Warning: spoilers throughout.
Bear in mind, I like the Daleks. Strike that: I love the Daleks. They’re a mad invention like nothing else in science fiction, these Nazi pepperpots from hell, so wonderfully odd and, when played correctly, utterly terrifying. They’ve given us some of the best adventures in “Doctor Who” history. But, seriously, come on. Another Dalek story?
I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like during the height of Dalekmania, with one damn Dalek story after another (not to mention a comic series and two movies), the show’s producers unable to go half a season without wheeling the baddies out for another go. Not only does such repetition dilute the uniqueness of the characters and gum up the mythology behind them, it just flat-out burns the viewer right out.
Maybe that’s why, between 1975 and the classic series’ end in 1989, they would only feature in five serials/twenty episodes (not counting a cameo in “The Five Doctors”), compared to ten serials/sixty-five (!) episodes from 1963 to 1974. Their semi-retirement offered fans both a breather and a reason to celebrate on the rare occasion they did return.
Now consider the new series: “Victory of the Daleks” is their sixth story (and tenth episode) in five years. That’s a bit much, especially since their initial appearance in season one’s “Dalek” is most effective when it’s assumed, as the story tells us, that the title monster is the last of its kind, its race blown into oblivion along with the Time Lords. That episode contained several mentions of the old series (including a vintage Cyberman head) and heavily suggested that while the revived “Who” was clearly building on the continuity of the original show, the demise of the Time Lords and the Daleks would allow the producers to break free and be its own thing.
It would not last. Russell T. Davies wheeled them out as the surprise villains for that season’s two-part finale… and then again as the surprise villains for season two’s two-part finale… and then again as the surprise villains for season four’s two-part finale. (Season three? The Daleks get demoted to a mid-season two-parter, as Davies wheeled out the old-school nemesis the Master as – say it with me – the surprise villain for that season’s two-part finale.) It’s almost to the point where Daleks’ “falling through a crack in time” only to escape via “emergency temporal shift!” is as overused a vague (but highly quotable) plot cop-out as Jon Pertwee reversing the polarity of the neutron flow.
The good news, of course, is that the scripts were generally strong enough to withstand such redundancy. The “Cult of Skaro” story arc that carries us through their various reappearances is, in terms of keeping decades-old characters fresh, more interesting a notion than the “Dalek civil war” arc that wobbled its way through the 80s; the clash of the Daleks and Cybermen and the return of Dalek creator Davros were fun hat-tips to fans that played out with surprising energy and wit; and, most importantly, the stories surrounding their appearances were, for the most part, cracking good stuff, with exciting character work and bold adventure.
But still: season five was supposed to be as bold a reinvention of the series as season one was, and yet here we are, faced with another damn Dalek story. And it’s not, as originally hoped, just a one-off meant to gently remind nervous fans that it’s still “Who,” even if David Tennant’s gone; it is instead a complete relaunch of the Daleks as the series’ ultimate foe. The script, from franchise regular Mark Gatiss, puts a notable end to the increasingly convoluted Dalek backstory that filled the new series and introduces the bigger, badder, Technicolor “New Paradigm Daleks,” a fancy-shmancy way of saying “we want to modernize the Dalek look, so here’s as good an explanation as any.” (Also: “The whole human hybrid thing was getting out of hand and mucking up the original intent of fanaticism over racial purity, so here’s a quick fix.”) In other words, expect Daleks, and lots of them, in future episodes.
So. With all that out of the way: “Victory of the Daleks” is pretty darn terrific.
Writer (and franchise regular) Mark Gatiss was given the unenviable task of rebooting the Dalek legend while both tying in to previous continuity and introducing new viewers to the beasties, all while keeping the story fresh. What he delivers in “Victory” is an exciting new spin on a rusty sci-fi institution.
“Victory” picks up right where “The Beast Below” left off (sadly, no such teaser exists at the end of this episode), almost – the TARDIS still can’t get the timing right, arriving a long month after receiving the call from Winston Churchill (Ian McNeice). It’s a clever joke reminiscent of the Peter Davison years (his Doctor spent his entire first year showing up at the wrong times); I hope this running gag remains in the series.
As for Churchill, he’s revealed to be great chums with the Doctor, the two sharing hugs, nicknames, and inside jokes, if not necessarily cigars or TARDIS keys. And the menace hinted at the end of “Beast” turns out to be a red herring: the Daleks in Churchill’s bunker are, of all things, servants of the UK military, done up in Army green and stamped with the Union Jack. They claim to be an invention of Scottish scientist Professor Bracewell (Bill Paterson), who proudly calls them “Ironsides.” Despite the Doctor’s furious demands that they admit their true evilness, they reply, meekly, “I am your servant.” One of them even offers to fetch the professor a cup of tea. How quaint.
It’s a nice switcheroo that messes with expectations just long enough to draw us in, but not too long that the expected reveal becomes a tiresome waiting game. Gatiss places the Daleks-as-dirty-liars twist right in the middle-of-the-episode sweet spot, then gets the Doctor aboard the baddies’ spaceship quickly, in order to roll out all the redux Daleks.
Aside from some charming bluff work by the Doctor (his self destruct button is just a biscuit!), there’s nothing that really happens on board the Dalek ship that goes beyond basic exposition. These scenes are required to kill off the old Daleks, give birth to the new ones, and allow them to escape to exterminate another day. The Doctor’s just along for the ride.
To keep things moving, then, the teleplay concocts two threats. In the first, the villains cause all of London to light up during an air raid; the sight of WWII fighter planes whizzing through the upper atmosphere, racing to shoot down the Dalek transmitter before the Germans arrive over the city, is big time “Star Wars”-level space opera excitement, and it doesn’t matter if it makes a lick of sense. It’s Spitfires in space! Sweet! (Meanwhile, Gatiss adds a teeny subplot involving one of the pilots and his girl back at HQ. It’s a nice touch, just enough to keep the action from feeling anonymous.)
Threat number two reveals Bracewell – who had by now been revealed to be a robot built by the Daleks, oh my! – is carrying a bomb capable of destroying the planet. The Daleks already know the outcome, having many times before used the Doctor’s compassion against him: he will allow them to escape in order to save Earth. It’s a decision that haunts him – he knows by saving six billion, he’s dooming unknown others to extermination. As usual, Matt Smith shines here, as his character goes from steely determination for never letting the Daleks escape again to agonizing regret that he couldn’t make the colossal sacrifice such determination requires. And as usual, it’s Karen Gillan’s Amy who pulls him out of the gloom, reminding him to take joys in his victories.
But back to the bomb. More than just a “cut the red wire” scene (which the script shrewdly references), we get a fix that’s as touching as it is illogical: the Doctor and Amy defuse the bomb by getting Bracewell to feel emotion. Don’t ask how emotion cancels a Dalek chest bomb thingy, but there you go. The Daleks’ greatest mistake was making their robot too human – it’s Bracewell’s humanity, fictional though it may be, that defeats cold Dalek technology.
Paterson is lovely as the human who discovers he’s a phony, showing us the pain of questioning his own (implanted) memories and the joy of realizing he can celebrate his own humanness. It’s “Blade Runner” filtered through trademark “Who” celebration of life.
We end with another now-obligatory “crack in the universe” tease, but this time it’s fleshed out with an even greater mystery. The Doctor is baffled to learn Amy has no memory of the Daleks, despite their invasion of present-day Earth at the end of season four. So now we’ve gone from “who, if anyone, will Amy marry?” to “just who is Amy Pond?” Oh, she’s connected through and through with the cracked-universe thread, and while it’s too early to speculate, it appears her connection will be more satisfying (and more cohesive) then the thin story bits about Rose/Bad Wolf and Donna Noble/Dalek Caan/“Doctor-Donna.” Those season-ender reveals felt gimmicky and non-vital – remove them from their respective scripts, and their seasons still hold easily – while Amy’s possible out-of-time-ness looks to be an integral part of season five as a while. Color me completely intrigued.