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Doctor Who Recap: Season 5, Episode 3, “Victory of the Daleks”

Every Doctor sooner or later has to face the Daleks.

Doctor Who Recap: Season 5, Episode 3, Victory of the Daleks
Photo: BBC

Every Doctor sooner or later has to face the Daleks. The great space dustbins are so fundamental a part of Doctor Who that they have appeared every year since the series was revived in 2005. The notion introduced by Russell T Davies that the Daleks were the opponents of the Time Lords in the great Time War which destroyed both species cemented their status as the Doctor’s greatest enemies, but also meant that the writers had to keep finding new ways of bringing them back from total extinction, only to be defeated again by the Doctor. This story finally breaks out of that cycle of the Daleks repeatedly being completely-but-not-really destroyed by giving them, as the title suggests, an actual, unambiguous victory. Unfortunately, although “Victory of the Daleks” successfully accomplishes this main purpose, it has so many flaws elsewhere that it’s clearly the weakest episode of the season so far.

The episode is bizarrely structured, falling into three quite separate pieces which hit completely different levels with regard to tone, atmosphere, and effectiveness. The first third is by far the best part, taut and gripping as the Doctor and the Daleks maneuver around each other—the Doctor knows the Daleks are up to something, but can’t figure out what, or convince anyone of the danger. The middle stretch is when the Daleks’ plans reach fruition and the Doctor leads the fight against them in a silly but fun action sequence. But then everything goes pear-shaped, and the climax of the episode is a terrible, mawkish miscalculation, probably the worst misstep since the ending of “Fear Her” four years ago.

By coincidence, the structure of the first part of this season corresponds closely with that of the Christopher Eccleston season back in 2005, with the showrunner writing the season opener to introduce the new Doctor and companion, then following that up with a weird far-future adventure, and then an excursion into history written by Mark Gatiss (and, to complete the analogy, Steven Moffat is back next week writing the first two-parter of the season). Back then, “The Unquiet Dead” gave us Charles Dickens fighting ghosts in Cardiff; here, it’s Winston Churchill leading Britain through the dark days of World War Two. As usual, the BBC design, costume, and make-up departments have done an excellent job of recreating the period setting. Much of the episode takes place in the Cabinet War Rooms underneath central London, and the narrow, drab corridors, the cramped rooms packed full of people and smoke, the dust drifting down as German bombs impact overhead, are all perfectly depicted.

Ian McNeice presents a Churchill who is very much the legendary icon—all cigar-chomping, bulldog determination, in bowler hat and bow tie—rather than a realistic portrait of the complex, contradictory man he actually was. I suspect this is partly because the story makes the interesting choice of having the Doctor already well-known to Churchill; in fact, they’re almost old cronies, with Churchill totally unfazed by his changing appearance or his TARDIS—as we saw last week, he was even able to phone the Doctor far in the future and call him back to Earth. They wrangle, but not in an unfriendly manner, over the Doctor’s refusal to put the TARDIS at Churchill’s disposal for the war effort. (“Must I take it by force?” “I’d like to see you try…”) It’s all very cosy.

The Doctor is taken outside the Cabinet bunker to witness an incoming squadron of German bombers being wiped out by Britain’s new secret weapon—a very familiar-looking death ray. One of the “secret weapons” trundles into view—a Dalek, looking surprisingly fitting in this environment in khaki colors with a Union Jack painted underneath its eyestalk; I particularly loved the little blackout covers placed over its head lights. Horrified, the Doctor demands to know what the Daleks are doing here, but it shows no sign of recognizing him, simply repeating, “I-AM-YOUR-SOLDIER.”

The Doctor: “Stop that… You know who I am. You always know.”

The scientist who apparently developed these weapons, Professor Edwin Bracewell (Bill Paterson), explains how his “Ironsides” will win the war. The Doctor immediately declares to Churchill that the Daleks are aliens and Bracewell must be some kind of dupe, but the PM replies with the story of how Bracewell approached the government some months ago with the plans and blueprints for the machines. As they argue, the Daleks in the background are keeping a careful watch on the Doctor.

This first section is very reminiscent of “The Power of the Daleks,” a classic story from the 1960s, which introduced Patrick Troughton as the Doctor and showed the Daleks at their scheming best. The basic ideas of Daleks pretending to be subservient to humans for their own purposes (the repeated “I-AM-YOUR-SOLDIER” here corresponds to a similar refrain of “I-AM-YOUR-SERVANT” in the older story), and the Doctor’s warnings of danger going unheeded, are reused, and are just as effective. In “Power,” they played on human greed in order to buy time to make themselves stronger; here, they are relying on Churchill’s desperate need to seize any advantage he can find to defend against the Nazis. When pressed by the Doctor, he makes this explicit (neatly making use of a famous quote from the real-life Churchill, about allying with Stalin):

The Doctor: “The Daleks have no conscience, no mercy, no pity. They are my oldest and deadliest enemy. You cannot trust them.”
Churchill: “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would give a favorable reference to the Devil. These machines are our salvation.”

The Doctor can do nothing but watch as the Daleks glide around with impunity, carrying out their menial tasks (and hearing a Dalek voice asking “WOULD-YOU-CARE-FOR-SOME-TEA?” is actually quite unsettling). He also discovers something even more disturbing, when he tries to get Amy to warn Churchill about the Daleks.

Amy: “What would I know about the Daleks?”
The Doctor: “Everything. They invaded your world, remember. Planets in the sky—you don’t forget that.”
Amy: (looks blank)
The Doctor: “Amy. Tell me you remember the Daleks.”
Amy: “Nope… Sorry.”
The Doctor: “That’s not possible…”

Clearly something has happened to the timeline which has meant that, for Amy (and perhaps for her entire world), the events of “The Stolen Earth” didn’t happen. No doubt this is related to the “cracks in the universe,” which have appeared in both the last two episodes, and will be further developed over the rest of the season…

Eventually the Doctor’s frustration at not being able to convince anyone of the danger boils over. He grabs a huge wrench and attacks one of the Daleks (“YOU-DO-NOT-REQUIRE-TEA?”), taunting the creature and demanding that it acknowledge him. Matt Smith is good throughout the episode, but is particularly excellent here, managing to conjure up the same combination of frenzied fear and loathing as Christopher Eccleston showed when his Doctor met a Dalek for the first time in 2005. You really get a sense that the Daleks unleash something frighteningly primal in the Doctor.

The Doctor: “You! Are! My! Enemy! And I am yours! You are everything I despise. The worst thing in all creation. I’ve defeated you time and time again… I sent you back into the Void. I saved the whole of reality from you. I am the Doctor, and you are the Daleks!”

And now the Daleks make their move. The one he attacked simply replies, “CORRECT.” They transmit the Doctor’s “testimony” about their identity to their waiting ship, hiding behind the moon, and teleport away after revealing to the shocked Bracewell that, far from being the Daleks’ creator, he is in fact an android created by them and programmed with human-seeming memories.

Amy: “What just happened, Doctor?”
The Doctor: “I wanted to know what they wanted, what their plan was. I was their plan.”

The Doctor quickly uses the TARDIS to travel to the Dalek ship, where he holds off the Daleks by pretending that a jammie dodger (a jam-filled biscuit) is a TARDIS self-destruct switch. I really liked this bit of whimsy—recalling a time when Tom Baker’s Doctor once held a group of savage warriors at bay with “a deadly jelly baby”—and especially the punchline when his bluff is eventually called, taking a bite from it and saying, “All right, it’s a jammie dodger. But I was promised tea!”

While they are engaged in this standoff, the Daleks admit what they are up to. They are the only survivors from their last encounter with the Doctor (“Journey’s End”), trying as usual to rebuild their race. But this time they have found a Progenitor device, an ancient Dalek gene bank (presumably dating from the Time War) which can be used as the source for a whole new army of Daleks. There’s only one problem—the Progenitor doesn’t recognize them, since they are not pure Dalek (the ones we saw in “Journey’s End” were created by Davros using his own cells), and will not function for them. Hence the whole elaborate scheme to lure the Doctor to them and obtain the “testimony” of the Daleks’ great enemy which will confirm to the Progenitor their identity. I thought this was a very clever idea, and certainly the craftiest the Daleks have been for years.

The Doctor can only look on as the Progenitor gets to work, and eventually out from the machine emerges “a new Dalek paradigm.” Deciding to launch a redesigned version of the Daleks was a risk for the show to take—not only has the original been a design icon for decades, but it had been reintroduced to a whole new generation of viewers with massive success—and it has to be said that the new Daleks have received a more negative reaction than just about anything else in the new series so far. They’re significantly larger than the old ones, which can make them look nicely imposing, particularly when they’re shot from a low angle, but also gives them an unwanted ponderous, lumbering quality. The idea of having them in different colors to differentiate them into functional categories (scientist, drone, soldier etc.) harks back to the earliest Dalek stories—and in particular, to the two cinema films, Doctor Who and the Daleks and Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD, starring Peter Cushing and made in the mid-‘60s at the height of the Daleks’ initial popularity. However, the bright primary colors chosen make them look rather plastic and lightweight next to the metallic bronze Daleks we’ve gotten used to, not to mention raising the suspicion that merchandising considerations may have played a part (“Hey kids, collect the whole set!”). My least favorite change, though, is the alteration to the proportions of the creatures. From the front they’re fine, but in profile they now present a rather hulking, even humpbacked appearance, thanks to the increased size of the back section. Maybe it’s just the unfamiliarity, and I’ll get used to them over time (I complained about the new theme tune a couple of weeks ago, but I have to report that it’s now beginning to grow on me), but I really don’t see them as an advance on the originals. It is a nice touch, though, that their first action is to exterminate the previous versions for being “impure,” and that the old Daleks immediately accept their fate with no argument.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Amy and Churchill talk the shattered Bracewell out of killing himself by telling him they need his advanced technical knowledge to find a way of attacking the Dalek ship. Earlier he had talked of possibilities for hypersonic flight and “gravity bubbles” enabling flight into space, and what do you know, that’s exactly what’s needed to soup up a squadron of Spitfires so that they can take on a Dalek spaceship. It’s best not to dwell on the question of how this advanced tech progressed from a theoretical possibility to being deployed in actual airplanes over the course of a couple of scenes—we’ve crossed over fully into pulp adventure serial mode now. Murray Gold provides a fine Dam Busters-style score as the Spitfires strafe the Dalek ship with cries of “Tally ho” and “Let’s go, chaps”—and there’s a lovely Where Eagles Dare reference (“Broadsword calling Danny Boy”) stuck in as well. With the Doctor helping by deactivating its shields, the planes eventually threaten to destroy the Dalek ship.

And now the story takes a really crazy turn, as the Daleks buy time to escape the Spitfire attack by suddenly revealing that the Bracewell android is powered by something called an “oblivion continuum” which they threaten to detonate—effectively making him a massive bomb that can destroy the entire planet. This is supposed to set up the critical dilemma for the Doctor—let the new Daleks escape, to rebuild their forces anew, or destroy them forever (again) but allow the Earth to be shattered. Unfortunately, despite Matt Smith’s best efforts at showing the Doctor’s anguish, the scene falls flat, because (a) we’ve seen the same situation at the climax of “The Parting of the Ways,” where it was much more personal and emotional for the Doctor; (b) the ridiculous technobabble (“oblivion continuum”—really?) makes it impossible to take seriously; and (c) the whole situation is thrown in with absolutely no foreshadowing, as if the writer had suddenly discovered that the script was running short.

Anyway, the Doctor calls off the attack, returns to Earth, and with one punch knocks down Bracewell and starts trying to defuse him, since the Daleks have naturally triggered the countdown to detonation. This turns out to involve getting him to talk about his human memories and feelings, since somehow if he becomes more “human” then the Daleks won’t be able to remotely explode him. The idea of talking a bomb out of exploding is frankly impossible to take seriously, especially for anyone who’s seen John Carpenter’s Dark Star, which did the same thing as a comedy. The only reason the whole thing doesn’t fail completely is Bill Paterson’s performance—he manages to make Bracewell’s bewildered desperation compelling despite the preposterous situation.

After the Doctor fails to stop the countdown with appeals to Bracewell’s humanity and pushing him to recall memories of his early life, his parents’ deaths, and so on, Amy asks him, “Ever fancied someone you know you shouldn’t?” with a glance at the Doctor. This prompts Bracewell to reminisce about an old flame named Dorabella, which somehow proves to be enough to abort the countdown. (As I mentioned at the top of this review, this resolution brought back unwanted memories of the sickly sentimental “power of love” ending to “Fear Her.”) With their bomb having failed, the new Daleks head off into the universe to rebuild their forces, no doubt in preparation for a resumption of hostilities further down the line this season or the next.

As with last week’s episode, Amy ends up providing the solution by contributing a viewpoint that the Doctor lacks. She’s turning out to be surprisingly competent at this adventuring business, but I only hope her look toward the Doctor here doesn’t indicate that there’s another Doctor/companion romance on the cards. We’ve had quite enough of that for the time being. Karen Gillan is once again excellent, although it’s pushing the bounds of belief that her miniskirt barely attracts a second glance from anyone in 1940. Perhaps it has its own inbuilt perception filter.

There’s a drawn-out ending, or rather a string of endings—first some business with Churchill once again trying to get the TARDIS key before going back to his war, then some rather labored comedy with the Doctor, having removed all the advanced Dalek tech Bracewell created, deciding not to dismantle the android and letting him go instead. Finally, back at the TARDIS, the Doctor returns to a matter that’s been nagging him:

Amy: “You’re worried about the Daleks?”
The Doctor: “I’m always worried about the Daleks.”
Amy: “It’ll take time though, won’t it? I mean, there’s still not many of them. They’ll need a while to build themselves up.”
The Doctor: “It’s not that, there’s something else. Something we’ve forgotten—or rather, you have.”
Amy: “Me?”
The Doctor: “You didn’t know them, Amy. You’d never seen them before. And you should have done. You should.”

And so the episode finishes on an unresolved note, as the TARDIS vanishes, leaving another crack in the universe behind—unfinished business. The Daleks have their victory. But it must be said, it’s a rather hollow one.

Next Week: Two of Steven Moffat’s greatest creations return. The Weeping Angels from the acclaimed “Blink” are back, and so is the mysterious River Song, in “The Time of Angels.”

Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: I’d love to be able to recommend “The Power of the Daleks,” but unfortunately it no longer exists in the BBC archives. For those who’d like to check out the soundtrack (recorded off-air at the time of transmission, and carefully cleaned up for commercial release), it is available on audio CD, and the story is actually strong enough to stand up even without its visuals. But, sticking with DVDs, to see how the classic series visited World War Two, try “The Curse of Fenric,” starring Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred.

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