Dalek makes the iconic, oft-ridiculed Doctor Who enemy credible and sinister once again
Starring Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper
In a world in which Doctor Who has been back on screens for longer than it was off, it’s hard to conceive of the record-breaking show as being anything other than a televisual mainstay. Yet, with many episodes of Series 1, one can really sense the fighting spirit with which it was produced, determined to prove its continued legitimacy despite the much-parodied state that the series had become by the time it was cancelled in 1989.
Retrospectively, holding back the Daleks until the midpoint of the series was both a stroke of genius and also a testament to the controlled, self restraint that Davies crafted this first collection of episodes with. The Daleks are as much a part of the show’s DNA as the TARDIS is. Appearing in only the second serial, the Daleks were Doctor Who‘s first returning monster, appearing in 3 follow-up stories with William Hartnell’s Doctor alone and spawning “Dalekmania” across the United Kingdom in the 1960s. Eventually becoming mere pawns for their master, Davros, the intimidation of the Daleks was soon undercut by the many ways that the Doctor defeated them, their cries of “Exterminate” being used as much for ridicule as they were the chilling Nazi-infused words that creator Terry Nation had intended. Each time the Daleks came back, they brought with them yet another extreme scheme for Dalek domination as fanciful as the last.
Truthfully, the overuse of the Daleks is actually far more of a New Series problem than it ever was in the Classic Series, with the Classic Series using the foes far more sparingly (though with far fewer stories per series) compared to the modern showrunners, who tend to show self-restraint if they even have one series without a Dalek tale.
This story, written by Robert Shearman, successfully returns the Daleks to their original, intimidating state and makes them a worthy foe for the Doctor once more. The way that it does this is quite simple – by just seeing the tremendous danger of a singular Dalek.
“Dalek” sees the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and Rose (Billie Piper) arrive in an underground bunker in the near future of 2012, in which millionaire Henry van Statten (Corey Johnson) collects alien artefacts (such as the arm of a Slitheen and the head of a Cyberman). Contained deep within his collection, however, is one living specimen: a Dalek.
While the plot has remained as remarkably secondary to the development of our characters, this episode is truly driven by the momentum of the plot. It is also wonderfully accessible both to Doctor Who fans-of-old and newcomers alike. More seasoned viewers will be more sympathetic to the Doctor’s outrage and hatred towards the contained Dalek, doubtless able to predict the onslaught that will come as an almost inevitability just by virtue of a Dalek being within the underground base. Even these viewers, however, will be able to sympathise with Rose’s point of view.
Rose, and new viewers, do not see the killing machine that the Dalek has become synonymous with, instead a weakened, battered, abused creature, in chains and in pain. As it turns out, this is merely one part of the Dalek’s plan, and here demonstrates it is not only ruthless, but also cunning in its ability to manipulate both Rose and the Doctor to achieve its own goals.
Shearman makes the Dalek sinister here in several ways. Firstly, there is the merciless way that the Dalek mows down the workers and scientists that it comes across, entirely single minded in its brutal, murderous pursuit. Its voice is cold and unfeeling, as its gun instantly kills those around it. Not only that, but the Doctor is powerless against it, restricted to just sitting in a room pressing buttons in the feeble hope that they will be able to contain the creature.
The Doctor’s reaction is a further way that audiences know that the Dalek is something to be feared. Entirely uncharacteristically, the Doctor shows no mercy or clemency towards the captive, immediately descending into rage. It’s an emotion that the audience have not seen on this Doctor before, but it is clear the fear that he holds towards the Daleks and the hate and anger that he still harbours towards the Time War, which the audience are finally given some clues about. The Doctor’s tremendous pain shows viewers that the Daleks are an enemy, but it also makes a point about the lengths to which the Doctor should go to. Indeed, he never quite goes to the murderous place that Rose sees him here. Even in “Journey’s End”, when she bids goodbye to David Tennant’s Doctor, he acknowledges how she helped him in his war-battered state. The Doctor almost forgets himself here, and the Dalek’s drawled “You would make a good Dalek” and the way that Rose looks at him almost as if she does not recognise him is testament to just how angry and embittered he has become at his never-ending, destructive conflict with the Daleks.
Overall, “Dalek” continues to be not just a standout episode of Doctor Who‘s first series, but of the show as a whole. It returns the Daleks to their high standing within the series as a formidable, credible foe, and manages to do so by exploring the actions of just one. By debunking all of the expectations that have been put on the Daleks’ potential weaknesses, Shearman demonstrates this cold, unfeeling machine is just as sinister as it was when it debuted in 1963. At the same time, the audience get an uncomfortable look at the extreme lengths that these monsters push the Doctor to, as well as seeing the incredible the connection that Rose and the Doctor share, such that she is able to humanise him.