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The Indestructable Daleks…

I’ll confess. I loved the malevolent pepperpots. The only plumbers hell-bent on galactic domination, the Daleks are arguably even more famous than Doctor Who, the show that spawned them. Stick an image of a Dalek in front of anyone and they’ll recognise it, even if they can’t name it. Whatever of their invasion plans, their infiltration plans seem to have come to fruition. But are these most famous of arch-foes over-exposed? Should they be forcibly taken away from the powers that be at the new series for at least a few years?

Wonder what their depth-perception is like?

Wonder what their depth-perception is like?

There is something undeniably fascinating about these most alien of fascists. I’m not sure whether it’s their actual  the ‘alienness’, which is rare and difficult quality to produce – the unique visual domed design, the fact that they ‘glide’ (well, roll) and those incredibly shrill and clipped voices. Maybe it’s the foreign philosophy of the creatures – their alien psychology, incredibly evil and meticulous but equally impatient and irritable. Maybe it’s the fact that the evoke universal themes, reminding us of the horrendous dictators who carved up Europe defore most of the people reading this blog were born. Maybe it’s all of these and more; maybe it’s none.

It’s hard to believe that these iconic foes were ‘killed off’ for real the first time that they appeared (in the show’s second episode back in the 1960s). Indeed, the writers got around this fact by setting most of the rest of the Doctor’s encounters with them in their past. Until things got really mess and convoluted (as they are likely to get on a show approaching fifty). Anyway, the creatures ended up everywhere. They’re the only foe to appear with all ten (and soon eleven) official incarnations of the title character (even though one of those ten appeared in an episode only featuring their voice due to legal issues).

When the show was revived in 2005, the first question asked was whether the (almost literal) tinpot dictators would be joining him? The show answered a resounding ‘yes’, even dedicating a first season episode to making them scary again and giving them pride of place in the first season finale. Since then they’ve featured once a year, like a clockwork. In fact, the ‘semi-season’ of hour-long specials will be the first year of the new show not to feature a major Dalek plotline, but don’t worry. They’ll be back, they always are. For interstellar conquerors, they have a lot in common with cockroaches.

This oversaturation is killing me. In the old days, the creatures went through phases: they appeared ten times over the first three doctors, twice over Tom Baker’s seven-year stint and once-a-doctor thereafter. The appearances were reduced to only once every few years after the height of Dalek-mania (as it was known) pettered out.

In the modern series, you have approximately thirteen episodes a year, plus a Christmas special, and the Daleks have taken up (in general) two episodes per season since the show came back. That’s a lot of airtime. And every single time, they have been pretty much wiped out (save a token escape) only to return again bigger and even bolder.

It’s very hard to take a foe seriously when they keep getting hammered. Every time that they appear, we are reminded of how merciless and viscious the creatures are and how dangerous too – though we know that the annual ass-whopping is only half-an-hour away. Part of the reason why the new show needed to remind how terrifying these remorseless killers could be in Dalek was because we’d become largely desensitised to these creatures as villains. It’s getting kind of pathetic at this stage.

It doesn’t help the way that Russell T. Davies continually writes the race on the show. He tends to’big’ them up. Make them menacing, terrifying and truly beyond comprehension – he pushes them out of the realm of science-fiction galactic would-be overlords and into some sort of Lovecraftian nightmare (though the creatures inside the shells have pretty much always had tentacles). These aren’t invading aliens, for all their cheesy flying saucers (a homage to the crafts they flew in the 1960s, which look suitably cheesy today), they are gods and demons. No mortal can compete on their plain. If we ever encounter anything like this, our existence is over.

Gray is sooo 1960s!

Gray is sooo 1960s!

And it works most of the time. The massacre that the pepperpots inflict up a helpless space station in The Parting of the Ways is chilling and effective. We know that there is serious peril, because these things don’t want us to surrender – they want us to die. Nothing can hold them back. Not weapons, not even technobabble. Davies writes himself into a corner. He reaches into his desk drawer and produces a small device, labelled deus ex machina. “No one will notice,” he lies to himself as he cracks it open – making one of his characters an equally vengeful god in order to even the playing field. But because he only has ten pages left and because the effects budget is already blown, this new angry god simply ‘evaporates’ the Daleks.

Davies gets away with it once, because every writer gets one, but also because of the quality of the episode and the season leading up to it. he also cunningly gets us to write off a departing lead as the cost of cracking open that particular case. Sure, we defeated this massive invading space armada, but it lead to a death – in a way. We buy into it, because he is a great writer and because the human drama he has constructed around this particular saving throw is so compelling.

However, you only get to pull a trick like that once. When the Daleks are loosed upon London in Doomsday, in a scene which promises tonnes of spectacle but delivers little, Davies gives us a technobabbly excuse for a magnet that magically sucks them back into the void between dimensions. Nevermind there’s been little build-up to the idea that the Doctor can magically vacuum-pack the void like that, how come it never occurred to such a deadly foe? Similarly in Evolution of the Daleks, the Doctor magically turns the Daleks own footsoldiers back against them, making the audience wonder why those soldiers were given weapons that can kill otherwise invincible Daleks and why the Dalek in charge of the operation waits until the only other three Daleks in existence are dead before hitting the kill switch. This doesn’t make them look very bright. I won’t even go into the convolutions of Journey’s End, but sufficed to say it ends not only with the Doctor and Donna defeating the omnicidal maniacs, but also making them dance. What? We’re supposed to fear a bunch of aliens who like to spin round, baby right round?

None of this mentions the fact that – every single time – the Doctor has been facing the last survivors of the Daleks. Because he wiped all the rest of them out the last time. He’s just that good. Hell, even the lead character in the show is better at attempted genocide than they are, so it doesn’t really help the audience respect their efficientness.

We do need a serious break from the creatures. I really wouldn’t mind if we went back to the old model of seeing them once every few years. That way we’re actually excited to see them – the writers don’t have to worry about the audience remembering how hard they were trounced last time because that was years ago. It also wouldn’t hurt if the writers slightly lowered the bar a bit when facing foes. If they’re impossible to kill, how come you’ve all-but-wiped them out four times since 2005? Maybe they could just be very difficult to kill?

The following section contains spoilers on Matt Smith’s first season as the Doctor, with Stephen Moffet as the producer. You have been warned.

Still, for all my moaning, they will be back next year – though not in the rumoured opening episodes, it would appear. Reports are it will be an episode set during the 1940s in England. Given how terrible the episodes set during the 1930s in New York were, I’m not particularly hopeful – even when the word is that it will feature Sir Winston Churchill. That it sounds like a riff on the ‘lost’ Troughton episode The Power of the Daleks is a little appealling – the Daleks are play-acting nice around the unsuspecting British who think they’re helper robots. Maybe it might work, but I’d feel better if we were having this conversation this time next year or even the year afterwards.

Well, for better or worse, it looks like they’re here to stay. Maybe Moffat will handle them a little bit better.

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