When it was announced that Doctor Who was returning after a lengthy hiatus, the fans were wondering whether they would be getting the real deal. Would the Doctor still be a Time Lord with two hearts? Would he still be travelling in his TARDIS? Would it still have the Ooo-wee-ooo theme tune? And just as crucially, would any old monsters be returning?
As it happened, there was no cause for alarm. The season opener Rose brought back the Autons and the Nestene Consciousness for a rematch, and to cement the fact that this was still the same show from the good old days, along came a Dalek in a story called – well, what do you know – Dalek.
Dalek wheels out a tinpot meanie for the first in a long line of rematches against the Doctor. The classic pepperpot has a lot to prove for both old and new audiences. To those who had never seen the show, the Dalek needed to establish that it was a deadly monster which had no morals, ethics or scruples, and had just one aim in mind – to kill all those that didn't fit its pattern in order to be the superior being of the universe. To those that knew all about the Daleks, the story had just as much to live up to. It had to maintain the deadly pepperpots' reputation for being the most iconic monsters not just in Doctor Who, but also on the small screen. Adventures like Destiny Of The Daleks or Day Of The Daleks are two examples in which the Daleks don't live up to their formidable status, since they're either emasculated or too small in number.
Dalek, in theory, has the same problem. There's only one rather than a whole army of them, and by the end, it's boo-hoo-hoo-ing at the fact that it's absorbed human DNA from Rose. In practice, however, this is one of the most effective Dalek stories, not just from 2005 onwards, but in the whole series.
This comes down to a whole number of elements in Robert Shearman's astonishing script. For one thing, this is about the only time that we see a Dalek with any sort of character. The nearest we'd got before was with Davros, the creator and mouthpiece of the Daleks. During several chinwags with the evil genius, we'd got to know a bit more about the madman himself – but we never got to know about his creations. They acted purely as instruments of death, or chanting guns for want of a better phrase.
In this story, however, for once, we get to know the Dalek, and what makes it tick. This is done through both conversations with the Doctor and Rose, and also through its calculating behaviour. Initially, the Dalek is a helpless prisoner, captured by smarmy entrepreneur capitalist Henry Van Statten for his huge private collection of extra-terrestrial artefacts. The Dalek is for once, defeated and tortured, as Van Statten's trigger-happy staff pump it with electrical energy. However, when Van Statten demands that the Doctor tries to extract information from his new pet (called the Metaltron – or the Mellotron, as Goddard likes to call it: Bet it plays a mean '60s tune), the Dalek's old fire soon returns. Even though it's still chained and helpless, it slyly gets to the Doctor through sneering playground taunts (“And the coward survived”). This isn't the old-style Dalek, this is a living being, discussing what happened in the aftermath of the great Time War. It even describes itself as a soldier, a being following orders simply to sustain the survival of itself and the whole of the Dalek race.
It's also a crafty so and so. It plays on Rose's human sympathy to get her to free it from its chains. It croaks that it welcomes death, but was glad that it met a human who was not afraid. Rose reacts with typical human compassion by touching the Dalek in sympathy – and sure enough, that's enough to do the job. The Dalek grows in strength after Rose's DNA allows for regeneration – the initial result is a Dalek that's deadlier than ever before, suckering Simmons to death with its sink plunger and then exterminating any poor soul that gets in its way.
The clever, calculating side of the Dalek is also seen in the bit when it's up against a whole army of soldiers in the weapons testing area. Rather than waste time by exterminating every man one by one, it weighs up its surroundings, activates a water sprinkler, and then electrocutes the whole army with just a couple of lone bolts. All of which proves that the Daleks are still a force to be reckoned with. What's more, the reason why the story is so effective is because of the fact that Van Statten's base is brought to its knees by just one Dalek rather than a whole army. The Dalek relies on its wits and cunning, and that huge brainpower means that it's a foe that's almost impossible to destroy.
But then Shearman's script cleverly turns all this on its head, by almost making you feel sorry for the lone pepperpot by the end. Because the Dalek absorbed Rose's DNA, it absorbs her humanity too. It starts to mutate into something new, as it begins to feel all of the emotions that a human would – especially the darkness and the confusion. For a Dalek, that's the worst thing in the world, and a fate worse than death, because it clashes so wildly with its emotionless remit to destroy. “This is not life,” it croaks. “This is sickness!” It even admits that it's frightened, before self-destructing.
With the wrong dialogue and wrong direction, this is an idea that could have gone spectacularly wrong. But somehow it works magnificently. The dialogue, the work from voiceover artiste Nicholas Briggs and the direction from Joe Ahearne all come together to form something special. It takes a lot to get the viewer feeling a scrap of sympathy for a Dalek, but the above elements all work in unison to make the whole sequence work perfectly.
The Dalek is just one example of the main theme that runs throughout this story: Fleeting power. In particular, four protagonists develop this power, whether it's for a nanosecond or for a lengthy amount of time. The Dalek I've talked about. It may be renewed, stronger and more powerful than ever before (The Doctor says that the one-million strong population of Saltlake City is all dead if the Dalek gets loose), but in the end its brought to its knees by the humanity that now runs through its alien veins like blood.
Smarmy Van Statten is in effect, the human equivalent of the lone Dalek: An all-powerful corporate entrepreneur who apparently not only owns the internet, but has claimed to have found the cure for the common cold. We see and hear about countless Van Stattens every day, looking to grab power at whatever cost – whether they're evil politicians like sinister Tintin villain, Grease-Smog, media-hungry emperors like Murdoch, or greedy businessmen and bankers, who get through billions of pounds like toilet paper.
In the end it's this very greed that brings about Van Statten's own downfall. He's so hell-bent on conquering and learning about the Dalek, that he refuses to heed the Doctor's countless warnings about the lone pepperpot. Inevitably, when the Dalek succeeds in freeing itself, we see Van Statten's confident shell shatter into little fragments. He realises to his own chagrin that he's got himself into a situation that's way out of his depth, to the point where he's nearly crying like a baby when confronted by his enigmatic exhibit. Interestingly though, he actually lives, even though his omnipotent power is destroyed once and for all by his second banana Goddard, who quickly orders a mind wipe and a future living on the streets under cardboard and newspaper. In a way that's more of a fitting end than being on the receiving end of a Dalek bolt.
One of the most worryingly powerful protagonists in this adventure is the man himself, the Doctor. Thrust into the cell with the Dalek, his sheer terror gives way to borderline-psychotic mania as he realises that he holds all the cards. We've seen the Doctor act cruel towards his adversaries, but never as bad as this. Not only does he taunt the Dalek with playground-style insults and mimicry (“Ohhhh, and I caught your little signal – help me! Poor little thing (!)”), but he does it with such venom and hate.
It's at this point that the full ramifications of the Time War hit home. Alone with a being that was responsible for the destruction of his planet and race, the Doctor can't see beyond hatred and revenge – resulting in his gleeful payback time. The Dalek even later comments that the Doctor would make a good Dalek, and indeed it's not hard to disagree with this comment in the final act of the story, when he's ready to blow the thing into atoms with a look of sheer madness on his face. “What about you, Doctor?” asks Rose. “What the hell are you changing into?”
That scene's a key clue as to who holds the most power in this story – in the end, it's Rose. It's Rose's humanity that brings down the power of both the Dalek and the Doctor. Rose's humanity contaminates the Dalek, which also means that it doesn't exterminate her like the others – maybe there's some instinct in the Dalek that sees Rose like a mother figure, since it's been reborn the human way. Likewise, Rose's humanity breaks through the Doctor's vengeful barrier and appeals to his compassionate side. At which point, he tearfully lowers the gun, as the Dalek self-destructs. In a sense, this sets up events for the Bad Wolf theme that runs throughout the season, and more precisely, it pre-empts the season finale in which Rose also brings down the Dalek race.
Like all Doctor Who greats, Dalek works on more than one level. On the one hand, it's a weighty character piece that discusses themes such as power, greed and the meaning of humanity. On the other though, it's a cracking good adventure story that's packed full of action, drama and tension. Shearman's script is brought to life by some outstanding direction from Joe Ahearne, who adds much to the dark claustrophobia. The story's a bit reminiscent of Power Of The Daleks (and considerably more so than Victory Of The Daleks, which, is way too tame and emasculated to be in the same league as this one), in that it's the classic base-under-siege scenario from a Dalek that goes from being helpless to unstoppable.
Ahearne uses every trick in the book to emphasise the lone Dalek's power, with quick camera cuts, Matrix-style slow motion effects to show the deflecting bullets or moody camera angles (such as the updated Dalek POV shots and underwater-style hearing). The Dalek extermination effects are back with a vengeance, and it's a nice touch that they're in keeping with the old-style negative skeleton video tricks. Plus of course, they can also overcome the problem of stairs by flying up with considerably more finesse than they did in Remembrance Of The Daleks.
Ahearne brings out the best in his actors. This is a particularly strong showing for both Eccleston and Piper. Dalek provides some real meat for Eccleston to get his teeth into. While he's not quite as comfortable with the comedy side of his Doctor, he's totally at home with the gritty dark side. He adds a lot of gravitas to his two-hander scenes with the Dalek, and also his furious confrontations with Van Statten (“You're about as far from the stars as you can get!”), both of which emphasise the high stakes at play. Billie Piper is also at her best, displaying a far greater range than most fans could have imagined. She brings out the emphatic, human side of Rose, whether she's chuckling with Adam, talking gently to the captive Dalek or bringing the Doctor back to reality at the end.
Out of the guest cast, Corey Johnson is probably the best as Van Statten. Johnson nails the part very well, conveying that ruthless over-confidence and later panic perfectly. Anna-Louise Plowman is also good as Van Statten's number two, Goddard, and even the lesser roles like Di Maggio and Bywater are well acted by Jana Carpenter and John Schwab.
Only two complaints to bleat about. One is oily little tyke, Adam Mitchell, long-lost ancestor of Adric in another time and another place. Actually, I guess that's the whole reason why the annoying runt gets another trip in the TARDIS – to burst his own clever-clogs bubble in the way that Adric's was never burst. Adam is the prime example of the child genius prodigy, a smart know-it-all who's actually pretty useless in a scrap (“What are you gonna do? Throw your A-Levels at them” chides the Doctor when they're preparing for battle against the Dalek). We all know that he's somehow heading for a fall, especially when the man himself is so reluctant to welcome him aboard the TARDIS at the end.
The other gripe's more of a long-term problem, and that's Murray Gold's music. I've held off for a bit talking about Gold's scores which polarise the fans even more than Keff McCulloch's musical madness. While Gold's scores are admittedly quite atmospheric in places, the main problem is that there's too much of it. In fact, it's very rare for a 2005-2017 Doctor Who story to have a sequence without Gold's relentless histrionics chopping up my eardrums. It's like I'm being bullied into feeling emotions with relation to what's happening on screen – I'd rather much decide for myself, without Murray's Pompous Choir barking at me all the time – Gold's least successful musical trick, incidentally.
Mind you, I'm biased, since choirs are one of my pet hates. I've never liked choirs for a number of reasons – the creepy look which makes them resemble a demented cult; the eccentric face pulling; the weird noise that they make; or the fact that they seem hell-bent on upstaging the star of the show, whether it's a useless X Factor contender, a Go Compare-esque opera singer or indeed, Doctor Who. And don't even get me started on the modern trend for terrible YouTube-bound en-masse choir karaoke versions of perfectly good pop songs: the vocal equivalent of scrawling over an artistic masterpiece in wax crayon.
Whenever Murray's Pompous Choir start shrieking, I find it hard to make out what the hell's going on, and worse, it makes the mood of the piece now seem stagy and a bit laughable. Dudley Simpson got the Dalek scores spot on in Evil and Genesis Of The Daleks, but in the Dalek adventures, the action's being swamped by a load of goons chanting what sounds like “Oompa Loompa Pam Ayres” on a loop. Sadly, this is a trend that blights quite a few Doctor Who adventures from now on, so I guess I'm going to have to grit my teeth and bear it.
Luckily, these two faults don't ruin what's one of the most remarkable adventures of Doctor Who. It's a shame that Robert Shearman has never graced Doctor Who with another script, since he evidently knows all the ingredients for a great story: Not only does it tell an action-packed, nervy tale for the kids, it also provides the older viewer with a lot of thought-provoking elements and issues. Just like any exhibit in Van Statten's museum, Dalek is both unique and timeless.
* More Dalek stories reviewed in detail in my Doctor Who ebook guides!
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