Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Review: Doctor Who "Dalek"

You know, for an episode that featured the return of the Cybermen, they really didn't do much.

And don't get me started on the debate over whether a Mechonoid makes a cameo....
The episode’s structure is a classic example of what’s known is Doctor Who circles as a base-under-siege story. Which is exactly what it sounds like. Our heroes find themselves in some kind of a facility, there’s nowhere to run, and there’s a monster making its way toward them. But this episode manages to put numerous twists on the formula, such as the monster trying to break out instead of in and the fact that the monster actually manages to plow through the nameless mooks to reach its goal.

But the story itself was very loosely based on a Big Finish audio story called “Jubilee,” with quite a few details changed and simplified. And one big detail that was almost changed was the inclusion of the Daleks themselves.

You see, the BBC doesn’t own the Daleks. The right to the pepperpot fascists belongs to the estate of their creator, Terry Nation, who don’t appreciate it when the Daleks are used without permission. In 2003, a little movie came out called Looney Tunes: Back in Action. Take a look at this shot from that film and tell me if you see anything familiar….

Apart from Daffy and Marvin.
Yep, this was an unauthorized Dalek cameo because one of the actors, Steve Martin, really liked the Daleks. So thanks to this, the Nation estate was a little hesitant to allow the Daleks to be used in Doctor Who, despite the fact that they originated in Doctor Who. So the writers whipped up an alternate idea, just in case. If they hadn’t secured the rights to bring back the Daleks, then Van Statten would have had a “Future Human” inside his Vault; a genocidal human head inside a metal sphere, one of the last survivors of the end of time. If that sounds familiar, that’s because they ended up recycling the idea for a later season. Spoilers.

The episode's goal was simple. Make the Daleks scary again.

The Daleks are simultaneously the best and worst enemies in Doctor Who. I say “best” for obvious reasons. Distinctively inhuman appearance, inhuman voices, pathological need to kill, inability to be reasoned with, et cetera. They’re great villains. But they can also be crap villains.

The reason I say “worst” is because when handled improperly, the Daleks bring out the worst in Doctor Who. Silly bug-eyed monsters running around, failing to even try and shoot people they supposedly want to kill, silly plans to take over Earth, that silly plunger, cheap-looking props….

In the Classic Series, they attempted to make the Daleks interesting again with the Dalek Civil War, but that just made them less of a threat, since you could now get them to kill each other. And then there’s Ace’s finest moment to remember.

Don’t get me wrong, I love that moment. But once you establish that the Daleks can be taken out with a baseball bat… well, that’s just it. You can take them out with a baseball bat. Spend twenty bucks at a sporting goods store and wipe them out.

When Doctor Who was on hiatus, it was still enough of a part of popular culture that comedians could get some of their biggest laughs simply by making fun of the Daleks.

Eddie Izzard: “One side they had the death ray, and on the other side, of course they had… a plunger.”

That’s it; that’s all you had to say. Daleks were inherently funny.

Always making fun of the plunger.
Eddie Izzard: “This is Steve the Dalek! He has two death rays! He is very dangerous. This is Kev the Dalek. He has two… plungers…. He doesn’t really count. Piss off, Kev.”

A joke which made it into the latest trailer for the next season.
So during the time Doctor Who spent canceled, they were remembered as those silly robots that scared you as a kid. If they were going to be brought back, this would have to change.

Robert Shearman asked his girlfriend what the silliest things about the Daleks were, and she listed all the things people would point and laugh at when they saw a Dalek. Like the silly plunger arm, the fact that they can’t shoot behind themselves or turn around, not being able to go upstairs, et cetera. And then he solved all those little problems. Swiveling midsections, face-crushing plunger power, and the ability to master stairs.

Although they’ve had that one since the Classic Series.
All of a sudden, a single Dalek can terrify the Doctor and kill dozens of people. The Daleks had been re-established as a serious threat, helped along by the horrifying deaths of most of Van Statten’s men who were making fun of its appearance.

At the same time, the episode uses the Dalek to examine not only the cost of war, but the cost of surviving. Both the Doctor and this Dalek went into the Time War. Going in, only one of them was a hateful mass murderer. But coming out… well, “He who fights monsters,” right?

The Doctor

This is actually the first episode that my sister saw from the Eccleston years, and she quickly grew to hate the angry, bitter Doctor she found. But after rewatching Eccleston's season, he quickly grew on her. Now she owns this season on DVD.

But I think that highlights an important potential problem with this episode. In order to fully grasp the weight of what the Daleks bring out in the Doctor, you need to understand that this aggressive behavior is not normal for him. Watching the Doctor revel in the destruction of his most hated foes isn’t just another Tuesday, it’s a major out-of-character moment where he drops some major bombshells about being the one to personally destroy both the Time Lords and the Daleks.

So while this isn’t exactly a problem if you watch the show in order, it becomes a problem if you want to show this episode to somebody new-to-Who. (Luckily, I’ve already written a post to help with that sort of thing.)

Rose Tyler
Rose is pretty darn compassionate, offering not only friendship to a scary tin monster, but a place in the TARDIS for possibly the only decent person on Van Statten’s staff. We’ll see how that turns out.

Fun Fact: The Daleks were redesigned to be at eye level with Billie Piper.

Henry Van Statten (Corey Johnson)
Van Statten is basically an evil philanthropist. Greedy, vain, and has a hard time taking “no” for an answer. But underneath all that is a childlike wonder, weighed down by his childish need to have everything he wants. As the Doctor says, he reaches for the stars, but only to drag them down and keep them for himself. Johnson delivers a solid performance as a businessmanchild, as well, delivering a portrayal of a very uncomplicated man. He’s all surface, but not shallow. Henry Van Statten has his motivations and emotions but doesn’t keep them bottled up.

From the research I’ve done, he’s supposedly a parody of Bill Gates… but I’m not sure I see it. Perhaps that aspect was ditched along with the character’s original name, which was, I kid you not, Will Fences.

Diana Goddard (Anna-Louise Plowman)
Like most British productions that supposedly feature Americans, you get some questionable accents. I’m not saying that Americans are better at performing British accents than vice-versa, I’m just saying that the American “R” sound seems to be tricky for many UK actors. And for New Zealanders, in the case of Anna-Louise Plowman. (Thanks, Commentator!)

Corey Johnson was born in New Orleans, so his American accent is a little generic, but still the best in the episode. Diana Goddard, on the other hand, inexplicably changes her accent for brief moments, and it’s a little distracting once you notice it. And unfortunately, that’s her most distinguishing feature.

Though that’s not exactly a bad thing, since it leads up to the unexpected ending where the lowly assistant takes control over from Van Statten himself. Although that ending might seem a little tacked-on to quickly resolve Van Statten’s story and keep him from escaping punishment.

Adam “English Kid” Mitchell (Bruno Langley)
He’s just kind of there for the most part, but his few genuinely personal interactions with Rose show that like Van Statten, he has an interest in the universe. But unlike his boss, he wants to go out and see it for himself. But like his boss, he’s a bit full of himself and has a tendency to scheme, as shown by his secret arsenal.

Monster of the Week: Metaltron the Dalek
Along with making the Daleks scary, there was a real attempt to delve into the actual psychology of a Dalek. Plenty of fictional monsters are genocidal killing machines… but what kind of life is that? What if one of these creatures could question its own mentality as well as its very existence? The Dalek need to survive and conquer assumes that there will always be Daleks. But what if only one is left? When there’s no point in killing, what point is there to the last killing machine?

It’s an interesting exploration of a Dalek poisoned by human DNA. Human enough to understand the limitations in the Dalek way of life, but still Dalek enough to be horrified at what it’s becoming. Metaltron the Dalek becomes pointless. It has nothing to live for, but can’t bring itself to die. It exists in an existential limbo that points out the futility of the Daleks as a whole. If the Daleks were to ever succeed in their quest, then what would they do? They live to conquer. So what happens when there’s nothing left to conquer?

To watch a Dalek struggle with its own purpose like this is surprisingly tragic, and the episode manages to capture the horror of the Dalek’s situation. For the first time in Doctor Who history, you sympathize with a Dalek.

The poor misshapen blob.
And at the same time, you fear it. That is some skilled writing. And that’s why there will never be a Dalek story this good again.

Dalek stories are usually about finding new ways to try and achieve their goal of extermination, which inevitably makes them look like they’re useless and can’t ever win. And what little psychology there is to explore was already explored perfectly in this episode. Though a later episode, “Into the Dalek,” will try and recapture this same idea, it will still be going to the same places as “Dalek,” even if it takes different paths.

The Dalek redesign is perfect. It takes the old design, adds some detail, and makes it look like a metal tank, rather than a plastic prop. The design is so good, in fact, that it’s still used as of the time of this writing, more than ten years later.

Final Thoughts
Phenomenal. Certainly the best stand-alone episode of the Ninth Doctor’s unfortunately short run. But definitely not a good first introduction to the show in general, or the Ninth Doctor specifically. If you want to show somebody this episode, show them a different Ninth Doctor episode first. I’d recommend the award-winning two-parter that I’ll be talking about next time eventually.

Next time, Adam gets his first adventure in the TARDIS! See you then!


  1. So, does that mean you're skipping Father's Day and the Long Game? Or delaying them until later?

    1. *Rechecks Doctor Who episode list*

      Whoops! Not sure how I made that mistake. Nice catch. I'll fix that first chance I get.

  2. "What if I did the same thing to england?"
    Hah! Joke's on you! Davies is Welsh!

    Also just so you know, Anna-Louise Plowman is from New Zealand. Her British accent in Stargate sounds just as fake as the american in this episode.