Series 5, Story 3 (Overall Series Story #205)
Too many times, I find myself sitting down to start one of these with the phrase "There's kind of a lot going on here ..." and this is one of them; so, I'm just going to refer you to the link above for plot details and all the stuff about how this fits into the Series 5 story arc and remind you quickly it's the one with Winston Churchill, that introduces the bigger, more menacing multi-colored Daleks, and the android bomb scientist who thinks he invented the "Ironsides" but is actually a Dalek sleeper agent. It's that last bit I'd normally want to write about because (1) how interesting that 'thing-that-thinks-it's-human' idea is, why it's such a long-lived trope and how it can be eternally, inherently interesting, and (2) why it doesn't quite work for us here.
Several things, actually, don't quite work here and since there's going to be another chance to talk about how much I love it when sci-fi interrogates our concepts of identity, consciousness, and morality in next season's two-parter "The Rebel Flesh"/"The Almost People," I'm going to postpone that line of inquiry and rope this story back in when reviewing that one.
So what's wrong with this one? This Winston Churchill has no ... gravitas1. And I was expecting a Churchill more impressive. It bothered me, too, that the Doctor was practically just here with Rose, meeting Captain Jack Harkness, and there's no comment or nod to that. I'm not suggesting they needed to show Rose hanging from the dirigible in the background or anything, but wasn't there something they could have done to acknowledge the Doctor is crossing his own path? The idea that even Bracewell could have WWII fighter planes ready to leave the atmosphere and become the functional equivalent of X-wing fighters (the Star Wars references I'm sure pleased some, but felt forced and over-the-top to me) in a matter of hours was ludicrous. And, for crying out loud, the wide turns and the sound of the propellers in space -- this is the kind of stuff modern-day viewers mock old B-movies for. Not bothering to try to make space flight look like gravity-less, atmosphere-less flight,, and not understanding there is no sound in space may look and sound more "dramatic," but it's lazy.
Bracewell, remember, is an android fashioned by Daleks to impersonate a human being. He has the memories of a human being and no knowledge of his true nature. He is also a bomb. The Daleks fashioned this bomb to facilitate their introduction into Churchill's War Cabinet so they could attract the Doctor's attention (and here we go, zany plot stuff I wanted to avoid ... deep breath ... ) in order to have him testify to the Dalek Progenitor that they are, in fact, Daleks, despite being a strain of Daleks created from Davros's DNA. And he's a bomb because of course anything you build should also be a bomb because you're probably going to want to bust the planet when you're done in any event. And this is what I dislike about Series 5. It makes sense, sort of, if you accept that everybody is like the Master: cooking up elaborate plots to accomplish goals that could have been accomplished by much more direct methods. Consequently, we have a wildly complicated story arc that ends with the universe being reset so the Doctor can exist that it is, frankly, embarrassing to try to explain to anyone who isn't already a fan of the show. (Just realized I spent the other night teasing the Meddling Monk for having a simplistic eight step plan where step one was "Arrive Northumbria," and tonight I'm giving grief for the villains having somewhat Byzantine planning. It's not that they can't win for trying; just looking for some middle ground!)
Bracewell is intriguing, but that Amy manages to defuse him by drawing out memories of a woman he fancies, Dorabella, is too hokey for this slight story to bear. I mean, we don't understand how his feeling/becoming fully human interacts with the countdown clock. Without the bomb silliness, his character is actually more interesting, and deserving of more of the story's attention, but as it is it's just one more idea that comes across half-baked.
It's not all bad though, don't get me wrong. I think it's silly and overstuffed, but there are signs here that if this had been pulled apart into a couple of different stories each of them could have been very cool. The sleeper agent for the Daleks who is made all-too-human could have been a great episode. A broken-down group of Dalek survivors trick the Doctor in helping them rebuild themselves and then withdraw to regroup for their next invasion, leaving him with some minor battle won on some other front, but the feeling that he might be losing the war ... that could have been a great episode. And, of course, we already had our great story set during the Blitz.
There's a neat little scene where the Doctor's self-destruct button is discovered by the Daleks to be nothing more than a cookie, a revelation to which he responds after shoving it in his mouth, "All right, it's a Jammy Dodger, but I was promised tea." Might as well get to the eat the cookie when your ruse is exposed, eh? It's charming and it works because he even dared to do it, and he's being truthful now, he had been offered tea earlier. This is the sort of thing Gatiss is so good at slipping in sideways without detracting from the story. The way he has a Dalek say, "I am your soldier," calls back to a line from the classic "Power of the Daleks," and when the new model Daleks role out of the Progenitor's E-Z Bake Dalek Oven, he pays tribute to all those Dalek story titles that started with 'R' by having them announce: "Behold, the restoration of the Daleks. The resurrection of the master race." If you haven't seen "Remembrance of the Daleks," "Revelation of the Daleks," and "Resurrection of the Daleks," the line still sounds great, but if you've got those others in mind, that line strikes a chord with you.
1 OK, I wiffed on this one a bit, or more than a bit. After reading Shabogan Graffiti on this Winston Churchill, I basically want to recommend you do the same. Where I was looking for gravitas, I should have buffed my history a bit and looked for what it means to cartoon-ify Churchill and make him an ally, even if a mischievous, somewhat untrustworthy one, of the Doctor.