Sunday, 8 February 2015

Unnecessary Redesign Of The Daleks

Doctor Who
Victory Of The Daleks
Series Five, Episode Three

The new Doctor vs. the Daleks.  What could go wrong?  As it turns out, quite a lot.

For starters, they forget to dress all the sets.
Okay, think positive.  I like that it's about a small group of Daleks, and not another Finale Army.  I like that it's set during the Second World War, because Daleks are stand-ins for Nazis and the two things just go together.  (Seriously, how right do they look zooming around the Blitz?)  I like the khaki-Daleks.  I like that when the Doctor arrives, answering a distress call from Winston Churchill, the Daleks pretend to be helpful.  There's a definite Power Of The Daleks vibe there, and even a direct reference with the "I am your soldier" line.  Nice.  (In case you're wondering, Power Of The Daleks is one of the best Dalek stories, but it's missing from the archives.  I guess if you're going to pinch an idea, it might as well be one you can't go back and watch.)

I also like some of the things it tries to do.  Pitting the Doctor against Daleks who've changed their ways is interesting.  How will he react?  Can he cope with Daleks that don't want to take over the universe?  Is he happier when they're shooting at him?  And later, when they show their true colours (all too literally), I like the attempt to make the Daleks bigger and badder.  In theory.  As Steven Moffat loves to reiterate, the Daleks are the most reliably defeatable baddies in the cosmos.  How can we change that?  I think that's a fair question, and a fair basis for a story.

Of course, that's all it is: a basis for a story.  You do need to add a few things, like a plot and some compelling characters.  All of that's missing.  Victory Of The Daleks is like someone scribbled a brief for an episode – WW2, Winston Churchill, Daleks, redesign them at the end – and put that straight into production.

Take the setting.  I read an interview with Mark Gatiss before this aired, and he seemed really interested in this time period.  He recounted grisly tales of death in the Blitz, and of people suffering all sorts of hardships.  Obviously Doctor Who won't go too into detail about it, but we've had a compelling World War Two episode before, so we know they can do it.  Victory Of The Daleks, on the other hand, is the laziest, join-the-dotsiest recreation of Blitz-era Britain you could imagine.  Here is a version of Winston Churchill who is never without a cigar, and rarely opens his mouth except to a) chew cigar or b) spout a catchphrase.  "Action this day!"  "We'll give 'em what for!"  "Keep buggering on!"  Does he come with a pull-string?  The supporting cast are just as bad; there's an ARP warden on the roof who yells "Put that light out!" and (urgh) "Do yer worst, Adolf!"  Later they put up a Union Jack and all nod patriotically at it.  This is a cartoon.  For historical flavour, you'd be genuinely better off watching Dad's Army.

Come to think of it, Dad's Army had better plots.  Take this "pretend to be helpful" business.  It's creepy and reference-y and a bit funny as well.  ("WOULD YOU LIKE SOME TEEEEA?" is not something you'd ever expect a Dalek to say.)  But after a grand total of 12 minutes, they chuck it in the bin.  Now, I doubt anyone watching this honestly believed that a) the Daleks have turned over a new leaf, or b) they really are just some unrelated robots that happen to look like Daleks.  But the tension isn't about whether their story is true – it's about What Are They Really Up To.  All the stuff with the bloke who thinks he invented them is intriguing enough.  Why are we in such a hurry to find out the truth?  In the paltry time allotted, all that "pretending" stuff amounts to is the Doctor saying "Oh yes you are" until they agree with him.  Well, that was easy.  And pointless, once we find out what their "plan" was.

Good thing he hasn't got post-regenerative amnesia.
Okay, so they've got a Progenitor, aka a thing that makes Daleks.  It won't work because their DNA isn't Daleky enough any more.  Don't panic!  It will work if they get the Doctor to confirm that they are, in fact, Daleks.  They decide the best way to achieve this is to build a robot scientist and make him believe he invented them, and go around saying they are not Daleks, but Ironsides.  (This is after the ending of The Beast Below, when Winston Churchill summons the Doctor before he starts believing they're Ironsides.  Uhh... script editor?)  They then cross their tentacles and hope the Doctor will turn up, at which point he will probably say the magic words.  Simple!  Oh, wrong word.  I meant "bollocks".

A machine that won't recognise Daleks, with the sink plungers and everything, but will accept the testimony (and recognise the voice of) the Doctor is bollocks – they haven't even met this version of the Doctor yet, so it's not like they've got his voice print.  Making a robot scientist who thinks he invented them is bollocks – what's it actually for, and why not just act like Daleks and wait for the inevitable wheezing, groaning sound that came every other time?  Filling the robo-scientist with memories is bollocks, not to mention dangerous – why not just remote control him, since he's a bleedin' robot?  Pretending to be helpful, and pretending they're not really Daleks at all is bollocks – if they're at all convincing, no one will summon the Doctor in the first place.  Really, if you're the sort of idiot who builds a machine that will accept the word of a stranger over a set of Dalek bumps and a sink plunger, perhaps extinction isn't such a bad idea.  Worst Dalek Plan Ever?

With the magic words uttered, the episode loses its selling point, and it's a prompt toboggan-ride downhill from there.  The Daleks rush off to hit CTRL+P on their Progenitor, the Doctor follows and holds them to ransom with a pretend TARDIS self-destruct.  Then... they tell him all their plans.  And he tells them he's not going to let them get away with it.  And it's dead boring.  Much of this episode rests on Matt Smith, who's obviously very watchable, but he's working with hopelessly dry stuff like "They are my oldest and deadliest enemies", "I've defeated you time and time again!" and "I won't let you get away this time!"  His inimitable stamp is missing, crushed by a script that reads like a bad Target novelisation.  It's Exposition Of The Daleks.

And then we get to the real reason for this episode: new Daleks!  New toys!  A new lease of life!  What a pity they look bloody ridiculous.  Now you mention it, the Daleks looked fine.  It was, and is a perfect design – ain't broke, doesn't need fixing.  Tweak them if you must (bronze works, khaki look great), but making them bigger, and colour-coding them like Power Rangers?  Not so necessary.  They're the most reliably defeatable baddies in the universe, and that's not going to change because all of sudden they're colour-coded.  Why not put more effort into their stories, since that's where they were lacking?  No change there, sadly, but now they look like comically oversized toys.  And then they run away.  That's seriously all we've been building up to here: the Daleks want a new batch, they get one, the end.  Oi, Mark!  You forgot to write a plot!

Our various heroes attempt to stop them, of course, which leads to some fighty-shooty-special-effectsy stuff that isn't a substitute for a plot.  The Daleks have turned on all the lights in London, which makes it a target for the Luftwaffe.  Oh no!  Luckily the robotic Bracewell has lots of useful ideas and isn't under Dalek control because um, so he outfits some Spitfires to go into space (good thing the Daleks made him able to do that!), they shoot at the Dalek ship, the Doctor... helps a bit?  And the Daleks decide that's enough, and reveal that Bracewell is also a bomb!  (Okay, so he is under their control now?)  If the Doctor doesn't tell the Spitfires to go away, they'll explode the Earth!  And the Doctor agrees, even though they're obviously going to do it anyway because they're Daleks, which lets all the air out of that Impossible Choice.  (Seriously, Doctor Who is terrible at those.)  It's a succession of silly stuff pulled out of thin air.  And it ain't over yet.

"This will pick up Dalek transmissions!"
Er, why are they transmitting anything?  Who to?  There's only one ship!
How do you disarm a bomb that's also a robot that thinks it's a man?  (No, you can't pop him in the TARDIS and throw him into a black hole, you nasty person!)  Why, by talking to it, of course!  The Doctor appeals to Bracewell's (fake) memories in an effort to convince him he's human.  Amy, using her super-companion powers and the fact that they're both Scottish (or rather, one of them is), reminds him of a girl he loved, which works a bit better.  Presto, the bomb deactivates.

I say "presto", because I don't know why the bomb deactivates.  He's a bomb.  He can cry all he likes, and think he's remembering stuff (though he isn't) – what's that got to do with going tick, tick, boom?  I wonder where the Daleks got all those memories from, why Bracewell was built with a Power Of Love failsafe, and why bombs always need a countdown and never just blow up.  Anyway, magically disarmed, he sits up and casually announces the Daleks have buggered off.  The Doctor gives an impotent little shout and then gets over it.  The whole thing is almost too limp and wiffly for words.

Then there's an extra Happy Ending where the Doctor and Amy let Bracewell roam free to meet up with his girlfriend.  All very cutesy-pooh, or it would be if a) he wasn't still carrying a massive world-destroying bomb in his chest and b) those were actually his memories, you pair of complete morons.  How did that get past a first draft?  And why are we doing cutesy-pooh stuff in a Dalek episode?  Doesn't it sort of shmoo-ify the tone, and make the Daleks look even naffer by proxy?  Isn't that exactly the sort of thing re-inventing the Daleks is supposed to put a stop to, for smeg's sake?!

And that's Victory Of The Daleks.  They came, they progenated, they still can't shoot straight, they left again.  One popular piece of criticism is that they should have made it two episodes instead of one, which always makes me laugh.  There isn't enough plot for one episode.  At times it feels like an unimpressive first act, setting up the bit where we find out what they were really after, which then makes sense of this first, noticeably crap bit.  Spoiler alert: no, this really is it.  For future reference, if you've come up with a new design and you want to show it off, hold a press conference.  Save the episodes for when there are stories to put in them.