I’m rewatching the first series of the new Doctor Who with an eye toward looking where the show has gone since. (I previously wrote a bit about “Dalek” when it was new, over here.)
I’m gonna quote myself here a bit, from that first writeup of this episode I did back in 2006, because I can’t see any point in paraphrasing myself:
Back in like 1993 I took a trip to London, and among the many things I saw at the time was an exhibit at a museum of TV and radio about Doctor Who. And there was a life-size Dalek and a life-size Cyberman and they were really creepy. And I bet Robert Shearman, who wrote this episode, saw that exhibit too and that’s where this line of the Doctor’s comes from: “The stuff of nightmares reduced to an exhibit. I’m gettin’ old.”
That’s for us fans, us grownup fans, who have lived with the show in our imaginations for so long that we’ve seen it go full circle: from cult hit to the stuff of museum exhibits to something alive and breathing again. Weird.
The following is from 2006, too, and I have not changed my opinion about this one bit. It’s still the primary thing I think about with regards to this episode, even in the light of all that’s come since, when I consider how we’ve only ever very rarely — before, in the old show — seen the Doctor this scared:
or this angry:
In fact, in what may be the single best episode of Doctor Who ever, this scene, this confrontation between the Doctor and the Dalek, is the single most extraordinary moment in the history of the show. The Doctor taunting an enemy? My God. The closest we ever came to this before when when Peter Davison’s Doctor had the opportunity to kill Davros, the mad genius who created the Daleks (Eccleston’s Doctor alludes to him here in “Dalek”)
but he can’t do it (and that was a shocking moment in the old Doctor Who, that the Doctor would even consider killing in cold blood even a bad guy). That kind of nobility and idealism has obviously been burned out of the Doctor by this great Time War of which he and this Dalek are, apparently, the sole survivors. Forget “best Doctor Who ever” — this may be the greatest 45 minutes of self-referential SF TV ever. Our hero is cut down to size, reduced to nothing more than a carbon copy of his greatest enemy. “I am alone in the universe,” the Dalek says to the Doctor. “So are you. We are the same.” Oh, fuck. This is not your father’s Doctor Who. It’s a grand reimagining, one that acknowledges the past but isn’t afraid to trash it if necessary. It’s like everything you ever knew or felt about Doctor Who got twisted around and destroyed and rebuilt, and it happens for the Doctor at the same time.
Okay, like this: Never in a million years would I ever have guessed that I’d feel sorry for a Dalek. That mechanical Dalek voice, it leaves an empty hollow in the pit of my stomach — exactly the opposite of the kind of thrilling feeling the sound of the TARDIS materializing prompts…. It is the sound of pure, amoral coldness… and yet, seeing the Dalek in chains was pretty uncomfortable…
Ooo, and the Dalek calls the Doctor a “coward” for surviving! Is that just typical taunting, or does the Dalek know something about how the Doctor engineered this great disaster — “10 million Dalek ships on fire… I watched it happen. I made it happen,” the Doctor says — and how he escaped it? Then again, the Doctor tells Van Statten and Goddard that he survived “not by choice.” What does that mean?
One thing it does mean: whether it’s that old Peter Davison episode (“Resurrection of the Daleks”… and that moment pictured above is not the only moment in that story in which the Doctor picks up a gun) or here, nothing inspires the Doctor to his most extreme lengths like the Daleks do. He’s excited to find a weapon he can use:
because, as he tells Rose, “I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to end it. The Daleks destroyed my home, my people — I’ve got nothing left.” Yet, from his earlier conversation with the Dalek, it seems that the Doctor may have been deeply complicit in that last battle of the Time War. He’s clearly conflicted over the whole thing, because he does seem to take it to heart when the Dalek tells him (after the Doctor invites the Dalek to commit suicide), “You would make a good Dalek.” Even if that is just taunting, he buys it. Then again, for all that the Daleks are supposedly to be emotionless, they’ve always known which emotional buttons to push on the Doctor.
Oh, and Rose demonstrates her extraordinariness here! She has such sympathy for this creature:
“Hello? Are you in pain?” is the first thing she says to him. And wow, its response: “Yes, I am in pain. They torture me. But they still they fear me. Do you fear me?” That’s when I started to feel sorry for the Dalek…
…and it only intensified here:
It may be only a brain with tentacles, but for the first time ever, a Dalek seemed like something worthy of our pity. I’d never have guessed Doctor Who would ever dare to attempt this, never mind that it would succeed.
Random thoughts on “Dalek”:
• Bad Wolf Watch: “Bad Wolf I” is the name of Van Statten’s helicopter…
• If the Doctor recognizes a piece from the Roswell spaceship, does that mean he was there in New Mexico in 1947?
• If Van Statten is so keyed into all this alien stuff, why doesn’t he recognize the TARDIS down there in his exhibit hall? Surely he’s had reports — from UNIT or Torchwood or whomever — of the powerful alien who travels in the blue police box…
• So it’s to be torture, then?
The Doctor can take it…
• I love the Dalek looking down at its own gun when it doesn’t work, as if to say, WTF?
• Van Statten found the cure for the common cold? Eh, so did the gang in Eureka…
• I love the spittle:
But it makes me worry for Eccleston, he’s so intense. It’s just pretend, honey…
• “That Dalek just absorbed the entire Internet — it knows everything,” the Doctor says. Oh, if only it got distracted by trying to figure out slash fanfic and cat videos and dancing hamsters and Instapundit — the world could be saved. Hoorah!
• The Dalek at the foot of the stairs:
always makes me think of the bit in a Sylvester McCoy episode, in which his Doctor escapes from a Dalek by running up a flight of stairs, and then he’s all smug and — if my memory is correct — he taunts the Dalek. And then it turns out the Daleks have developed hover technology, and the Dalek floats up to meet the Doctor. I’ll never forget the look on McCoy’s Doctor’s face — he was scared much in the same way the Doctor is here.
• The ultimate fan mashup featuring bits from this episode and some choice Monty Python:
• Man, I hope the Gran Moffat gets Robert Shearman to write some more Doctor Who…