Friday, 23 April 2010
Dr Who : Victory of the Daleks - TV Review
"Don't mess with me, sweetheart!"
Well, I suppose it had to happen. Five years in and the new 'Dr Who' has finally turned up its first bona fide clunker of an episode. One or two have come close before, of course - 'The Age of Steel' and 'Fear her' from season two were a bit iffy and only the die-hardest of die-hards would say that David Tennant's 'End of Time' two-parter finale was a triumph from beginning to end. But 'Victory of the Daleks', well, that's another thing altogether. This is a stinker of epic proportions, a story which, on paper, had so much going for it but, on screen, has almost nothing at all to give. No, that's not fair, of course; it does have the glorious Matt Smith, loving and living every moment here as the Doctor, giving Mark Gatiss's unusually sloppy script a bit of the life and energy it so sorely lacks. Smith plays it like he knows he's got the best job in the world even if this is one of its off-days.
So what's wrong with this picture? Where to begin, really. The first disappointment, of course, is that this is the work of uber-fan-turned-scriptwriter Mark Gatiss who's turned in two episodes for the show since its comeback - the atmospheric 'The Unquiet Dead' from 2005 and the quirky if unessential 'Idiot's Lantern' from 2006. He also played Professor Lazarus in 'The Lazarus Experiment' in 2007. He really knows the show from top to tail and he really should know better than to turn in something as half-baked as 'Victory of the Daleks'. For half-baked is what it surely is. There's real promise in what's going on here. The Daleks! World War 2! Winston Churchill! Spitfires fighting a Dalek saucer in space! How can it go wrong? Part of the problem lies in the fact that, as shopping lists go, that's a pretty hefty one for a short 42 minute episode - and as a consequence none of these concepts and ideas are given room to breathe. None of them really develop, everything's half-done. One of Gatiss's selling points for the episode was the idea of the Daleks being depicted as cunning strategists, manipulating, biding their time instead of just rattling around hysterically squawking 'exterminate' every thirty seconds. Gatiss promised something which evoked the 1966 story 'Power of the Daleks' (sadly missing from the archives) where the Daleks appeared completely out of character, subservient to their human masters whilst secretly plotting domination behind everyone's back. Fine. We got this for all of ten minutes in 'Victory of the Daleks' in its finest moments; the khaki-coloured, union-jack blazooned military Daleks gliding around the underground war bunker offering to make tea and carrying file boxes around. The very best moment is the scene where the Doctor is desperately trying to persuade Churchill that the Daleks are ruthless alien killing machines as one of the creatures glides by in the background, swivels its eye-stalk to gaze at the Doctor, before moving on. But after about ten minutes the Daleks have revealed their true colours, they're evil again and being teleported back to their waiting spaceship where they're about to undergo the greatest ignominy of all. The Makeover of the Daleks.
The so-called 'celebrity' historical has become sommething of a tradition of modern-day Dr Who and these episodes, playing to the BBC's typcial production strengths have, on the whole, tended to be quiet triumphs. But the reason for their success is that they did more than just say to the viewer "Look, it's a woman in a crown and a big dress...that's Queen Victoria! Run!" or "Look at that beardy man, he's Shakespeare he is!" 'The Unquiet Dead', 'Tooth and Claw' and 'The Shakespeare Code' ('Unicorn and the Wasp' from season four, too) had something to say about the historical celebrity of the week. 'The Unquiet Dead' gave us a tired,weary Charles Dickens, jaded and disillusioned and convinced his body of work would, in the scheme of things, count for nothing. His encounter with the Doctor and Rose gave him a renewed strength and vigour, a belief in himself and his achievements. The audience felt they knew the man as the TARDIS sets off again and Dickens strides off into the snow, a new spring in his step. In 'Tooth and Claw' we meet Queen Victoria when she is still deep in mourning for her beloved husband. The Doctor recognises this, sympathises with it and at the story's end Victoria herself has a new mission - to protect the shores of her country from unwelcome visitors. 'The Shakespeare Code' offers a new slant on the Bard - here he's a high-kicking arrogant Liam Gallagher-style rock star, albeit one who is suffering from writer's block. These were all ballsy, confident depictions of well-loved historical figures. What does 'Victory of the Daleks' give us in its realisation of Churchill? A (too) fat man in a cheap suit with a cigar in his mouth at every opportunity - just to remind us he is in fact Churchill. There's no sense of history here, no sense of occasion as Amy meets her first famous historical face(and a missed opportunity as Amy seems a bit ambivalent about the Daleks too - although that may yet tie in to the fact she doesn't already know them from their recent attack on Earth at the end of season four). Such is the paucity of the script's struggle for verisimilitude we see Churchill wandering freely around the War Rooms - where are his advisers? Civil servants? Pen-pushers? His own security guards? Did Churchill really amble freely about the place chatting amiably to the hoi polloi? No, I don't think he did. What we have here is a broad caricature of Churchill because, to be fair, that's all we have time for. A story as (potentially) epic as this one needed far more time to breathe if it was ever to convince or even entertain. Even though much modern Dr Who is, by definition, breathless, this one just doesn't stop for a second, cascading ludicrous idea after ludicrous idea into a story which just doesn't have the narrative structure in place to support them all.
In a series which has seen a lot of cosmetic changes - the TARDIS inside and out, the sonic, the theme music and titles - I suppose we shouldn't have been too surprised to see the Daleks redesigned. It's hard not to see the influence of the series' merchandisers at play here. They've probably sold all the old TARDIS playkits and gold Dalek figures they were likely to. Time for something new for the kids (and their parents) to dig deep for! But how far can the show go? Do you really dare to tamper with the most iconic image in Dr Who history? Do you dare to have a go at redoing the Daleks? It appears you do - and you demean them just a little bit by making them bigger, bulkier...and coloured like the Teletubbies. I've no real problem with the new 'look'; they're a bit more threatening on screen, more bulbous and that middle section is a bit of a worry. But they're still undeniably Daleks. But we're talking vicious, single-minded killing machines here, a race with no taste for aesthetics, a race who have programmed out light, shade and beauty. So in their resurrection, their rebirth...they come out orange. And blue. And yellow.They also appear to have what looks suspiciously like a scart socket jammed in their backs. They also have new ranks now...'Drone', 'Scientist', 'Supreme', 'Eternal.' Steven Moffat has admitted that he and Mark Gatiss just made up these titles which sort of begs the question - why bother? I suppose 'Dalek Eternal' will look nice on a Character Options box...
So if the back-of-a-fag-packet characterisation of Churchill and dayglo Daleks weren't dodgy enough,we're left with the rest of this rather sorry mess. The plot seems to involve the Daleks building an android (Bill Patterson - in Dr Who at last!! Playing a flaming android!!) and ingratiating themselves into the British war effort so that Churchill (who they somehow know is an old friend of the Doctor's) can lure their arch enemy to earth so he can...er..say their name,a recording of which they can then trasmit back to a gizmo on their spaceship which has failed to recognise their racial impurity and refused to spew out the dayglo Daleks. But the machine recognises the Doctor's voice and the sound of him identifying the Daleks is enough to set the wheels of resurrection in motion. Yes, quite... Up on the spaceship the Doctor, channeling Tom Baker and his jelly babies, holds the Daleks to ransom with a jammie dodger whilst, with a bit of luck, Churchill is, with the help of his tame android scientist, within minutes able to jury-rig a few spitfires so they can travel into space and indulge in a bit of World War 2 aerial dogfighting with the Dalek saucer. In a jam-packed episode like this there's still not enough real plot to go around and we're left with a rather tedious race-against-time as the Doctor tries to stop the android who, in a real bit of 'Oh that'll do..' scriptwriting, is secretly a bomb which will destroy the Earth! Honestly, old William Hartnell TV Comuic strips had less inane storylines. This is actually the sequence where the show really displays how much it's missing Russell T Davies at times. The Doctor's not getting anywhere reasoning with the android not to destroy itself so it falls to Amy to try the human angle. "Have you ever fancied anyone you know you shouldn't have?" she says, slyly half-looking at the Doctor. What?? It's too early in the fifth season's run to suggest that Amy fancies the Doctor and in any case not only has there been no evidence of this so far, the production team and the cast have gone out of their way to assure us there isn't any romantic attachment between the two. This is clearly Gatiss trying to shoe-horn in a bit of Davies-style emotional character stuff but failing miserably because it makes no sense and directly contradicts what little we already know of the Doctor-Amy dynamic.
The Daleks have rushed off into space to regroup and the Doctor and Amy slope away. In case we'd missed the series' running theme there's a glowing crack in the wall behind the TARDIS and the much more interesting mystery of why Amy's history seems to have been rewritten and she's never heard of the Daleks.
In all honesty 'Victory of the Daleks' is robustly entertaining but it sure ain't Dr Who at anywhere near its best. Despite the CGI space battle and some effective cityscapes of wartime London, the show's budget cuts are still glaringly obvious. The cast is tiny (the scientist Bracewell seems to have no assistants) and it'll take more than a few sandbangs dumped on a rooftop in Cardiff to convince me we're in 1940's London, thanks all the same. Compare the visual look of this with 'The Empty Child' from 2005 which just dripped period atmosphere with its barrage balloons (and Rose's dramatic flight hanging from one), damp gloomy streets, bombs exploding in the distance, undeground jazz clubs, wartime hospitals and so much more... 'Victory of the Daleks' tells a more constrained story, it's true, but that doesn't mean it has to look any less convincing.
A lowpoint of the 21st century Dr Who then and, it seems the only way is up. The Daleks, inevitably, are on their way back again (they really need to be rested for a bit now but with a handful of glossy new props paid for it looks like they'll be around for a while yet) and I really can't say I'm looking forward to their return. Onwards then, into the first 'meat' of the season and with a broad,action-packed two-parter which really sounds as if it could be - and it really needs to be - the first classic story of the Smith/Moffat era. Stay tuned...and don't blink.