Saturday, May 01, 2010

New Model Army

The Second World War. Cabinet War Room. Bombers incoming. Winston Churchill gives the order to roll out the new secret weapon. Someone pushes a little model Dalek into play on the map. Cue vortex and titles.

It's a great opening. But while the Daleks conquered stairs a long while ago, what they really need to tackle next is the troubling tendency for their stories to go downhill.

Ironically, Victory Of The Daleks improves on a rewatch. With expectations removed from the equation, the scale of disappointment is no longer measured against promise and we stand a better chance of assessing it on its own merits. Unfortunately, it's impossible to set aside the story's potential entirely and the basic ingredients should have added up to utter, dazzling blow-you-away brilliance. Indeed, everything in the first ten or fifteen minutes is fine and there's no reason to believe it's not going to live up to that potential.

Ian McNeice turns in a wonderful Winston and it's great to see Bill Paterson (Bracewell). The Ironsides' entrance on the rooftops is a terrific moment considering that we know exactly what it is before it's emerged from behind the sandbags. The Daleks look good too, all khaki-ed up, sporting kit bags and a Union Jack. Smith and Gillan are a pleasure to watch, although I am left with a feeling they're doing their best with a script that's sometimes working too hard at keeping the Doctor-Companion dialogue buzzing. It's lacking much of the natural spark of Moffat's scripts so far this series. That said, there are flashes of brilliance (Amy: “I love a squaddie.”) and I absolutely love the scene where the Doctor is poring over those blueprints, when we get a close-up on Matt Smith as an Ironsides Dalek glides quietly by in the background.

But that is really the height of the menace we're treated to in this story and, similarly, we're shown the beginnings of a connection between Amy and an anxious WAAF officer but nothing comes of it beyond a truly odd “oh dear, she's lost her fella” moment near the end. I'm all for a subtler touch, but this feels like the most token of nods to the fact that, yes, this is all good fun but people also died in the war, don't you know.

Perhaps it will all be revealed as crucial arc material, like the cracks, and then I will look a fool. Right now though it just looks like a crack. Maybe some leftover from a lengthier script that had to be cut down? I do think this story could have benefited from being longer – a two-parter would have given its setting and its ideas more room to breathe. More could have been made of the Daleks' menace and the Doctor's efforts to get at their true purpose.

As things are, those scenes are reduced to some (somewhat repetitious) declarations on the Doctor's part and Smith's hatred for the Daleks is more subdued than Eccleston's when he was faced with his old foe in Dalek. It only really comes alive when he starts to bash the Dalek with a giant spanner, but that is, for me, a magically insane desperate Doctorish thing to do and as he tries to provoke the thing into killing him you know he hasn't thought this through. Even Amy starts to worry at this point that the Daleks might be dangerous.

The Doctor wants to know what the Daleks want. We do too. Careful what you wish for. The revelation that this has all been to secure the Doctor's testimony still strikes me as weak. No two-part expansion would alter that. Fair enough that the Daleks would lay a trap for the Doctor, but I think they ought to have been after something more than a reference.

That's not where the story falls down. Just sort of stumbles and keeps on going. No, what trips it up more effectively than a scarf in the path of a rampaging Kastrian, is that we then have the Doctor racing off to an expository conversation with the Daleks on board their ship. It's almost worth it for the sheer unadulterated joy of the sight of him keeping his enemy at bay with a Jammy Dodger. Like it says in the Mastercard ads, priceless. But at the end of the day, it is just talking and explaining the plot. For a fair proportion of the episode's 45-minute runtime. And biscuity self-destruct device aside, that's not very satisfying.

But wait, it's all building to something. Something BIG.

The door opens. Smoke pours forth and through it something is set to emerge...

Yes, tonight, Matthew, I am going to be a Dalek! Try to ignore the fact that I look like a new model Renault Megane. (As soon as more footage is available, expect YouTube videos to the tune of I See You Baby (Shakin That Ass)) Focus instead on my pals and delight in the news that we're available in a range of exciting colours. There's a certain retro-chunkiness to them that reminds me of the Cushing-movie Daleks, there are also shades of the Apple design school. They're big, but you're more likely to be tempted to take them out for a test drive than consider them a convincing threat. This is what Hate looks like. Would sir like his Hate in Colgate white, Post Office red or canary custard yellow?

Questions arise as to why these new Daleks don't simply gun the Doctor down (once they've seen through his Jammy Dodger ruse), but that kind of basic failure is nothing unusual for a Doctor Who monster and this lot do at least take some pot shots at the Time Lord as he runs for his TARDIS. It's not remotely a factor next to the credibility-stretch that's awaiting us.

Spitfires in space, I have no problem with. It's a great slice of spectacle. I also love the fact that it's Amy who is once again instrumental in the resolution. But I'm left with only one hand to applaud all that, since the other one is needed for scratching my head as I wonder how the hell they got three WWII fighters spaceworthy and kitted out with laser cannons in ten minutes.

All right the time frame is not precisely pinned down. But the enemy bombers' ETA is clearly given as ten minutes, Amy and Churchill race to Bracewell to discuss options, we're given no indication that the Professor has anything more than blueprints at this stage. Let's allow that the weapons are Dalek guns (which we know he has available), that he does in fact have (three?) gravity bubble generator prototypes and that the bombers are reported to be dealing damage to the capital, hence the interval has been perhaps a bit more than ten minutes. But seriously, even then, how long would it take to fit that tech to the three Spitfires, launch them and for the planes to complete their climb into space?

I'm all for switching off my brain and just enjoying some mindless entertainment, but this kind of fudge switches my brain back on and jumps me right out of the action. So by the time we're dealing with the oblivion continuum device, aka the walking talking bomb, I'm unfortunately in a more cynical frame of mind. Despite that, it's not the logic of the disarming process that bothers me - convincing Bracewell of his humanity might make no sense but it is a very Doctor Who-ish way to disarm a bomb. It's the way the scene is realised, with poor Bill Paterson reduced to blubbing feebly on the floor while a game of Simon (no relation of mine) plays out on his chest. Subsequently letting him head off in search of his beloved (invented?) Dorabella, with all those Dalek tech secrets in his head, is weak and just highlights the loose end without properly tying it up.

In the midst of it all there are, on top of the positives already cited, other nice touches – Daleks serving tea, Churchill's “Keep Buggering On”, and use of the call sign “Broadsword to Danny Boy”, from Where Eagles Dare, which serves as a nod to all war movies. It's not all bad and it's by no means the first Doctor Who story to have a big dumb ending.

Casting my mind back to 2005, it was at this point – the third episode in the new series – that I felt that Doctor Who had properly arrived. Impressions of The Unquiet Dead faded somewhat on a rewatch, to be honest, but there were qualities to it that made it feel like a step up from Rose and The End Of The World. As a side note, it troubled me slightly that this series appeared to be subscribing to a pattern – contemporary Earth introductory story, far future spaceship-based adventure, pseudo-historical penned by Mark Gatiss. 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' is fine, but falling into formula would be dreadful. But formula is not the problem here.

I'm not anti-Gatiss the way some Who fans seem to be and although his second story for New Who, The Idiot's Lantern, struck me as distinctly average, I was looking forward to this one. And as much as we try to set them aside, expectations do play a part. But on a second viewing, it's a simple case of the whole thing failing to add up to sum of its parts. For all that a lot of Dalek stories aren't very good, the opportunity to write for them is a gift, as far as I'm concerned. Then when you throw in Churchill and, yes, even Spitfires in space, you really do owe it to yourself and your audience to deliver something really special.

At the end of the day, this is shiny but, overall, only okay.

This, I guess, is what disappointment looks like. At least it comes in a range of exciting colours.


Steffan said...

I didn't find any improvement to this on the second viewing, I must say - but then, I think my only real expectation is "entertainment". Which this had - but less of it than pretty much any other episode this century.

I'm glad you liked the Spitfires - daft explanation or not, that's still the kind of thing this show should strive for, and was desperately needed by a show that was otherwise a series of conversations.

I loved the specific scenes you listed too - hopefully, those'll be the images that stick in kids' minds as they grow up. This could well be the sort of episode that disappoints those kids down the line if they later pick them up on DVD.

But then, I'm not a fan of judging episodes by "rewatch value". The point of them is to entertain millions on first broadcast. It clearly achieved that (its AI was pretty good, I believe), but managed hardly anything beyond that - pretty much uniquely in the modern show, I'd have said.

SAF said...

It's interesting, what you say about rewatch value. To me, that's quite important, especially in this age of the DVD. I'd say that winning of the audience on first broadcast is, yes, the primary aim, but these days surely that secondary aim (of rewatch entertainment value) comes into play?

iCowboy said...

I'll let you get away with my 'Tonight Matthew' line but next time I'm charging standard rates...

...surely the biggest fluff in this disappointing story was they completely blew the dramatic revelation was one of the characters finding out they were a robot? Entire (much better) stories have been written around that idea, here it was chucked away...

Stuart Douglas said...

I loved it - which maks this the first time you and I have disagreed of NuHu, I think, Saffy :)

SAF said...

iCowboy said "...surely the biggest fluff in this disappointing story was they completely blew the dramatic revelation was one of the characters finding out they were a robot?"

True. And especially when you have an actor like Bill Paterson in the role, something more could have been made of that.

Stuart said: "I loved it - which maks this the first time you and I have disagreed of NuHu, I think, Saffy :)"

It's like some rare kind of planetary alignment - or non-alignment, I guess. Not to worry, I think we are back on the same wavelength for Time Of Angels/Flesh & Stone. :-) Hope to post my review of that tomorrow.