Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting DALEK - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting DALEK

Tony's going underground.
It’s part of the lore of playing the Doctor that you’re not REALLY the Doctor until you’ve faced the Daleks.

That would mean, for instance, that Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor didn’t really come into the role until his second season, and neither did Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor. More bizarrely still, following that “rule,” Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor didn’t REALLY become the Doctor until a couple of stories before his regeneration.

So the rule is by no means hard and fast. But certainly, there’s an idea that the two are locked forever in opposition – the Doctor and the Daleks. And there was a time on the road to Series 1 of 21st century Doctor Who when there was severe doubt as to whether the show would gain the rights to use Terry Nation’s mutated monsters in bonded polycarbide armour. So much so that Russell T Davies had taken the precaution of creating a not-quite Dalek alternative – living, demented flesh in a killing machine shell. They would eventually see the light of day as the Toclafane.

But when permission for new Doctor Who to use the Daleks finally came through, Dalek the story was born. Robert Shearman, who had scored a giant hit in Big Finish audio with a Dalek story called Jubilee was brought in to do for the Daleks essentially the same job that Series 1 was out to do for Doctor Who as a whole. He had to confront the weaknesses of the concept, the jokiness that had crept over the creature across the decades, and literally regenerate it as a thing that could be taken seriously by 21st century viewers.

To do that, to re-establish the Dalek as a credible threat in the 21st century, it was important to keep the premise of Dalek simple and contained. Many thousands of words have now been written on the structure of the story, and in particular how it’s essentially an ascension from a state of dejected, tarnished pointlessness, up through the layers of the base in which it was trapped, dealing with every threat that came its way, to achieve its freedom. That’s very much seen as an allegory of the job of the story – taking the dejected, almost laughable creature with a sink plunger for a hand and a famous aversion to staircases upward into the 21st century, showing it overcoming the stereotypes of its naffness until it’s essentially match-fit to take on the universe again, only to have it learn something that drives it into suicidal madness – more or less the same thing, in fact that drove a Dalek to suicidal madness the last time they had appeared on-screen in their own story, Remembrance of the Daleks.

The premise of Dalek – that multi-billionaire “owner of the internet,” Henry van Statten, has a vault of alien artefact that he both wants because no-one else can have them and because, if he can crack open their secrets, he can harness them, develop them into products and make even more money from his space-flotsam collection – is sound, and helps contain the first Dalek encounter in 21st century Who without especially lowering the jeopardy or the body-count. In fact, it’s layered precisely to allow the Dalek to show off its new body and its new abilities, to elevate it above its Classic Who cousins.

The idea that it has a “useless” sink plunger as its manipulator arm is tackled not once but three times – first when it uses the plunger to suffocate its torturer, Simmons(Nigel Whitmey), secondly when it absorbs both power and knowledge by the simple act of “punching” through a screen, and thirdly when it uses its sucker arm to manipulate a keypad, feeding data and button presses through to the pad faster than any human could do. The fact that the arm had always been ONLY a hard prop, rather than a hard prop with some CGI wizardry, meant we’d never seen it do anything like that before – so both fans and casual viewers sat up and took notice of this new ability.

The regenerative ability had never been seen before either, so that made the new Dalek into a much more dangerous prospect than it had ever been in Classic Who.

The staircase elevation of course, Classic fans had seen before in Remembrance of the Daleks, but it was a thing worth redoing at some length in Dalek, to put to rest any larky comments from the general public. In fact, Shearman actually has archivist Adam Mithell (Bruno Langley) make the comment that was most popular and prevalent – “Great big alien death machine defeated by a flight of stairs?” – before the Dalek begins its elevation, to prove him wrong and get him running.

We’d heard of the Dalek force shield before, but Dalek is the first time we see it rendered in-vision, meaning we understand that the Dalek’s a really, truly difficult thing to kill, however much you shoot at it – that, after all, is why it’s encased in a tank. Dalek introduces us to the rapidly – not to say, independently – rotating mid-section, for much faster killing all round.

And the joy of the human massacre sequence is that you can appreciate the Dalek’s strategic genius – elevating itself off the floor, making it rain indoors, and then transferring the charged plasma of its weapon fire to all its attackers simultaneously. It could just as effectively have shot all the defenders individually, but the strategic deviousness of the mass slaughter – and the fact that it wants both the humans and the Doctor to witness it - shows the brain and the battle computer at work behind the weapon.

All of which rehabilitates the Dalek as a viable super-threat in the 21st century show. But as much as Dalek is about making the Dalek a real villain in the show some 17 years after their last on-screen appearance (and yes, fact-fans, it’s now longer since Dalek aired than it had been since Remembrance of the Daleks when the Eccleston series hit screens!), it’s also about the Doctor, and it’s also about Rose.

We’d been piecing together the story of the Doctor since he looked like Paul McGann. There was a terrible time war that killed all the Time Lords and destroyed Gallifrey, and it left the Doctor understandably scarred. But so far, the biggest real effect of the war had been a certain ruthlessness with Cassandra and a pathological desire not to go to tea with Jackie Tyler. If the unofficial rule is that the Doctor’s not really the Doctor until they’ve come face to face with the Daleks, it’s a rule more true and meaningful with the Ninth Doctor than arguably anyone since Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor.

Here we get the full effect of a war survivor confronted with the evidence that the other side survived too, and are just as much alive, so nothing ultimately was saved from them. That’s why we get some truly unhinged – and exceptionally brave – scenes with Eccleston and the Dalek (voiced by Nicholas Briggs), where it’s the Doctor who seems emotionally unhinged compared to the rational, if pitiless, Dalek.

Words like “Rid the universe of your filth! Why don’t you just DIE?!” have never really been a part of the Doctor’s make-up till now, and Dalek is the episode that strips away a lot of the mystery of what the Doctor has been through – but also, shockingly, what he’s been responsible for. He didn’t just see the destruction of the Dalek race happen, he MADE it happen. For Classic Who fans, there’s a moment of resonance there with Genesis of the Daleks, but for newcomers to the show, it may well have been properly shocking to hear that coming from the mouth of their new Doctor. Their only Doctor.

When he feels the tremendous guilt about having killed Rose, after telling her “I can’t wait, and I can’t help you,” this Doctor lashes out, making it everyone else’s fault but his – van Statten and Adam both get a Time Lord tongue-lashing from this deflecting Doctor, but Adam gives it to him straight – “It wasn’t me who sealed off the vault!” No – that too was the Ninth Doctor, acting out of blind fear as much as out of pragmatic calculation. The time war has really done a number on the Doctor.

Meanwhile, if Rose’s role in Series 1 is to remind the war-torn, devastated Doctor of how to BE the Doctor, here, she performs a kind of fairy tale role for the Dalek, too – offering it the chance to evolve into something better than a single-minded killing machine driven by hate. She offers it the humanity of fear – and having attained its potential freedom, that thought is enough to make it demand that she give it the order to self-destruct.

While the Doctor is frozen in his time war loop, feeling like he must destroy the last Dalek in existence, Rose’s influence is transformative, making the Dalek change, and making it realize that change is contrary to everything it has always known.

(As a quick aside, the novelization of this story by Rob Shearman is technically better on many levels than the version that made it to screen – but what only the broadcast version can give you is the dramatic interplay of emotions between the Ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler). By her actions at the end of the story, Rose Tyler manages to free the Doctor, at least a little, of some of his survivor’s burden – particularly when he realizes that the Dalek has changed, and that that’s impossible for it, meaning the ”Last of the Daleks” will self-destruct rather than live on with human fear as part of its make-up.

And finally, it’s just about worth noting that the Doctor and Rose give Adam a lift out of his predicament and take him to see the stars – “On your own head be it,” as the Doctor mutters.

Dalek had many jobs to do on top of the obvious one of delivering a Dalek story worthy of the name to launch Doctor Who’s mega-villains into the 21st century. Watched 18 years on, it’s hard to argue that it didn’t knock each and every one of them out of the park.

In a handful of scenes, it rehabilitated the Daleks on some of the lazy stereotypes their design had encouraged over the decades – while giving them a properly tanklike look for the first time (excepting the Special Weapons Dalek of Remembrance of the Daleks).

By pitching the Doctor’s trauma and fear as high as it did, and writing them in as the ultimate enemy in the talked-about time war, it made them as great and as terrifying as they’d ever been – and confirmed them as the universal enemy the Time Lords had once foreseen they could be.

And while the structure of the episode is necessarily straightforward, it still delivers on multiple – erm – levels when watched 18 years later. Sometimes in life, and always in Doctor Who, you just need the ultra-villains to come out and show themselves. Dalek is a strangely cathartic episode, and it shows us more about the Ninth Doctor than any episode that preceded it.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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