‘Doctor Who’ blogging: “Dalek”

(tons of spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode! and no comments from party poopers — this is a love fest only / previous: Episode 5: “World War III”)

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

(next: Episode 7: “The Long Game”)

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Sat, May 30, 2009 11:51pm

I love these write-ups. I’m rewatching as you post and I find myself agreeing with you all the time.

One thing I love about Christopher Eccelson’s Doctor is his subtle, quicksilver mood swings – I watch these episodes and am amazed to find more nuance with each viewing. And Billie Piper really holds her own as well. The switch to David Tennant seemed to take this trait and physicalize it even more, which I loved.

I have to say I’m not particularly thrilled with the new casting – they both seem so young. I adore Stephen Moffat, so I trust that the show will be wonderful, but I like my Doctor to have a bit more maturity.

But its Doctor Who! I’ll follow him anywhere!

Sun, May 31, 2009 12:26am

Has the Doctor ever been that mad, that angry, before in the show’s history? “I watched it happen. I *MADE* IT HAPPEN!!!” Even the written version of that line pales to how it’s done in person, in that voice. For all the other times that the Doctor felt guilt about pushing the History Eraser Button that took out both Daleks and Time Lords, this was the only time he ever reveled in it, took malicious delight in tormenting the last known Dalek. The show never achieved that level of anger in the Doctor towards any of his nemeses ever again… not even when he found out more Daleks than ever survived: he was still more rational, more focused on the task that needed to be done. Here he slides into the blind rage of a traumatic survivor, five minutes of emotional intensity that took Dr. Who from a children’s scifi funhouse into a darker more adult roller coaster.

Proper Dave
Sun, May 31, 2009 4:46am

I once saw Robert Shearman at a convention likening the scene PaulW just mentioned to “Holocaust survivor and concentration camp guard”.

Rob Shearman
Rob Shearman
Mon, Jun 01, 2009 7:51pm

Oh, thank you, Maryann! I’m so glad you enjoyed ‘Dalek’. It seems so very long ago now that I worry that it might look rather old and creaky these days (it is, after all, nearly two entire Doctors old!). So I’m delighted you feel it still has some impact.

It gives me the urge to watch it myself once again, just to see what I make of it!

Mon, Jun 01, 2009 10:32pm

posted by Rob Shearman

I am not worthy!

Mon, Jun 01, 2009 10:34pm

Ooo, Rob, if you’re still checking comments: Am I right? Did you see that exhibit of DW monsters and robots in the early 90s? Did that inspire Van Statten’s museum and the Doctor’s reaction?

Rob Shearman
Rob Shearman
Tue, Jun 02, 2009 11:07am

Yes, I think you’re right – although it’s funny, even after only a few years I find I can fool myself into misremembering exactly what inspired certain scenes or ideas! There was an exhibition at the South Bank in London, at the Museum of the Moving Image, and every time I’d have friends visit from abroad I’d do the tourist thing and take them to it. There was a Dalek you could climb inside, and it was visible through windows to the outside world. I wrote most of ‘Dalek’ in notebook at the South Bank, so it’d be staring me down most days – and I’m sure that it was that image, coupled with the feeling that on this first series we were blowing the cobwebs off a long abandoned TV show, and that the Daleks themselves were now just relics, that fed into the script. (Though the very idea of a collector of alien artefacts with an underground base was Russell’s in the first place, and I ran with it!)

Tue, Jun 02, 2009 1:03pm

“But it makes me worry for Eccleston, he’s so intense. It’s just pretend, honey…”

This confession will probably get me blocked from ever even looking at your blog again, but…

… his total intensity is the main reason I watched all the new DWs! I had seen a couple of episodes in 2006 when I was in the UK and thought, ‘oh, cool, DW is back’ (I hadn’t seen any since Baker) but I didn’t try and watch it here or get DVDs or anything until I realized in 2008 that Eccleston had been the 9th Doctor. Then, of course, due to my intermittent completist problems, I’ve watched all of them and, in fact, gone back and re-watched all the old ones I could get from the NYPL as well as Torchwood.

But, honestly, although the writing is great, I didn’t have the same urge to watch or re-watch Tennant like I do Eccleston. (Exception: Blink is, I think, the absolute best episode ever.)

Seeing Eccleston as DW is kinda of like seeing Al Pacino do a turn as Captain Kirk. …ooooh, what a nice fantasy…