Doctor Who #716: Dalek

"You would make a good Dalek."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Apr.30 2005.

IN THIS ONE... You will cry for a Dalek. I did. I admit it.

REVIEW: Dalek could have been called Transference, if episodes were named after their narrative tricks. One of the things it does is equate the Dalek and the Doctor, the two sole survivors of the Time War, and at some point, both tortured by alien tech collector Henry Van Statten. The Doctor doesn't want to believe he's anything like Van Statten's "Metaltron", but in the end, he's the one with the big gun and the Dalek the one Rose defends. It's the Doctor who's filled with hate, who commits an act of torture, who rants with spittle dripping off his lips. Meanwhile, the Dalek has been infected with Rose's DNA, or to use Evil of the Daleks' parlance, her Human Factor, and only wants to feel the sun on its skin, though ultimately, it's its new emotions that force it to commit suicide. When you consider the similarities between the Dalek and the Doctor, this is significant as foreshadowing. Rose has healed this wounded time soldier, just as she's healing the time-worn Doctor. The Doctor without a companion (and he still has those reflexes) is dangerous. He commits acts of terrorism, destroys buildings, is reading to complete one of the very genocides he feels so guilty about. This is a turning point where Rose shows him a better way, reflecting his own ethos back at him. The theme includes Adam, who mirrors the Doctor in genius (flashback to Jo Grant and Professor Jones), and Goddard becoming the new Van Statten at the end.

On a more literal level, this is about reintroducing the Daleks, and it does some fantastically. Look at what Rob Shearman does in the script here. It could have gone all wrong, testing older fans' patience by introducing the same old monster we already knew. But no. We're first TOLD (by the Doctor) these things are terrifying and that a single one could lay waste to the planet, but like Van Statten, Adam et al., we're not convinced. If we don't know the Daleks of old, we've heard of them, we know all the jokes. And then the episode proceeds to undo that reputation, bit by bit. Silly sucker arm? It crushes a man's skull and absorbs the Internet. Stairs? Daleks can fly (since Remembrance, thanks, but far fewer people were watching by then). Even the balls on its skirt are given a function. By the end of this whole sequence, we GET IT. The Dalek is super-smart, kills all the soldiers with very few shots, has a force field that melts bullets... Yeah, Salt Lake City is doomed. And then, the world. So it's incredible that in the last act, we CARE for this killing machine. That it's final moments and its relationship to Rose are truly TOUCHING. Obviously, Billie Piper's performance is part of it, and so is Eccleston's (I'm not sure ANY Doctor could have given this textured a performance in this story), but there's also that transference again. When we cry for the last of the Daleks, we're really crying for the last of the Time Lords, whose story is the same.

A have to say a few words about the new Dalek design, because it's great. I love the bronze finish. For once, the regular Dalek soldier looks solid and tank-like, which they hardly ever did. The music that accompanies its massacre is literally operatic, making it even more awesome (in both senses of the word). The mutant inside looks cool too, establishing the Cthuloid design that will be used for the rest of the series. The voice, played by Big Finish maestro Nicholas Briggs, is perfect, but the monster is also incredible in the way it uses silence to intimidate, or to show contempt (for Van Statten, a man who can't stand to be ignored). The Time War Daleks are physically powerful AND brilliant AND good at mind games. Formidable foes! Too bad this was the last one! ;-)

VERSIONS: Rob Shearman was asked to adapt his audio play "Jubilee" into a Doctor Who episode, but aside from the lone tortured Dalek, his 6th Doctor and Evelyn adventure is very different from the broadcast result. Jubilee has alternate history shenanigans, a psychotic guest cast (well... a different one), and is in general funnier, more epic in scope, and less emotional in tone. Well worth a listen, and you won't get a sense of déjà vu.

REWATCHABILITY: High - Shearman has written New Who's first true classic, cool and powerful, re-establishing the Daleks as the kings of monsters, something that likely hasn't really been true since after The Dalek Invasion of Earth.


Madeley said...

I remember a weird sort of relief watching this episode first time around. Up until this point, I'd enjoyed New Who, loved Ecclestone, but was a little bit worried because despite everything it had going for it, the series hadn't clicked yet. Loads of potential, but it was starting to feel like a typical sub-par British 90s Saturday evening show.

Dalek was the first episode that was brilliant, for all the reasons you've listed. From here the RTD era really took off for me, and I loved every 9th Doctor episode from here on.

It's really odd to look back at series one now. I think there's a fair argument to make that Doctor Who is currently the biggest SF show in world, and I don't believe anyone could have predicted that back in 2005. The most I remember hoping for at the time was that news of Ecclestone's departure wasn't going to kill off the show permanently.

Anonymous said...

You know, good point -- it somehow never dawned on me how much mileage this episode covered. All I walked away with was "oh, Daleks can assimilate networks, that's new", and "I see they're teasing some hints what happened to the Time Lords and Daleks". But in retrospect, very good points on how they made the Daleks respectable, and that's a pretty good trick.

I have too long a memory here; I remember the first appearance of the Daleks, when it was Hartnell, Susan, and the two schoolteachers. The show was tasked with coming up with a serious and terrifying threat that could nonetheless be outrun by an old man, outwitted by a teenage girl, and overpowered by wispy schoolteachers. And the Daleks were truly inspired that way. But this one Time War survivor against the original TARDIS crew ... ? The show never would have made it to mid-1964.

Siskoid said...

Madeley: For me Dalek was the first ray of hope, but Father's Day cemented it.

Anon: The lame Daleks were fine in their City, with no one to exterminate. But each time they were defeated, they would need to adapt to better, more experienced and more powerful Doctors, until the dude they had to get through was the President of the Time Lords who blew up Skaro!

Madeley said...

Hey, here's a thought: The Doctor and the Daleks have ended up in a bizarre developmental arms race. Both are relatively ineffectual the first time they meet, but each meeting escalates in threat, they both have to adapt. The Doctor has to grow more dangerous to defeat them, and each time they're defeated they come back stronger.

It would be an alternate explanation for McCoy being something more than a Time Lord, not so much because he's something more ancient, but because he's evolved to become something dark and powerful as the stakes have risen, culminating in the Time War.

Pedro Cabezuelo said...

I'd like to add my voice to the praises for this episode. Like many, this was the first new Who episode that gave me chills and really and truly made me feel like Who was back! And the great part is it's still a fantastic episode.

Again, easy to downplay in hindsight but the reintroduction of the Daleks - like the show - was not a sure thing. And I think bringing them back by first showcasing only one Dalek was a stroke of genius and really gets across just how dangerous they are. And sets up the rest of the season nicely.

And don't forget that awesome rotating mid-section! Another eye-opening moment.

Timothy S. Brannan said...

We were always told how bad the Daleks were but some how their menace didn't live up to the shoddy effects and not being able to go up the stairs.

"Dalek" changed all of that. It made the Daleks live up to their hype and then some. For the first time in decades of watching Doctor Who the Daleks were scary to me.

Unknown said...

The ending made this one for me. The exchanges the Doctor and the Dalek have made me realize this isn't the same Doctor I grew up with, he has PTSD!

Siskoid said...

That's a good reference. The Doctor is deeply scarred by the Time War and hardly himself until he is reborn anew as the tenth Doctor (and even then).

Unknown said...

I'm not a huge fan of Doctor Who (I basically don't really watch it like at all), but this episode stood out to me as really great television. I'd heard of Daleks before and was really sold on the threat they posed.

Also, I liked van Statten as a one-off villain.

LiamKav said...

This episode really higlights the rules of time travel in the Dr Who universe. Or at least, the lack of them. Filmed in 2005 but set in 2012, no-one knows what a Dalek is. And yet 2012 is after the (unmade) "Doomsday" and "The Stolen Earth", so shouldn't EVERYONE know what a Dalek is? Or have those things not happened yet despite being in the future of the past? Or do the cracks wipe them out?

Probably best not to think about it. Unless the Doctor's appearence here is what causes all that stuff to happen. But then that assumes that in the version where he DIDN't turn up in Salt Lake City, things turned out fine.

ANother quick thing... this episode does the "set in the very near future" thing, which is often more risky than just shoving everything a century ahead. So we have everyone walking around with bluetooth headsets as if they are the bees knees, and yet no-one, not even techological guru Adam, owns an iPad/other brand of tablet.

Siskoid said...

Liam: I'm going to pull at that thread the next time we see the Daleks, and it's not going to be pretty.


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