Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear…
To be fair, I never did expect a lot from this episode. Dalek stories are notoriously difficult to get right. There’s a very large element of giving Joe Public what he wants and expects about them – screaming invective and portentious twaddle of a vaguely eugenic sort. And, preferably, a bit of spectacle. Neither, in my view, make a good episode.
Here we see them somewhat cynically attached to the other DW crowd-pleaser, the celebrity historical. The overall effect was closer to a commercial for a new brand-stretching line than a compelling drama. Even the setting – possibly the best-realised aspect of the episode – was borrowed from the familiar form of stiff-upper-lip, terribly plucky British war movies – Millions Like Us and In Which We Serve come to mind. Yes, the Cabinet War Rooms setting was nicely done, but Churchill was less than convincing, reduced to his best-known mannerisms. He didn’t speak a single realistic line of dialogue, suggesting that the character was the sum of his famous speeches. Compared to the earlier evocations of Dickens and Shakespeare this was lazy writing. In both the aforementioned cases, underneath the metatextual jokes, there was a genuine sense of an encounter with the Doctor propelling the historical character to a new level of creativity. That was entirely absent here.
I never really felt that either MS or KG had much faith in this script, and frankly I can see their reasons why. They both had formulaic roles to play – Amy’s place as the slightly quirky lens through which the Doctor is humanised worked beautifully in TBB but, this time, seemed to come out of left-field. I really don’t like the implication that she fancies the Doctor – it is OOC and please, if we must open a Pandora’s box, could it be a different one this time around?
But Matt Smith struggled the most. I find the praise that people are heaping on his acting in this episode frankly baffling. He didn’t engage me for a moment. In his defence, he was saddled with an inadequate script and a difficult doublethink to pull off. The problem is, the only thing that makes the Daleks interesting to anybody over the age of seven now is the backstory built up over the last four series, a backstory that, for understandable reasons, Moffat’s Who is resolutely ignoring. And you can’t have it both ways. If the Eleventh Doctor is to spring from our screens fully formed and behave as if the whole of the Time War and its consequences is finished business, then he can’t talk about his history with the Daleks with any conviction whatsoever. This is more than an elephant in the room, it’s a whole herd of them trumpeting – an impossible position for an actor to be in. No wonder Smith behaved as if he was posing for a publicity photo-shoot all through the Dalek scenes.
The budget cuts are beginning to show – some of the special effects on view here, particularly the bomb in Bill Patterson’s chest, were just laughable. That wouldn’t have mattered if the story and the performances were more convincing. I’m not going to join the chorus of disapproval by pointing out all the holes in the plot – mainly because it was so threadbare that it would disintegrate at a touch. Put it this way – if you want me to squee about a dog-fight in space, please don’t distract me by making me go WTF? Where did that come from?
Amy functions well as spunky eye-candy for the heterosexual male viewer (and to be fair, that’s the equivalent of David Tennant for the opposite sex in some people’s view). But I’m slightly wrong-footed by the way we’re supposed to pick up the unspoken messages between them when their relationship is still not completely established. With Martha, for all the limitations of that characterisation, there was a logical narrative progression linking the first few episodes. Here, an extended period away from the screen was mentioned but no emotional ground was laid to help us work out what, precisely, the nature of their relationship was by this point.
I’m still reserving judgement until I’ve seen the upcoming two-parter, because the River Song story is so close to SM’s heart and his concept for the show that we can reasonably expect him to pull out all the artistic stops. I liked TBB, with a couple of reservations, and I’m well-disposed towards Matt and Karen, though I couldn’t avoid thinking how differently the Tenth Doctor would have handled the closing moments of VOTD (incidentally, we’re going to have to come up with a new acronym now, aren’t we, unless we specify Kylie or Winston?). But if we get any more turkeys like this one, I can see viewing figures taking a nosedive that isn’t entirely explained by the evenings getting lighter.
The pepperpot transmitter was cute, though. Finally, S5 has spawned a fanfic in my fevered brain – I can imagine 10.5 having a hissy fit when he seems one on the kitchen table next to the chips that Rose has brought home from work. I suppose that’s progress .