This year's big Dalek episode of Doctor Who was a fun, colorful romp with enough silliness, and crazy enough action, to make almost anyone happy for 42 minutes. But it did make us wonder: Will the Daleks ever rock again?
Oh, and there are MEGA spoilers for "Victory Of The Daleks," and very minor spoilers for the two episodes that follow.
In a way, "Victory Of The Daleks" was the same Dalek story we've been getting for years, except for the ending. Once again, the Doctor discovers that the Daleks weren't destroyed totally in the Time War, as he thought. Rather, a few of them survived, and they're making plans for a sneaky comeback using genetic engineering or their creator Davros, or zoot suits, or whatever. Every one of those previous stories pretty much ended with the Doctor thwarting the Daleks' comeback once and for all.
This time around, the Daleks' wacky scheme actually succeeds, and the story hints that the mutant blobs of hate are back as a force to be reckoned with. So "Victory Of The Daleks" is really aimed at being a reboot for the Doctor's oldest and nastiest foes, and only time will tell how well it succeeds.
Maybe I'm just being optimistic because the Steven Moffat-penned two-parter which followed "Victory Of The Daleks" was so immaculate that it restored my faith in the universe — but "Victory Of The Daleks" did at least leave me intrigued about where the Daleks are going next. Which is something that hasn't been the case in, oh, years.
Not that this was an all-time classic episode, by any means — it was mostly pretty silly fluff. But it did a few things right. For one thing, it reminded us that the Daleks' greatest strength has always been their cunning. The first half of the episode very deliberately recalled the 1966 classic "Power Of The Daleks," in which a group of Daleks are crashed on the planet Vulcan without enough power to get away — so they trick the human colonists on the planet into thinking the Daleks are their humble servants. The Daleks are always more fascinating when they're manipulating people and concealing their true malevolence.
And plunking the Daleks down in the middle of World War II is a touch of genius, since they're meant to be Nazis. (Creator Terry Nation was pretty up front about this, and put a Nurnberg Rally pastiche into "The Daleks Masterplan" and goose-stepping into "Genesis Of The Daleks.") The Daleks' whole deal is that they're space racists, who believe they're the superior life form of the universe. So having them volunteer as Winston Churchill's new secret weapon during the London Blitz is a stroke of bizarre genius. (Shame we didn't get to see any actual Nazis in the episode.)
Also, having Winston Churchill resort to using the Daleks as weapons despite his misgivings is a nice metaphor — the Daleks were created in a terrible 10,000-year war, and when they don't symbolize fascism, they symbolize the ultimate weapon and militarism gone too far. So bringing up those questions of just how far you're willing to go to win in a total war is a nice way to bring them back to their original thematic roots. They're an ultimate weapon that got just a wee bit too ultimate for comfort.
Plus, the idea of Daleks serving a nice cuppa tea only gets more hilarious the more you contemplate it. And the callback later, when the Doctor admits his "self-destruct device" is a jam cookie, because "I was promised tea!" was priceless.
To be honest, the first half of this episode almost felt like the Doctor Who team were admitting that they'd run out of Dalek stories, so why not have a lark? So it was sort of a pleasant surprise when the Daleks' scheme was revealed — they needed the Doctor to recognize these genetically impure Daleks as Daleks, so that they could activate their progenitor thingy and spawn the new generation of bigger, shinier Daleks.
I don't hate the new Daleks as much as many people do, by the way. I'm still getting used to them, but I sort of like the sleekness. But I get why lots of people hate them. I do find the weird individual titles a bit meh, but whatever.
But can the new Daleks restore the horror and thrills of the killing machines at their absolute best? Maybe. I'm a smidge dubious, but keeping my hopes up.
It's worth recapping, briefly, how we got here. Doctor Who introduced the Daleks in its very second story, back in 1963, and they were an instant hit, propelling the show to ratings heights that only a few other monsters, like Kylie Minogue, would ever garner. (Sorry, couldn't resist.) The Daleks died off at the end of their first story, but such was their success, the show figured out a way to bring them back the following year — for one of their best ever stories, "The Dalek Invasion Of Earth." The merciless metal Nazis conquered Earth and zoomed around London exterminating people. It remains one of the show's best episodes.
Ever since then, the Daleks have had their ups and downs. The next two stories were pretty forgettable. And then the two stories after that are considered classics again, although only snippets of them remain. In the 1970s, Jon Pertwee had three fairly disposable Dalek stories, with a few good moments sprinkled in.
And then the Daleks got their second reboot — the story "Genesis Of The Daleks" told their origins for the first time, and introduced their mad-scientist creator Davros. But more than that, it gave them back a lot of their edge once again. The overexposed Daleks appear pretty sparingly in the story, especially the first few episodes, and when they're on screen, they're mostly slaughtering everyone in sight. They don't stand around and debate amongst themselves for minutes at a stretch. Most of all, "Genesis Of The Daleks" introduced the cleverest idea of them all — that the near-omnipotent Time Lords themselves were terrified of the Daleks because they foresaw a possible future where the Daleks had succeeded in wiping out all other life. That's pretty radical stuff.
Every classic-series Dalek story after that took the wrong idea from "Genesis." Instead of borrowing the idea of using the Daleks for maximum effect, or playing with the idea that the Daleks might be destined to win in the end, the writers brought back the character of Davros, over and over, with less and less justification. (If ever there was a character who deserved to appear in only one story and then vanish, it would be Davros.) There were some neat bits here and there, and "Remembrance of the Daleks" does some nice things with the Doctor — but for the most part the new potential created by "Genesis" was squandered.
The new series gave the Daleks their third reboot, with the fantastic first-season episode "Dalek." Almost everything about this episode is perfect (I can do without the Dalek wanting to see the sun at the end.) One single Dalek is able to pwn a whole facility full of heavily armed humans, and you're left with no doubt that this Dalek could trash a lot of the planet Earth the same way. And the Daleks are given a new backstory: they went to war with the Time Lords, and the Doctor had to destroy his own people to stop the Daleks.
The invention of the Time War was pure genius, and it gave the Daleks a whole new power, reaffirming that they were powerful enough to scare the crap out of the Time Lords. And when the Daleks came back next, you couldn't help remembering that the Doctor made the ultimate sacrifice to rid the universe of them — and the Daleks' continued existence means the Doctor's sacrifice was in vain. (Of course, we eventually learned that the Doctor didn't just destroy the Time Lords because it was the only way to stop the Daleks, but also because the Time Lords were asswipes.)
And just like the previous new leases on life the Daleks had gotten, the show squandered this new potential with a slew of inconsequential, increasingly silly stories. To be fair, the Dalek-Cybermen battle royale was pretty freakin great, but it did culminate with the Daleks flying through the air like skittles. And the less said about "pig slaves," the happier we'll all be.
There's bound to be an element of wishful thinking in pondering the idea that Skaro's Finest could carry some real weight once again, and be restored to their true glory. But as goofy as it is, "Victory Of The Daleks" does leave me feeling as though the writers are at least heading in the right direction, by touching on all of the major thematic elements of Dalek lore. And the Daleks win in the end, which is a plus.
The real question is whether there are any new stories to be told about the Daleks, or whether we're doomed to endless rehashes. Which reminds me of one other point that "Genesis Of The Daleks" brings up, which the show's never addressed since — maybe some things in the universe are better because the Daleks exist. Maybe they bring out the best in people. Maybe out of their great evil must come something good.
It would certainly be interesting to find out if that's true.