You Had Me at Dalek
What to say about the Ninth Doctor? He was a man of few words, most of them fantastic.
As we turn our attention way back to 2005, celebrating the tenth anniversary of what had been a hotly anticipated first series for Doctor Who’s revival, I’m reminded of that special moment when my life as a Whovian began. ‘DOCTOR!?’ a voice had croaked from the shadows; Murray Gold’s Dalek theme pierced through the scene with a sharp tinny buzz.
A calm blue light had flickered on an eyestalk, partially obscured, as it turned with a screeching mechanical hum, both unique and unforgettable. How does it know that that’s the Doctor, I wondered? Why is it in chains? And what is a Dalek anyways?
2005’s Dalek made Whovians of many mere mortals, me included. It was a simple scene but an explosive start for what would become a deeply rewarding, personal obsession of mine. Dalek, written by Robert Shearman, tells the story of a lone Dalek’s unlikely escape from a rich megalomaniac’s (underground) museum and its fatal transformation via a botched human genetic transfer; the transformation leaves the Dalek questioning its life and its existence, while the Doctor prepares for a final confrontation with his old enemy.
Interestingly enough, I hadn’t watched Dalek in years since I first watched it, so to write this feature I sat down last weekend, sipping a hot tea and rewatched it. On one hand it felt so familiar upon a rewatch, yet on the other hand, parts of it felt new and invigorated…
Praise, first and foremost has to be reserved for Nick Briggs, Billie Piper and Christopher Eccleston whose superlative performances made this episode. Honestly, parts of this episode were far rougher, even amateurish than I had remembered – Russell T Davies’ distinctively quick, truncated ‘back and forth’ dialogue feels too quick here with Corey Johnson (Henry Van Statten) and Anna-Louise Plowman (Diana Goddard) spitting out sharp, snappy exposition rapid-fire in a way that feels rehearsed not natural. The ‘Base Under Siege’ storyline proves to be a treasure trove of clichés, several ‘Oh My Gods’ and worse, ‘Release me if you want to live’ (we’ll get back to the Terminator in a second…). The worst offender, Nigel Whitmey (Simmons) who played a one dimensional goon who enjoyed torturing things was fortunately ‘suckered’ to death within the first twenty minutes before the ‘Do your worst, Simmons’ dialogue and Igor-esque chortling got any more unbearable.
Rose Tyler does something incredible, perhaps never done before on Doctor Who – she generates sympathy for a Dalek. Every scene with Rose and the Dalek is a show-stealer.
The strength of Dalek is… not surprisingly, the Dalek. Every scene with this story’s centerpiece is magic, pure magic. Nick Briggs delivers his dialogue here with a slow, calculated precision and when the Dalek is in pain, you can hear the pain in its voice; when the Dalek feels fear, you can hear that fear in its voice. I couldn’t scarcely imagine what it would feel like to suddenly and overwhelmingly feel emotions for the first time before Dalek, yet Nick Briggs’s performance and his character gives us a great insight into the mind of a lonely, pain-ridden Dalek. Viewers soon learn: emotions can be a prison of an individual’s own making. The Dalek seeks freedom – bathing in the sunlight whose beauty he can for the first time admire – only to realise that he will never live free from suffering for so long as he can feel as humans do. He can escape from Van Statten’s vault, but he can never escape from his humanity.
When the Dalek is making its way to freedom, exterminating soldiers along the way, I’m reminded of The Terminator and how its original 1984 film was marketed as ‘No pain. No fear. Something unstoppable.’ I was terrified of the Terminator as a kid, just as Dalek had sent some shivers down my spine on my first watch. What made both of those titular baddies effective is that they were relentless; every counterattack is just a minor setback to be overcome which makes it all the more scary because their pursuit feels inevitable, uncontrollable – like you can’t ever stop them from reaching their goal. Suffering isn’t pain per se, suffering is uncontrollable pain with no end in sight – it’s all in terms of how the story presents its enemies psychologically; that is, whether they seem vulnerable or undeterrable.
Throughout the story it’s also immensely fun and entertaining too to see how the Dalek pushes the Doctor’s ‘buttons’ and challenges him intellectually; when the Doctor realises the Dalek is disarmed in his first encounter with him, he practically begins to bully and taunt him – this is the Doctor fresh from the Last Great Time War, not yet ready to retire the soldier inside of him. On numerous occasions in Dalek, the Doctor is prepared to torture and kill the Dalek without hesitation, all culminating to one brilliant line: ‘You would make a good Dalek’. The greatest insult anyone could ever speak to the Doctor – especially when he has tried for so much of his life to be different, to be better than the Daleks.
Meanwhile, Rose Tyler does something incredible, perhaps never done before on Doctor Who – she generates sympathy for a Dalek. Every scene with Rose and the Dalek is a show-stealer as Rose innocently speaks and confronts the tortured Dalek; not knowing its true pathology, she reaches out to it as the Doctor would, that is: if the victim hadn’t been a Dalek. The final moments of the episode are nothing short of a smashing tour de force – a three-person play in and of itself – the mutated Dalek begging Rose Tyler for her to order his destruction, Rose spitting out ‘Do it!’ while she holds back her tears, all the while, the Doctor enters from afar, cowardly pointing a gun to them both. As I rewatched this episode, I couldn’t help but see this scene with the War Doctor standing there beside Chris – perhaps an indulgence of my own – but I’d like to think he was there in the Ninth Doctor’s mind, speaking to him as he had in The Day of the Doctor, ‘Soldier, I’m going to need your gun,’ encouraging him to drop his weapon as a final resolution to his character. The final ‘dismissed’ for Gallifrey’s last soldier. This new insight I had into Dalek after watching The Day of the Doctor changed how I saw Dalek, but I think the change of perspective made it feel like a new story with a more personal tragedy at its centre. The tragedy centered not around the death of two mighty civilisations, but the mistaken loneliness of two characters whose own sense of identity has been shattered.
While the idea of comparing and contrasting the Daleks with the Doctor and exploring the idea of humanity felt novel and fresh with 2005’s Dalek; unfortunately future Dalek stories have repeatedly explored these themes, including Daleks in Manhattan / Evolution of the Daleks, Victory of the Daleks and Asylum of the Daleks, so much so even that by the time Into the Dalek came around in 2014, these themes were more or less a cliché – and Into the Dalek stands, in my view, as not much more than a tired rehash of Dalek – recycling old concepts from Dalek and Let’s Kill Hitler (e.g., miniaturisation, antibodies). Upon rewatch, I must admit while Dalek is a wonderful story, I do wonder if its success has cursed it to being butchered and retold in so many different forms that it might be best for us to simply admire it from afar – enjoy it as a defining moment and a cracking good episode, but leaving it at that: instead, expect new things and a new kind of adventure for the Daleks in the future.
It’s a bit blasphemous of me, but since 2005’s superb Dalek, my favourite appearance from the psychotic pepper-pots were their simple, nostalgic cameos in the 2013 Specials explicitly because nobody was trying to do anything particularly clever with them – they blew things up, they shrieked, they were the big bad – after ten years of seeing other writers try to rewrite Dalek, that was perhaps more fun and refreshing than it should have been but it was, simply because it was different.
However, I think it should be said that Dalek didn’t just make me a Whovian. In many ways, I think Dalek made Christopher Eccleston, the Doctor, in many peoples’ minds. It’s a testament to the genius of Daleks as a concept and as a design that when I began watching Doctor Who, I knew what a Dalek looked like before I knew what a TARDIS was, or who the Doctor was – just as the success of the Daleks (and the so called Dalekmania of the 60s that followed) perhaps outpaced Doctor Who at one time. Steven Moffat often says he likes the Doctor to face the Daleks early after a regeneration because the Doctor doesn’t ‘feel’ quite like the Doctor until he’s faced off against the Daleks – it’s no coincidence then that the Doctor faced off against them rather earlier in both Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi’s era. The Daleks, just as they did with the Ninth Doctor, test the Doctor in a way that no villain really can – sure, anyone can challenge the Doctor, but not with the same kind of shared history and rivalry that the Daleks and the Doctor have.
Victory of the Daleks does this neat thing in that it uses the Doctor’s hate for a Dalek as an identification of its legitimacy as a Dalek, but we as audiences do the same thing with the Daleks to the Doctor: we’re not always sure about a new Doctor, yet inexplicably, a Dalek never fails to recognise him for us. Just as the Daleks never questioned the Second Doctor in the Power of the Daleks, when the Ninth Doctor walks into that fateful torture chamber in Dalek and that familiar screeching voice barks ‘DOCTOR!?’, you’re inclined to believe it – if you had any doubts about the Ninth Doctor, the Daleks removes them – because after all…. a Dalek is honest.