Sunday, 18 April 2010

DOCTOR WHO: 'VICTORY OF THE DALEKS' (aka NOT THEIR FINEST FORTY FIVE MINUTES)


On the basis of the first two episodes (alright, one and a bit), the new series of Doctor Who was generating a generally positive consensus in the nerdsphere. Andrew Rilstone had commented: “Fanboy says new Who ‘quite good’, shock.”

That didn’t last long, did it?

Way back when the show was first revived, I actually got quite excited about Mark Gatiss being brought on board as writer. Not just because I’d been a fan of League of Gentlemen, but because a writer of surrealist black comedy seemed a far better fit for the show than a ‘proper’ SF writer. And while it's true that neither ’The Unquiet Dead’ nor ’The Idiot’s Lantern’ really lived up to this promise my mind had made itself, I still await a new script from him with that promise.

In the following documentary, Doctor Who Confidential, Steven Moffat enthused “it’s like British icons shoved together!” And so it was. A shopping list of British icons stuck on the screen, with no thought of plot or character development or even a linear viewing experience.

The trouble with committing your words to print is that they can come back to haunt you. Last time I wrote “Nowadays, you can get old episodes on DVD. There’s no need to keep remaking them.” So of course the next thing they do is remake an old story which you can’t get on DVD, one which has been lost! The early part of this episode was ’Power of the Daleks’ in a transported setting with something different written on the lid. (Alright, half different.) The Daleks are pretending to be dutiful robots, only the Doctor knows what they’re up to and no-one will listen to him. And some of the individual scenes captured this tension and paranoia well. I especially liked the Doctor raging at Churchill, then stopping and realising a Dalek was hovering outside the doorway. But these scenes were just that - individual scenes!

With ’Power of the Daleks’, David Whitaker set things up so as to make this tension effective. First, no-one knows who the Doctor is and has no reason to trust him. Second, the Daleks’ plan makes some kind of sense. (Here it relies upon Churchill being scared into summoning the Doctor, then abruptly losing that fear as soon as he turns up. Did their whole plan hinge on the vagaries of a human whim?) But more, it gave that sense of tension six episodes to marinade in. The fact that we the audience know just what the Daleks are up to just makes the tension all the more unbearable. Here it gets maybe twenty minutes. This is a classic example of the new, sophisticated show not being able to do things the old one could perfectly well.

The new DaleksV2 appearing and exterminating their begetters... okay, that was a cool scene. There’s no reason why the things-within shouldn’t update their carriers, any more than we should still be driving around in cars from the Sixties. And it might have finally ended the whole ‘human DNA’ theme, which worked so well in ‘Dalek’ but has now run its course. But, yet again, the word is ‘scene’! These new Daleks didn’t do anything the old ones couldn’t, nothing bigger or badder or eviller.  They just looked more blinging and spoke in more grating voices. Their appearance was incidental to the main plotline, which could have carried on the same way even if the khaki Daleks had hung about. It was just one more sight on a whistlestop tour, not a development.

And the dogfight in space even broke the one sole unifying factor they had been applying, the British icons thing. You didn’t think Battle of Britain, as the two in no way resembled each other. Instead you simply thought “finale of Star Wars.” A fourth-rate, years-behind-the-times copycat of Star Wars.

You could if you wanted list all the logical inconsistencies. Couldn't the Doctor have proven the Daleks weren't servile robots by opening a lid and revealing the green globby thing inside? Did the blackout really hinge on generators being shut down and not people blacking out their windows, as the term might seem to imply? If the Doctor is already known to Churchill, why didn’t the Ninth Doctor enlist his help in ’The Empty Child’? Why did all the Dalek technology have to be taken away if Bracewell could just be left to roam? That whole thing about his implanted human memories overriding a bomb, how was that supposed to work anyway? Yet the way the episode was strung together it would be more a challenge to look for con-sistencies, so let’s leave it.

Perhaps most worrying of all was the way the episode seemed to cast a shadow over the direction of the series in general – principally over Amy. Her line “ever fancied somebody you shouldn’t?” is an ill omen. If the companions are going to simply alternate between having unrequited hots for the Doctor and generating some star-studded love story, then things are going to get schematic. But I was perhaps tempting fate when I wrote (in Andrew Rilstone’s comments) on the theme of all this part-happening in her imagination:

“However if (as some are already speculating) this is made into a Big Plot Twist, like the whole thing’s happening in Amy’s mind in some ‘Life On Mars’ scenario, that would ruin everything. Fans have a ‘better out than in’ philosophy, in which whatever is implicit is better made explicit. Taking such a turn would be a classic demonstration of how wrong they are.”

Amy not recognising the Daleks is clearly connected to the over-riding ‘crack in space’ theme. But we’re getting more and more suggestions that she is not just a symptom, but is in some way connected to this mysterious crack. It first appears on her bedroom wall. The duckpond is empty, in the same episode we learn her surname is Pond. And most ominous of all is the line that she “understands” the android Bracewell.

The theme of the ordinary person thrust into extraordinary situations is a staple of British fantastical literature. It was the very basis of the original Doctor Who. Though the show had the same name as now, Ian and Barbara were clearly intended as the audience identification figures, to the point where it could easily have been called ‘Schoolteachers in Space’. But this idea is being increasingly and repeatedly lost. (See for example the godawful Day of The Triffids remake on last Christmas.) If Amy turns out to be anything other than an ordinary girl with an extraordinary imagination, they will ruin the very thing they have created. 


Worse, you get the feeling it is all being done backwards – purely for the sake of being able to set up clues, which can get the message boards a-whizzing. I am no fan of this confusion between dropping clues and writing, but a mainstream show like Doctor Who makes the worst home for it. (Needless to say, I hope to be proved wrong here.)

Of course, having already sat through ’Boom Town’, through ’The Lazarus Experiment’, through ’The Unicorn and the Wasp’ I will carry on watching. ’Love and Monsters’ and ’Fear Her’ went out back-to-back and somehow I still carried on watching! You have to allow a show such as this to have off-episodes. And as next week starts a new Moffat two-parter, the dial will hopefully shift into the plus zone once more. In one sense, I’m even questioning why I should bother writing about this. Why not write about that gorm-free remake of The Prisoner for the Lost generation, which went out shortly after it? Is it illustrative to list the badness of bad things?

The answer is in no small part down to a Doctor Who obsession on my part, itself explained by what constituted my youthful viewing habits. But, as mentioned, the episode did raise problems with the wider series. (And it came from an idea of Moffat’s, after all.) And above all it so exemplified another claim I came up with last time: “It suggests Moffat is writing down incidents and images as they come to him, then later stringing them into storylines.”

...which is in many ways a perfectly valid approach. A TV show should strive to produce striking and memorable images, particularly a show not bound by the constraints of literalism. But the downside of this approach is that all too often things stop at this first stage. It’s like someone picked up the shopping list of images instead of the script, and shot that instead. It’s simply... well, “shoved together” would be a fitting phrase.

The Daleks have become such an icon that this seems particularly true of them. Their only possible rival for the defining image of the show is the Tardis. (Even the Doctor keeps changing his face.) Consequently, their popularity has had a paradoxical effect on the show, simultaneously bringing out both it’s strengths and weaknesses. You had to have a Dalek story, ready or not. But there’s no need to tell us about them, for the point is simply to show them.

In the old days their return could signal fresh new twists, as with 'Power of the Daleks'. But it all too often meant the return of the first Dalek storyline, albeit restaged and with new actors. ‘The Daleks’ meant ‘the Dalek story’, taken in the singular. Now what counts is the Dalek icon. With ’Evolution of the Daleks’, when the Dalek-human hybrid graced the cover of the Radio Times, it seemed a striking image. Yet the whole of the episode seemed to a chain of events to get us to that image (plus a few others along the way). Instead of the old Dalek story, we didn’t get any. ‘Repeat till cancelled’ versus ‘shoved together’.

But let’s not call this the darkest hour when it’s barely even the end of the beginning. Next week will hopefully bring a better choice of fare...

3 comments:

  1. Really enjoying these, Gavin. Spot on.

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  2. Thanks for the kind words, Russell!

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  3. i thought victory of the daleks was a terrible episode i think mark gatiss is a terrible script writer and he wrote the worst episode ever as victory of the daleks he should wrote in the script the daleks fighting the nazis and the human race the daleks should of fort german aeroplanes tanks and humans with machine gunas and stuff the daleks should of flown in the air to destroy aeroplanes fly around below destroying tanks and exterminating soldiers from above and below and on the ground the daleks should of fort the whole human race as well and i would like some to write that story again and i hope they will and make it better and mor interesting again im very disappointed with mark gatiss and with doctor who victory of the daleks and series 5

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