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Doctor Who: Dalek (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.

Dalek originally aired in 2005.

I’m sorry. I’m so sorry! I swear, I just wanted you to talk!

Then hear me talk now. Exterminate! Exterminate! Exterminate!

– Van Statten and the Dalek

Dalek is a pretty effective reintroduction of the show’s most iconic villain. It’s also something of a tour de force for lead actor Christopher Eccleston and Dalek vocal performer Nicholas Briggs. It’s full of interesting ideas, and perhaps the biggest swipe the show would make at “superfans” this side of Love & Monsters. That said, Rob Shearman’s script is occasionally a bit clumsy in its execution, never quite managing to convince the audience that the Doctor might be turning into a Dalek, no matter how firmly it labours to point. Still, minor quibble aside, it’s a wonderful way of welcoming the Daleks back to the fold.

The loneliest Dalek...

The loneliest Dalek…

Daleks are interesting. They are a pop cultural phenomenon. In fact, they have arguably latched on to the popular consciousness beyond the show itself. They got title billing on two almost-but-not-quite related films during the 1960s, films that were loosely adapted from two classic serials, but in colour. The glorious 1960s technicolour Daleks were so popular that they were a major influence on the 2010 redesign in Victory of the Daleks, despite the fact that the movies were always something a bit separate from the show.

The Daleks are an institution, almost as much as the show itself. In fact, people can use the term “Dalek” in casual conversation, and understand exactly what it means, even as far afield as Australia. The design, the aesthetic and even the distinctive vocal style are iconic, well outside the confines of fandom. When I was introducing my better half to Doctor Who, I put on Bad Wolf. She had never seen the show before, but actually became visibly excited with the final reveal that the Daleks were the ones behind the plot.

A piece of work...

A piece of work…

So, on one level, that’s pretty great. It’s pretty fantastic to have a part of the show that is both incredibly well-known and incredibly well-loved, especially outside the core group of fans who had been keeping the series alive when it was off the air. If you are going to revive Doctor Who, it’s great to have an element that is as iconic (if not more iconic) than the TARDIS itself involved. However, the pop cultural fixation on the Daleks creates its own unique set of problems.

The most obvious is the sense that the Dalek is being celebrated for kitsch, for irony. That the monster has somehow been diminished by reducing to to an iconic visual and a catchphrase. Even if people are smiling at the idea of a Dalek, it is possible they are smiling out of some sense of historical respect, rather than because they actually like the thing or take it seriously. After all, the Daleks look ridiculous. They were at one point massively popular, and its possible that the affection for them is rooted in the fact that they are very silly, rather than because they are effective or scary or threatening.

Sorry, you'll have to a wait a year for your upgrade...

Sorry, you’ll have to a wait a year for your upgrade…

“The stuff of nightmares reduced to an exhibit,” the Doctor remarks on finding a stuffed Cyberman head in Van Statten’s museum. “I’m getting old.” So Dalek starts with a rather clever concept. The Dalek as kitsch collectable. Something novel, something cool. A conversation piece with no real agency. It’s a fantastic way of demonstrating the dangers of an almost-fifty-year-old show, that everything inside might stop being exciting or relevant and might eventually turn into some pop culture museum piece.

As an aside, I do like that the intro makes a point to include the head of a Cyberman. The Cybermen really are an alien menace that have become increasingly diluted over time, to the point where their value to the show isn’t in what they represent or the threat they pose, but the fact that they are Cybermen. Indeed, look at Earthshock, whose first cliffhanger seems to think “oh my god! Cybermen!” is enough to keep the audience interested.

The space museum...

The space museum…

Maybe I’m a bit harsh on the Cybermen, but it seems like the show’s afraid of reducing the Daleks to something similar, a recognisable threat that is treated as enough in and of itself, rather than a concept that is exciting or compelling on its own strengths. The difference between a piece of self-sustaining pop culture nostalgia and a genuinely well-developed and characterised alien threat. In fact, I’d argue that the new series has struggled just as much as its predecessor with the Cybermen, but that’s an argument for another time. This episode is, after all, called Dalek.

And, appropriately enough, we start with the Dalek at its lowest ebb. It’s a curiosity. A piece of trivia. It’s a relic, in a museum that stands as a memorial to all manner of alien life forms. As the Doctor describes it, the Dalek is nothing more than “the great space dustbin.” You know that Doctor Who is having fun with the Daleks when the show actually acknowledges how incredibly ridiculous they look, something downplayed when the show wants us to take them seriously. Dalek introduces us to the Dalek as a pathetic creature rather than an iconic foe.

Stairs: the Daleks' other arch enemy!

Stairs: the Daleks’ other arch enemy!

When the Dalek does start up again, it is only restored to life through contact with the Doctor and to its full potential through direct contact with the Doctor’s companion. The Daleks might stand alone in pop culture, but without the Doctor and without the show they are nothing but an idle curiosity. And then the thing gets loose. And it stops being cute or retro or adorable. The show undermines the idea of a cuddly Dalek. It plays the Dalek as an unstoppable killing machine, but it also emphasises the ugly, gooey, squishy monster thing at the heart of the otherwise iconic outer shell.

The squidgy ugly tentacled monster is important. In fact, the revived series makes a very conscious effort to remind us what is at the heart of a Dalek. This is in contrast to the classic series, where their creator (Terry Nation) suggested that even the gooey insides had been expelled from the Daleks in Destiny of the Daleks. In fact, the only classic serial to focus so thoroughly on the mutant within the casing was Resurrection of the Dalek, which seemed like a reaction against Nation’s attempt to turn the Daleks into robots.

A Dalek sunbathing topless...

A Dalek sunbathing topless…

Throughout the revived series, we see a lot of those monsters. The god emperor in The Parting of the Ways is just a larger version of the creature. Evolution of the Daleks sees a mutant ill-advisedly bonding with a human to create the most phallic monster this side of Terror of the Vervoids. Dalek Caan goes literally topless during The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End. This makes Army of Ghosts and Doomsday the only story produced by Russell T. Davies to feature the casing without reminding the viewer what is inside, and even then you get the sense that there simply wasn’t time with everything else going on.

The goal is to transcend the pop culture image of the Dalek, to literally cut through the armour and remind the viewer that there is something very ugly at the heart of that squeaky-voiced pepper-pot. The Daleks were created to stand-in for fascists. One of the best things the revived series does with the Daleks as a concept is to portray them as religious fundamentalists in The Parting of the Ways. Either way, the heart of a Dalek is hate, and Dalek makes that quite clear. When the Doctor is asked why the Dalek kills, he replies, “Because it honestly thinks they deserve to die.” The killing is an end of itself to the Dalek.

Elevating the Daleks...

Elevating the Daleks…

So much of Dalek is built around the iconography of the Dalek. That’s why there’s so much emphasis put on the many jokes that have been made at their expense. Everyone knows that we saw a Dalek hover in Remembrance of the Daleks. It was a great moment, but it’s no less of a great moment here, because the perception that Daleks can be defeated by stairs is simply never going to go away. People who make that joke do so by looking at the design of a Dalek, rather than by painfully researching the show and watching the episodes, so whenever anybody who recognises the design of the Dalek imagines a weakness, they’ll think “stairs.”

Perhaps some time in the future, if the show goes off the air for a while, or if the Daleks are rested, or if they are consistently diminished and humiliated, I can see another adventure using that exact same “elevate!” bit to reassert the threat of the Daleks. Because it’s not about canon or history or any of the previous adventures or what is in continuity. It is about perception. It’s about getting somebody who looks at a Dalek and thinks “that’s a bit gnaff” to change their mind and think instead “that’s a bit gnaff… and dangerous.

Crushing over-confidence...

Crushing over-confidence…

That’s why we get the sequence with the sucker crushing the man’s skull. After all, the Dalek is a monster with a plunger. “What are you going to do, sucker me to death?” a character taunts. So it does, because Dalek is about demonstrating that it isn’t enough for the Dalek to be iconic. It can sustain itself on being iconic, but it can’t be scary if the only reason it has a plunger is because it always had a plunger. So it could just kill the guy with a laser, but that would still make us wonder about the plunger. And, of course, just in case we’re still wondering about the plunger, the episode also features the Dalek playing with a keypad and hooking into the power grid.

As such, the episode is also built around the threat of one Dalek, to diffuse the notion that Daleks might only be scary as an army. It also does a lot to diminish the spectre of Davros, who has haunted all the televised Dalek episodes since the mid-seventies. Suddenly, even one single Dalek is not kitsch or ironic or cool. It is dangerous, calculating and malicious. It could easily just shoot all of Van Statten’s guards, but the episode also demonstrates that it is a clever and thinking killing machine, for all that it claims is just waiting for orders. After all, hate comes built in.

Flash of inspiration...

Flash of inspiration…

All of these are very clever ways of making the Daleks scary, but let’s not forget one major ingredient here: Christopher Eccleston. Eccleston is easily the best actor ever to play the lead role, even saddled with some clunky material, and he lends the Dalek a great deal of legitimacy by being absolutely terrified. When he is locked in with it, his fear is palpable. The sight of the Doctor screaming “let me out!” is wonderfully unnerving, and his contempt is as tangible as the sputum that accompanies the Doctor’s bitter rants.

No Doctor has ever been as afraid or as angry at the Daleks as the Ninth Doctor is here. Part of that is the script – the Ninth Doctor does torture the Dalek and try to kill it – but a lot of that is Eccleston. Eccleston’s reaction to the Dalek is worlds apart from the reactions of Tom Baker or David Tennant. Even when Matt Smith attacks one with a wrench and screams bout how the two are inexorably linked, you don’t get the same sense of basic loathing the Eccleston exudes. The only other Doctor who came close to demonstrating the same visceral reaction to the Daleks was Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor.

The Fifth Doctor is actually a pretty good point of comparison here – and not just because the Fifth and Ninth Doctors are my two favourite iterations of the character. The Fifth Doctor’s encounter with the Daleks in Resurrection of the Daleks echoes through Eccleston’s two Dalek stories. The Dalek threat was enough to convince Davison’s Doctor to carry a gun, and he was completely convinced that his early decision not to exterminate the Daleks had been a mistake. However, there’s more to it than that.

Resurrection of the Daleks presented the Fifth Doctor’s pacifism as cowardice. He accepted that Davros needed to die, but he was unable to kill Davros himself. His inability to murder in cold blood was presented as an unambiguous weakness. Davies inverts this idea with the Ninth Doctor. His willingness to kill the Dalek is presented as a character flaw. In The Parting of the Ways, his inability to commit genocide is presented as a virtue. There’s a conscious reversal there.

"Sorry, thought this was an Eric Saward script!"

“Sorry, thought this was an Eric Saward script!”

I should also note at this point that Nicholas Briggs does an absolutely amazing job as the Dalek here, and the Daleks in the rest of the revived show. He also does the Cybermen and other aliens. Briggs is one of those fans who worked on the stuff that kept the show alive while it was off the air. He has written and directed straight-to-video films and audio plays. He has also become the voice of the Daleks in the years since the original show went off the air, portraying them in audio. He’s an immensely talented voice actor, and incredibly deserving of the role that he has played in the revived show.

I think Briggs and Eccleston work remarkably well together. I honestly don’t think that the Tenth or Eleventh Doctors has managed to work as well with the Daleks as the Ninth Doctor did, both here and in The Parting of the Ways. In fact, I’d rank the first season’s two Dalek stories as the best Dalek stories since the show came back, with only Asylum of the Daleks coming close to matching the level of quality.

It's alive!

It’s alive!

That said, Dalek can be a bit clunky in places. Most notably, the whole subplot where it tries to imply that the Doctor is becoming a Dalek. Of course, this is leading into his big choice in The Parting of the Ways, but it feels a little forced. “We are the same,” the creature asserts. However, the very fact that the creature can describe Rose as “the woman you love” makes it clear that they aren’t really the same in any significant way. Even if the Doctor might be willing to kill far too readily, as Dalek implies, there’s a world of difference between that and killing for the sake of killing.

The Doctor’s attempts to kill it in their first scene together does seem a little callous and a little out of character. However, he seems to honestly believe that the Dalek will start indiscriminately killing if it escapes – so while we’re unnerved that he seems to take some pleasure in it, there is an argument that it is preventative justice. It’s not the way the Doctor normally operates, it’s out-of-character, and Eccleston makes us uncomfortable… but then the show proves him entirely right. It isn’t killed. It gets loose. It kill innocent and heroic people.

Suckered in...

Suckered in…

After all, the Dalek has killed 200 people. Even if you can excuse some of those as revenge for the horrendous way it was treated, it seems a little hypocritical for Rose to make a passive-aggressive stab at the Ninth Doctor for trying to stop it. I’m not even arguing that his willingness to shoot the Dalek with a big honkin’ space gun was right, but it’s not as if he doesn’t have justification. He’s not just trying to kill it because it’s an alien. He’s trying to kill it because it has killed hundreds of security personal and there’s very little reason to believe that it will suddenly stop of its own accord before it reaches a major population centre.

Of course, it does stop, so the Doctor’s attempts to kill it come across as… well, ill-advised. However, Dalek feels more than a little contrived. It’s not as if the Dalek has been trustworthy. It did trick Rose into touching it in the first place. So taking the Dalek at its word that it’s not going commit genocide seems a little reckless. I understand the show tends to favour peaceful solutions. There’s also the fact that the Ninth Doctor is a little emotionally unstable on discovering that a Dalek survived the Time War. Frankly, the Doctor’s conduct is less than exemplary here. However, it’s a bit of a leap from that to “you would make a good Dalek.”

Don't ask me why he has to be topless for the machine to work...

Don’t ask me why he has to be topless for the machine to work…

As an aside, the episode gained a “12” rating for the torture inflicted on the Dalek. I love the justification given:

“We are concerned about role models for children using the sort of tactics that Doctor Who used against the Dalek,” a BBFC spokeswoman said. “If that was transferred into the playground it would be something we would want to tackle.”

I really pity the child who gets chosen to play the Dalek in that playground.

"They were so... excellent..."

“They were so… excellent…”

Dalek is also interesting, because it raises some nice continuity points. I’ve never been too interested in the idea that Doctor Who has to make chronological sense and Van Statten’s lack of knowledge about the Daleks in 2012 seems a bit interesting given that they seem in invade Canary Wharf in 2006 and the entire world in 2008. This has prompted the wonderful Paul Cornell, on my short list of “best Doctor Who writers ever”, to make some very logical common sense arguments about how continuity works on the show:

Well the Time Lords rewrote an awful lot of history, so you could say that all of ‘Doctor Who’ history, in all media, did happen at some point, and then unhappened! Van Statten in Dalek, in the first season, is a great big entrepreneur with an interest in aliens, who lives in the year 2018 or something, who has never seen or heard of a Dalek, despite them having invaded Earth last Christmas. Because of the time travel, the show rewrites its own continuity. So everything did and didn’t happen.

I’ve always felt that the Daleks are a nice focal point of discussion of the show’s perceived continuity, because they really don’t have any sense of continuity between appearances.

Worth a million squid...

Worth a million squid…

Hell, it’s nearly impossible to reconcile The Daleks with The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Cornell’s theory of continuity is quite nice, because it’s quite similar to my own thoughts on the matter – continuity has to be elastic on a show featuring time travel. Trying to make it all make sense will just drive you mad. All of it happened, unless it didn’t, so don’t worry about it and have a cup of tea. The benefit of this laissez-faire attitude is that we don’t need Attack of the Cybermen. Because nobody needs Attack of the Cybermen.

There is another interesting aspect of Dalek. The character of Van Statten. Let’s ignore the whole “owns the internet” stuff. Let’s also avoid dwelling on the fact that he’s an arch-capitalist bad guy of the kind that the Davies era just loves, right down to a variation on the whole medical industry corporate conspiracy thing. “Just last year my scientists cultivated bacteria from the Russian crater, and do you know what we found?” he boasts at one point. “The cure for the common cold. Kept it strictly within the laboratory of course. No need to get people excited. Why sell one cure when I can sell a thousand palliatives?”

I am Dalek, hear me roar!

I am Dalek, hear me roar!

However, underneath all that, Van Statten is a collector. He’s a greedy, selfish collector who refuses to share the wonders he has uncovered with ordinary people. This ties into the standard capitalist bad guy thing, but it also hits on another archetype, and one with particular relevance for fans of Doctor Who. You see, Van Statten collects Doctor Who memorabilia and props (stuffed Slitheen arm, Cyberman head, Dalek) and keeps them locked away in his basement so that only he can appreciate them.

Doctor Who fandom is, generally speaking, a nice place to be. It’s generally quite open, quite intelligent. After all, everybody loves the same show, right? Unfortunately, there are aspects of fandom that are less than pleasant. Davies would explore these himself – in great depth – in Love & Monsters. However, Van Statten seems to be a bit of commentary on a certain breed of Doctor Who fan.

Creatures of hate...

Creatures of hate…

In order to understand this, a brief history lesson is needed. See, 108 episodes of the classic show are missing. They were lost from the BBC archives, because that’s just the way the BBC worked at the time. Who can blame them for not seeing the revolution in home media coming? They can’t have foreseen a world of DVDs and reruns and cult success.

Like the Daleks in the Time War, though, some survived. It looks less and less likely with each passing year that the entire series will ever be completely recovered, but a lot of the old episodes managed to escape destruction. And that’s great. However, those surviving episodes weren’t always shared with fans. There were lots of rumours about particular fans holding on to lost episodes for themselves, to be traded in an exclusive circle of “superfans” and to grant holders a little bit of authority or credibility in fan circles.

Of Dalek bondage...

Of Dalek bondage…

It’s hard to separate fact and fiction with regards to the missing episodes. However it is worth noting that Levine who (it has been claimed) inspired the Abzorbaloff in Love & Monsters, waited a decade before sharing his version of The Time Meddler with the world. In fairness, he claimed that he was merely holding it for a friend. Whatever the reason, his delay in handing it over may have caused certain rumours to fester. Rumours, of course, that are completely unsupported.

The notion of “hoarders” is deeply rooted in Doctor Who fandom, and it seems that every once in a while a rumour will surface about somebody holding on to a classic story, and will only share it for another rare and classic story. Documented events like the aforementioned delay only add fuel to the fire. That said, there are recorded cases of other collectors refusing to share out of selfishness. The collector Bruce Mai, for example, apparently held on to Web of Fear to trade for a colour version of Mind of Evil.

Oh my Goddard...

Oh my Goddard…

The fact that the Dalek in Dalek was recovered from the fictional Ascension Islands (rather than the real Ascension Island) seems to hint at this. And, like its fictional counterpart, the island has been scoured for pieces of discarded Doctor Who history. In the infamous Missing in Action documentary about lost episodes (so infamous that the Restoration Team won’t issue it on any of their releases), “superfan” Ian Levine claimed that he had been hunting for lost episodes on the island, among other places:

“I’ve spent hours and hours and hours on the phone, ringing people all over the world, chasing Doctor Who episodes. Nigeria, Cyprus, the Ascension Islands, New Zealand… One phone bill alone came in at £4,000!”

The fact that the episode actually borrows Ian Levine’s mistake (speaking of multiple islands instead of one island) is a little pointed.

Facing up to it...

Facing up to it…

Anyway, Van Statten is the kind of person who wants to hold on to something because owning it gives him a sense of self-worth. As noted above, he even claims to “own” the internet, perhaps a reference to how certain people in fandom will try to leverage control of the show and discussion of the show on-line, with reports of threatening copyright actions over reconstructions made using archive pictures and footage that belong to the BBC.

At one point, he even tries to add the Doctor to his collection. To the Doctor, he’s more contemptible than  a Dalek. “Do you know what a Dalek is, Van Statten?” the Doctor taunts. “A Dalek is honest. It does what it was born to do for the survival of its species. That creature in your dungeon is better than you.” Van Statten claims, “I wanted to touch the stars!” It’s easy to understand. The Doctor counters, “You just want to drag the stars down and stick them underground, underneath tons of sand and dirt, and label them.”

Oh, shoot...

Oh, shoot…

What is the point in loving something like Doctor Who if you can’t share it? If you can’t celebrate it with others? If you can’t accept other people’s opinions and embrace the idea that sharing something you love means giving up some measure of ownership over it? Wealth and status really don’t entitle you to own the concept of the show, let alone to keep something produced using money from the British taxpayers to yourself.

Dalek is a fascinating exploration of the eponymous monster, but also of the show itself and its relationship to the popular consciousness. It’s thoughtful and well-constructed. It goes a bit overboard when it tries to equate the Doctor with the Dalek, but it makes the monsters scary again. Which is quite an accomplishment.


3 Responses

  1. I have been told that the main reason for the inconsistent tone of “Dalek” is because parts of it weren’t by the credited writer (Rob Shearman) but were added or changed by Russell T Davies. In particular, the impression I have is that RS wanted a more traditional “base under siege from the inside” along the lines of “Power of the Daleks” where there is no moral question in the viewer’s mind, just a story in which they know the Doctor’s right to be scared of the apparently harmless Dalek, but no one believes him. Whereas RTD (as is also shown in various other episodes) wanted to make the Doctor and the Dalek both “morally ambiguous”. He was quoted in the “Radio Times” before the first series aired as follows: “So, will you weep for the poor little Dalek? Russell T Davies says you will.”

    In other words, he wanted Hugh the cuddly Dalek being all misunderstood and only wanting to feel the Sun on its tentacles – while RS wanted the Dalek equivalent of Hannibal Lecter manipulating its captors into doing what it wanted while it prepared its escape. Hence the rather disjointed feel of this episode, which I still think has enough of Shearman’s desire to make the Dalek into an unstoppable killing machine that it works as he intended, but only just.

    • That’s really interesting, actually. Given Davies’ tendency to re-write scripts, it’s always fun to compare and contrast the original ideas with what made it to air.

      • Yes, I found it interesting – and made the story make more sense. The description I mentioned, “Power of the Daleks meets Hannibal Lecter”, was actually a paraphrase of how Mr Shearman described his original intentions to me, and although he was very polite and self-effacing about the end result, I can’t help feeling there were some “creative differences” and that it might have been better with a lighter editorial touch.

        (I would also like to see Mr Shearman write for Dr Who again sometime…)

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