Tuesday, March 1, 2011


[2005, Season 27/Series 1, Episode 6]

Six episodes and five stories in, and we meet the Doctor’s greatest villains: the Daleks.  A race genetically engineered to feel only hatred for all other species, and designed for the purpose of destroying all other species.  The Doctor doesn’t like violence or killing, but when it comes to the Daleks, he is reluctantly but immediately willing to do both.

Dalek opens with the Doctor and Rose showing up in a museum of alien artifacts somewhere in America.  They wander about, and soon find it is a facility run by cruel billionaire Van Stanton.  The Doctor soon learns that Van Stanton has a prize above all in his collection: an actual live alien.  The Doctor goes to investigate, and tells the poor creature he’s there to help it.  Then it talks back.

Immediately, the Doctor’s compassion evaporates.  Once he knows the Dalek can’t kill him with its gun, he begins mocking it.

Doctor: If you can’t kill, then what are you good for, Dalek?  What’s the point of you?  You’re nothing!  What the hell are you here for?
Dalek: I am waiting for orders.
Doctor: What does that mean?
Dalek: I am a soldier.  I was bred to receive orders.
Doctor: You’re never going to get any.  Not ever.
Dalek: I demand orders!
Doctor: They’re never going to come!  Your race is dead! You’re all dead!  You all burn, your whole race burns, ten million ships on fire, the entire Dalek race wiped out in one second.
Dalek: You lie!
Doctor: I watched it happen.  I made it happen.
Dalek: You… destroyed us?
Doctor: [pauses] I had no choice.
Dalek: And what of the Time Lords?
Doctor: Dead.  They burned with you.  The end of the Last Great Time War.  Everyone lost.

But then, it gets really interesting.  The Dalek notes that he is the last of his kind, literally alone in the Universe – and so is the Doctor.  “We are the same.”  The Doctor’s reaction is perfect: first denying that he has any resemblance to his enemy, then acknowledging it sarcastically, then turning on the Dalek with its own phrase: “Exterminate.”

But, of course, the Doctor is stopped before he can finish off the last of his great adversaries.  Then, Rose touches it, and powered by the touch of a time traveller, it gains extra power (… yeah, just go with it), and then gets loose and starts doing exactly what it was bred to do.

With only a single real villain, writer Robert Shearman and director Joe Ahearne weave a tremendously intense yarn.  The Daleks have rarely been more threatening than they are here – we watch as one methodically and far too easily mows down dozens of people firing hundreds of bullets at it to no avail.  The sequence where it massacres a dozen people with a single shot is terrifying. Not only does it slaughter so many in an instant, but it does it with clever strategy and so that everyone can see what it’s going to do to them next.  It’s truly gripping.

It also adds an interesting element with the Dalek accidentally gaining emotion: it’s tortured by its own emotions.  It’s a clever addition.

The Doctor’s intensity is every bit as gripping.  Eccelston does intense better than anything, and he’s on fire here.

Dalek then goes way, way out on a limb, and tries something really clever: it tries to, well, humanize the Dalek.  Add some level of sympathy amongst the horror and dread we feel.  And up to a point, it works beautifully.  When it tells Rose that it’s in pain, alone, and dying, it is, of course, playing on her emotions, but what it says is true.  Further, it is in absolute agony when it accidentally absorbs the ability to feel emotion from Rose.  The sympathy, of course, only adds the the horror it causes.

But then the story goes a step too far.  The minor parallels between the Doctor and the Dalek – both alone, both wanting to destroy each other – are great to point out, but there’s also a crucial difference: the Dalek wants to destroy and kill everything because that’s all it desires.  The Doctor only wants to destroy the Dalek because of that.  And somehow, in the final scenes, they forget that.  Dalek condemns the Doctor for wanting to destroy the last Dalek, but he has every right to do so, and he knows that better than anyone.  Rather than contrast the parallels with the differences, it suggests that the Doctor’s attempts to destroy his mortal enemy are every bit as wrong as the Daleks attempts at killing all life in the Universe.

No.  That doesn’t fly.  Not for a second.  This is a ruthless, genocidal creature that will spend every moment of its existence massacring every life form it detects.  The Doctor wants to kill it for precisely that reason.  There is a darkness and edge to the Doctor’s rage and outright hatred, but he’s not the same.  At all.  And the episode’s hint that he is falls totally flat.

            Doctor: Get out of the way, Rose!

            Rose: I won’t let you do this!

            Doctor: That thing killed hundreds of people.

Yes.  Exactly.  Get out of the way Rose.  It’s not your fault: you just don’t understand.  This thing is pure evil.  That’s the whole point.

Besides, I really want to see what that baby the Doctor picked up can do.

Seriously, this thing needs to show up again.

It’s like Shearman came up with his own way to kill the Dalek, and then just tried to contrive a false moral conundrum to wrap his way into it, totally missing an even better way to kill it off.

Shearman makes a further mistake with the character of Van Stanton.  He’s got a good opening scene, establishing him as a guy so powerful he can replace the president of the United States on a whim, and lacks any compuctions about destroying people’s lives.  But he never moves beyond a broad charicature, and Corey Johnson plays him every bit as broadly as he’s written.  He quickly becomes ridiculous and unbelievable.  More than that, there’s no reason to have a human villain around doing despicable things when there’s a Dalek on the loose.  It reduces the Dalek’s power if some psychotic human is making things easier for it (stupidly).

But man, when it concentrates on the sheer terror and the power of the Dalek, and on the Doctor’s tortured reaction, it’s fantastic.  With such tremendous positives, I loved it when I first saw it.  My passion has subsided over several viewings, but its core still shines superbly, even if a couple of the edges are very, very rough.

* * * ½

  •  I loved seeing this in Van Stanton's museum.

  • But I was much more delighted to see how many uses they came up with for the Dalek's oft-mocked "plunger arm".  It even kills people.

  • I didn't mention Adam, the companion that briefly joins them at the end of the episode, but don't worry.  I'll get to him.

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