|Perhaps the greatest mystery of Victory of the Daleks is why the Daleks have|
an air conditioning vent on their spaceship.
It’s April 17th
, 2010. Scouting for Girls are still at number one with “This Ain’t a Love Song,” with Plan B, Tinie Tempah, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Usher also charting, the latter working with will.i.am on “OMG.” In news, Poland reacts to the death of a large swath of its government in a plane crash that I forgot to mention last entry, an earthquake kills over 500 people in China, and the first-ever televised leaders debate takes place ahead of the general election, with the general consensus being that Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg came out the best.
Elsewhere on television, the Daleks are back. Here we come to one of the handful of Matt Smith stories with an unambiguously dire critical reception. Those hoping for an enthusiastic redemptive reading are, I fear, going to be disappointed. There’s very little to do with Victory of the Daleks besides either vicious snark or a calm dissection of its many problems. Given the choice, I’ll go with the latter, and wrap it up in one of those slightly heartbreaking structures where I spend a bunch of time talking about what a good story this could have been before hitting a brick wall with a paragraph beginning “Unfortunately…”
Because in its own strange way, Victory of the Daleks is a nearly perfect imitation of its ostensible source material, David Whitaker’s sublime Power of the Daleks. As designed, Power of the Daleks was a crutch. For the bold experiment of recasting the lead role, Innes Lloyd reasoned, the sensible thing to do was to bring the Daleks back to distract everybody. Terry Nation was unavailable, however, and so the script went instead to David Whitaker and Dennis Spooner, who took the premise of “once again, Daleks blow shit up” and turned it instead into a complex meditation on human frailty, the temptation of power, and the mechanics of politics. Victory of the Daleks is almost the exact same thing, only in reverse.
Very deep within Victory of the Daleks is a profoundly interesting story based on the confluence of several intersecting themes. First is an exceedingly and straightforwardly mythic engagement with the Daleks. From the start the Daleks have served in part as analogies for the Nazis. Setting a Dalek Story in World War II, therefore, ups the stakes in a very particular and methodical way. Equally, however, it risks a profound awkwardness. The Daleks may have started as metaphors for Nazis, but they haven’t really been used that way in a while, not least because the Nazis, as ideas, have gone from being the terrifying face of a narrowly avoided nightmare and have started being a way to do war stories with unambiguous villains. The Daleks, meanwhile, have become metaphors less for the Nazis and more for a sort of complete and utter abyssal horror defined only by their desire to kill absolutely everything ever.
This makes putting the Daleks on screen with the Nazis difficult, if not impossible, to do without if seeming crass and tasteless. And notably, Victory of the Daleks doesn’t actually include any Nazis. Instead the Daleks are put in their occasional role as tricksters and manipulators. We haven’t actually seen the Daleks used this way since Dalek, and so this is refreshing. Many of the best bits of Victory of the Daleks stem from the decision to have Daleks behave perversely, most notably the whole “would you like a cup of tea” bit. The Daleks become a source of temptation - a tool that will give Britain an advantage in the war, but that is in practice even worse than the Nazis, of whom it can at least be said “they never tried to destroy the entirety of reality.” Certainly within a world that assumes the existence of the Daleks their use for any cause serves as a clear cut line that ought not be crossed.
And so we end up with an interrogation of Britain during World War II, and particularly the beloved historical figure of Winston Churchill. There is a school of thought that suggests that the hagiographic treatment of Winston Churchill is a significant moral failing of Victory of the Daleks. Certainly Churchill is, to say the least, a figure deserving of a more skeptical historical reputation than he has in the larger public. On the other hand, he is, for better or for worse, a beloved historical figure of British history, and what we see here is no more troubling than the lionization of Queen Victoria or Agatha Christie. While a Doctor Who story that takes Winston Churchill to task would be tremendous and interesting and worth applauding, it does not seem fair to criticize Doctor Who for not being so iconoclastic as to draw the kind of fire that a furiously critical portrayal of Churchill would. As worthwhile as getting angrily trashed in The Sun and The Daily Mail is, it’s tough to blame the series for not jumping to do it at this moment in its history.
Yes, there’s an obvious counter here, which is “why do Churchill at all if you’re not going to criticize him,” which is fair. But what this entire discussion regrettably overlooks is the fact that this story is not uncritical about Churchill. The entire point of having Churchill embrace the Daleks to fight against the Nazis is to undermine the moral legitimacy not only of Churchill but of the entire ““he saved Britain from the forces of darkness” narrative of World War II. It’s one that dares to suggest that possibly World War II is not straightforwardly and unambiguously “the good war” - a leftist turn that is actually unthinkable within the new series. The last time this sort of thing was possible for Doctor Who on television was The Curse of Fenric, where it got away with it because nobody was watching. Here the series gets away with it by covering the moral point with a “print the legend” portrait of Churchill that’s all bombast and comedy, allowing the fact that he’s allied himself with the Daleks to speak for itself.
And this is important. The only reason that World War II is “the good war” is because we won and thus got to write the history; not because the Allies were morally faultless. In many ways this finally addresses the arc of the Daleks as well, who stop being robot Nazis and start suggesting, rather more chillingly, that the Nazis are not so much the purest possible embodiment of all evil as a particularly evil historical phenomenon that have enjoyed a long afterlife as a trope in adventure fiction.
Alongside this is a concept borrowed directly from Whitaker’s Season Four Dalek stories, which is the idea that the Daleks (and for that matter the Doctor) are defined in relation to one another. In Power of the Daleks the new Doctor is finally and unambiguously identified as the Doctor the moment that a Dalek swivels and stares at him, clearly recognizing him despite the new face. Here, of course, it works differently - it is only because the Doctor recognizes the nature of the Daleks that the Daleks are able to define themselves.
This, in turn, evokes Whitaker’s other Dalek story, Evil of the Daleks, in which the Daleks need to define themselves and do so by getting the Doctor to isolate “the human factor,” an act that allows the Daleks to determine “the Dalek factor” through contrast. The idea here is that the Daleks are only able to understand themselves by being contrasted with the Doctor - that his testimony is essential to their existence. This is particularly interesting given the aforementioned contrasting of the Daleks with their original metaphoric substance in the form of the Nazis. The Daleks are, in this story, surrounded by everything that they are defined in terms of.
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And so what we have is a story that is in a strange way about the absence of the Daleks. We have the Doctor raging about how the Daleks are his ultimate enemy, we have the World War II context out of which the Daleks emerged, we have Dalek-shaped tea ladies, but we don’t actually have Daleks. Instead we have a Dalek-shaped hole that everything else reflects the nature of the Daleks into, and is in turn defined opposite. It is, on the whole, a fascinating mix of concepts and iconography.
(In a hilarious twist, when I first posted this entry I accidentally failed to copy over the back half of the entry, meaning that it just ended there. Several commenters suggested they quite liked that it was a short if redemptive reading, and that the promised "Unfortunately..." section never came. If you think you might be that sort of reader, this is an excellent place to stop reading.)
Unfortunately, about fifteen minutes into the episode it abandons all of this in favor of a gratuitous sequence involving spitfires fighting Daleks in space, an interminably long bit of plot exposition delivered by Daleks, the unfortunate Dalek redesign (which, while not a bad idea in and of itself, gave vast ammunition to anyone who wanted to complain that the series had moved backwards due to its self-evident inferiority compared to the Davies-era Daleks), and, finally, to a denouement in which a Dalek bomb is disarmed by convincing a robot of the validity of love.
This last sequence is worth unpacking a little extra. For one thing, it’s painfully ill-conceived. It is not that it is on the face of it horribly stupid - for all the stick “power of love” endings get, it’s difficult to come up with any reason other than a strangely blinkered sense of story logic why “the living bomb deactivated himself by reminding himself of his humanity” is bad whereas “the guy who was being converted into a giant ant blew up the other giant ants with the last vestiges of his humanity” is good. It is, in the end, the same basic moral as the “X rediscovers his humanity just in time to nobly commit suicide” ending. It may be a bit cliche, but it’s not intrinsically awful.
The problem is that it’s not a response to anything that’s come before in the episode. Sure, there’s a thematic callback to “the human factor” involved here, but this isn’t actually Evil of the Daleks, and that theme isn’t really developed enough to work. And “the joy of fancying someone you know you shouldn’t” really isn’t a concept that fits in sensibly with World War II, the terrible things we do to win wars, and the fundamental evil at the heart of all things. The resolution feels tacked on from a different story entirely.
Which is made all the worse by the fact that this gets used as the moment where Amy’s running away with the Doctor stops being about the return to being the sort of person who has an imaginary friend and starts being about how much she wants to shag the Doctor. This is not actually a problem in the larger sense - her sexuality is a significant plot point that, in later stories, will make her story more complex and nuanced in genuinely interesting ways. But here, as a solution to this problem, it takes an already unsatisfying scene and makes it seem to play against everything the show has been building for the past two episodes.
The reasons for this are as banal as the episode itself. Ultimately, Victory of the Daleks really was conceived of in the same way that Power of the Daleks was: as a story that would use the Daleks as cover while the show finds its feet. The decision to give the script to Gatiss speaks volumes, because this is exactly what Gatiss does. He’s a nostalgia artist. Every Gatiss story exists primarily to frolic in the iconography of things Gatiss loved as a child. When they work it is because Gatiss is a broadly competent writer who had interesting taste as a child. But the iconography was by far the least interesting part of Power of the Daleks. Everything that was good about Whitaker’s story is the stuff Gatiss discards fifteen minutes in. Instead everything that makes it to the screen is the safe, generic parts of the story, with the depth either left on the cutting room floor or excluded entirely.
But for all that it’s easy to criticize him, Gatiss is the one person in this sorry affair who even seems to have tried to write something interesting. It may be buried under generic and safe choices, but at least one can argue that he was trying, which is more than you can say for anybody else, who seems to go for the completely generic and then to turn out to be too green to pull it off. Season Five is uneven in a way that the show hadn’t been since Series One, and for good reason. (It’s curious that these uneven seasons are the ones that critics of the respective eras inevitably point to as the ones that work.) For the most part this isn’t that big a problem - sure, there are stories that probably could have been a bit sharper than they came out being, but it’s mostly the sort of roughness that helps to emphasize the moments where the show is being truly inventive. But here a massive wave of playing it safe comes along at the exact same time as the roughest moment in the season’s production and the confluence is a complete and utter disaster. Absolutely everyone is off their game here, from the disastrous Dalek redesign to the lackluster direction to the misjudged casting. Even Matt Smith, who typically goes to heroic lengths to salvage weak material, finds himself not really knowing how to run through pages of exposition with brightly colored trash bins while attempting to wield a deadly cookie, while Karen Gillan displays the first appearance of her worrisome tendency to go on autopilot when given weak material.
And that’s the real tragedy of Victory of the Daleks. There was a brilliant story to be written with these ideas. Everyone involved shows in the episodes on either side of this (whether in production or transmission order) that they’re capable of brilliance. But a new production team lacking in confidence decided to make something tawdry and superficial out of the iconography of something brilliant. They aimed for mediocrity, and then fell short to boot. Everyone could have done better. The damning thing about Victory of the Daleks is that hardly anybody tried to.