Tag Archives: WW2

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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Sex, undercurrents and The Curse of Fenric (1989)

fenric

Fenric, eh? Time to talk undercurrents then.

This story was originally called The Wolves of Fenric, a metaphoric reference to a number of characters in the story whose destinies had been predetermined by this week’s evil from the dawn of time. It was, I think, Producer John Nathan-Turner who suggested that because there weren’t any actual wolves in the story, and no doubt also that the concept isn’t completely explained until Part Four, suggested the titular curse as an alternative.

Lots of Doctor Who stories changed titles before transmission, but it seems appropriate for this story, which is as interesting for what it doesn’t say as much as what it does. Fenric is as dense a text as any undergraduate semiotics student ever got their teeth into, and some of its most potent themes, specifically those concerning sexuality, are disguised throughout.

For a start, there’s swimming as a metaphor for sexual awakening. It’s good time girls Jean and Phyllis who succumb to temptation first and dive into the waters at Maidens Bay. “I know what girls who go to Maidens Bay have in mind”, says Miss Hardacre, the shrewish old spinster they’re billeted with. When two girls are transformed into Haemovores, they tempt a Russian soldier into the water, with some heavily loaded dialogue:

JEAN: Blood warm. Nobody’s forcing him. Nobody ever forces you to come into the water.

PHYLLIS: But everybody wants to. Deep down, everybody wants to come into the water.

(Although this is problematic; when Jean and Phyllis go for a swim, they become monsters. By contrast, when Ace dives in at story’s end, the water has a cleansing, emotionally cathartic effect).

But other themes are, like the Viking inscriptions under the church, harder to unearth. Dr Judson, codebreaker and inventor of the Ultima machine is a stand in for WW2 mathematician Alan Turing. Canny viewers may pick up on Judson’s disability (he’s confined to a wheelchair) as a reference to Turing’s personal restriction as a closet homosexual (as noted by writer Ian Briggs in the DVD extra Shattering the Chains). But few, I think, would cotton on to the idea that naval base commander Millington is also gay, and was the cause of Judson’s accident, through an injury inflicted many years before on a rugby field in a fit of jealousy.

For that reading, one has to turn to Briggs’ novelisation. It’s a vivid read if you can track it down Ebay hounds, and reveals a few other juicy morsels, such as Miss Hardacre’s own experiences at Maidens’ Bay (turns out Phyllis’s retort “Just ’cause you’ve never been swimming!” was wrong) and Nurse Crane’s cooperation with the invading Russians (extra points, by the way, if you spotted that Russians are all named after characters in plays by Chekhov). In a way, the book is an admission that there’s more to this story than can be told on television, and more than can be said during family viewing hours.

And on top of the subtexts littered throughout the story, we have the added complication of editing. Fenric ran way over length, and the transmitted version is cut with frenetic pace. Comparing this version with the 2003 Special Edition released on DVD is instructive. The 1989 version features a frantic energy rarely seen in Doctor Who (even by 21st century standards) but scenes start and end abruptly, and characters jump from location to location instantly. It’s an exciting but bewildering ride. The 2003 version reinstates missing scenes and reorders existing ones, and emerges the more coherent version, although it loses some of the exhilaration of the original.

My memories of Fenric are confused between these two versions and the 1991 VHS release which was another, shorter remix. It would take a more dedicated viewer than me to tell you which scenes belong to which version (but actually, just go to DWM369 where David Bryher does just this in The Fact of Fiction). Add this complexity to those thematic undercurrents, and we have something unique in Doctor Who; a choose-your-own-version story, into which you can read as much or as little as you like. It’s Doctor Who to revisit time and time again.

Just a closing word about Millington. He’s a loon, and not just because he’s crazed about the forthcoming end of days. The Doctor and Ace are clearly intruders, but he does nothing to apprehend them (his mate Judson was there when the Doctor forged the letter of introduction, so it’s not like he really thinks they’re from the war office). He’s more concerned with a baby being on base than them. The Doctor only has to mention some Norse mythology and that’s enough for Millington to tell him the Navy’s top secret plans to deploy chemical weapons. He orders the base’s communications equipment to be disabled for no good reason. He orders all chess sets destroyed, even though he could have no idea about the Doctor and Fenric’s unfinished game (and even if he did, what difference does it make to his plans?). Who put this guy in charge? “If this is a naval base”, Ace complains, “I’m Lord Nelson.”  I tend to agree.

Ah, well. At least he meets his end fittingly, shot by the unlikely pairing of a British and a Russian soldier. Which echoes Ace’s solution to the Doctor’s chess puzzle where the black and white pawns gang up on the king. See, there’s another of those undercurrents. This story just can’t help itself.

LINKS to The Dalek Invasion of Earth: World War Two shown thematically in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, is shown literally here. Both feature geniuses in wheelchairs.

NEXT TIME: Thank you Miss Grant, we’ll let you know. Our next random jump takes us to a Frontier in Space.

Kids, heroes and The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964)

dalek invasion

Welcome to the Dalek Invasion of Earth, twenty-one sixty-something AD. Well, actually we’re a bit late for the invasion, that’s all done. This is actually the Dalek Occupation of Earth. Well, I say “Earth”. In fact, we only see London and Bedfordshire. So really, it’s the Dalek Occupation of England. And come to think of it, these Daleks are a bit familiar, what with their one-sucker salutes and their talk of “the final solution”. So really, it’s the Nazi Occupation of England. But with animated robotic corpses and slythery monsters.

A perfect story, as it turns out, to kick off my random trawl through Doctor Who. Because in lots of ways, this story – the series’ tenth – sets a template for most, if not all, Doctor Who stories to follow. Until this point, Doctor Who stories had been an eclectic bunch, with the Doctor and his companions stumbling into new (or old) situations and being swept along with events. The Dalek Invasion of Earth is very different; the TARDIS crew arrive, find a problem which needs fixing (the aforemetioned alien occupation) and spend the rest of the story fixing it. Once they were travellers. Now they are heroes.

This change is starkest in the Doctor (William Hartnell, playing the role with shambolic relish). When we first met him, back in 100,000BC, he only tolerated planet Earth. Now, his first instinct is to defend it. “We are the masters of Earth”, a Dalek croakingly gloats at him early in Episode Two. “Not for long”, the Doctor promises, with quiet menace. That Dalek will soon wish it had stayed submerged in the Thames.

The change in the Doctor is reinforced by those around him. Yes, he’s still a cranky old goat, but he commands a new found admiration in people. We might expect that his granddaughter Susan might say “he’s a fantastic sort of man”, or even schoolmarmish Barbara to gush that he’s a brilliant scientist. But supporting characters and Dalek rebellers Craddock and Tyler also develop a gradual respect for him, and thus the audience are sent an important signal that this dotty old curmudgeon can take on an army of alien killers spread across the globe and win.

Not single handedly though. Writer Terry Nation, in some of his best scripts for the series, divides his story amongst the regulars and then neatly converges their stories at the end. In the early episodes, he starts with two strands: Ian/The Doctor discovering the Dalek threat and Barbara/Susan befriending the rebels. These two strands are brought together in an attack on a Dalek saucer (the Daleks themselves call their spaceships that, leading to the joyous conclusion that saucers, and presumably tea cups, are not alien to Dalek culture. Somewhere, there’s a Dalek high tea going on.)

The story then divides into three strands, centred on Barbara, Ian and The Doctor/Susan, with each party making its way to the Dalek mine in Bedfordshire. (Daleks love mining and on this occasion, they plan to replace the planet’s core with an engine, and joyride the Earth around the cosmos for reasons which remain unclear.) In the final episode, these three strands fit together snugly to form the story’s resolution. The Doctor comes up with a scheme which disables the Daleks, Barbara reprograms the zombiesque Robomen to attack them and Ian has dislodged their subterranean bomb, meaning its detonation will destroy their base. All three subplots have paid off, thanks to some skillful writing from Nation, pulling off a difficult dramatic trick but making it seem effortless.

The one character who should be the centre of attention is sidelined throughout. This is the Doctor’s grandaughter Susan, who leaves at this point, the first of many comings and goings for the series. Of Doctor Who’s inital quadrille of characters, Susan is the one the writers seem to have the shakiest handle on, and her character varies widely in each story: is she a reckless teenager, a gifted telepath or a helpless screamer? The only constant is one inspired by creator Sydney Newman’s orginial notes when assessing the series’ plans for its regular cast. He scrawled: “need a kid to get into trouble”. “So our other characters can rescue her”, is the unstated extension.

Still, she gets into trouble well. Indeed, she is the instigator of our heroes’ problems when in the first few minutes of the story she falls off a small wall, injures her ankle and somehow brings a bridge down on top of the Ship. Her schoolteachers tsk at her. Her grandfather openly scolds her. “You need a jolly good smacked bottom!”, he rails. Thus the script positions her firmly as a child and a quite useless one at that.

Throughout the story, this uselessness continues. When taken in by the rebels in Episode Two, while it is established that Barbara can contribute by cooking (so liberated!), Susan can only eat. And whereas Ian and Barbara are capable of holding storylines on their own, Susan must always share the limelight with the Doctor or rebel/love interest David Campbell. This enables her to be saved from ticking time bombs and sewer dwelling alligators by the nearest man.

Throughout the story she falls for David, and at the its end, there is the inevitable marriage proposal (directly strangely, with the actors’ backs to the camera). Like the audience, the Doctor has guessed that this is about to happen, and in order to force Susan to accept David’s proposal, he locks his granddaughter out of the Ship.

It’s astonishingly harsh; the subsequent explanation that Susan would never had left him voluntarily serves only to emphasise the point that she has been robbed of coming to that decision herself. “You’re a woman”, the Doctor tells her from inside the spaceship, but she still needs others to make life changing decisions for her, it seems.  This undermines the inference that she’s grown up over the course of the serial. But it hardly matters, because as an audience, we’ve seen no evidence of that. She was never given the chance to show us that.

And if the pay off for growing up is that is that you get to marry the first skinny rebel that comes along, learn how to cook and work on a farm, then it seems a poor exchange indeed. Even to the last, that kid’s still getting into trouble.

NEXT TIME: We play the contest again, as our next randomly selected story is…The Curse of Fenric.