We have already seen elements of Big Finish stories reflected in the new series at this point, and why not? Their productions have been of such a high standard over the years that it would almost seem like a waste not to bring them to a larger audience given the chance. Dalek, however, is the first story one could really term a remake of a Big Finish script, Robert Shearman’s reworking of the concept behind his own masterpiece, Jubilee. The characters may be different, but the core idea remains the same, with a lone Dalek imprisoned for the amusement of some and the sympathy of others. The big changes are the addition of Van Statten (who is something of a cardboard cutout character) and his base, which is actually a very clever addition. Carl Jung said that depictions of the world under ground “are projections of a process which takes place within us”, and the metaphorical use of the underworld is commonplace in fiction. So here we have the most internal episode of the whole series from the point of view of the Doctor’s characterisation. We are looking deep into his soul through a blurred lens, and we see a man who is psychologically broken by his past.
Christopher Eccleston gives a method acting master-class (he rationalised it as a holocaust survivor coming face to face with a Nazi) and is less Doctor-ish than ever before. We have never seen the Doctor so keen to destroy, nor willing to sacrifice the life of a companion so readily, but the destruction of the Time Lords has clearly changed his outlook on life. It’s important to remember, from the context of rewatching this many years later, that this is actually the first moment we learn most of the details of the Doctor’s involvement in the Time War, and it’s a shocking revelation:
Your race is dead – you all burned, all of you. Ten million ships on fire: the entire Dalek race wiped out in one second.
And then we get this punch to the stomach for those who believe the Doctor to be a good man: ‘I watched it happen. I made it happen.’ So the Doctor was responsible for bringing the Time War to an end, condemning his own people to death in the process. The Dalek accuses him: ‘you destroyed us,’ to which he replies ‘I had no choice.’ The Time Lords are ‘dead – they burned with you’, which makes it clear that the Doctor really did destroy both races. Watched through a post- Day of the Doctor lens, it is easy to forget the impact of this moment. The Doctor has never been such an anti-hero. In one respect this takes him right back to his First Doctor roots, when he was a mysterious, dangerous figure. It is nice to see Rose having an impact on the Doctor, showing him the error of his ways. In the 21st Century the Doctor learns more from his companion than she does from him.
The Dalek is one monster from the original series that did not need a lot of redesigning. Like the Autons, its design is timeless. Russell T. Davies clearly likes the Dalek movies, as this is the second major piece of design work to take inspiration from the Cushing films (the first being the TARDIS interior, complete with police box doors). The larger lights on the Dalek’s dome bring those movie Daleks to mind and this was not a bad idea, as younger members of the audience will possibly have been most familiar with this chapter in Doctor Who’s history due to the regular terrestrial repeats in the UK. Seeing a Dalek fly is old news for fans of the original series, but this time it is done with much more style and menace. There is also a happy accident here. Robert Shearman thought through the logic of the scene and hoped for an enclosed stairwell, giving the Dalek a logical reason not to just shoot everyone from the bottom of the stairs. The end result was instead the Dalek showing off, being an amazing killing machine just because it can, and that’s far scarier, complete with a chilling command of ‘elevate’… which brings us of course to the voice work of Nicholas Briggs. It will come as no surprise to Big Finish subscribers how brilliantly Briggs voices the Daleks – he has been doing that for several years, after all. Whether it is because of good direction from Joe Ahearne or the sight of the Dalek prop in studio, Briggs somehow manages to take his performance to another level, and his Dalek voice is creepy in the extreme, probably more so than ever before. It is in the quieter moments that he makes the greatest impact.
What impresses so much about the redesign of the Dalek is how every aspect of its design now has a function: the last person to touch it burst into flames; it can compress a man’s head with its sucker and also use it to press buttons, really, really quickly; it can extract power to repair itself; it has an invisible shield to absorb bullets; its mid-section revolves (a great idea, making the Dalek seem even more like a tank); it can fly upwards rather than just up stairs; and it can detach its balls to destroy itself. Now now.
Revisiting this story a few years later, it still stands up as one of the greatest of all Dalek stories. Never before or since have the Daleks been so powerful, deadly and invincible, and all this with just one of them. As I mentioned above, Eccleston approached his first scene with the Doctor as a Holocaust survivor confronting a Nazi post-war. It’s a perfect metaphorical fit, so does it make this story about the redemption of that kind of evil? It’s open to interpretation, but we have that other big metaphor running through the story, of the underground base and the Doctor’s inner demons. So perhaps this is more about the Doctor trying to fight his demons. The more he tries to fight the Dalek, the more people get killed. But brave, brilliant, human Rose is a part of his life now, and she is the missing piece he needs to help him in this kind of situation. She steps in and fights his demons for him, and she does it with love, not hate. RP
The view from across the pond:
I’ve always said that the creators of Doctor Who do not know how to do titles, but I’m wrong. They come up with titles that will attract an audience in the event the story preview doesn’t. And that’s a shame because Dalek would have been so much better if the big reveal for the audience came at the same time as it does for the Doctor. Imagine the chill a longtime fan would experience the moment you hear that voice in the dark, “Doc-tor?” Unfortunately, there is no surprise about what the metaltron is because we know from minute one what to expect. It’s that lack of confidence in the audience or the product that ruins an otherwise amazing episode. Well, I say “ruins”; what I mean is hurts. The story is so incredible that it really is hard to bash this one. I guess if I had to, I’d complain about the Dalek elevating up the stairs. These super intelligent creatures take every twist and turn on those stairs rather than just floating up the center? But as gripes go, this is a minor one! Honestly, I’m willing to write that off to confusion from so recently being tortured.
This is also the first chance we get to have a little fan service with those fun blasts from the past, like the Revenge Cyberman head! But it’s more than fan service that makes this episode; it’s well thought out writing, acknowledging the past while moving into the future. And the writing just get progressively better as this story goes. Often it’s the subtleties that really grab us too. Notice when the Dalek tries to shoot the Doctor and cannot, it looks at its weapon arm. It’s confused. From both a writing and direction point of view, it’s such a minor thing, but it proves Doctor Who has risen from a kids show to an actual production that the creators want to get right! It is indeed subtle, but it’s also a sign of quality.
In fact, the entire episode screams “mature storytelling” like a Dalek shouting for extermination. The Doctor’s post-traumatic stress at the loss of his people is brought into harsh focus. He’s enraged that even one Dalek should have survived when his own people did not, and the Dalek sees that rage and points out how similar that makes them; an uncomfortable notion for him but one he succumbs to when he tries to torture the Dalek. When I first reviewed this, I wondered if the Doctor was becoming a more “modern hero” and I’m pleased to say the answer was “no”. The Doctor is deeply hurt at this point in his story but he doesn’t resort to violence in the end. He shows mercy and that is a true trait of a hero. Revenge does not suit a hero and Rose works as his moral compass, reminding him of who and what he is. By the end of this Doctor’s run, he’s come to terms with it and can move on.
On top of it all, there are some interesting thoughts posed by this episode. The Dalek says: “This is not life. This is sickness.” This is the result of being touched by Rose and effectively contaminated. The question is: is this a commentary on how human life would be perceived by an outsider, an alien? The Dalek approach is startlingly simple: exterminate that which is not like itself. Humans, however, worry about bills, school, work, what time their favorite show is on, etc. In the eyes of an alien race, would we be viewed as sick? The man who works through the night and sleeps at his desk ultimately achieves what? The Dalek may be making a commentary about this in its confusion about what it picked up from Rose and it’s a fascinating thought. How would we be viewed from a non-human perspective? Sleep, work, home, eat, repeat, sleep, work, home, repeat… What’s the point? Moreover what should we aspire to; what would be less “sick”? Clearly not the Dalek way, but it does give us something to think about.
And then there’s this: the Dalek questions: “why do we survive?” This may be better suited to be asked of the fans. I take it as a question about the Dalek and the Doctor as cultural icons; they came back from the dead when Russell T. Davies decided to bring the show back after a 9 year absence. So truly, why do they survive? I’d argue that the answer is because of writers like Rob Shearman and executive producers like Russell T. Davies who have the wisdom to know a good thing when they see it and the skill and the vision to keep it alive. In short, they survive because of stories like this one! But they also represent the triumph of good over evil in the context of the story. That even when the Doctor “dies” he can come back because you can’t really defeat “good”, you can perhaps slow it down sometimes, but sooner or later, it prevails. I think that’s why they survive, to remind us what we want to believe in our core. And I can live with that for another 50 years, and beyond. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Long Game