My final contribution to DWM #474’s poll feature.
It might be the case that any scene featuring a woman being advanced upon in a corridor by a Dalek will unavoidably echo the monsters’ end-of-episode debut on 21 December 1963. It might be. But that bit in Dalek, where Rose Tyler is sealed into the vault by the Doctor and turns to face the monster trundling towards her, seems so evocative of Barbara Wright doing the same on Skaro, it surely can’t be accidental.
Nearly 42 years on from that episode, and six weeks after Doctor Who‘s return, the Dalek race enjoyed its own reboot. Their first ever adventure aside, Rob Shearman’s taleis the most important in the creatures’ history, reintroducing them to an audience who, perhaps, had only ever encountered them in that 2001 Kit Kat advert, wherein they were shown bellowing – in crap voices – “We love you!” and “Give us a cuddle!”
But, like a Mark III travel machine, Dalek ruthlessly and efficiently lasers away any such nonsense. They’re back, better and badder than ever. Be scared. Like Rose and Barbara, you’re about to encounter the most terrifying thing in the whole universe.
Looking back at the story – which, set in 2012, is ‘new’ Doctor Who‘s first proper future episode to fall into our past – is an interesting experience. One can still feel the original prickles of excitement that accompanied its broadcast, particularly in the scene where the Doctor and the Dalek meet. Out of the darkness, the singular blue light of the eyestalk, and then: “Exterminate!” The camera rushes back as the room is illuminated, revealing the glory of the old enemy straining against its chains. “Exterminate!” Something wildly exciting and so, so intrinsic has just clicked back into place. And we don’t need to worry. There’s been no stupid ‘re-imagining’ of the concept. This is Doctor Who getting the Daleks right, consolidating their look as sturdier, more detailed than before, but Dalek through and through, and banishing memories of those adenoidal, chocolate wafer biscuit tones, with Nicholas Briggs’ purist’s distillation of Hawkins and Skelton.
The additional upgrades that have been given to the pepper pot – the way that sink plunger is weaponised, the force-field, and the mid-section as a swivelling turret (all conceits since sadly forgotten) – feel like elements that were always there but hadn’t been realised on television before.
When the Time Lord briefs Van Statten on the nature of the menace they’re facing, the dialogue succinctly sums up everything we’ve, perhaps perversely, come to hold dear about the foe: “The Dalek race was genetically engineered. Every single emotion was removed except hate.” It’s the concept stripped back to first principles. No wonder we’re then told that a single Dalek means “no one on this planet” is safe.
Despite the fact I can still connect to my first viewing experience nearly a decade on, I can also feel the episode – and Christopher Eccleston’s year as the Doctor – becoming absorbed into the milieu of old Doctor Who. Doctor Who that has now become permanent and fixed in my mind. With newer instalments, there’s a long process of assimilation. Where do they fit into the bigger picture? What do they portend? I know now that Eccleston’s Doctor never quite felt like the real thing to me. In part, because he didn’t appear comfortable playing what Jon Pertwee would have termed “moments of charm”. The smile never came easily. To its credit Dalek pushes him in the other direction, and while a scene of the protagonist torturing his foe is profoundly out of character, it’s also fascinating. It indicates that this Doctor is one who’s still in trauma, at an interim phase in his life where he’s defined by recent harrowing events. He isn’t the hero we know. Not yet. In those moments Eccleston comes into his own. Which other incarnation could we imagine losing it so totally? With absolutely no dignity? Spitting – literally spitting – hate? “Kill yourself!” he screams. “Why don’t you just die?!”
In comparison to the romance of today’s Doctor Who, that first year back feels urban and overtly political. The preceding story had been set in Downing Street and parodied the government’s WMD ‘Dodgy Dossier’, and the later adventure, Boom Town, would see this Doctor come out in favour of capital punishment. Dalek is of that piece. It feels engineered and burnished. Aside from marvelling at the Cybermen head (“The stuff of nightmares, reduced to an exhibit,” says the Doctor, who could very well be talking about the popular perception of the Skarosians up to that point) there’s no time for wonder in Henry van Statten’s museum. Instead, this is a place where Simmons – clad in orange overalls that call to mind Guantanamo Bay – takes an angle-grinder to a screaming Metaltron. Where the Doctor gets into a game of one-upmanship with van Statten. “Blimey,” says Rose, the only representation of humanity in the whole story, “you can smell the testosterone.” Where the most evil creature in the universe can turn, with absolutely impunity, to the last survivor from Gallifrey and declare: “You would make a good Dalek.”
It had been 17 years since we’d last seen the Daleks in Doctor Who. Since then they had been entombed. But their return in 2005 was one of the series’ crowning triumphs. They had indeed grown stronger, and the time was now right for them to emerge and take their rightful place as the supreme power of the universe.