Doctor Who reviews: Dalek

When Doctor Who was revived in 2005 after a lengthy cancellation, that first new series overseen by Russell T Davies was somewhat uneven, as he and his collaborators appeared to be finding their feet.  In particular, I was very underwhelmed by the two part story “Aliens of London” / “World War Three,” which felt padded out, and featured the ridiculous monsters known as the Slitheen.  However, the show immediately rebounded with the next episode, “Dalek,” written by Robert Shearman.

Arriving via the TARDIS in an underground complex, the Doctor and Rose Tyler, played by Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper, discover a museum of alien artifacts owned by Henry van Statten, a wealthy industrialist portrayed by Corey Johnson.  Among van Statten’s collection is one living organism, a creature he has named the “Metaltron.”  A horrified Doctor immediately recognizes this being for what it truly is, a member of his oldest, most bitter enemies, the Daleks.

Throughout the previous five episodes of Series One, the Doctor has dropped tantalizing hints concerning something called the Time War, a catastrophic conflict that decimated untold worlds across the universe, and left him the sole surviving member of his race, the Time Lords.  Now we finally find out who the Time War was fought against: the Daleks.  And the Doctor reveals that he was forced to destroy the entire Dalek race in order to bring the apocalyptic bloodshed to an end.

Eccleston is absolutely amazing as the Doctor in “Dalek.”  It is startling to watch the Doctor, normally so self-assured, instantly react with such primal fear upon seeing the Dalek in van Statten’s museum.  Once the Doctor realizes the Dalek is helpless, this terror is even more shockingly replaced by venomous anger, as the Doctor begins taunting the Dalek for its helplessness and lack of purpose.  And then the Doctor actually tries to kill the Dalek in cold blood.  As portrayed by Eccleston here, the Doctor is a traumatized, bitter survivor of a horrific conflict, full of rage and sorrow.  The Doctor’s anger is not reserved for the Dalek, as he later verbally decimates van Statten for all his hubris and greed.  Eccleston’s performance in “Dalek” is extremely powerful, one of the highlights of his year on Doctor Who.

Dalek and Doctor: survivors of the Time War

I was also impressed with Billie Piper as Rose.  This was the first episode where I really saw her as more than just a pretty blonde.  Having only recently met the Doctor, she knows nothing about the Daleks.  And so she approaches the creature imprisoned by van Statten with sympathy and pity.  Later on, even after the Dalek powers up again and becomes a dangerous foe, Rose still keeps an open mind, still believes she can reason with it.  And when Rose witnesses just how violent the Doctor is becoming, how he is ready to destroy the Dalek without hesitation, she is the one who talks him down from the moral precipice.

Shearman does an excellent job scripting the eponymous Dalek of the story.  He totally revitalizes the idea of the Daleks as unstoppable killing machines obsessed with racial purity and the survival of their species.  This was probably the best use of the Daleks in a television story since the 1975 serial “Genesis of the Daleks.”  At the same time, Shearman remembers that for their tendency to come crashing in, guns blazing, screaming “Exterminate,” the Daleks can also be incredibly crafty, deceitful, manipulative creatures.

The Dalek plays upon Rose’s sympathies, playing the helpless victim, getting her to touch its casing so it can use the DNA of a time traveler to revive itself.  It reactivates its weapons and goes on a killing spree, cutting through van Statten’s security force, allowing the Doctor to witness the bloodshed on camera, a form of psychological warfare.  When the Doctor coldly informs the Dalek that it is the last of its kind, it has no superiors to report to, and starts screaming that if it wants orders then it should go ahead and destroy itself, the Dalek coldly states “You would make a good Dalek.”  That leaves the Doctor speechless and horrified.  And then the Dalek  plays a trump card, getting the Doctor to release it from van Statten’s underground base by threatening to kill Rose.

In the end, the Dalek is destroyed not by the Doctor, but by its own programmed prejudices and intolerances.  When it absorbed Rose’s DNA, it began to change, to develop the capacity for emotions besides hatred.  It is unable to live with itself, and instead chooses destruction.  Shearman demonstrates that the Daleks, for all their power, are ultimately an evolutionary dead end.  They already believe themselves the superior life form in the universe, they refuse to accept the necessity of evolving, and they completely reject anything that is different, including among themselves.  This is a theme the revival of Doctor Who would continue to explore in subsequent stories, as the Daleks repeatedly thwarted any efforts to change, even if doing so meant their own destruction.

Nicholas Briggs does a superb job voicing the Dalek, imbuing it with a gamut of emotions.  Early on, when it is being deceitful, you really are left wondering just how much of what the Dalek is saying is truth, and how much manipulation.  At the end, when the Dalek realizes that it is changing, Briggs gives the creature a very palpable sense of confusion and sorrow.  His performance really drives home the tragedy of the Dalek’s demise, that this being on the cusp of becoming something greater, and better, instead chooses suicide.

I would not say that “Dalek” is a completely flawless production, though.  I had a very difficult time wrapping my head around the notion that Henry van Statten was so rich & powerful that he owned the entire Internet and had the ability to decide who would become the next President of the United States.  The character is just written as too flippant and silly most of the time.  It would have been better to simply characterize him as an extremely rich, ruthless businessman, and in the process tone down a bit of the comedy.

“Dalek” introduces the character of Adam Mitchell, played by Bruno Langley, who became a very short-lived traveling companion with the Doctor and Rose.  So short-lived, in fact, that he was dumped back on Earth at the end of the very next episode, ‘The Long Game.”  I felt that was a shame, as he was well-written here, and had the potential to become a good recurring character.  I guess that the chemistry I thought could develop between Rose and Adam would eventually occur several years later with the characters of Amelia Pond and Rory Williams when Steven Moffat took over as head writer on Doctor Who.

By the way, this is a minor complaint, but the story title “Dalek” is just rather, well, bland.  I thought a better one would have been “The Survivors,” which would be been a reference to both the Dalek and the Doctor.  And it would have been a clever nod both to the second episode of the original 1963 serial to feature the Daleks written by Terry Nation, as well as to his post-apocalyptic 1975 drama.

In any case, besides a few minor flaws, “Dalek” is one of the strongest episodes of Christopher Eccleston’s year on Doctor Who.  I rank it alongside “Father’s Day” and the two part “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances” as the high points of Series One.

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