I swore then I’d survive, no matter what.
It’s always difficult reviewing the episodes that are less popular. In some ways, it presents challenges that aren’t there with the ones that people tend to like, or even the ones that are controversial; you’re always trying to respond to a prevailing weight of opinion, that in turn shapes a lot of what you say and think about the episode. I couldn’t come to this clean – it was always “well, this is the one everyone seems to think is a bit crap”.
Oddly, the venom for this story is quite intense. Not in the same way that’s true of Love & Monsters, but in an almost more casual way – where people would dedicate lengthy essays to complaining about Love & Monsters, this one was always dismissed out of hand. It’s objectively poor quality is seen as so objective that people don’t even really feel the need to argue about it; it’s just accepted as fact. Just one of those things everyone knows.
Russell T Davies has this story in The Writer’s Tale about how, when Helen Raynor read the reviews of this story online, she felt like she’d been assaulted – that they were so horrible, so vitriolic, she was literally shaking. As in, the actual proper definition of literally.
That stuck in my mind somewhat when I was watching this episode. I was in two minds going into it, really. On the one hand, I’d not quite ever got the hate for this episode; though, as ever, I was relying on the memory of an eight-year-old who loved pretty much anything with a Doctor Who logo on it. Sometimes the memory cheats. And yet I couldn’t help but feel as though the criticism of this story has become overdone, almost as though a meme – really, I’d never seen much justification for it beyond gripes about how it’s rather silly.
And, actually, reading the IMDb reviews now (surely a more sensible refrain than checking GallifreyBase) it seems to be a lot more positive than I realised. What’s striking, really, is that it’s – generally speaking – the ones closer to the time that are more positive. It’s when you start to get into reviews from years after the episode first aired, that’s when they turn negative. So, maybe, perhaps a part of this episode’s poor reception simply is the perception that sprung up around it, negativity feeding into itself.
Which is good, actually. Because I rather liked this one.
Part of the poor reception to the episode is, undoubtedly, because this is the ‘for kids’ episode. Generally speaking, the first two-parter of any given series was aimed slightly younger, painted in broader strokes, had the big monster scenes, etc. That’s a truism of the series – or, arguably more accurately, it’s a truism that it’s a truism.
It’s not fair, though, to dismiss the episode purely on that basis. After all, it’s a programme that’s for all audiences – by any reasonable understanding of that, you’re going to have certain episodes that lean more towards certain demographics than others.
But then, I don’t think that’s the most accurate way to categorise this. In the context of a Doctor Who episode, ‘for kids’ isn’t a genre per se – it’s an aesthetic. When people are criticising the fact that the characters are broader, or that they’re speaking in silly accents, they’re missing the point – that’s part of the texture of the episode.
To an extent, then, it comes down to personal taste, as all things do. I love the exaggerated aspects of the episode, and I love the sheer fun of it, and I love that dance sequence. These, I’m sure, are a lot of the aspects people would dismiss, unable to handle the “Noo Yoik” accents (I think Tallulah is fantastic) and in turn disregarding the episode as a whole… but, well, it doesn’t bother me. It’s fun in the same way a pulp-y Dalek serial is; it doesn’t mean the episode is bad, merely that you don’t respond to what it’s trying to do. (And, I reckon, succeeding at doing.)
Equally, however, it’s worth noting that this isn’t a particularly simplistic episode. Yes, it’s unsubtle in places, but it does have some interesting ideas at the heart of it. There’s a genuinely interesting advancement of the Dalek ideology here, pushing the concept of the Cult of Skaro to a new place and setting up some great stuff for next week to deal with. Similarly, setting it in the wake of World War One and the Great Depression is a great way of grounding it in terms of the themes of survival that are so central to the episode.
(The contrast between Solomon and Mr Diagoras is great, incidentally. Both gone through the same war, but left with very different beliefs about how to survive. And yet there’s that great little detail when Solomon leaves Frank behind, because he’s scared – there’s that underlying ruthlessness that the Daleks want to tap into. It’s not presented subtly, no, but there’s an interesting idea there.)
Beyond that? There’s honestly quite a lot to enjoy about this episode. Lots of little directorial flourishes, for example – that shot of the Dalek exiting the elevator is fantastic. Indeed, it’s a very well-directed piece in general; James Strong maintains a great aesthetic throughout, keeping the sewers atmospheric and realising the visuals very well.
Similarly, I enjoyed a lot of the dialogue. I think Helen Raynor deserves a fair bit of credit here – my understanding is that this episode wasn’t rewritten by Russell T Davies to the same extent that most of the series was, because he’d been ill when this one was in development. She acquits herself well, certainly; like I’ve said already, I really enjoyed the aesthetic of this episode, and the way in which it is so brazen and on the nose about its themes. But even then, I do think it’s well written independently of that style – there’s some great Dalek dialogue here that wouldn’t be out of place in any other episode.
Is it perfect? No, it’s not. But then, the problems that I took from this episode are ones that are endemic to the series itself; I remain unimpressed at how quickly they moved into the whole “Martha loves the Doctor” angle, and maintain it should have been developed more slowly. This episode in and of itself is still pretty charming in many respects. For example, I love the fact that the Doctor has to spend time building a DNA scanner, when these days the sonic screwdriver would do it immediately – it’s blatantly padding, but there’s something lovely about it.
Again, it’s difficult to review this episode. It always is, with the first half of a two-parter, because so much of it is setting up and establishing a tone – in turn, it’s difficult to write about it without this just becoming a list of things that I liked.
But I did like this episode. It was charming, and it was fun, and it had some cool ideas running through it. Honestly, genuinely, what more could you ask for? This isn’t an episode that deserves the poor reputation it holds. Thankfully, though, that hasn’t mattered – because this episode survives.