“I am your sol-dier!”
There used to be a running gag in Family Guy in which Peter’s latest antics would destroy the front of his neighbour Cleveland’s house. Cleveland would be revealed, lying in his bath as it slowly slid down the now tilting floor to deposit him naked on his lawn. As this happened, Cleveland would always say, “No. No, no, no, no NO!”
I mention this because this was more or less the reaction I had during the last half of this unfortunately insubstantial episode. Don’t get me wrong, it started well. I thought the basic premise – Daleks in World War 2 pretending to be our allies – had so much potential, and for the first ten minutes it seemed to be realising that. Then they revealed themselves, teleported back to their ship, and we were watching something altogether different, and far less interesting.
That first ten minutes was very obviously indebted to the classic 1966 story Power of the Daleks, in which a group of damaged Daleks pretend to befriend the inhabitants of a human colony world in order to rebuild their resources. It even cleverly revisited the well-remembered line from that story, “I am your ser-vant.” There was a lot to like in taking this basic premise and transposing it to the Second World War – since Daleks are obviously Nazis, an interesting variety of themes could be developed. I liked the images of them painted military drab with blackout covers on their lights, trundling around the War Rooms carrying box files and offering people tea. It did seem curiously apposite – the Daleks are as much a British icon as the Blitz, and they fitted together curiously well.
The setting was well-realised, with a convincing vista of the wartorn London skyline and all the little details in Churchill’s HQ like bakelite phones and old-fashioned light switches. I loved the faux-period propaganda poster showing the Dalek as Britain’s new secret weapon.
I could have lived with the transformation into a different story entirely rather better if a little more time had been devoted to this intriguing scenario. A longer running time might have helped. The trouble was, once the Doctor arrived and started hitting them with a spanner, they blew their cover almost immediately, when it felt like the suspense of the idea was barely beginning to be established. And when they teleported back to their ship, not only was the suspense blown but we were into a different style of story. The trouble seemed to be that Mark Gatiss was trying to do two different things: a war movie and a Dalek relaunch. And he didn’t seem to know how to fit the two together properly.
I’ve honestly liked all of Mark’s previous work on the show, even his performance in the otherwise lacklustre Lazarus Experiment, but this was far from his best. The story structure was all over the place, with climaxes seeming to pop up at random just when they didn’t belong there, like the Daleks’ big reveal so early or the Earth’s salvation being followed by lots of lengthy discussion and sentiment. True to form, he shoehorned in some amusing references for people: 633 Squadron was mentioned, and I genuinely chuckled at the line “Broadsword calling Danny Boy”, best remembered as Richard Burton’s gruff catchphrase in Where Eagles Dare. The usual Quatermass reference was dutifully present as one of the WAFs was called Breen, presumably named after Quatermass and the Pit’s Colonel Breen.
But Breen was a good example of where the story fell down. She had a couple of lines early in the episode about her boyfriend being in the RAF, but we barely got to know her as a character, much less care about her. And then we were expected to be moved when she tearfully discovered that he’d been killed over the Channel. In fact, there were pretty much no developed characters on the Earth side of the action, with the exception of Bracewell and Churchill.
Winston Spencer Churchill was nicely incarnated by Ian McNeice, an actor I very much like who’s played him before on stage. The archive footage shown on Confidential demonstrated that the real man was considerably slimmer than McNeice’s barrage balloon figure, but that’s a minor quibble. The real problem was that Gatiss seemed so much in awe of this larger than life historical figure that he had trouble writing him any distinctive dialogue. “Keep buggering on” was nice, but other than that it was a curiously flatly written role. And considering that the man famously spent most of the war drunk, it was odd not to at least see him with a glass of whisky at some point.
Bracewell, by contrast, was almost overwritten. Bill Paterson, a great actor who should have been on Who before now, did his best with the part, but it was a kind of overwrought combination of the Tin Man, Pinocchio, and most obviously Lieutenant Commander Data. When Churchill asked him, “I don’t care if you’re a machine – are you a man?”, I half expected him to respond with, “I am fully functional… programmed in multiple techniques…”
Matt Smith’s performance as the Doctor was a little over mannered here; his delivery of the lines in the laboratory confrontation with the Daleks came across as forced and rather peculiar. I like the approach he’s taking to the character, but he seems at this point to have not quite settled down in quite how stylised he wants his acting to be. Mind you, I did love the bit with the Jammie Dodger – a perfect ruse for this new Doctor, and comedically played to perfection as he confronted the new Daleks.
Ah, the new Daleks. That’s going to cause ructions in online fandom. Not even John Nathan-Turner dared to mess with the design of the series biggest icon. In one way, I salute Steven Moffat for doing something so incredibly brave; he obviously really wants to stamp his mark on the series and what better way than with such a radical change? (Though the cynic in me did envision Character Options’ Managing Director rubbing his hands with glee at the opportunity to sell a whole new range of toys).
A lot of parallels have been drawn with the new, gaudily coloured Daleks. The colours are very obviously drawn from the two Peter Cushing films, but I’ve already heard them compared to iPods, Smarties and the Power Rangers. For me, though, the inescapable similarity was with the revolting range of colours offered by British Leyland in the late 70s. As the new Daleks impressively lined up in front of the ‘Progenitor’ I kept picturing them as Austin Allegros.
They’re as chubby as Allegros too. While there have been minor tweaks to the Dalek design over the years, nobody’s ever felt the need to change the basic proportions of Ray Cusick’s iconic original design. I seem to recall even Russell T Davies saying that the original was so perfect there was no need to change it. I don’t mind their elevated base sections – though in another 70s parallel they uncannily remind me of platform shoes. But I frowned at their bulging mid sections, which looked very much like the middle aged spread of a habitual beer drinker, and wasn’t too sure what to make of them apparently now being hunchbacks. And what was that peculiar thing in their backs that looked like a giant scart socket?
But my reaction is that of the hardened fanboy, and we don’t make up the vast majority of the show’s audience. Another fanboy friend of mine has already told me that his children love the new Daleks. I think they’ll ultimately be accepted by the fans, but it’s going to be a hard job getting used to them. Plus, the obvious expense of the new props does lead me to the conclusion that they’re yet again going to be at the centre of the season finale, a gambit which is already tired.
Still, they were always going to be a divisive point in the episode, but it had many other flaws too. The Daleks’ plot doesn’t actually make a lot of sense – they needed the Doctor, so pretended to be Churchill’s friends because they somehow knew that Churchill had a magic phone line to the TARDIS? And the Progenitor doesn’t recognise them as ‘pure’ Daleks? If these are the last survivors of the fleet from Journey’s End, they’re cloned from Davros himself – how much purer can you get? Why does the progenitor redesign their casings? For that matter, since it’s explicitly stated that it contains DNA, why does it give them casings at all? Surely there should have just been some helpless Kaled mutants wriggling around on the floor.
The ‘Spitfires in space’ was a fun set piece, but that was the trouble with it. It was, as Mark Gatiss explicitly stated, something Steve Moffat thought was cool and then had to be shoehorned into the story somehow, which was the very mentality I used to criticise Russell for. Plus. it’s been done before by Who’s greatest rival, albeit in a slightly inverted form. The opening story to season four of Enterprise contained the memorable sequence of the titular starship being chased through the skyline of 1940s New York chased by laser-equipped Messerschmitts. And, Dalek technology or not, it seemed massively implausible that the British could equip and launch the planes in the stated ten minutes they had before the Luftwaffe entered London airspace. For that matter, how were their propellors driving them through space? There might have been air inside the ‘gravity bubbles’ but all that would do would crash the plane into the side of it. And if the propellors weren’t driving them, why have them turned on?
That’s quibbling, I know, but there’s a bit of real criticism there. Increasingly, the new series is using the ‘advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ argument to get away with, effectively, using magic to get out of tight corners. That strikes me as lazy scriptwriting, in much the same way as the 70s over reliance on K9 and the sonic screwdriver as an instant solution to any problem.
And as for talking Bracewell out of blowing himself up, what on Earth was all that about? It might have helped if the Doctor had said something about the android being able to override the detonation if it just had the motivation, but that was left very unclear. On the plus side, I liked the cutaway to Amy’s reaction when he talked about the death of his parents – very nicely played by Karen Gillan. On the negative side, it seems to be increasingly becoming a pattern that Amy has to leap in and save the day just when the Doctor fails. I hope we’re not going to see a revival of the Eccleston episodes, where the solution almost always came from Rose.
Ultimately, this was a forgettable comic romp in the style of a war movie, though the plot would have worked equally well (or badly) in a contemporary setting. The main reason I found it such a disappointment is that the premise had so much potential to be both deeper and more exciting, and it almost seemed to be ditched in favour of a big relaunch for the series most iconic villains. Against that, there was probably no real point at trying for depth. In the end, I didn’t enjoy it because I saw it a wasted opportunity, though my young boyfriend has made the point that I probably shouldn’t have expected Power of the Daleks Mark2.
Still, the story arc is looking more and more intriguing. So Amy doesn’t remember the multiple Dalek invasions of recent history? Have the mysterious cracks erased the last four series (and specials)? Torchwood and Sarah Jane are in trouble if they have…