...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Day 3149: DOCTOR WHO: Dalek


Well yes, my goodness it HAS been a bit of a while hasn’t it. We have a great big pile of the Doctor Woo DVD Files on the floor next to my sofa now, because Daddy Richard and Daddy Alex have been spending all their time watching silly rubbish like “The Wire”!

Anyway, Daddy Richard has FLU, so I’ve been able to wrestle the remote control out of his sweaty paw and put on some proper telly instead. And it didn’t half make him feel BETTER!

Here, between coughs and gurgles, is what he has to say about it:

A Dalek without power, discovered after it crashed, using its guile and cunning to get what it needs to restore itself, playing off human emotions of compassion and greed; the Doctor, behaving in a way we’ve never seen him before, desperate to destroy it by any means but thwarted by the people in charge; the result: a massacre.

But enough of 1966’s “The Power of the Daleks”, because the plot of “Dalek” is almost beside the point, constructed as it is as an exercise in ticking off every point that anyone has ever laughed at a Dalek about. I doubt if it’s coincidental that Adam refers to the alien as a “big pepper pot” while the Doctor himself calls it “the great space dustbin”; let’s throw in the disparaging terms alongside the jokes about plungers and stairs. And then let’s show that they’re not jokes, not even remotely funny, as the Dalek cleanly and efficiently slaughters everyone in sight.

But this is much more about what it is to be a Dalek, with the answer seemingly being “honest” as much as “horribly lethal”. Mind you, the idea that Daleks are “uncomplicated” compared to the intricacy of human motives was also an inheritor of “The Power of the Daleks”, with the crucial question being: “why do humans kill humans?”

“Dalek” is, as is widely known, based on the Big Finish audio adventure “Jubilee”, with “Torchwood”’s Jubilee Pizza an onscreen nod of gratitude. The character of Simmons is named after the actor who played the similar role on audio, although evil hench-woman Diana Goddard is named for writer Rob Shearman’s wife. (And funny to think that her “joke” about replacing the President at Van Statten’s instruction refers, with this being 2012, to Barack Obama, now; still at least he’ll be replaced by another Democrat.)

“Dalek” is a stripped down, buffed up, Terminator of a version of “Jubilee”, though, with most of the meat of the story stripped off. In “Jubilee”, the Doctor arrives in (or rather crashes into) an alternative English Empire built on stolen Dalek technology obtained when the Doctor himself thwarted an invasion in the Edwardian era (and think how much of that might have gone into the Pete’s World strand, or “The Next Doctor”). The Daleks (and to an extent Doctor Who itself) are subtly (and sometimes unsubtly) mocked, much as the series has been mocked. But here “Jubilee” peels back the surface to reveal that that mockery is cowardice, and it’s the refusal to look evil in the face that has led to an “English Empire” that is just as evil as the Daleks themselves. “Jubilee” is about making choices; and confronting or accepting evil is the biggest choice there is.

There isn’t time for all of that in “Dalek”. What we are left with is the central figure of “Jubilee”, the single Dalek, alone, defeated, waiting for orders, and the extraordinary relationship that it forges with the Doctor’s companion, based on the singular occurrence of it encountering a human who does not fear it.

The Sixth Doctor’s companion Evelyn had met the Daleks before, of course, (in “The Apocalypse Element” – or “Apocalypse Elephant” as Millennium insists it should be called) which makes her stronger in this regard: Evelyn does fear the Dalek but her compassion for it is greater.

Rose, in contrast, does not fear the Dalek, but through innocence; she has no idea what it is and has just started to learn from the Doctor to treat all aliens as people. In fact, you can see how Rose has grown as a character since her attack of culture shock in “The End of the World”. There the aliens were “just so alien”; now she is literally reaching out to them.

Nevertheless, Rose’s relationship with the Dalek is extraordinary.

A superficial reading of the story is that the Daleks fakes the emotions necessary to gain Rose’s sympathy – and more importantly her touch – but then gets more than it bargained for, becoming (in it’s eyes, or rather eye) “corrupted” with her emotions.

But is it that simple? That reading relies upon accepting the Doctor’s assertion that the Dalek has no emotions but hate, yet he is hardly an impartial witness. Before it’s even met Rose, the Dalek’s reaction on being told that its entire race is dead and the Time War lost is not rage, but despair. It demonstrates empathy with the Doctor, “we are both alone”, and both pity and contempt for itself, “and yet the coward survived”.

So, when Rose meets the Dalek how much of what it says is “false”, merely trying to lure the dumb, emotional human into touching it (and potentially bursting into flames)? And how much is a genuine connection being forged between these two unlikely beings, linked only by their association with the last Time Lord?

The ending is ambiguous too, between whether gaining human emotions – like vampires Angel or Spike regaining their soul – make the Dalek confront the evil that it has done and realise that it cannot bear to exist; or whether the true Dalek philosophy of destroying everything non-Dalek wins out, extending ultimately to itself for committing the worst form of Dalek apostasy: changing.

Praise must be given to Billie Piper, emoting for all she’s worth at a bronze-painted plywood prop; and equally to Nicholas Briggs, who is just never better than he is here, not just re-creating the sound of the Daleks, but creating a Dalek who can feel, and for whom we feel.

Praise too for Christopher Eccleston, finally fully let off the leash and allowed to show the range and depth of emotional response of his take on the Time Lord.

We rarely see the Doctor get things so wrong. If anything, this is one of the surer signs that it was the Eighth and not the Ninth Doctor who faced the Daleks in the Time War; this incarnation has no ability to cope with them, and it totally deranges him.

Alex remains horrified by how un-Doctor-ish he is when throwing insults at Adam: “what will you do, throw your A-levels at them?” seems especially hurtful from a series that historically champions the academic nerd over the macho bully-boy with the big gun. Oh look at what the Doctor is holding.

But even before we get to the self-evident wrongness of “Doctor with a big gun”, he’s making mistakes that lead to tragedy. It’s his arrogance in thinking he can deal with anything better than Van Statten – and showing off for Rose, just smell that testosterone – that has him blithely announce himself to the Dalek, waking it up in the first place. Then his panicked reactions, first flight, then “extermination”, push Van Statten into seeing him as a threat, depriving him of the chance to deal calmly and rationally with the problem. If he hadn’t been such a moody close-mouthed so-and-so about the Time War, Rose might have known what a Dalek actually was and avoided petting the thing. And then he’s in such a tizzy he then blabs that he’s an alien himself to Mr “Biggest Collector of Aliens under the State of Utah”, leading to his near crucifixion on Van Statten’s scanning machine.

By the time he’s repeatedly advising Van Statten to throw more guards at the creature to kill it – which only gets more of them killed – he’s completely lost it. Cut to phlegm flying and “you would be a good Dalek”. Which by that point, he nearly is.

(To be slightly fair here, he’s not the only one allowing arrogance to overrule good sense, and it’s not clear if Van Statten’s troops choose to ignore the “aim for the eyepiece” advice because they “know how to deal with one tin robot”, or if the Doctor’s tactics were just useless anyway.)

And yet, this is a definite turning point for Doctor number nine. A true catharsis, burning away some of his personal shame at surviving the Time War, ironically by recognising and facing his subsequent faults.

Complexity of motivation extends to supporting characters too. Billionaire Henry Van Statten is easily dismissed as a typical Doctor Who amoral businessman villain, and yet he is sensitive enough to play the alien musical instrument even as he is crass enough to toss it aside; rarely for a Doctor Who villain, he changes his mind, realising that living and keeping the Dalek intact are mutually exclusive; and he half-confesses to enjoying himself when getting back to his “simpler past” as a programmer, trying to help the Doctor seal the bunker doors.

Similarly, Goddard shows shades of emotion. She certainly makes personal gain when, like Krau Timmin in “The Caves of Androzani”, she ousts her amoral boss, but her motive is also because he got so many people killed, throwing away lives. And this isn’t some sudden discovery (or convenient feigning) of compassion, as she previously demonstrated concern for the Doctor when he believes Rose dead.

As potential companion, Adam Mitchell is allowed to be even more interesting: he is clearly vain, proud of his intelligence, and showing off for Rose. So far so like the Doctor, in fact, which may explain – if not excuse – the Time Lord’s jealous over-reaction. And he is “a bit pretty”. But Adam is actually able to stand up for himself – not necessarily with his half-stolen collection of alien guns (and hairdryer), but he certainly more than puts the Doctor in his place when accused of leaving Rose behind. “It wasn’t me closing the doors!”

However, more of Adam next time.

It is necessary to add a word about the silliest aspect of the story – just how does the Dalek repair itself from Rose’s DNA? Even assuming that the Dalek casing can, for whatever reason, extract a sample of genetic material from contact – and why not, if Lawrence Miles is right and Time Lords technology is at a basic level biological – but how does this get added to the mutant? “I fed on Rose Tyler’'s DNA,” it asserts at one point. Well yes, and I had a fish supper, but I don’t expect to be having fishy feelings as a result; what’s going on?

By “Doomsday”, Russell will have come up with the idea of “background radiation”, absorbed during TARDIS travel; even, dare we say it, linking it to the old stand by of “artron energy”. And this is in no way out of step with the Classic series, where stories such as “The Deadly Assassin” and “City of Death” suggest that the very extent of the Doctor’s travels have made him both stronger and more sensitive in Time.

And how very Dalek-like to evolve to eat the stuff; living off the “life force” of their enemies.

It would be a gift if we could put it down to a translation glitch: DNA meaning not “deoxyribonucleic acid” but, ahem, “Dalek Nutrient Artron”?

But no. “Genetic material assimilated,” it chants to itself as it merrily pulls free of its chains. It is one of those moments when you wish a writer, and Rob is extremely talented, but you wish he would use a made-up word rather than a proper science one that he seems not to know the meaning of.

The point is that it’s absorbing Rose’s human spirit: her determination, her optimism, her pluck. It's the “human factor”, referencing the other Troughton-era Dalek tale, and it’s the thing that the Dalek needs to break out of its situation: the capacity to act without the need for orders.

But, at the risk of going all nurture versus nature, those qualities are recorded in our minds, not our genes.

More than many of these first series stories, it’s difficult to look at “Dalek” again without hindsight. The new-look, bronze Daleks – or blonde-shelled, blue-eye-stalked as Alex smartly refers to them – have appeared a half a dozen times again in the returned series now. In a way, each of those subsequent appearances have undermined what “Dalek” achieves here. Having re-established that one single Dalek was an almost unstoppable threat, resorting to “topping that” with thousands of the buggers throws that away by having them eminently stoppable (whether by Bad Wolf/magic TARDIS dust, convenient inter-dimensional vacuum cleaner or Davros typewriter of doom). Nor is there any need for every single appearance to be, once more, “the final end”.

Next Time: A story that has nothing to do with Daleks whatsoever. Oh no indeedy. Or “What Adam Did Wrong…” in “The Long Game”



Andrew Hickey said...

Agreed with every single word of that, especially the criticisms of Eccleston's non-Doctorishness here and the appaling science, but also with the good points of it - this is practically the only RTD-era Who I find watchable (though I do much prefer Jubilee), and it shows what the series is capable of at its best.

Hope both your daddies feel better soon.

Scott Willison said...

You two are permanently ill - do you not get enough vitamin C or something?

Take care and console yourselves with Bruno Langley.