You are everything I despise! The worst thing in all creation.
There’s a profound awkwardness to any story like this, one that so almost could’ve been fantastic but quite conspicuously isn’t. With Victory of the Daleks, you can pinpoint the moment where Mark Gatiss looks at all the interesting things he’s set up, and chooses not to write about them – opting instead to do, well, not much of anything actually. It’s remarkable, after the sheer density of ideas in The Eleventh Hour and The Beast Below, how little is going on in Victory of the Daleks – it’s a chessboard episode, the first part of a storyline we now know never quite concludes, ultimately only really offering exposition without much else. If nothing else, that’s a shame: the first genuine misstep of the Matt Smith’s tenure as the Doctor.
It’s easy to be sympathetic, in fairness; watching Victory of the Daleks, you do get the sense that production got away from the team here, even moreso than on The Beast Below. Their ambition clearly strained against what they were able to realise, and you can tell when compromises had to be made and priorities were clearly elsewhere. (There’s a shot on the Dalek spaceship – a disused cigarette factory, acting as a replacement because the original location was unavailable – where a vent lights up, and you wonder how desperate they were to include that at all, as though drawing attention to it in the hopes it’d be less noticeable somehow.) With any series of Doctor Who, particularly the first of a new production team, there’s a learning curve, and there are always episodes that don’t quite come together for various reasons; there are mistakes made and corners cut in Victory of the Daleks that won’t happen in future episodes. Of course, though, that’s part of why the Daleks appear in this episode at all – it’s a sleight of hand, a known quantity to take attention away from any roughness-around-the-edges from a brand new Doctor, companion, and production team. (The first half of Series 5 is structured this way – Daleks, Weeping Angels, and River Song in the episodes shot first, with The Eleventh Hour part of a later filming block to give Matt Smith space to make a more confident debut.) It didn’t work, perhaps because the Daleks are as difficult to get right as the Doctor.
But, as noted, it very almost did. Lots has been written already about Victory of the Daleks and its failures, and the kind of episode that it is. So instead, let’s look at the episode that this isn’t.
The Daleks have always, on some level, been a metaphor for the Nazis. When the series began in 1963, World War Two remained a relatively recent memory; Terry Nation cited the Nazis as an inspiration on his early work, and you can trace that influence through later Dalek stories too, always lurking in subtext if not necessarily explicitly stated. (That allegorical aspect has lessened, somewhat, in recent years, though not entirely – according to Rob Shearman, Christopher Eccleston considered Dalek akin to the story of a holocaust survivor meeting a Nazi, and tailored his performance accordingly.)
Despite – or perhaps because of – the looming legacy of the second World War, the classic series rarely actually visited that time period. (Only The Curse of Fenric, one of the last stories to air during Doctor Who’s original run, was set during WWII. Interestingly, it’s one of the most frequently visited periods of the revival, with Christopher Eccleston, Matt Smith, and Jodie Whittaker all appearing in WWII-set episodes. There’s perhaps something to be said of how that iconography is used and reproduced, not a million miles away from some of the themes touched on in The Beast Below.) In any case, then, it means that the pitch given to Gatiss here – rooting the Daleks in the time period that inspired them, grounding the allegory in the real thing – is a genuinely clever one. ‘Daleks in WWII’ isn’t just a basic genre mashup, but something that offers a lot of potential to engage with and recontextualise the basic concept that underpins them.
Contrasting them not with the Nazis, but with Churchill instead, is genuinely inspired though. There’s potential for something thoughtful and critical, to sidestep (or even better, refute) the hagiography and engage with a deeper portrait of the man. There’s a version of Victory of the Daleks that’s about nationalism, that’s about imperialism, something layered and nuanced rather than a collection of pop culture memories alone. (It feels odd to point to Daleks in Manhattan as a success, exactly, but it’s more thoughtful than this episode in a lot of respects – that conversation between Dalek Thay and Mr Diagoras seems like something that might’ve been worth imitating here.) But Victory of the Daleks isn’t interested in that, not particularly. It’s surprising to rewatch the episode, actually, and see how little time it actually devotes to the premise of the Daleks working with Churchill, abandoning that idea quite quickly – almost as if it’s too uncomfortable to bear.
That’s no surprise, though.
In part, that’s because this is a Mark Gatiss episode. I’ve always had more time for him than most – I think he’s a reliably interesting if not stratospheric writer, for all his many fl – but Victory of the Daleks is, I think, comfortably his weakest episode. It was never a premise he could’ve handled well, I suspect, even if it does seem an obvious one for him to tackle on the face of it – Gatiss is (as many have noted) first and foremost a nostalgia artist, and where that works it works because it’s rooted in a fairly personal and idiosyncratic taste. Here, those skills sour; he’s doing an unreconstructed take on something that demands a more subversive eye, deliberately and consciously opting instead to do a popular imagination bank holiday war movie style piece. Victory of the Daleks is, if you like, what you’d get if you could distil a Keep Calm and Carry On poster into forty minutes of Doctor Who, presented entirely without reservation, critique or insight – I suspect Gatiss finds those posters delightfully charming, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he owned one of these.
(I’ve wondered, from time to time, if Gatiss might’ve been a better Doctor Who showrunner than Chris Chibnall; much as Chris Chibnall’s episodes make the case for Gatiss, Victory of the Daleks makes the case for Chibnall. Gatiss has been more interesting more often, but I suspect his attempts at mass populist appeal would look more like this than episodes like Sleep No More, which would be the register I’d rather he work in as showrunner.)
The thing is, however, it’s not Gatiss’ limitation alone. That’s the nature of Doctor Who, as a mainstream BBC One drama. I doubt, personally, it had the capacity to offer any sort of subversive or radical take on Churchill in 2010; certainly, there is no chance, whatsoever, you’d get anything other than an entirely fawning take in 2021. (Genuinely, could you imagine the response if Chibnall and Whittaker even tried?) That’s not an excuse, to be clear – if anything, it makes it more of a mistake to have tried to do a Churchill episode at all. It’s a shame; maybe the series loses something if it’s popular, if it’s not something marginal. There is a good Churchill/Daleks episode to be written – one that engages with Churchill and imperialism, maybe one that engages with the Daleks as the national icon (and merchandise) they’ve become and asks what that means, potentially one that interrogates the colonial adventure fiction the show is rooted in too – but it’s never going to come from a series in the midst of a fraught reinvention, with one eye on sales to America. Doctor Who can be thoughtful and subversive, but it’s not inherently so, and that’s why you get episodes like Victory of the Daleks.
(All of which having been said: I do genuinely quite like the multicoloured Paradigm Daleks, and I wish we’d seen more of them.)