Note: The following review contains spoilers for all aired episodes of Doctor Who, as well as the Torchwood episode, “Sleeper.”
You have to hand it to Steven Mofatt. He certainly loves defying people’s expectations. So many of the anti-Russell T. Davies Who fans expressed great delight at the prospect of Mofatt taking the helm, because he wasn’t fond of the old villains that Davies kept bringing back over and over again and would be more interested in using his own creations or at least choosing a different assortment than Rusty’s old bag of tricks. Or so they believed, for, while Steven certainly does seem intent on populating his Doctor Who with his own characters–evidenced by the fact that he is bringing back both the Weeping Angels from his brilliant Blink and River Song from his brilliant Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead next week–this week, he rather cheekily responds to those fans who thought they could predict where he was going by bringing back Rusty’s old standby, the Daleks. You can almost hear him chuckling, “Didn’t guess that, now, did you?”
What’s more, the episode’s outcome is contained right there in the title, “Victory of the Daleks,” for by the end of the episode, the Dalek menace is again looming in the universe. In fact, a whole new, rainbow-colored breed of Daleks has now been born, one which will most certainly be tormenting the Doctor for many years to come. Mofatt is making a very clear promise here that he will honor the history of Doctor Who. This may be his series now, but a willful disregarding of the past or closing-off of past threads is not in the cards. There is always the potential for any seemingly deceased villain in the Whoniverse to reappear at some point, and it’s almost as if Mofatt wants to get this one out of the way as soon as possible, so he can move on to his own sandbox.
Furthermore, while Mofatt does utilize the Daleks, he ensures that his show’s spin on them isn’t quite like that which we have seen before. To begin with, he sets the story in World War II London–technically, Mark Gatiss wrote the script, but as showrunner, Mofatt clearly guided it–and has the Daleks rather ingeniously appear not as alien threats but as what seem to be robotic weapons called the “Ironsides” that have been designed by one of Britain’s top scientists, Dr. Bracewell, for Winston Churchill (beautifully portrayed by Ian McNeice) to use in the fight against the Nazi menace. They appear in a pleasantly retro 1940s style that blends iron with the washed-out, olive drab color of standard army-issue equipment (which sets up the awesome twist of the appearance of the colorized Daleks later, not unlike the shift from black-and-white to Technicolor in The Wizard of Oz, a film which was only released a few years prior to the events of this episode). Although the Doctor’s immediate reaction is to be absolutely horrified by them and to warn Churchill, Churchill refuses to listen, making it adamantly clear that he will use whatever weapon necessary, no matter what the potential for evil, if it means protecting his people from the Nazis.
Churchill is a fascinating character here, particularly because he is depicted with such a large degree of moral ambiguity–much as the actual man is said to have had. He will do whatever he has to do to win the war and that includes, near the end of the episode, attempting to steal the TARDIS key from the Doctor. Rarely, if ever, have we seen someone with the guts to call himself the Doctor’s friend do something like that, but it is even more rare for the Doctor to be so forgiving of such an action. Churchill has the weight of legend and the thrust of history about him, however, and his larger-than-life personality allows him to get away with what others could not. Incidentally, the appearance of Churchill is yet another example of Mofatt following in Davies’ footsteps, as it continues the tradition of the Doctor and his companion encountering an historical figure every series–Charles Dickens in Series One, Queen Victoria and Madame de Pompadour in Series Two, William Shakespeare in Series Three, Agatha Christie in Series Four, and now Churchill in Series Five.
Returning to the Daleks, one of the episode’s central ironies is that it is possible–not likely, but possible–that the Daleks wouldn’t ever have turned on the Brits if the Doctor hadn’t arrived to identify them and thereby testify to the Progenitor Device that they are who they claim to be, thus setting off the creation of the new and improved race of Daleks. Another irony is the astonishing and ingenious storytelling twist that Professor Bracewell is not, in fact, the creator of the “Ironsides.” Instead, the “Ironsides” created him and implanted him with false memories, as well as a bomb that could take out the entire planet, which leads us to the third irony–that in attempting to destroy humanity, the Daleks, in essence, have created a human. Although he is technically an android, the Doctor and Amy are able to override the programming of Bracewell’s device by convincing him that he is a person, not a machine, saving the planet in the process.
If there is any episode I would use to illustrate the fundamental philosophical differences between Doctor Who and Torchwood, it is this one. When Bracewell learns the truth about his parentage, so to speak, he at first suffers an identity crisis. “What am I?” he asks. For the Doctor and Amy, the answer is very simple: he has the memories and thoughts of a person, and that makes him a person, regardless of what he was originally intended to be. (It was a great touch for Amy to identify with him over their shared Scottishness, as well.) So powerful is this human identity that by encouraging him to focus on his most cherished memories, the ones that make him feel most human–poetically, these are the ones that make him feel pain, such as lost love–he effectively transforms into a human.
On Torchwood, this sort of plot would have had a very different outcome. In the episode, “Sleeper,” for example, a human woman discovers that she is not human at all but rather a sleeper alien, implanted with false memories and genetically designed to blend into humanity until she eventually receives the orders to attack the people she once loved. There is no escaping this destiny. She tries her hardest to fight her nature and to hold onto her humanity, but the more desperately she struggles to retain the identity she has always known, the more she finds her alienness devouring her soul. The touching and optimistic conclusion to Bracewell’s story and this essential belief in the indomitable nature of the human spirit is one of the main reasons I will always be more drawn to Doctor Who than to its darker spin-off.
The episode’s other most important feature, from an arcing perspective, revolves around Amy Pond herself and the question of why she doesn’t remember the Daleks. There have been a number of subtle hints since the first episode of the series that Amy might be more linked to the crack in time than she herself realizes. There was, of course, the Doctor not telling her the full truth about why he brought her on board, as well as the reappearance of the crack on his scanner, on the star whale at the end of last week’s episode, and on the wall behind the TARDIS in this episode, but this is not the only clue. In “The Eleventh Hour,” Rory’s hospital badge says that it became effective in 1990, though that would make him much older than he is now. At the same time, however, other things have indicated that Amy was taken from the current era, not the early 1990s, such as the cell phones and wireless internet and porn on the laptop. The most convincing explanation right now seems to be that Amy is directly related to the crack in the universe and that exposure to her causes time to fluctuate oddly around her (perhaps a result of prolonged exposure to Prisoner Zero?). This might additionally explain why the Doctor, each time he left her in the premiere, wasn’t able to pinpoint the correct year upon his return–another of the subtle clues. It will be quite intriguing indeed to see where they go with this next, and particularly how this might come into play when Amy is face-to-face with the Weeping Angels, whose method of attack is to displace people in time.
All in all, “Victory of the Daleks” is a marvelous entertainment which beautifully mashes up a World War II film atmosphere with that of more modern science-fiction and a dash of steampunk, in the design of the Daleks, the army women’s headsets, and the video monitors. Meanwhile, the dazzling space battle against the Dalek ship, which recreates what Star Wars would have been had our heroes been flying World War II-era planes, is both thrillingly pulpy and madly ingenious. And in facing against the Daleks, Matt Smith gives his best and most confident performance as the Doctor yet. Not for a moment do we think, “This is a new actor who is in a room with the Daleks for the first time,” but instead marvel at the Doctor–our nearly-thousand-year-old hero–staring down his greatest enemies, as we’ve seen him do countless times before, and threatening them with a Jammie Dodger. Science-fiction doesn’t get any wittier or more freewheelingly brilliant than this.