Monday, May 17, 2010

“History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”

Before we start dismantling Victory of the Daleks, let me just say that I'm going to give it 5 out of 10. It's bright and brash enough to be superficially entertaining, it has a couple of nice comedy moments and a decent supporting cast, and it's pacy. Right then. Bring in the power tools.

A lot of this episode has been built on reconstituted video product – grab bags full of war film references and clichés and a sprinkling of Star Wars visual effects (there's a fair bit of Star Wars about this series...). The young woman crying over her lover who “didn't make it back”, whose name I didn't catch – she's not there for the companion to talk to and empathise with, as would have happened in previous years, she's just there as a cipher, a bit of recycled war film imagery. The air raid warden is pure Ealing comedy.

Perhaps we shouldn't expect the Blitz to get any special treatment from Who – DW's historical stories are generally adventures in the Pop Culture Historical Experience rather than in history itself (from The Next Doctor's urchin-eriffic trawl through a hyper-Dickensian vision of Victorian London at Christmas, all the way back to Billy Hartnell meeting Marco Polo in China or witnessing the gunfight at the OK Corral). Winston Churchill's role in this story therefore isn't to be the centre of a fascinating examination of his end-justifies-the-means morality (would he really collaborate with the Daleks, if he knew what they really were?), but simply to be a historical celebrity. On the one hand this is a shame and a waste; on the other, it's just what the series does.

Incidentally, a quick Internet search reveals that “If Hitler invaded Hell, I'd give the Devil a favourable reference” is indeed (or nearly enough) a quote from Churchill himself. Sounded like it might have been. So, more surprisingly, is “Keep buggering on”.

The focus of the episode is quite definitely on the Daleks. If I had to guess at the mission statement for Victory of the Daleks in its entirety, it'd be “introduce the new-look Daleks”, with the World War Two material and the fun stuff with the “Ironsides” serving tea strictly incidental. But pretty much all they do, once introduced, is line up for the big Christmas shopping fashion shoot and then scarper. Admittedly there's not time for much more after the build-up, and that didn't feel particularly drawn out either – as I've said, it's a pacy episode. But it's a pretty shameless way of plugging your new spin-off merchandise.

There's really nothing I can say about the new Dalek design, because it's all been said already. Power Rangers, air fresheners, council recycling bins – I think the only epithet I haven't seen used is giant kulfi. I did briefly wonder if they might launch into a barbershop quartet quintet number, but no such luck. Probably the easiest way to rationalise them is to tie them in with Moffat's grand vision of DW as myth. They're giant Wagnerian Jotun-Daleks – bigger, boomier, in brighter primary colours than before. And with ironing boards in their backs. I think the underlying reason why this new design has come in for some flack is that it looks like exactly what it is: a brightly coloured plastic/fibreglass moulding. You could believe the 2005 model might have been made of metal; the old series Daleks may have looked like painted wood, but squint and you could kid yourself. Not a hope with these. Perhaps the idea is to make it as easy as possible for the toys to look like the real thing, by making the real thing look like a toy.

Nice and roomy for the operators, mind you. They can probably stand up inside those things.

I have three major gripes about the plot. Gripe number one: The Dalek “progenitor device”. So the Jotun-Daleks create a load of these and spread them across time and space, presumably as insurance against the Time War. The old series dealt once or twice with the idea that even Daleks created by Davros himself might not be considered “pure Daleks” as he just couldn't stop tinkering with them, and obviously during the Time War this happened again. The Jotun-Daleks seem to have anticipated this. But rather than give the progenitor device sufficiently vague parameters that it would respond to a modified Dalek, they instead set it so that it can only be activated if the Doctor is around to independently confirm the operator's identity. This is just asking for trouble. In fact, it's not clear why they wouldn't just set the things to aim for a planet and go off wherever they landed, spawning new-old Daleks all over the place. Or at least, wherever there's a dry ice machine, some disco lighting and the doors from the set of Stars in Their Eyes.

Gripe number two: Stopping the bomb from exploding by persuading it that it's human (or at least encouraging it to indulge in human feelings). In itself this isn't an absolute no-no – it's quite a DW thing to do, and a very New Who thing to do – but it needed some sort of explanation. Just a line or two of technobabble would have covered it, really. Just having the situation resolve itself that way with no set-up at all didn't feel very satisfying. Also, the Doctor had better be very sure that bomb's not going to start up again.

Gripe number three: Somehow, in the space of ten exegetic minutes, we go from Prof Bracewell telling Churchill about his “gravity bubble” idea to a dogfight in space. So that's: establish the plan and work out what materials are needed; have the materials delivered to the war bunker; actually construct the “gravity bubble” machinery; transport the machinery to an airfield, either with Bracewell (in which case add more time for him to return to the war bunker) or an assistant (in which case add more time for Bracewell to explain everything to him); fit it to a handful of Spitfires; find some pilots who haven't already been sent up against the incoming air raid and brief them, possibly allowing extra time for the pilots to laugh/freak out/refuse to listen to any more of this bally nonsense about space-Hun; get them from the ground into low Earth orbit; and wait for them to locate and arrive at the Dalek ship. All in ten minutes. My disbelief has just reached the Earth's core. It's probably as well that the episode didn't go into this in any detail, as the montage hasn't been cut that could take the job on.

But ultimately, it's all balanced out for me by the cracking “For Victory!” Dalek propaganda poster and the whole business with the Dalek offering tea. Yes, Matt Smith's very good again; so is Karen Gillan, although she didn't seem to get that much to do; Ian McNeice and Bill Paterson are great as Churchill and Bracewell. Yes, the thumbnail sketch glimpses of war-torn London we see are well realised. But it's the Dalek joke scenes that win me round. So this episode gets a steady 5 out of 10.

And oh look, a crack in space and time again. Just in case we'd forgotten.


Christopher Pittard said...

Well, 5 out of 10 is fair enough, if you award 9 for the first fifteen minutes, and 1 for the remaining half hour (actually, if you weight that fairly and take an average, that's still only about 3.7, so you're being generous here Toon, and more so than for *The Beast Below*, which I still stand by as more of a political allegory and less a completely coherent plot. Kinda like "The Happiness Patrol", really).

I think we all expected much more from the combination of Daleks in World War II and Mark Gatiss, but it was not to be... I'm still agawp at how narratively empty the episode is once the cover's blown, for which the interior of the Dalek ship is a perfect visual metaphor (really, there's nothing in that scene to demonstrate that we're not actually in the NEC looking at the latest line from Peugeot. All we need is Katy Manning draping herself 'seductively' across one of them on a revolving dais). Not even Bill Paterson trying to avoid completing the universe's deadliest game of Travel Trivial Pursuit can liven this one up. And is it me, or is every episode running about three minutes short, leading to bizarre padding? (You'll see this in truly horrifying form in two weeks' time, by the way).

John Toon said...

You take that back about The Happiness Patrol, you cad! The Happiness Patrol is a far superior story to The Beast Below!

I'm standing by my assessment of TBB - I can see it *wants* to be a political allegory, but I think it's trying to be several at once and garbling the subtexts a lot.

Travel Trivial Pursuit... heheh. The thing about that scene in the Dalek ship is that it *is* the new Peugeot line in the NEC - "this season's range of Daleks" is all that it is. (Check out the Supreme Dalek naming them all as well...) That's bad, but also quite bravura in its shamelessness. But yes, it's an episode of two halves, and it's lightweight. Still at least passably entertaining.

Re the Katy Manning Incident - y'know, there's more than a hint of brightly coloured plastic about her these days too... it'd almost be appropriate... Actually, no, best not go there.

I've heard about the end of episode 5 - I have a theory about this which I will share in due course.

As for whether the episodes are running short, it's impossible to tell when you've got bastard adverts all the way through the show.

strabec said...

I said you probably wouldn't like it. The whole episode, as you rightly said was a "look at my shiny new daleks!!!" with no real substance at all.