OK, this is weird…
For the first time ever I find myself actually having enjoyed an episode of the Welsh Series rather more than most people, rather than sitting there spitting bile while everyone else goes “SQUEE!”
Victory Of The Daleks was far from a great story, but its main problem was that it clearly should have been an old-style four parter. You can even see exactly where the cliffhangers would be – first reveal of the Daleks, Doctor threatens to blow up Dalek ship with him on board, Doctor given the choice of whether to save Earth or destroy the Daleks. In this scheme, the ‘running around corridors episode’ would have been replaced with the ‘Star Wars space battle’ episode, but that’s the only real difference.
Unfortunately, in cutting the story down to 45 minutes, most of the narrative glue has been lost, and only the big set-pieces remain. Now this is a criticism many – not least myself – have made of Russel Davies’ stories, but the difference – and it is a big one – is that Davies’ stories are just fundamentally incoherent. I challenge anyone to say, for example, what *actually happened* in New Earth.
On the other hand, stick in two lines of explanation – literally two lines – and the whole story here made sense. You just have to say “We just need to get his positronic brain to override its self-destruct program! We need him to *WANT* to live!” or something. And quite frankly, that’s a leap of logic it’s easy enough to make by yourself. Yes, it’s a plot hole, but it’s just a hole, not the kind of black hole of plot that sucks all narrative coherence into itself that Davies used to specialise in. (I also suspect that it’s something that we’ll be coming back to in future episodes, if my guesses as to the overarching story of this series are correct).
More annoying is – as my friend Stu (who loves Spitfires almost as much as he loves Daleks, and who was practically orgasming in anticipation for this episode, but still felt it fell a little flat) pointed out – all the pilots were presented as ‘tally-ho! Chocks away!’ types, with no representation of the real mix of classes that did that job. I’m less bothered about the caricature of Churchill, because we were never, realistically, going to get anything like the real man (simultaneously a war criminal himself and the person who probably did more to save Western Europe from dictatorship than anyone else), but really we could have had at least a token Cockney or Northern pilot (and, indeed, it would have been a *VERY* good idea to have a Polish one, given the Polish contribution to the Battle of Britain and their current demonisation).
And I’m still not at all happy with the Doctor’s characterisation – he hasn’t got one. Much like Tennant, Smith is doing a brave job at trying to breathe life into a generically-written character (though some of the lines in this, oddly, sounded written for Eccleston). The character of the Doctor is the big sticking point for me with the Welsh series as a whole – no-one involved seems to have a handle on the character at all, and they seem determined to make him into the hero in Joseph Campbell’s monomyth or something – turning the character who should be closer to Obi-Wan or Gandalf into Luke Skywalker or Frodo. (Of course, he should not be Obi-Wan or Gandalf either, but they’re a much closer first approximation).
But with all this, there’s still some good stuff in this episode. In particular, the production design. While I’m not completely sold on the new Dalek designs, the Dalek *spaceship* was perfect – reminiscent of TV Century 21 and the Cushing films, while not actually sharing many design elements with them. And Gatiss can write Dalek dialogue properly – unlike pretty much every writer for the proper series, who would resort to Davros monologuing for the last decade or so of Dalek stories. And the battleship-grey wartime Daleks were wonderful.
In fact, I suspect the production design was one of the reasons this made me feel much better about the programme than everyone else I know, and this is really the nub of the matter. It looked *cheap* in many ways – but in the *right* ways.
The budget for Doctor Who has been cut this year, but you’d never know it by looking at the big set-piece special effects pieces in this – the space battle stuff looks good, and the new Daleks must have cost close to a million quid to produce. The way the budget cut appears to have impacted most severely is that the story here was entirely centred around a few big sets. I’d have to watch again to be sure, but I think there was *NO* location/outdoor filming whatsoever here – everything was done in studio. And there was no real attempt to hide it – London, with the lights going on or off, looked like a painted backdrop.
Now, Doctor Who – the proper series – was part of a long line of British TV drama that was more theatrical than filmic – what Americans would refer to as a ‘TV Movie’ would be referred to as a play in the UK until well into the 80s – and the strengths and weaknesses of that kind of technique led to a particular kind of writing – dialogue-heavy, reliant on implication rather than action – which you can see in everything from sitcoms like Porridge or Steptoe & Son to drama like I, Claudius or Boys From The Blackstuff.
That kind of dialogue-driven writing is what I, personally, miss from TV today (and the lack of it is the main reason I don’t own a TV). Not just the ‘great TV dramatists’ like Bleasdale or Dennis Potter, but even people like Bob Holmes (who, when not writing for Doctor Who, was writing for everything from Blake’s Seven to Juliet Bravo pretty much interchangeably) would write like this as second nature, and it’s something that was lost in the late 80s.
(For those who are interested, you can see the precise moment this skill got lost if you compare series two and three of Red Dwarf. The first two series of Red Dwarf are the kind of TV show I’m talking about – quite close to Steptoe & Son In Space, a dialogue-driven sitcom based around two or three grey sets. From series three onwards, the show is closer to modern ‘cult TV’, and it slowly lost the wit and intelligence that had driven the first two series in favour of catchphrases and explosions).
That’s a skill that’s lost now – British TV has changed so much as a medium that one simply can’t imagine anything like the programmes that are routinely trotted out as ‘classics’ ever getting commissioned – but seeing that ‘theatrical’ look immediately made me, at least, feel far more at home with this episode than with the previous ones, and more willing to forgive its faults. And maybe, if they have to stick to low budgets, the writers will have to relearn the lost skills of TV writing.
There’s a lot more to say about this – we can now see running themes in the series (choice is the recurrent theme so far, and for the second week in the row the Doctor has done bugger-all, leaving Amy to save the world) and we can speculate about things being set up for future stories (in particular, one line makes me think that Amy is a robot), but those things will be more interesting to talk about when the series is completed, rather than a quarter of the way through.
At this point, I’m still not at all sure if I like this new series. But that’s a hell of a lot better than the absolute hatred I felt at this point in the first two Tennant series, so that’s an improvement. I’ll give it at least a few more episodes, but it still doesn’t feel like Doctor Who to me. But it doesn’t feel too awful for what it is, either…