The Emperor’s New Clothes

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After the Doctor and the companion, so the Enemy.

Since 2005 sharing the main spot with the Master for end of season spectaculars, it’s difficult to summon enthusiasm for the return of the Daleks – they’ve simply been used too often, and for progressively higher stakes. The new series, which reintroduced them with a single spartan and emotionally-driven episode, has since strip-mined them, pinching their modus operandi from the Cybermen, then them off against the silver stompers, combining Dalek DNA with that of humans making monstrous hybrids and finally when other avenues were exhausted and all other higher aspects of the traditional hierarchy were expended, bringing back Davros and having them try to destroy ‘reality’. So played out were they in 2009 that their sole appearance was a solitary individual in a flashback to a previous story. And now they’re back, claiming Victory no less. But victory over what?

Victory of the Daleks is the result of two things – one is the shopping list approach to storytelling evident in the RTD era and apparent now in the Moffat age (the Daleks, a historical figure, set-up for a future return), and the other the new series’ drive to reinvent. Three episodes in we’ve had a new Doctor and companion, new TARDIS and now it’s the turn of the most enduring baddie. Those elements in themselves amount to a lot for a routine or runaround one-parter – in the hands of series nostalgiameister Mark Gatiss the dilution of story amid beats and motifs becomes all the more obvious. Having said that, although I feel I recognise the author’s hand in Victory of the Daleks, there’s a big part of me that finds his influence on the story isn’t that apparent. Because beyond these set pieces and beats, I can’t bring myself to admit I can actually see a story.

Victory is frustrating to me, especially so for its obviousness. The disparate ‘big’ elements hang together so loosely: Churchill and the Blitz? Why? After an opener set pointedly in a Sleepy English Town followed by a story set in England (sorry, the UK) in Space with its own serious thing for bakelite retro design, who of all people would think a cosy sing-along-a-war-time version of the Battle of Britain and novelty Winston means pushing things forward? It makes me uncomfortable to follow the story’s implication that the Doctor’s arrival at that point in time was deliberately set up by the Daleks due to his ‘Britishness’ and affection for/speed dial to that country’s historical figures, because it speaks to much of the occasional laziness of the series and its lip service to its audience. The new series’ history has too easily adopted a de facto British history as its canon (Pompeii is moot), and it’s become boring. So too are the aforementioned story elements which, when they do hang together, do so in an extremely linear way: the Daleks set up a presence on Eng- sorry, Earth to lure the Doctor, they do so by gifting their technology to Churchill’s war effort by the genius and presumably highly sophisticated means of robo-boffin with a soul Bracewell (what, just leaving some easily understood plans lying around Whitehall was too far-fetched?), which allows the Doctor and friends to use Bracewell against his creators and hey presto – spitfires in space. Even the Daleks’ trick to force their enemy’s hand – leaving all the lights on in London, is dreadful. Is the story set in the days before blackout curtains?

Time for some positives. Those spitfires looked brilliant, as did the Dalek saucer interior – who’d have guessed a tobacco  factory could double so well for a home to innumerable devices of death? In fact, the design element I would say is one of the few concessions to the story, outside of the ever-reliable Bill Patterson. The new Daleks? I’m not so sure. The colours are certainly bold (does their reflecting a new hierarchy mean that a simple paint-job is all a Dalek needs to better itself?), but the side view is lamentable. The Universe’s deadliest creations have always had the hump, but it appears this time they’ve taken it literally. Performance-wise things are variable too – Patterson, as I said, is on form with a routine role (for Who!), and Matt Smith does his best with an overcrowded HQ in both settings. Ian MacNeice is capable of much better then his caricature role asks, although I must admit that against the earlier nominations – Robert Hardy and Albert Finney, he’s probably the best fit, and a straighter performance might not have worked amid everything else on show. Karen Gillan comes across here as cocksure and flippant – some way from Billie Piper’s Dalek introduction, but Amy’s ignorance of the Daleks is a promising element; another revision, or a significant character crack?

In the end it’s a Pyrrhic Victory – a lightweight idea stretched to story length, but lacking meat. This would be fine as a later-season overture like, say, Utopia, but for story three it does too little, and seemingly too early to matter.

PA

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