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7 March 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 796: Victory of the Daleks

Dear diary,

I think it’s generally accepted, now, that the Paradigm Daleks were a mistake, isn’t it? I’m speaking specifically the design of them, not necessarily the idea of introducing a new type of Dalek. When I went off to see the scripts for this series early in 2010, someone showed me a photo on their phone of one of these new Daleks, and I honestly thought they were joking. Surely not? By the time they made it onto screen a few months later… nope. Just didn’t quite sit right with me. The 2005 design of Dalek manages to take the initial shape of the original, and update it convincingly to look like a little tank. It somehow manages to look exactly the way you always thought the Daleks looked, while also presenting a perfect step forward in the design. The Paradigm models feel like someone has set out to keep something that’s vaguely shaped like a Dalek, but at the same time is altered just that bit too far. Over the years, I’ve seen people claim that this or that is what makes them simply fail to work, and I’ve seen plenty of slight tweaks to this design which do, somehow, make a world of difference. Perhaps the most telling thing of all, though, is that this model goes on to make a cameo briefly in the next season, and play a small part in Asylum of the Daleks (alongside many of their predecessors), and then that’s it - over and done with. In years to come, I suspect this will be looked back on in commentaries with the same kind of bile as Colin Baker’s costume is these days…

But are they the sole reason that this episode generally doesn’t fare too well with fans? It placed at number 193 out of 241 stories last year when Doctor Who Magazine did their poll of people’s favourites (though, in fairness, five other Matt Smith-era stories rated below it). Well, I’ll be honest. I was expecting to write this entry very much from the stance of 'the new Dalek design is a big factor, but the episode is just generally rubbish, too'. Actually, though, it's a bit more complex than that.

The first fifteen minutes or so of this episode are brilliant. They’re dripping with just the right kind of suspense - we know that Bracewell’s Ironsides are Daleks, and therefore that they’re evil and probably up to no good, and the Doctor knows that, too… but everyone else simply can’t see it. The stakes are raised by the fact that we also know that Churchill is right; if these Ironsides are willing to serve the Allied forced, then the war could be over in a heartbeat. When we get as far as the Doctor asking for Amy to tell the Prime Minister about the events of The Stolen Earth and she doesn’t have a clue what he’s on about, the mystery is only heightened. The stakes feel high because it’s the world vs the Doctor, and the Daleks are there for good measure. That sense of unease and intrigue runs right through the first third of the tale, up to about the point that Bracewell is revealed to be a robot (Oh, and actually, isn’t that a brilliant moment? No, we created you! Wonderful!). All of this is heightened with some really brilliant direction by Andrew Gunn which means we often got shots of the Daleks gliding past in the background, and there’s simply no other word for it - they’re skulking. Little glimpses of the eyestalks twitching, and tiny movements that make it absolutely clear that they’re watching the Doctor, and biding their time.

After that, though, my interest more-or-less completely dropped off, and that seems to coincide with the arrival of the new Daleks. Now, it’s not entirely down to the appearance of the new guys (I’ll get onto them in a moment). After that Daleks have teleported up to their ship, all the tension and dread simply evaporates. Suddenly, where everything felt like the stakes were high and there was a lot going on, I find my ability to believe in the story wavering. The absolute pit of the problem has to be the moment we’re told there’s only ten minutes until German bombers reach London. Fine. We’re then remind (a few minutes into this) that Bracewell had plans for ‘Gravity Bubbles’, which would put a plane in space, though he reminds us that it’s only a theory. Fine. It’s all science-fiction nonsense, obviously, but I’ll buy it. But then, as the planes reach the East End of London (presumably around about that previously mentioned ten-minute-mark), Bracewell arrives to announce that they’ve put the Gravity Bubbles into action, and the planes are ready to launch.

I’m sorry, what? I get that Bracewell is Dalek technology, and therefore the Gravity Bubbles are probably Dalek in design, too, and thus he’s able to cobble it together quicker than usual, but the implication is that he’s managed to take it from a theory of something that could work and put it into practice across three planes in under ten minutes. I probably sound ridiculous complaining about something so trivial, but it lets down the entire episode massively for me, because it feels completely false.

The same is true, then, of the later revelation that Bracewell is a bomb. It feels as though the script was finished before someone pointed out that they were running five minutes short, and thus needed to stretch it out a little bit longer. Nothing feels real (or, at least, as ‘real’ as can be expected in a story about robots from oder-space hiding in the Cabinet War Rooms can), in the way that those first fifteen minutes did, and that’s a real pity.

As for the new Daleks themselves… well, I don’t think it helps that they arrive on screen at the same point the episode starts taking a nosedive. They suffer simply by association, because it feels like they show up and a promising episode goes to the dogs. But, equally, the design really is rubbish. I’ve already praised the direction in this episode, and I think it’s fair to say that it does a wonderful job of making the old Daleks here look like metal. The single bronze one on the ship looks lovely, and the two Ironside models are great. They’ve possibly never looked more like metalling beings. But then the New Paradigm turns up, and the daleks have certainly never looked more like they were made of plastic! It just helps to show up the flaws.

Oh, I could go on all day with a back-and-forth on ‘things Victory of the Daleks gets so right’ vs ‘things Victory of the Daleks gets so wrong’. Seriously, I think I’ve made more notes about this episode than any other in ages. I’ve not even begun to mention how great it is when the New Daleks destroy their predecessors because they’re inferior (and the fact that it’s a great little nod to the Daleks destroying Davros back in the day - the new breed will always destroy their creator, because they’ve been designed to think they’re superior), or how rubbish bits of the Dalek ship look - even if I completely get why it would be so empty. In the end, I think Victory of the Daleks needs another couple of drafts. Also, an extra fifteen minutes or so. Give it room to breathe a little, so that we don’t have to have ridiculously complex inventions made reality in a handful of minutes (seriously, even an earlier line in which Bracewell said ‘we’ve got these in development right now’ would have made it better! It would have made the drama more real, too, in the sense of ‘In theory these work, but we’re still only half way through!’), and then try something a little more traditional with the Dalek revamp… This really could have been a classic. Possibly the biggest missed opportunity that the 21st century Doctor Who has ever had.

(Oh, it was heading for at least an ‘8’ with that first third! I’ll stop banging on about it now, though…)

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