Victory of the Daleks

TARDISFrom DWM #422, and the cause of some slight furore online, with contributors to the Gallifrey Base forum expressing disbelief I could possibly have liked the new-look Daleks. Eventually, DWM editor Tom Spilsbury posted on there an excitable text I’d sent him while watching the preview disc as ‘proof’ my opinions were honestly held. Reading the thing back now, man oh man I quote a lot from the episode. Not sure why. I think, maybe, I felt it made me closer to the ‘text’.

DWM #422“I am the Doctor and you are the Daleks!”

And they flippin’ well are. In Mark Gatiss’ story they’re never more so Daleky as they swiftly and delightfully manoeuvre through war torn London and then off into the universe to build a whole new history. All hail the new Daleks! White! Blue! Orange! Red! Yellow! And with a handy Swiss Army knife compartment at the back! Too exciting. Getting breathless now… We’ll return to them in a bit.

In premise alone, Victory of the Daleks is already a winner:  It’s Churchill vs the Daleks. These two mighty, brilliantly battered British icons of the mid 20th century set on a collision course. What an image. It’s telling both are instantly recognisable in silhouette – in fact, with a long cigar clamped tightly between his teeth, old Winston even casts a similar shadow.

Ian McNeice is wonderful as Churchill, staying the right side of caricature he presents a steely PM who perfectly evokes Winnie’s very own maxim that a man does what he must “in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures.” There’s a sense of momentum in this performance, a Churchill who has resolved to Keep Buggering On through all the flak, throwing his bulk into the conflict against the “Narzi” (as he would have it) menace. “If Hitler invaded Hell,” he says, eyes thinning, “I would give a favourable reference to the Devil”. He’s a man who’ll consort with whatever lesser evil will deliver him victory in Europe.

It feels right and proper the warhorse is presented as an old friend of the Doctor’s. By the sheer weight of their presence alone, it would seem impossible they hadn’t gravitated towards each other long before now. They’re both great men, and they know it. “It’s been amazing meeting you,” says Amy at the end of the adventure. “I’m sure it has,” he replies.

But this Churchill is also a twinkler. When the TARDIS arrives he has his men training their guns on the Doctor, while they spar for possession of the blue box. “Must I take it by force?” he chuckles. Their shared affection is clear. Only great friends would reacquaint themselves with such combative words.

This is the Eleventh Doctor’s coming of age story. The time traveller versus the metal meanies. It’s a constant of Doctor Who, a rite of passage. Get through it and you’ll stand taller. As Steven Moffat recently told Radio 4’s Front Row, “The Doctor isn’t the Doctor until he’s beaten the Daleks”.  It’s also a scenario that invites us to draw comparisons between each incarnation of our hero. How will this one fare? What will he make of the pepperpots? But the Time Lord is never quite himself when it comes to his arch enemies. Unlike any other terror the universe has to offer, they put him on the back foot. They frighten him.

In Victory, that’s abundantly clear. One moment our hero is showboating the devastating beauty of history to Amy – on the roof of the cabinet War Rooms, a lovely, painterly vista of blitzkrieged London – the next he’s gasping for air as Dr Bracewell’s Ironside trundles in to view.

Decked out in khaki, this objectification of Nazi philosophy, adorned with the Union Jack and – in a delightful touch – little black-out muzzles over its dome lights, is an abomination. “What are you doing here?” the Doctor demands to know. “I-AM YOUR SOL-DIER!” is the reply. “What? Stop that! Stop that now!” They’re shifty, these ones. And what’s more, they refuse to square up for a scrap. How exasperating. “You know who I am,” says the Doctor, almost pleading. “You always know who I am!” And then later: “Come on, fight back!… You are my enemy and I am yours!”

The Doctor and the Daleks. We all know how this works. But they’re not playing, and it leaves him helpless and frustrated. Matt Smith is great with this material, seriously losing his cool when whacking one with a giant spanner, but at other points playing against the high drama. He’s quiet and gentle when he briefs Churchill about the evil in their midst: “They are my oldest and deadliest enemy. You cannot trust them.”

And then we reach the crux of the thing. “I am the Doctor,” he says, inadvertently booting up the aliens’ Progenitor device, “and you are the Daleks!” At the point this line arrives it’s earned every syllable – twice over, in fact. So thrilling, it’s absolutely what the story’s about, framing up the old foes in their familiar positions. Now the game is on. “VIC-TORY! VIC-TORY!” scream the monsters, disappearing off to their spaceship lurking behind the Moon.

It’s such a relief. There’s a sense of joie de vivre returning to the Doctor now the Skaro schemers’ plan is out in the open. While they train their super squiggly sci-fi ray on London, he’s twisting and darting on board their vessel, brandishing a jammie dodger (“I was promised tea!”) and a line in lovely camp trash talk (“Don’t mess with me, sweetheart”).

“I won’t let you get away this time, I won’t!” he vows, but it’s too late. In a tiny, Pavlovian moment, the time-honoured Dalek spaceship sound effect – vwwwb-vwwwb, vwwwb-vwwwb – bleeds into the soundtrack, and through a huge plume of smoke and lightning the new lot arrive. They’re absolutely, gob-smackingly beautiful. Huge, for one thing. And bold in their bright livery, like some souped-up 1960s film prop from a never made but best-ever Peter Cushing film. Now on the big screen! In colour!

Everything about these things is Dalek to the max. When the story adopts their viewpoint (through those newly ribbed eye-pieces), all we hear is slightly ring modulated. They even (nearly) name-check their previous onscreen adventures: “BE-HOLD! THE REST-ORA-TION OF THE DAL-EKS! THE RES-URR-EC-TION OF THE MAS-TER RACE!”

As they roam onto deck claiming the space, the camera zips around them like some Top Gear VT glitzing up a new super car. It works. They’re sleek and gleaming and you almost wish things would hold still for a moment so you can really perv at them. But, no, because these new Daleks have got business to attend to, and you can nearly hear Gatiss whacking on the hyphen key as the Supreme intones – in the deepest voice ever heard – “CLEANSE THE UN-CLEAN! TO-TAL OBLIT-ER-ATION! DIS-INT-EGRATE!” before exterminating last year’s model.

How can you follow that?

Tricky, but a Spitfire barrel-rolling in outer space almost does the job. The mechanics behind getting the thing up there don’t really get off the ground – Bracewell somehow knocking up a gravity bubble between scenes – but it’s hard to care. The image is just so fabulous; you can’t help but buy it.

Back on Earth, Amy Pond is finally given the chance to step forward and claim a chunk of the story for herself, proving – as she did in The Beast Below – that this Doctor really needs her. Bill Paterson’s Bracewell has excelled in conforming to that sci-fi archetype of a fake man who’s more human than humans, but while he lies prone on the War Room floor, that Simon Says countdown playing out on his chest, Amy’s the only one who can match up to his humanity. Karen Gillan’s performance is sensitive, yet full of naughtiness. “Hey Paisley,” she whispers. “Ever fancied someone you shouldn’t? Hurts doesn’t it? But kind of a good hurt”.

When putting together his first series of Doctor Who, it feels as though Steven Moffat has drawn inspiration from the show’s initial run-out back in 2005. We begin with the modern day story, then far future, now a The Unquiet Dead-esque celebrity historical. And the beats hit across these three have been broadly similar – the companion meets the Doctor; she grasps the concept of abundant alien life; she totally gets that they can travel in time.

However, there’s also another note for Amy. “So you have enemies, then?” she asks her new friend as they prepare to leave. That’s always been a given for us, the viewer. But she, of course, doesn’t know Doctor Who. In fact, she doesn’t even know the Daleks (and as for why, I’m intrigued). It’s a big revelation. Travelling with the Doctor is dangerous. More so now his arch foes are back en masse, set to swarm once more through the universe, subjugating planets, crushing lesser races… and with a general mandate to just KBO.

“Are you worried about the Daleks?” Amy asks. “I’m always worried about the Daleks,” replies the Doctor. Oh yes. This is the good stuff. All the monsters in Doctor Who are great, but, let’s be honest here, the pepper pots are a different class. They very nearly are Doctor Who, and this is the fight that will never end.

Because he is the Doctor and they are the Daleks.

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