This review may contain spoilers.
A new Doctor regenerates and goes head-to-head with his old foe.
With such a tag line it is hard not to have high hopes from a script penned by Mark Gatiss. After all, the man is as much a “Doctor Who” fan as anyone and he has already proven himself adept at creating mesmerizing scripts with some incredibly British icons.
This adventure sees the Doctor (Matt Smith) respond to his call from the Bulldog and materialize in the middle of the Second World War era as London comes under assault from Nazi Luftwaffe. It is a novel idea, having the audience jump straight into a pre-existing relationship with a historical figure, bypassing the origins story and instead delving straight into the fray. It’s not too dissimilar to the already pre-conceived relationship between The Doctor and Amy in some respects but is backed with an association of mutual trust and respect.
Gatiss’ script really captures the romanticism of the era, complete with Churchill’s bunker, spitfires and even right down to Winnie himself. There is a level of authenticity given to the underground setting that offers a firm level of believability and suggests the episode will be of real substance. And the casting was certainly there to support such a belief.
As Churchill, Ian McNeice was simply astounding, easily stealing each and every scene he appeared in — so much so that you often forgot the Doctor and Amy (Karen Gillan) were even there. Equally so, the scripting of the character was magnificent and came with a toned-down historical credibility that wonderfully framed the episode.
Then there are the Daleks.
Why did they have to bring back the Daleks? The iconic villains of the classic series always bordered on melo-drama and lacked the kind of complexity that makes for terrific villains. Scary though they may be, the rolling pepper pots lacked an accessibility that other humanoid characters naturally possess.
When Russell T. Davies resurrected the Daleks in 2005, it was done so with heart and careful consideration. We saw a very vulnerable Dalek that has experienced a truly traumatic experience, just as the Doctor had, and it was made every human in return. Perhaps even more human than the flesh and blood characters stalking the corridors. From there, we saw that same creative and emotional spark turned bad as the Daleks rose again from the ashes time and time again only to be thwarted.
Every time though, there was something new and exciting to carry them along; a futuristic game show, an entire armada, the genesis ark and finally Davros, the creator of the species.
But, in a single episode, the Davies era Daleks are completely wiped out for good, giving rise to the new breed. The teletubby breed. Each new Dalek is painted in bright colors and has the mobility of a teletubby fresh off a merry-go-round.
The inclusion of the Daleks – and the weakness of their overall agenda — became the single biggest let down of what was an otherwise well considered exploration of an era where “Doctor Who” should feel completely at home.
The premise of the episode, the Doctor landing in the Second World War to help Churchill fend off the Nazi’s, is sound. Doctor Who is as much a British hero and icon as Churchill is. So, seeing them together for a single purpose is simply a wonderful match.
What makes it better is the casting of McNeice who was simply terrific as the British Bulldog. The setting and historical markers were all expertly included but it was McNeice that really sold the episode.
Carrying on with a mash-up of British icons and science-fiction, there is a nicely shot Spitfire attack against the Dalek mothership in orbit : even if it was short-lived.
What Didn’t Work
Well, where to start?
The Daleks in their primary-form are simply not scary. They are big and bulky and in no way come close to the so-called inferior Daleks that have terrorized the screens for the last few years. Their similarity to an insane tellytubby really puts the caboodle on their menacing atmosphere (how can you really be scared from a six-foot wheelie bin with an elaborate paint job?)
Their plan, cunning though it was, also failed to include the maliciousness that the tin-coated baddies have previously presented and the ease with which the Doctor and Amy squashed said plan was simply deplorable. Defusing a bomb through mushy-speech : has anyone told Jack Bauer this can be done?
Churchill had a reputation for being the pragmatic leader, yet we are expected to believe that he would happily allow a bomb big enough to annihilate the entire planet continue to exist?
The episode also illustrated budget cuts in full effect; the interior of the Dalek space-ship was again nowhere near the fantastical design that was demonstrated at the end of the re-imagined first season and instead resembled an Ikea warehouse at sale time.
Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due
“Doctor Who” stars Matt Smith and Karen Gillan. “Victory Of The Daleks” was written by Mark Gatiss.
“Doctor Who” airs Saturdays on BBC One in the United Kingdom and at 9 p.m. ET on BBC America.