attempt at some RTD-style thumbnail sketch background colour (“The last war, the squalor and the mud.” Pauses, realises there’s more. “And the awful, awful misery of it all.”) And if the scene where Bacewell confronted the Daleks and got his hand blown off seemed stilted, you try emoting while someone's yelling at you to hold your arms out like… like a 12-year-old kid running about playing Spitfires in his bedroom.
Which I think is where we came in, wasn’t it? For what it's worth, my teenage nephews absolutely loved it, and have already rewatched the episode several times. But like any grown man guiltily hoarding a tacky bit of nonsense just because it's got the Doctor Who logo on it, I think I'll be keeping my copy in its box.