Does it deserve the criticism? A look back at Doctor Who’s Victory of the Daleks
As part of our retrospective of new series Doctor Who since 2005 across recent weeks, we’ve revisited the lowest-ranking episode of the eras of the Ninth and Tenth Doctors. Now it’s the Eleventh Doctor’s turn.
There are actually two separate stories episodes tied for last place, with a dual rating of 6.7 on IMDb: series five’s Victory of the Daleks and The Curse of the Black Spot from series six. For the purposes of this article, we’ll take the first of the two stories to be broadcast, an episode that attracts significant criticism due to one element in particular – a controversial redesign – that, I would argue, receives undue focus compared to the treasure trove of quality Doctor Who storytelling throughout the rest of the episode.
Victory of the Daleks is quite the rousing episode of Doctor Who. From the wartime setting, to the Eleventh Doctor’s first meeting with the Daleks, to plenty of moments of triumph and excitement, writer Mark Gatiss captures the essence of an action-packed yet emotional story in a highly underrated episode.
If the script is anything to go by, Gatiss clearly had much enjoyment putting Churchill face-to-face with the Daleks. His realisation of character and depiction of the tenacity of the British war effort, combined with the production team’s depiction of the period setting, set the scene literally – very well. The Cabinet war rooms are intensely atmospheric, the set design is rich and detailed.
Wartime London is understandably a popular go-to item in British drama, but Gatiss spins it off into something new with the inclusion of the Daleks. The stark visual contrast of Daleks against the WWII setting is strangely thrilling and somehow highly appropriate, as is the tense anticipation of when the inevitable revelation of their masterplan will take place.
A highlight of the episode is Winston Churchill, played by Ian McNiece: charismatic, charming and with a staunch Britishness that captures the essence of the real man. McNiece really sells the rapport between the Churchill and Matt Smith’s Doctor. Although this is evidently Churchill’s first encounter with the Eleventh Doctor, there are references to there being a wealth of other adventures for the pair, some of which have now been realised in audio form at Big Finish; a weaker episode might not have led to such a rich extension upon established continuity.
Where Victory of the Daleks also excels is showcasing Matt Smith’s range in the early days of the Eleventh Doctor; he occupies the character with confidence, presenting a convincing mixture of light and dark, young and old. Amy mostly fills in the typical role of the inquisitive companion – but then gets some meatier material in relation to Professor Bracewell, whose touching emotional story is splendidly conveyed by Bill Paterson.
The primary element for criticism is the redesign of the Daleks. The rationale for the change is clear: as the same design had been used since 2005, mix things up, make them bigger and more colourful. It may not be to everyone’s liking, but they certainly are more imposing for their bulk and deeper voice. Further, Gatiss subverts convention by having the Daleks win within the first fourteen minutes – and again, in a broad sense, by the end. He also deepens Dalek lore by (re)introducing a hierarchy between existing units and the superior Paradigm Daleks.
Admittedly, things progress at a fair lick, with everything being resolved in less than 42 minutes, and a potpourri of elements are at play: Daleks, Winston Churchill, WWII, Bracewell-is-a-bomb, and so on. Perhaps an hour-long episode could have given further depth to the wartime setting, delving further into the characters’ lives and motivations.
Spitfires in space; Daleks being nice, serving tea and carrying an office file down a corridor; the Doctor threatening to blow up a Dalek ship with a jammie dodger: these are wildly wacky moments only Doctor Who could have. Victory of the Daleks is a highly entertaining and rewardingly emotional episode that takes advantage of its setting and atmosphere, takes a risk with a well-known enemy, and arguably does not deserve all the criticism levelled at it.