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Doctor Who: Evolution of the Daleks (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Evolution of the Daleks originally aired in 2007.

Caan, let me help you. What do you say?

Emergency temporal shift!

– sadly the Doctor doesn’t follow this with a dramatic “CAAAAAAAN!!!”

Well, that went off the rails rather quickly. Okay, to be fair, the problems here were all hinted at in the first part, with those potential obstacles only turning into gaping flaws as this two-part adventure galloped toward the finish line. And, again, Evolution of the Daleks fails because it has too much ambition, rather than a complete lack of it. Still, the episode is a mess, full of mismatched ideas and crazy concepts that really don’t work especially well within the context of a Dalek episode. It’s not too hard to imagine a lot of these elements being recycled into a working story for the show, but the main problem seems to be that none of those elements work especially well with the Daleks.

I can see it in its eye-stalk...

I can see it in its eye-stalk…

On paper, this all sounds pretty impressive. There’s a pretty heavy Philip Hinchcliffe vibe to Evolution of the Daleks, which sort of retroactively explains why we wasted spent so much time at the theatre in Daleks in Manhattan. There’s a point about halfway through Evolution of the Daleks where it reveals itself to be an affectionate homage to Frankenstein. Not the novel, but the 1931 cinematic adaptation from James Whale that has left its mark on popular culture.

All the iconography is here. There’s a body on the slab, awaiting new life. (Well, thousands of them.) There’s the use of electricity to animate a lifeless form. There’s the monster chained up like a beast. There’s the dramatic lightning strike. There’s even that familiar lever switch that you don’t really see anymore, used to begin the macabre experiment. Okay, the Doctor and Dalek Sec stop just short of declaring “it’s alive!”, but that might have been too obvious.



There’s nothing wrong with Doctor Who affectionately referencing (or even blatantly stealing) from a classic. After all, Philip Hinchcliffe already did his own take on Frankenstein in Brain of Morbius and it was pretty fantastic. That’s to say nothing of the way that Planet of Evil poaches from Jekyll & Hyde and The Talons of Weng-Chiang mashes up both Fu Manchu and the popular image of Sherlock HolmesDoctor Who has been doing that sort of pulpy homage for a very long time.

Indeed, Evolution of the Daleks seems to tease us with the possibility of a Philip Hinchcliffe inspired story featuring Daleks. The theatre is a bit of a hint here, now appearing to be a call back to The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Tallulah even notes, “There ain’t nothing more creepy than a theatre in the dark.” Given that Hinchcliffe’s style gave us Genesis of the Daleks, you’d imagine that a Dalek episode produced in the style of the legendary creator would be a sure-fire hit. Unfortunately, it is far from it.

Keeping current...

Keeping current…

The biggest problem with this whole set-up is the Daleks themselves. Indeed, the episode even opens with the Doctor acknowledging how thoroughly the Daleks have been diminished as a threat. “Time was, four Daleks could have conquered the world, but instead you’re skulking away, hidden in the dark, experimenting.” Remember in Dalek, when a lone Dalek was enough of a threat to destroy Salt Lake City? It seems like all that work building up the Daleks as a threat to be reckoned with has been completely lost. We’re not quite back at the point where Tom Baker makes jokes about them climbing in Destiny of the Daleks, but we’re close.

After all, Evolution of the Daleks hinges on the sight of Daleks gossiping in the sewers. There’s something quite hilarious about the sight of two Daleks whining about their boss while on work detail. The way that one rotates its eye stalk to make sure that their “doubts” won’t be overheard is incredibly cute. We also get another “gossipy Daleks” moment when two Daleks exchange knowing glances when the Doctor and Sec agree that Davros was “wrong.”

Dealing with a minor Sec-back...

Dealing with a minor Sec-back…

These are scenes that aren’t really objectively bad. Indeed, I smiled at them a great deal. That’s the problem though. After Dalek and The Parting of the Ways worked so very hard to establish the Daleks as an unstoppable and unreasoning horror, we’re suddenly back to the point where they are almost endearing in their crazy Dalek ways. To be honest, Evolution of the Daleks sort of had me imagining a Dalek version of The Office, staffed by the Cult of Skaro. That’s a fun thought, but it undermines any sense of peril.

And then there’s the fact that Evolution of the Daleks requires Dalek Sec to be an idiot. Even the Doctor realises that the other Daleks are going to stab him in the back, because that is the sort of thing that Daleks do. “There’s no way this lot are going to let you do it,” the Doctor explicitly states. Sec is the leader of the Cult of Skaro. Diageras is a natural-born survivor. Neither is a moron, but the script seems to treat the hybrid Sec as an imbecile. Even his dialogue is nonsense. “If you choose death and destruction,” he advises his fellow Daleks, “then death and destruction will choose you.”

Oh, Ten is doing his Messiah thing again...

Oh, Ten is doing his Messiah thing again…

A lot of Evolution of the Dalek comes off as cheesy melodrama. The revived (and, to be fair, the classic) Doctor Who have turned heightened drama into an artform, but there are several points where I’m not sure whether Evolution of the Daleks is being blackly comic or overly earnest. I can’t help but laugh out loud as Solomon’s “ain’t we the same? ain’t we all kin?” speech, delivered so well by Hugh Quarshie, only to be cut off when the Daleks exterminate him.

We also get the Tenth Doctor’s weird suicidal rant where he urges the Daleks to kill him (“then do it! do it! just do it! do it!”), and I’m not quite sure what to make of the scene. It is, for better or worse, a very Tenth Doctor moment. Even comparing Tennant’s performance here to Eccleston’s Dalek-inspired breakdown in Dalek, it is a very weird moment. Tennant isn’t as strong an actor as Eccleston, but he can still knock it out of the park given the right matter. Tennant pretty much holds 42 together by sheer force of will.

Watching Doctor Who...

Watching Doctor Who…

However, this scene is something a bit different. Tennant doesn’t do shouty!Doctor quite as well as some of his predecessors, working much better with uncharacteristically!quiet!Doctor or excited!Doctor or terrified!Doctor. Here, however, his outburst seems quite strange. I mean, what is going on in his head? Is just having a breakdown? Is this frustration with the Daleks coming to the fore? This can’t be his way of dealing with the loss of Rose, can it?

It feels like a weirdly selfish moment from the Tenth Doctor – as if he’s just begging to be put out of his misery, of being excused from having to worry about the cosmos and the Daleks and everything else. It seems like he might just want an “out”, regardless of the consequences. The Doctor has to realise that the Daleks won’t just kill him and go away, right? They’ll kill everybody in Hooverville and reach outwards. If Martha lives, she’ll be trapped in the past – but that’s okay because her world will never exist.

They've had a lot of bodywork done...

They’ve had a lot of bodywork done…

It plays into the idea that Davies really hammered home during the third season that the Tenth Doctor is not the most emotionally balanced iteration of the character. While the Ninth Doctor had his share of mood changes, the Tenth Doctor seems almost manic depressive. This is the sort of high-strung melodrama that we see during his regeneration in The End of Time, Part II. It’s very much about presenting the Tenth Doctor as a decidedly flawed and unstable character, perhaps even more than his direct predecessor.

The whole scene is a bit strange. On top of the black comedy of the Daleks exterminating Solomon after his little speech, and the melodrama of the Doctor’s death wish, we also get a Simpsons reference from a Dalek. When Sec instructs his soldiers not to exterminate the Doctor, the Dalek seems almost unable to restrain itself. “The urge to kill is too strong,” it comments, which is a very weird thing to admit publicly – even for a Dalek. It almost seems like a shout out to a classic joke on The Simpsons. (The “urge to kill… rising” bit from The Shinning.)



So Evolution of the Daleks is a bit all over the place, even within particular scenes. Even if you can get past the idea that any Dalek would willingly blend with a human, the rest of the episode features some frankly bizarre Dalek characterisations and applications. It really feels like Helen Raynor was just given a shopping list of items to include, plot points to hit and references to make. It’s a mess of an episode, and not necessarily in a good way.

And, strangely, despite all the stuff that it has to do, it feels strangely sort of padded out. Apparently it’s not a proper Dalek episode without falling back on that the old capture-and-escape routine, even if it winds up with the characters right back where they started. Evolution of the Daleks starts with the Doctor in Dalek custody. He escapes with his friends, and promptly gets captured again and brought back to the same underground base.

I'm beginning to suspect that this is really the theme of the third season.

I’m beginning to suspect that this is really the theme of the third season.

Also the script is a little… loose in places. There are several points where things don’t flow the way that they logically should, and instead seem to happen in whatever way will most neatly resolve the plot. For example, why does Dalek Caan wait until after the Dalek hybrids killed the rest of the Cult of Skaro to command “destruct!” on the hybrids? When there are only three Daleks in existence, you’d imagine he’d act quicker. (And it’s not as if the Daleks exploded with the first shot.) Also, why doesn’t Dalek Caan shoot the Doctor before disappearing? It’s a fairly glaring plot hole, as the Doctor is standing right there in front of him, and he has enough energy to make an emergency temporal shift. After all, he has to be back for the next big Dalek story.

Still, it’s not all bad. At least Evolution of the Daleks has some measure of ambition, which is enough to put it ahead of Rise of the Cybermen. More than that, though, it also plays well into some of the themes of the third season. Indeed, building off The Long Game, we’ve had Daleks manipulating human vices from behind the scenes. However, half-way between that and The Last of the Time Lords, we also have the suggestion that perhaps humans aren’t quite as inherently good as the Doctor would like to believe.

Knock-out performance...

Knock-out performance…

“I feel everything we wanted from mankind,” Sec remarks to the Doctor at one point, “which is ambition, hatred, aggression and war. Such a genius for war.” These are all aspects that the Master would exploit in The Last of the Time Lords, working well as a bit of a thematic set-up for the grand finalé. The Doctor, of course, disputes this, “No, that’s not what humanity means.” Sec counters, quite bluntly, “I think it does. At heart, this species is so very Dalek.” It’s a nice little moment, and a nice moment that suggests perhaps the Doctor can be too optimistic.

So that’s not a lot to get out of Evolution of the Daleks, which is probably the weakest Dalek episode of the revived series. In fact, I’d argue it is at least the weakest episode since Resurrection of the Daleks, if not Destiny of the Daleks. It feels like it was just a collection of too many interesting ideas thrown into a pot together, without any real consideration of how well they’d work with one another. Still, there’s no shortage of ambition here, even if Evolution of the Daleks struggles to juggle everything that it is dealing with.

The Daleks see right through Sec...

The Daleks see right through Sec…

Luckily enough, this is also the last of the truly terrible “first two-parters.” The first two-parters of the next two years are much stronger. Moffat even has the courtesy to much his much weaker two-part adventure to the second part of his first season, which is nice. Sadly, though, there’s still an iffy Dalek episode or two ahead of us. But nothing quite this bad.

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