Tag Archives: world leaders

Icons, iconoclasm and Victory of the Daleks (2010)

victory

When Steven Moffat was first spruiking Victory of the Daleks, he was confident of a hit. Writing in DWM before it aired, he called it the “Mark Gatiss classic”, predicting that’s how everyone would describe it in future. You can see how he would have come to this conclusion from looking at this story’s component elements: Daleks – old and new, the London blitz, Churchill, spitfires in space. A sure fire winner.

As it turns out, the reception to this episode was much harsher. It came bottom, not top, of DWM’s season poll. There are lots of reasons why, covered in lots of easily located reviews, if you’re looking for a catalogue of what’s wrong with this story. I’m more interested in what happens when you mess around with the show’s iconography.

By which I mean, the big, series-defining elements which are strongly identified with the program – and by which the program is in turn identified. What the list of the show’s icons contains is arguable, but I’d say it consists of: the Doctor, the TARDIS, the Daleks and the theme music. I think those are the elements that are closest to the hearts of most viewers. Changes to these elements are contentious because they are loved so dearly by so many. Muck around with these elements and you muck around what makes Doctor Who Doctor Who.

(To illustrate further, here are some elements I don’t think make that list of icons: regeneration, companions, Time Lords, monsters other than Daleks. These are important – sometimes crucial – ingredients in the show, but you can play around with these. Alter how they appear and the role they play, discard them all together or completely redesign them. Viewers and fans accept changes to these components more readily than to those icons.)

Victory of the Daleks dares to tinker with one of those icons, when it wheels out its new paradigm Daleks, in (nearly) all the colours of a Trivial Pursuit board. The redesign of the Daleks, as bulkier, more garish but less elegant versions, was one of the most widely criticised missteps of 21st century Who. Had it been attempted in the show’s maiden season in 2005, it could have scuppered the series’ return.

The surprising thing about it is they didn’t even change that much. They followed what had gone before, copying the size and brashness of the 1960s Dalek films in an act of homage. But somehow between the oddly concertinaed neck and the humpy back, they misplaced the essence of that classic Cusick design.

It was a misstep made with staggering confidence. The multicoloured Daleks glide onto screen with triumphant arrogance, like new model Audis at an automotive fair. More tellingly, they demolish the classically formed Ironside Daleks, literally and symbolically, as if to say, “we won’t be needing these old things anymore!” Millions of viewers disagreed, perhaps sensing that an unnecessary change was being foisted upon them in attempt to reinvigorate toy sales. Even though their title, the “New Dalek Paradigm”, doesn’t sound like it would make youngsters race to the cash register. It sounds more like the subject of a textbook.

It’s not like the Daleks hadn’t been redesigned before. But no-one had ever deviated this far from Ray Cusick’s original template. It was a swift lesson in the risks of messing with one of the show’s icons. You can only go so far before you lose the essence of what people loved about them in the first place. Hearing the audience’s critique (how could they not?), the production team shifted these new paradigm Daleks into the background in future stories.

What of our other untouchable icons? The theme music has had its ups and downs, but is essentially still the dum-de-dum-ooo-ee-ooo fanfare we’ve all grown up with. An alternative scarcely bears thinking about. Similarly, the TARDIS, both inside and out, has been through many iterations, but none has looked utterly different from what has gone before. It’s hard to imagine a version of the show where the spaceship’s exterior looks like, I don’t know, a Tesla recharging station and the interior like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. See, you’re shuddering already, aren’t you? Even though the Moff likes to throw in the occasional jibe at fans who worry about the size of the Ship’s windows, he never dared make it anything other than a Police Box.

Which leaves us with the Doctor. He isn’t a design element like the TARDIS or a technical element like the theme music, but he still comes with a basic template to follow. You know it by heart: never cruel or cowardly, never gives up and never gives in. Sometimes though, he has, in the eyes of some, veered too far away from his original conception, such as when Colin Baker and Peter Capaldi presented harsher, less outwardly compassionate versions of our hero. So the Doctor’s not infinitely flexible; you can’t perform on him the character equivalent of painting him blue and giving him an awkwardly shaped hump.

So it’s interesting to watch the most recent episode, Twice Upon a Time, wade into these murky waters. It did so by taking liberties with the first Doctor, by giving him a line in sexist remarks, which, no matter how redolent of the original series they were, were not characteristic of the Doctor himself. Those crass clangers may have added a few laughs to the episode, but it showed an unusually cavalier attitude by the production team to bringing back an element from the show’s past. It’s hard to imagine them getting away with such retconning had they brought the fourth Doctor back, or the tenth.

It would have been tempting to think that the first Doctor was such a relic of the past that no one would mind a little character revisioning in the name of a jolly Christmas episode. But judging from the widespread online criticism of this move, I think they underestimated people’s affection for the first Doctor, much as Victory of the Daleks underestimated people’s affection for the original Dalek design. In a sense, having the first Doctor smirk about women being made of glass is the equivalent of the paradigm Daleks blowing up their previous well liked incarnations. In their negative reaction to both these moves, I think fans of the series are saying, “these are the icons you can’t mess with. Treat them with respect.”

Of course, Twice Upon a Time makes one other, far more significant, alteration to the Doctor and that’s to make him a woman. To some, this will be the destruction of one of the show’s untouchable elements. For me, it doesn’t feel like the destruction of anything, just a logical progression for the show; a new shade of blue on the Police Box, rather than changing it into a recycling station. Even so, you make these changes carefully and with respect for the past… Otherwise, it seems you’re doomed to retreat from the bold ideas, like a new paradigm Dalek gliding to the back of shot, hoping to stay unnoticed.

One last thing to note about the bold, iconoclastic but unpopular Victory of the Daleks: Master Spandrell loves it. Has for about 2 years now. Because it’s an action packed, exciting and – dare I say it – colourful adventure. If it has a resurgence in popularity in future years because the children who loved it have all grown up, it wouldn’t be the first time such a thing has happened. They may even refer to it as “the Gatiss classic.” The Moff may yet be proven right.

LINK TO The Pilot: both have Daleks in them. Classic, old paradigm Daleks.

NEXT TIME… it’s death by Scotland in The Eaters of Light.

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World leaders, world events and Aliens of London/World War Three (2005)

aliens of london

En route to 10 Downing St, the Doctor (Christopher Eccelston, half goofy, half broody) asks “Who’s the Prime Minister now?” To which faithful companion Rose (Billie Piper) wisely replies, “How should I know? I missed a year.” Which brings to mind Doctor Who‘s uneasy relationship with merging its own fictional universe with real life. And specifically, how it deals with world leaders.

The rules seems to be these: using an actual/historical world leader? Don’t mess too much with them. Contemporary politics though can be played with. And if you’re going to invent a fictional world leader, then feel free to put them through hell.

Let’s start with the British Prime Minister. History stands, up to a point. It would be difficult, for instance, to set a story in WW2 where Churchill is not Prime Minister. But some fun can be had with contemporary politics. The Green Death, which like all UNIT stories is set some few (but unspecified) years beyond its broadcast date, cheekily suggested that PM Edward Heath would lose the forthcoming election and Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe would succeed him. And Terror of the Zygons famously predicts a female Prime Minister, even though Harold Wilson was still in power.

Aliens of London manages to subvert this rule by sticking (kind of) to real life politics AND messing with it. In it, an unnamed British Prime Minister is killed. The episode was made in 2004 and set in 2006, both years when Tony Blair was the job’s real life incumbent. Writer Russell T Davies diplomatically shies away from assassinating the UK’s current PM on prime time television, but his very anonymity indicates that it’s Blair – otherwise why not invent a fictional leader to kill (which, as we’ll see, is often what happens)?

Plus the story goes on to unsubtly comment on the UK’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq based on false evidence of “weapons of mass destruction”, a scandal in which Blair became embroiled, so it’s hard to see the PM’s death as anything other than Davies passing editorial judgement. And in the following year’s Rise of the Cybermen, Mickey suggests that an alternative universe might be one in which Tony Blair was never elected. So we know Blair exists or existed in the Doctor Who universe, and although we don’t know to which office Whoniverse Blair was elected to, I think there’s enough evidence to say he was PM and he was killed by the Slitheen.

(Mentioning Mickey reminds me that at the end of this story he shows the Doctor a newspaper with the headline ‘Alien Hoax’, by way of demonstrating the world’s willful ignorance of recent events. Funny though that the death of the Prime Minister doesn’t warrant a mention.)

So while just about giving us a real life PM, Aliens of London follows the rule that you can muck around with contemporary politics. In subsequent episodes we learn the line of succession goes Tony Blair (probably), Harriet Jones (deposed, then dies) and Harold Saxon (deposed, dies, partly reincarnated, mutates into… Oh, I can’t be arsed. Let’s just say ’dies’). Torchwood: Children of Earth then offers us Brian Green, whose name plays on that of then PM Gordon Brown. Davies decides not to kill this one, but leaves him disgraced and about to be deposed. Being a fictional PM is dicey, and this makes sense in story terms; stories which deal with big world events naturally fit with the rise and fall of leaders. If you want to depose or kill a PM in order to show the scope of your story, you can hardly do it with a real life figure. You need to invent one.

US Presidents have a similarly tricky history. The Chase showed us Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg address and The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon gave us Richard Nixon; again historical figures are not messed with. But The Sound of Drums offers us a fictional president, Arthur Colman Winters, who seems to be a stand in for then president George W. Bush. As a fictional world leader, his days are numbered and before long, Winters is gruesomely iced by the Toclafane. (Again, I suspect Davies is having a bit of fun there.) By the time we get to The End of Time, though, history has reasserted itself, and real life POTUS Barack Obama is in office. Being a real life leader, he gets to live.

Anyway, the vagaries of how the show deals with world leaders is just part of a bigger problem with classic Doctor Who always struggled with and that the new series, starting with Aliens of London, tackles head on. The problem is this: how do you show a world crisis, from a small setting?

There were two ways of doing it in the classic series. The first was to rely on “reports coming in from around the world”. Usually recited by a raspy computer. Or told in half heard telephone conversations around a busy UNIT operations room. Maybe plotting incidents on a handy map. The Tenth Planet even had a office in Geneva tracking Cybermen worldwide. Alien invasions of the world!  All told without moving from Television Centre.

The other way is just to ignore the rest of the world. I’m thinking here of stories like The Web of Fear, where London is under attack and although the threat posed by the Yeti is formidable, there’s no call for assistance from any of the UK’s allies. Could the Yeti stand up to the combined forces of NATO for instance? Probably not. So let’s pretend those combined forces don’t exist.

The new series deals with it better and has even developed a house style for this sort of thing, and it starts with Aliens of London. We see TV reports from around the world (Trinity Wells becomes a recurring character as the US news anchor. With each subsequent appearance, she becomes an ever more knowing wink to this globe trotting technique). We get some special effects shots of aliens in front of world landmarks. We still get reports coming in from around the world. And the combination of these is enough to sell us the idea that aliens invade the world, not just London. Or in this case, aliens invade London, but the world is watching.

As for the story itself? Well, it was shot in the new series first production block and it shows new Who trying to define its tone, and not nailing it straight away. With its giggling, farting aliens, and its arch self awareness, this is much more camp than the new series will turn out to be. But in how it tells a story of scale, it sets up quite a few rules which the series follows.

LINKS to Death to the Daleks: this took me a while, but try this one on for size. In both, there’s a climactic act of self sacrifice that leads to the monsters being blown up (although in Death, the self sacrificer Galloway dies, while in World War Three, the Doctor, Rose and Harriet survive).

NEXT TIME… Back of the neck! It’s The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky.