We are so used to Doctor Who these days. We get new episodes every year and a special at Christmas. We’ve had eight series and over 100 new episodes. We take it for granted that every year there’ll be more of it. But it wasn’t always the case.
Back in 2005, each new episode was a miracle. Everyone had thought Doctor Who was dead. The idea that it might come back was only a dream. The news that it was coming back for a 13 episode series on BBC1 was almost unbelievable. Then on top of all that it turned out to be good… Well, to steal a word from Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor, it was fantastic. Meaning it was like a fantasy.
Episode 6 in that joyous run is Dalek. Cunningly held back to counter any mid season slide in ratings, this was an event within the bigger event of the show’s return. And while the other episodes had been good, I distinctly remember watching this on broadcast and thinking this was where it really felt like the series was clicking. If it weren’t for those gas mask zombies, it would surely be the stand out episode of that first year of Doctor Who‘s revival. Perhaps it still is.
Its job was to reintroduce the Daleks as an integral part of the series iconography, to an audience who had not given a flying Thal about them for about twenty years. Who didn’t even know them, unless they had seen them as the butt of jokes on TV ads and sketch shows. It pulls off this trick by concentrating on just one Dalek, running amok in a billionaire tyrant’s underground headquarters. And look, we all want this for Murdoch, but that’s not the point.
No, the point is that it does it methodically and effectively; it drip feeds information about the Dalek, gradually revealing its powers, confounding expectations about its limitations, so that by the end of the episode, they are firmly established as big metal badasses. In the season finale, there’s a moment when Rose acknowledges a job well done in this episode when she says, ‘There’s thousands of them now. We could hardly stop one. What’re we going to do?’. We know what she means because the Dalek in Dalek is so formidable.
But I think the really clever thing this episode does is the role reversal between the Doctor and the monster.
We’re used to having villains presented as a dark mirror of the Doctor. In fact that might be essential to any hero/villain relationship. Anyway, you can list them off by heart. The Master, Davros, the Valeyard… but even comparatively b-list villains, like Borusa or Professor Lazarus to choose two random examples, are always there for us to compare to the Doctor.
To directly compare the Doctor to a monster is rarer, but that’s what Dalek does, through role reversal. The Doctor for instance, played with saliva propelling emotion by Eccleston, behaves in a very un-Doctorly way. Upon first discovering the Dalek, the Doctor does not do any of his normal tricks. He doesn’t negotiate or befriend or cajole. He just tries to exterminate it. The first instinct of a Dalek.
The Dalek meanwhile demonstrates its Doctory ingenuity at every turn. It absorbs energy from Rose and escapes by tricking its enemies into a false sense of security before suckering their faces. Its next step is to absorb information. ‘The Dalek’s a genius,’ the Doctor warns. So just like him then, but murderous. Oh, he’s that too now.
For the rest of the episode, the Doctor is largely impotent. He can merely react to what Dalek does. It’s his own tactic turned against him. While the Dalek methodically climbs the levels of Van Statten’s space museum, countering every attempt to destroy it with silent determination, the Doctor’s reduced to tapping on a laptop, shutting bulkheads by remote control.
This culminates in a famous scene where the Dalek chooses to destroys a room full of soldiers by setting the sprinkler system off and electrocuting them with one zappy shot. It’s interesting because there’s no plot reason for it to show such an innovative approach to death; we all know it could just pick off those guards one by one. It chooses the showy way of killing, presumably as a display of strength and to terrify any onlookers. It certainly seems to work on the Doctor, who ends up bawling at the screen, like a showrunner who’s reading on doctorwhonews.net that his season premiere has been leaked online: ‘why can’t you just DIE?!’ But this is surely the Doctor’s modus operandi: come up with a clever solution which not only does the job but underlines your point.
The Dalek gets a bad dose of mercy from being touched by Rose, meaning it thinks twice before exterminating all and sundry. But it also uses Rose as a hostage, manipulating the Doctor’s emotions by threatening to kill her so that he will open a bulkhead (cue more laptop tapping). Now that in itself is not overly Doctor-esque, but when it says “What use are emotions if you will not save the woman you love?” its awkward lack of familiarity with human relationships sounds a bit like someone else we know.
By episode’s end, the Dalek has used guile and intelligence to work its way to freedom, and stands at the finale with the spunky girl by its side. The Doctor on the other hand has resorted to wielding a big gun. Rose says to him, ‘What the hell are you changing into?’ making the implied point explicit. As it turns out, the story’s conclusion has very little to do with him. The Dalek commits suicide with Rose’s consent, while the Doctor is reduced to a bystander. In a strange way, the Dalek has won, while the Doctor has failed at every turn.
We’re so used to Doctor Who these days, but back when we had just 13 episodes of new Who, this one felt like a keeper. It does its job. It brings back the Daleks. But it also forces us to look at the Doctor in a new light. And that’s an astonishingly confident move only 6 episodes in.
‘You would make a good Dalek’ the monster tells the Doctor. He could at least be polite enough to repay the compliment.
LINK to Silver Nemesis. Because there’s a Cyberman’s head on display in Van Statten’s museum, this is the first time we’ve seen one since Silver Nemesis. Unless you count Dimensions in Time, and if you do, god help you.
NEXT TIME: Are you picking your nose? More bubbling lumps of hate in Revelation of the Daleks