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Posts Tagged ‘Daleks’

One of the things you become aware of as a long-term Doctor Who fan (and by long term, I mean over a period of decades) is the way that certain stories and periods from the series’ past tend to drift in and out of fashion. You can even see it, I suppose, in the way that the once-beloved Tennant-Davies stories now don’t seem to be quite as adulated as they once were, although this could be because the series currently has a lot of very noisy new followers who tend to dismiss everything they weren’t around for first time.

Nearly everything written by Eric Saward was raved about on first broadcast but is now praised with rather more qualification, while Kinda, which was pasted back in 1982, has been recognised as a rather good story for quite a long time now. The Enemy of the World turned out to be a very pleasant surprise for many people when it turned up a few years ago. The list goes on. (Of course, there are also some stories the reputation of which never seems to significantly alter: Pyramids of Mars has – duh! – never gone out of fashion, The Twin Dilemma has never come into it.)

But if you really want to talk about about the bubble reputation with respect to Doctor Who, you have to start thinking in terms of Jon Pertwee: for much of the 80s the Third Doctor seemed universally beloved, with The Daemons being voted the best story of all time at one point. Then there was a notorious reappraisal of the whole era in the early 90s, with Pertwee’s characterisation criticised as that of a hypocritical, patronising egotist. These days, the pendulum seems to have swung back the other way, with the era as a whole scoring very solidly in the last major poll, and most sensible commentators (i.e., ones who agree with me) recognising the huge debt the modern series owes to the architects of the Pertwee stories.

One beneficiary of the passage of time seems to be Day of the Daleks, a 1972 story which at one point was routinely dismissed as being not quite up to scratch, but these days seems to have been rehabilitated to the point where it’s now considered a rather impressive piece of scripting let down by a few duff creative choices. Certainly, viewed objectively, there is more good than bad going on here.

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Another of those iconic publicity photos depicting a scene that never actually appears in the story itself…

Earth in the 1970s (or possibly 1980s), and the spectre of an apocalyptic world war looms large – which, given this is early 70s Doctor Who, basically means we hear about it over the UNIT HQ intercom a few times. Devastation on an unimaginable scale seems inevitable, unless diplomat Sir Reginald Styles can bring the different parties to the negotiating table. Unfortunately, the stress seems to be getting to Styles, as he seems to be seeing ghosts in his country residence…

UNIT are called in, bringing the Doctor with them, and he rapidly concludes that the ghosts are indeed phantoms – not of the past, but the future. But the time travellers coming back are ruthless, heavily-armed guerilla soldiers, seemingly intent on murdering Styles, and in pursuit of them are the brutal, simian Ogrons. Forces in the future are determined to stop the guerillas’ mission – and at the head of those forces are the Daleks…

Day of the Daleks was, as is well-known, a Dalek-free zone in its first draft, and there were various ructions when the production team put them in without clearing it with Terry Nation first. It is true to say that the Daleks are not exactly centre-stage in Day of the Daleks, and when they are on-screen their realisation leaves quite a lot to be desired – the Dalek voices sound peculiar, and the BBC’s shortage of Dalek props becomes painfully obvious when the Daleks invade the 20th century in force during the climax and a grand total of three of them turn up. If you are a Dalek fan, this story is probably going to be a big disappointment to you (I suggest you soften the blow by watching the DVD special edition, which fixes some of the worst problems).

My suspicion is that the story’s worst failings in this respect are down to a combination of the usual production exigencies (no time, no money) and a director – Paul Bernard – who didn’t really have a handle on the material. Bernard lets some of his supporting cast get away with some extremely eccentric performances – the ‘no complications’ Ogron being only the most obvious – he obviously doesn’t quite know what a Dalek actually sounds like, his handling of some of the CSO is almost painful, and he manages to fluff the editing of more than one of the cliffhangers.

For a long time the fan consensus on Day of the Daleks was that it is a sub-par story because the Daleks aren’t in it much and the climactic battle is rather underwhelming. The latter is largely a production/budgetary issue, and the former is probably a result of the fact that the Daleks themselves were parachuted into the script to give the story another hook and a bit more punch. If you were minded to, I suppose you could blame Louis Marks for not totally reworking the story to put the Daleks at the heart of the story, but this would mean a radical change to what’s already a very solid script.

I hate to be bashing Terry Nation again, but if you compare Day of the Daleks with the two other Nation-scripted Pertwees, it’s a considerably more sophisticated piece of work – the pointless end-of-episode-one Dalek reveal is dispensed with, there are subtleties of characterisation and presentation, and underpinning it all is Doctor Who’s first and most elegant time paradox storyline. It’s not exactly an original concept, but then the programme’s always been more about repackaging literary SF ideas for a mass audience than originating its own.

I think I would rather see the Daleks taking a more peripheral – but still very significant – role in a story as interesting as this one, than being the sole raison d’etre of a tired cosmic ramble like Planet of the Daleks. Looking beyond the Daleks to the story itself reveals something which isn’t perfect, but has a lot going for it.

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You know what, two weeks in and that new arrangement of the theme tune is already beginning to be gratingly shrill: it’s almost starting to sound like how the music might have been realised back in 1963, had Verity Lambert hired the Tornadoes to do it.

I am getting ahead of myself. The most obvious thing to say about Into the Dalek is, obviously, that the plot makes more sense than that of Asylum of the Daleks: but then I would imagine that many of the home-brew stories written at home by primary-school children make more sense than Asylum of the Daleks. Beyond that, well, you can look at the story as a piece of narrative carpentry, and then on a more thematic level – and I suppose it’s a point in Into the Dalek‘s favour that the theme of the story is so completely realised, which isn’t always the case.

But first, the woodwork. Steven Moffat has been in charge of Doctor Who for a fair few years now, so I suppose that we shouldn’t be surprised if an element of repetition begins to appear: certainly there was quite a lot in this story that I felt I’d seen before. Obviously a huge amount of Dalek, but also bits and pieces from a bunch of other stories.

Is it too soon to declare the new Dalek Paradigm dead, by the way? Not a sign, not a mention of them anywhere in this story – can we have the Dalek civil war from the Experience walk-through declared canon and just say the bronze Daleks blew them all up? The use of the bronze Daleks in this story may simply have been down to the availability of prop casings, but possibly also for aesthetic reasons – I shudder to imagine how garish and plasticky the inside of the tellytubby Daleks must be.

Interesting, also, that there was no attempt to locate the Dalek menace in this story, either in terms of space or time: they finally seem to being back to their old status as a general-purpose threat to lifekind. The only real question, then, is surely why they haven’t actually conquered the universe, given this is the same breed of super-advanced Daleks that fought the Time Lords to a standstill in the Last Great Time War.

Apart from that I thought the plot was fairly decent, if a bit gimmicky: someone should tell Moffat that there’s a generation of children growing up who haven’t seen an old-school Dalek story, and he might be able to profitably lay off all the soaringly high-concept nonsense for a little while (perhaps exhibit B in favour of regime change). My main criticism was that it wasn’t really made clear what the purpose of the mission into the Dalek was – people were actually saying things like ‘this Dalek has been damaged so badly it has become good’ so it did seem strange that they were apparently intent on fixing the damage, and it also robbed one of the story’s reverses of much of its shock value.

And were we not promised that this year we would be back to standalone stories? Is Michelle Gomez going to be in every episode as the mad woman with the brolly? At least she was less of a plot device this time around. I was alarmed to come across a rumour that her character – the Mistress – is a new version of the Master, which as long-term readers will know is something I would have a deep-seated and intractable objection to, on principle. Fingers crossed good sense will prevail, or that at least there will be acceptable wriggle room.

On the whole, though, this did feel rather like a Matt Smith story, without much of the thoughtfulness or atmosphere of Deep Breath lasting very long into it: unless you count the bookending scenes with Danny Pink. Samuel Anderson is clearly a performer with screen presence, but his stuff did feel a little forced and obvious – if this is a man reduced to tears merely by remembering his experiences as a soldier, is he really psychologically capable of doing a stressful job like teaching?

Still not quite sure what to make of the new Doctor’s character. The spikier and more Scottish he is, the more I like him – but many of his scenes when alone with Clara seem to suggest that this is just a front and underneath he is really as soppy and fluffy as Matt Smith ever was. Giving a Dalek a cutesy pet name is pure eleventh Doctor – I laughed very long and hard at the suggestion from a friend of mine that the name ‘Rusty’ indicates Moffat has some sort of fixation with his predecessor as showrunner.

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Given this, it is a bit odd that the theme of the story is that the Doctor is clearly not a perfect hero, but a man with prejudices of his own, someone occasionally in thrall to his darker emotions. The irony, of course, is that a man who hates Daleks and has no time for soldiers is a good Dalek himself – as nice a reformulation of ‘fascist liberalism’ as you might wish for. Again, I thought some of this was a bit overdone, especially the Doctor’s rejection of the Zawe Ashton character – it’s almost too obvious to mention, but at least one of the Doctor’s closest friends was a career soldier, after all – but it did provide a strong thematic core to the episode.

And, as I’ve seen pointed out elsewhere, what’s the problem with hating the Daleks? The Daleks are, after all, essentially a sentient, highly technically-advanced equivalent of the ebola virus, intent on and capable of wiping out everyone in their path. This is their nature; they are anathema to everything we believe in. Maybe it’s as irrational to hate the Daleks as it is to hate a virus, but there’s nothing wrong in seeing them as a threat to be eliminated as quickly as possible. Things being as they are, I am happy to overlook the potential inconsistency in the nature of the Daleks, or at least the lack of a mention of the fact that their charming personalities are largely the result of genetic engineering, with no need for some sort of high-tech commissar within the casings themselves (which, by the way, are much hollower on the inside than I would have expected).

But anyway, on the whole another episode which I enjoyed more than I wanted to scream at. I have more or less come to the conclusion that any Steven Moffat-overseen episodes I genuinely love are going to be highly-unusual flukes rather than regular occurences, but this series is doing okay so far: I’m curious to see how they handle doing a funny one next week, but curious in a positive sort of way.

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Terry Nation is a writer who I’ve been considering writing about for ages. He remains an interesting figure; high profile (as TV scriptwriters go) and divisive – no less a figure than Stephen Fry has praised Nation’s mastery of a certain type of storytelling, while on the other hand Sue Perryman’s catchphrase (‘Terry ****ing Nation!’) more than adequately encapsulates the views of those people who find his scripts rather hard work.

I find Nation’s work to be rather exasperating: while he wrote several really important Doctor Who stories, only one of them is genuinely great, and much of the rest of the time his scripts feel like they’ve been phoned in (there’s a funny interview on one of the DVDs where Barry Letts recalls pointing out to Nation his tendency to try and sell them the same script year after year). Outside of Doctor Who, the two key Nation series are surely Survivors and Blake’s 7 – now, I like both these shows a great deal, but I also find that their quality significantly spikes once Nation himself cuts back on his creative involvement. One would be tempted to peg him as an ideas man with no real facility for actual plotting, were it not for the dearth of actual imagination in so many of the Dalek stories.

On the other hand… well, I’ve been watching Destiny of the Daleks again, Nation’s 1979 contribution and quite possibly the first thing by the writer I ever saw. On paper this looks like it should have ‘classic’ written all over it: the most iconic Doctor taking on his most iconic enemies, with a script handled by arguably the two biggest names ever to write for 20th century Doctor Who, Terry Nation and Douglas Adams.

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Having recently equipped the TARDIS with a device which can make it land somewhere entirely random at the start of each new adventure, the Doctor quite naturally finds himself on a planet he has already visited on three previous occasions: the unhappy planet Skaro, birthplace of the Daleks (though he doesn’t realise this for a bit). With his newly-regenerated companion Romana he sets about poking about on the ruined planet, intrigued by signs of drilling operations and the presence of not just a slave labour force but a starship crewed by the enigmatic Movellans. Why are all these people, not to mention the Daleks themselves, here on Skaro?

Destiny of the Daleks is not a story which enjoys a stellar reputation. I seem to recall that even Terry Nation himself was not exactly enthused by the realisation of his scripts, nor the rewrites Adams performed on them (‘Adams added a lot of silly jokes’, according to John Peel). And I suppose it’s easy to see why: the Daleks themselves are not exactly in great form, with the prop casings themselves clearly in frightfully bad nick, and Nation’s grasp of continuity (never his strong point) hits a new low. Never mind that the story seems to have forgotten that Davros’ bunker was located several miles from the old Kaled city (who knows, the Daleks may have moved the body – it certainly doesn’t look like the same place), but it pretty much explicitly states that the Daleks at this point are wholly robotic – ‘the Daleks have encountered another race of robots!’ exclaims Davros at one point (my emphasis). Quite when this final mechanisation occurred, or why Davros isn’t more surprised by it, is never addressed.

Personally I’m the sort of person who tends to treat shaky continuity as an engaging problem to be solved, rather a deadly flaw in a story. Certainly there seems to be almost a tendency in fourth Doctor stories for previously-cyborg creatures to become wholly synthetic in nature: the Cybermen are also described as ‘total machine creatures’ on their return appearance. We know from other stories that different factions of Daleks have shown a tendency to evolve in different directions (observe the biological and technical differences between the Imperial and Renegade factions a few stories down the line, not to mention the physical differences between Dalek mutants in the 20th and 21st century series), so it’s not entirely impossible that this particular group have uploaded their consciousnesses into fully robotic casings.

This does present the problem of explaining the manner of the Movellans’ ultimate victory over the Daleks, which was, we are told, based on the Movellans’ exploiting the Daleks’ biological nature by deploying a virus against them. Possibly the Daleks broke the logical impasse with the Movellans by reverting to a partially-biological state of existence, thus giving the Movellans an opening which they exploited.

Then again, the Movellans are a peculiar sort of creation in many ways. My natural instinct when it comes to one of John Peel’s elaborate Dalek-related retcons is to run a mile: his suggestion that the Movellans themselves are Dalek constructs and that this entire story is a bizarre put-up job designed to stop the real Skaro being destroyed is startling, to say the least. On the other hand, it does solve several of the hanging mysteries concerning the Movellans themselves. The Movellan civilisation is evidently quite capable of matching the Daleks when it comes to technological sophistication and ruthlessness, and yet we never hear of them outside of this particular story (the old FASA RPG makes a valiant attempt to boost them to the same level of major threat as the Daleks, Sontarans and Cybermen, but even here you can sense the writers’ hearts aren’t really in it). Even in the story itself, it’s indicated that the Movellans routinely attempt to conceal their robotic nature from others, although they’re quite happy to ‘resurrect’ dead soldiers no matter how odd this looks (and how does this work, exactly? We see no sign of the bodies of Lan and Agella being retrieved from the ruins prior to their reappearance, so are these just copies, rather like the Cylons in 21st century Battlestar Galactica?). What happens to them after they defeat the Daleks? Just who exactly are these guys, and how does their society work?

Well, it’s certainly somewhere with its own special ideas about fashion, anyway. The Movellans are interesting from a cultural viewpoint as they represent one of the very last examples of a certain kind of SF aesthetic in Doctor Who: the shiny-clean-exotic-camp look. Always more of a feature of bad pulp SF, this look was practically obliterated overnight by the appearance of the grimy-used-utilitarian aesthetic in the original Star Wars. The simple look of the Movellans is perhaps one reason why this story is not better regarded, along with (while we’re talking about bad pulp SF) such awkward plot devices as the convenient brains-on-belts idea (Sharrel’s arm also comes off improbably easily in his final struggle, too).

So the continuity is largely a mass of unanswered questions and the story itself is driven along by a collection of frequently-shaky plot devices. And yet this is still a story I have considerable affection for. Whatever the problems with the script, there’s not much wrong with the direction, particularly the steadicam work with the Daleks. And while episode one contains so many Nationisms you almost feel like flinging your arms around it and greeting it as an old friend, elsewhere in the story there are moments of genuine innovation and quality: the stand-off between the Doctor and the Daleks in episode three treats all involved with respect. The Daleks are properly ruthless and intelligent (as, for that matter, is the Doctor). And the central idea of the logical impasse is an intriguing one.

Then again, there’s always the question of how much of a Terry Nation script was actually written by Terry Nation himself. There are certainly enough stories in circulation where rueful script editors recall receiving ‘scripts’ on the backs of fag packets or envelopes and being left to expand these into a workable state while Nation zoomed off to the airport in his sportscar. The truth of this can surely be seen from looking at the four Dalek scripts with Nation’s name on them from the 1970s, for each one of them clearly bears the mark of the script editor involved: the ones overseen by Terrance Dicks are carefully plotted with solid characterisation, if not a lot of new ideas, while the script developed by Robert Holmes is morally sophisticated with a very strong villain (and, by the way, the Daleks are hardly in it). Here, with Douglas Adams as the script editor, we get a story with a very interesting central conceit, some good set pieces, but a slightly shaky grasp of plotting and continuity.

I didn’t really intend this to be a hatchet job on either Terry Nation or Destiny of the Daleks, and yet I find I have largely opted for not much more than faint praise and backhanded compliments. Perhaps this isn’t the greatest story Doctor Who ever told, and perhaps Nation’s talents as a writer were more limited than his reputation might indicate. But in their own way they are both great entertainers.

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The Semi-Obligatory When’s-It-Set Discussion

With Destiny of the Daleks we again run into the problem of the Dalek dating issue I talked about when I discussed Revelation of the Daleks, with the associated problem of the destruction of Skaro in Remembrance of the Daleks and its reappearance in the TV Movie and that silly story with the asylum. I am inclined to stick to my inclination to take on-screen events at face value: the Skaro that’s vapourised on screen is the same planet visited in this story and others, and we have to attribute its reappearance to Dalek meddling in the timelines at some subsequent point.

Given the Daleks are apparently not active in Earth’s galaxy for a millennium prior to the year 4000, and that it seems reasonable to assume that the resurrection of Davros (in this story) occurs towards the end of the Daleks’ pre-Time War history, I am going to go with the consensus on this story and suggest it occurs somewhere around the 45th century, ninety years before Resurrection of the Daleks and roughly a century or so before Revelation. If only all the associated continuity issues were so easy to resolve…

 

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I started properly reviewing old Doctor Who stories again partly because I hadn’t really done so for a long time, but also because I wanted to do something celebratory about the series in this anniversary year. That this has entailed my watching a large amount of Doctor Who is by no stretch of the imagination a burden, of course, even if for various reasons the quantity of material I’ve been able to watch from the sixth, seventh, and eighth Doctors has been rather limited.

This is not the case with the ninth Doctor. If any one era of the series contains within it a reasonable variety of stories but also lends itself to consumption within the space of a few weeks, it is that of Christopher Eccleston’s incarnation. But here we hit a bit of a problem – as I said, I’m trying to be positive and celebratory about Doctor Who, and the danger when writing about the ninth Doctor is to forget about that.

This is not because Christopher Eccleston is a weaker Doctor or his stories are somehow inferior, but for quite the opposite reason: this season, as a whole, is almost incandescently good. I’ve commented in the past on the succession of brilliant stories in, for example, Tom Baker’s third season, but to a modern viewer these are inevitably coloured by the technical limitations of TV drama 35 years ago. The Eccleston stories were made recently enough for this not to be an issue. You could transmit the 2005 season as new, right now, and it would seem as fresh and impressive as it did when it first appeared.

And so one inevitably wonders why they don’t – or, to put it another way, why the most recent seasons feel like so insubstantial and disappointing. The danger with writing about pretty much any Christopher Eccleston episode is that will inevitably turn into a false-flag hatchet job on the show as it exists under the curatorship of Steven Moffat. I like Steven Moffat, honestly, but I am still routinely baffled by how someone of his obvious talents and understanding of the show can think that getting rid of two-part stories is a good idea, and that episodes like Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and Rings of Akhaten somehow fully exploit the potential of Doctor Who. Yet I don’t want to spend my time bashing the current show any more than I just have.

So I will try and avoid that and concentrate instead on talking about how good the Eccleston season is. I suppose one must ask just how Rusty Davies and his crew managed to produce something which at the time was a hit on a stupendous scale. And the answer must be that, firstly, they set out to produce something which was both iconic Doctor Who and yet totally accessible to a new audience, and, secondly, they were terrified of failing. This last is not to be underestimated as a factor in the success of many things: the first season of any new Doctor is largely made before the new incumbent is secure in the affections of the public, and this may explain the urgency and energy most new Doctors show in their debut year before settling down into something a little more relaxed and confident.

Of course, the debut year is all we got (and all, I suspect, we will ever have) of Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor. Watching these episodes again has really made me certain that Eccleston is grossly overlooked when people – especially fans – consider the revived series. He gives a brilliant performance week after week in this season, and yet the response to the news he had declined to appear in the anniversary story was essentially a grunt and a shrug from fandom.

I think that encapsulates fandom’s Eccleston problem quite nicely. Nowadays we are used to having Doctors who not only love playing the part, but are card-carrying fans in their own right. David Tennant is one of us, so is Peter Capaldi, and Matt Smith – though obviously a member of the lost generation – has given plenty of interviews about how much he loves Tomb of the Cybermen. Eccleston, on the other hand, is obviously a Doctor Who who wasn’t especially bothered about Doctor Who; it was a job, and one where he apparently didn’t like the prevailing culture, so he was quite happy to walk away from it when the opportunity arose. His indifference to the show has resulted in much of fandom seemingly being indifferent to his contribution to the series.

This is hugely unfair. Simply in terms of the acting performance, Christopher Eccleston is a better Doctor than Matt Smith and a serious challenger to David Tennant as the best of the 21st century bunch. It may help that he has better scripts to work with, of course. Anyway – I’m supposed to be reviewing a particular episode, not overviewing the whole season, so which one? When it comes to good stories one is really spoilt for choice.

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I’m going to be a little obvious and go for Dalek, by Robert Shearman, simply because this was the episode that really and finally sold me on the revived series. To be perfectly honest I was initially a little nonplussed by the style of some of the earlier episodes, and could imagine myself being absolutely appalled by Aliens of London and World War Three had I stumbled across them unsuspecting. But Dalek was the one that made me relax and convinced me that this really was going to be something special.

The TARDIS lands in a bunker beneath Utah in the distant space year of 2012. The installation is owned by IT billionaire Henry Van Staten, who uses it to house his collection of extraterrestrial artifacts – some technological, some organic, and one living. On coming across the Doctor, he hits upon the clever idea of using him to try and persuade his live specimen to co-operate – little suspecting he is just enabling the continuation of the greatest conflict in the history of the Universe…

One should probably acknowledge Dalek‘s origin in the audio story Jubilee, a clever piece about how monsters both real and fictional are neutered through overfamiliarity. Dalek isn’t trying anything so complex in either its plot or its theme: it’s primarily about making the Daleks scary for a new generation. (Here is the bit where I would naturally bang on again about how awful Asylum of the Daleks is, which supposedly has the same intention, is by comparison, but I am restraining myself.)

And it works. Even for a new viewer, by the end of the episode you know everything you need to about the Daleks, even though only a single one of the creatures appears in the story: their psychology, their intelligence, how formidable they are in combat (subsequent stories have downplayed some of the innovations like the force-field and the rotating design). Like the rest of the season, it’s deeply informed by the history and mythos of the series but in no way beholden to or sentimental about it.

The other main job of the episode is to fill in a wodge of backstory about the Time War and the destruction of Gallifrey, most of which comes from that remarkable early scene between the Doctor and the crippled Dalek. On the whole I think the Time War works rather well as a narrative device, making a virtue of the gap between the two versions of the programme and actually giving the Doctor a bit of a character arc (and an accessible one at that). Eccleston is obviously magnificent in this scene, but so is Nick Briggs as the Dalek, managing to give that familiar rasp an urgency and pathos it has seldom had before.

Bits and piece about the Time War had been seeded into earlier episodes but this is the one where it all snaps into place and the ground rules of the modern series are established. Of course, you’re not really thinking about that at the time as the story of the Dalek’s escape and the Doctor’s increasingly desperate attempts to contain or destroy it understandably takes up your attention. That the story concludes with a cannon-toting Doctor intent on cold-bloodedly killing a Dalek which is only searching for freedom sums up everything that is innovative about the new series.

And, like many brilliant things, the danger when reviewing Dalek is that you just end up making a list of things which are good about it. As usual, it all boils down to the script, the acting, and the direction – and if we’re talking about Robert Shearman, Christopher Eccleston, and Joe Ahearne, we’re discussing three people who all knocked the ball out of the Doctor Who park their first time around, only to leave in very short order, unlikely ever to return. And, to return to my earlier point, that really is an immense shame. But it shouldn’t detract from an appreciation of just how good they were.

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The Obligatory When’s It Set Discussion

‘When’s It Set’ issues are a bit less common in the 21st century series, though quite why this should be I’m not sure. Anyway, Dalek is one of those stories giving an on-screen date of 2012, which seems simple enough.

Inevitably, though, the plot point of Van Staten believing his Dalek to be unique – and not knowing its name – is a bit problematic given the events of other stories. One can just about accept that even a man of his resources could have overlooked military records of previous Dalek incursions on Earth – I’m thinking here of Remembrance of the Daleks, set nearly 50 years earlier, and Day of the Daleks, very roughly 40 – given that he doesn’t know what the creature is called. However, his bunker must be very well-insulated indeed for him not to have noticed the swarm of Daleks over London during the Battle of Canary Wharf (occurring in 2007) and especially the Dalek Empire laying claim to the whole planet two years later.

Obviously what’s happening here is an actual example of time being rewritten (something we hear a lot about but hardly ever see on-screen): events as seen in Dalek have since been overwritten by something new as a result of the two stories mentioned. One wonders why the Daleks didn’t spring Van Staten’s prisoner in 2009, given it was emitting a distress signal – assuming they didn’t, in the revised timeline, the only major alteration to the storyline would be that Van Staten would know his pet’s real name at the start of the story.

Dalek’s spatio-temporal quirks don’t quite end there, for we also have the scene in which the Dalek reports that it can’t detect any trace of Dalek activity via the radio telescopes of 2012 Earth. One assumes they would be capable, which leads us to the question of why this should be. Certainly in the timeline of the 20th century show, there are Daleks native to the early-21st century – given they invade Earth in the mid-22nd and their origin is implied to be at least a thousand years previously, there have to be. So the Dalek should be able to listen in on the activities of its ancestors, should there be any in range.

Possibly the Dalek means it can’t detect any activity by its contemporaries, though I’m not completely sold on this. The alternatives are that the 21st-century native Daleks are operating beyond the effective range of human detectors (a comforting thought) or, more intriguingly, the entire history of the Daleks has somehow been removed from the timeline by the Daleks’ participation in the Time War.

This makes a certain kind of sense – the most obvious tactic in any kind of temporal conflict is surely to try and stop your opponent being born, and so placing your history out of harm’s way is an obvious defensive response (particularly so in the Daleks’ case, given the Time Lords made at least one attempt in this direction before the War even started). Quite how one would do this I leave as an exercise for the interested reader, of course. Doctor Who sometimes talks about the manipulation of history as a concept, but seldom really uses the idea. Dalek is one of the rare stories which – in the context of the rest of the series – gives us some inklings as to how this actually works.

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My intention throughout this series of pieces on specific Doctor Who stories has been to focus on ones that I have had a special affection for since the first time I saw them. This presents us with a particular problem when it comes to the sixth Doctor’s era, as my view of this period of the show has been through some fairly pronounced changes over the years.

The sixth Doctor and Peri have always had a particular hold on my affections as characters, simply because my family bought our first VCR shortly before season 22 started transmission, and for the first time I had the chance to preserve a Doctor Who story, effectively forever, and watch it whenever I wanted (which, of course, I did: several times a day in the case of some episodes). As a result I probably know season 22 in detail better than any other period of the series, even though for a long time I was quite happy to dismiss it as a deeply problematic, if not actually misconceived, set of stories.

You may well be able to join in with me as far as the Received Wisdom on season 22 goes: much too violent, obsessed with continuity and returning monsters, a programme losing touch with a mainstream audience and its own core values even as it becomes horribly self-absorbed…

Now, I’m not saying any of these bricks is wholly undeserved, but a recent viewing of half of this season has made me reassess it. I’ll happily admit to suspecting I probably picked the better half of the run, but even so – these are stories which have strong individual identities, decent production values, good creative work from the actors and directors, and – crucially – very sharply written scripts.

The best of the lot is Revelation of the Daleks, almost unquestionably the best story of Colin Baker’s tenure as the Doctor. The plot is, let’s be honest, peculiar – if the Mount Everest of summarising Doctor Who plots is having a go at explaining what happens in Warriors’ Gate, then giving a coherent precis of this story is still a considerable challenge in its own right.

Anyway. The Doctor and Peri arrive on Necros, apparently a planet inhabited entirely by undertakers and providers of dubious processed food. One of the Doctor’s old friends has apparently been placed in cryo here and he has come to pay his respects (and investigate). Almost at once they are attacked by a disfigured mutant, who tips them off to the fact that nastiness is afoot (a joyous fact which has entered fan lore is that the producer offered the role of the mutant to Lord Olivier, who mysteriously never replied).

For the Doctor’s old enemy Davros has insinuated himself into both the undertaking/cryo suspension and dubious processed food provision industries (as a result they now intersect in a fairly grisly manner). He is also at work running up a new breed of Dalek, although to be perfectly honest the Daleks do not get much of the spotlight on this outing. Davros, oddly, seems quite aware that everyone he works with hates him and wants him either banished or dead, but doesn’t seem to be doing a great deal about this: he’s spending most of his time manipulating the rather tragic personal lives of the desperate middle-aged people at the undertaking business…

revs

So the villain’s plan is to run an unethical business and be horrible, on a fairly small scale, to the people around him. And the role the Doctor plays in stopping this is… negligible. All the work of actually getting rid of Davros is done by various hard-bitten florists, disgraced knightly mercenaries, and another faction of Daleks loyal to the Supreme on Skaro (which has apparently been resettled in the aftermath of the Movellan War). There is the merest of suggestions that another character is planning to kill the local President and seize political control of the area, which the Doctor manages to prevent by radioing him and telling him to clear off, but this is really the limit of the name character’s impact on the story (the Doctor and Peri’s limited involvement in the first episode was apparently done so the performers would be free to honour their pantomime commitments at Christmas 1984, but one still has to wonder what the production team’s priorities were). There are a few other plot incoherencies going on here too.*

By modern standards, it is, of course, savagely violent and viscerally grotesque: one character is knifed to death, another is stabbed by a spurned lover, various dismemberments occur on-screen, and there is the repulsive sight of the mutated Stengos within a transparent Dalek casing. The second half of the story is another Sawardian bloodbath with virtually every guest character meeting a violent demise – frequently for no reason which really stands up in the context of the plot. Coupled to this is a level of black and often knowing humour almost unprecedented within the series (for example, the double entendre-laden scene where the regulars climb over the wall), and an oddly jaded maturity – characters like Orcini, Jobel, and Tasambeker are all defined by their foibles and their regrets – the final scene between Jobel and Tasambeker is full of an aching pathos almost unknown in Doctor Who.

And as a result one has to wonder who this story is really aimed at. This would be a post-watershed programme if made now – if it were made at all in this form. It is surely no-one’s idea of family entertainment, for all that it was originally shown late on a Saturday afternoon. There is no clear storyline to follow (at least, not one that isn’t wrapped up in existing Dalek continuity) and the main character is, as discussed, sidelined for much of the story.

And yet, this is in many ways a smartly made, highly intelligent piece of TV, and one containing some quintessential Doctor Who moments: horrible though it is, the scene with Stengos pleading for his daughter to kill him from within the Dalek can hold its place against nearly any other you care to mention (the recent re-do of it at the climax of Asylum of the Daleks is a wan little thing by comparison). Students of the weird world of Dalek characterisation will note that the Daleks from Skaro show no interest whatsoever in killing the inhabitants of Necros unless they get in their way.

The story has something of the TV literacy of the same year’s Vengeance on Varos, with the DJ apparently watching other scenes from the story on his monitor and various characters treating the actual cameras recording the action as CCTV cameras. It’s unfortunate that this kind of sophistication in the storytelling went so hand in hand with the darkness of the tales themselves, because the BBC edict to remove the latter from season 23 seems to have resulted in most of the former going too (unless you count the fact that the Doctor himself spends most of the following series watching the stories along with the audience).

This is a great story in many ways: polished production values, memorable dialogue, brilliant direction, great characters, solid performances. But it’s also horribly flawed in others: the actual plot is oblique and baffling, and much of the content is deeply inappropriate for the timeslot this story initially aired in. I once described this story as being qualitatively and quantitatively different from the rest of season 22 to a massive degree: but I would say now that this is not quite the case. Its strengths and weaknesses are those of its time – it’s just that the strengths are writ particularly large, to the extent that they mostly muffle the flaws (at first glance, at least). Massive potential going inexplicably awry: I would say that’s as good a description of the sixth Doctor’s era as any, and this is the story that best shows just how good it could have been.

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*The Obligatory When’s-It-Set Discussion

There are no dates given on screen or even really hinted at – the general tone of the galactic civilisation is rather like that of The Caves of Androzani, and the two stories could be contemporaneous – not that placing Caves is particularly straightforward. Placing this story can really only be done as part of a larger Dalek chronology, as it obviously follows Resurrection of the Daleks and, from the Daleks’ point of view, precedes Remembrance of the Daleks – it’s a question of where you place these stories in relation to others like Evil of the Daleks (on-screen evidence appears to demand Evil precedes them) and The Daleks’ Master Plan (set around 4000).

There is a slight oddity in that both Davros and the Daleks are clearly extremely well-known at this point in history – Davros is a notorious villain who doesn’t like having his name bandied about in public, and whom Orcini and Bostock get very excited about potentially killing, while the fact that there are Daleks on Necros is apparently a good enough reason to make the President turn his ship around and clear off, and so on – and yet no-one working at Tranquil Repose seems particularly surprised or concerned that Davros and his Daleks are effectively on the payroll there too, nor are they making any effort to keep out of sight (there are Daleks patrolling the grounds, for example). Possibly Tranquil Repose is simply even more spectacularly corrupt than the story suggests.

Not having attempted an in-depth Dalek history for many a year, my own inclination is to set this in a very distant, post-4000 future. My inclination is to take the destruction of Skaro as shown in Remembrance at face value, which would put this story towards the end of the Daleks’ original, pre-Time War history – certainly after Evil, for example.

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sugar puffs

This post brought to you in association with Sugar Puffs.

I am in the fortunate position of knowing exactly which Peter Cushing film was my first, mainly because it’s the very first film I remember being taken to see at the cinema: it was, of course, the original Star Wars, in which our hero makes a relatively small but nevertheless potent appearance as co-villain Tarkin. The funny thing is that these days I don’t really think of Star Wars as a Peter Cushing movie, mainly because I was aware of it long before I came to appreciate Cushing as a performer.

The same is really true of the second Cushing movie I remember seeing, again at a very young age. This is another example of Peter Cushing lending his considerable powers to a wider pop-cultural phenomenon, and one which has a very special place in my affections. The movie is, of course, Gordon Flemyng’s Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150AD, from 1966. It’s Peter Cushing! It’s Doctor Who! What other movie was I possibly going to review on this, the centenary of Cushing’s birth?

daleks_invasion_earth_poster_01

Recent years have been kind to the standing of the two very-nearly-Amicus movies within the wider world of Doctor Who, with various design elements from the films finding their way into the 21st century version of the show, and – I think – people being a bit more prepared to just relax and enjoy them on their own merits. For a long time, though, they definitely seemed to be frowned upon, if not actually reviled, for the heinous crime of conflicting with the canon of the TV show.

Well, they do, there’s no denying it: Peter Cushing is playing someone actually called Dr Who, and this isn’t exactly an adaptation of the original Dalek Invasion of Earth TV story, either. However, much to my amazement, I recently came across something purporting to be an interview with Cushing from the 70s, in which he proposes his own theory explaining how these movies could still be in continuity with the television series: the Celestial Toymaker turned the Doctor into a human called Doctor Who, and… well, anyway. If this is genuine (which I still doubt), it reveals a depth of knowledge of Doctor Who and interest in its continuity which resonates deeply with me. Mr Cushing, sir: as an actor you have thrilled and entertained me. As a writer and a decent human being you have inspired me. But it’s as a continuity cop that you really take my breath away.

But on with the movie. Whatever the faults of this film, and there are a few, the pre-credits sequence is perfectly crafted: Special Constable Tom Campbell (Bernard Cribbins) stumbles upon a burglary in progress and is roughed up by one of the thieves as they make their escape. Dazed, and attempting to summon assistance, Tom stumbles into what looks like an ordinary Police Box…

Well, inside he find the gadget-ridden interior of a time machine belonging to Dr Who (Cushing), who is just setting off on a trip to London in the year 2150 (Dr Who can apparently steer his version of the TARDIS, which his TV counterpart was still many years away from in 1966), taking his grand-daughter (Roberta Tovey) and niece (Jill Curzon) with him. However, the London of 2150 is in a right old state – everything has been demolished, except the matte paintings of famous landmarks and the billboards advertising a popular brand of breakfast cereal.

It transpires this is because the planet is now under the management of the universe’s most notorious mobility-challenged aliens, who have used an evil confluence of phone cubicles and hair driers to convert Earthmen into their PVC-clad slaves, the better to pursue their plan to extract the metallic core of the Earth (located just under Luton, apparently). Naturally Dr Who and his friends join up with the local resistance (principally Andrew Keir and Ray Brooks) to put a stop to this.

There’s no getting around this: there is an awful lot in Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150AD that’s practically crying out to be mercilessly mocked. The costume designs are frankly disastrous (the options are either 50s working class chic or head-to-toe PVC), the up-tempo jazz soundtrack borders on the inappropriate, there’s the whole issue of the product placement, there’s the question of how the Daleks managed to conquer the world when their ray guns appear to have an effective range of about fifteen feet, and so on.

In short, it’s all very, very camp, and outside the context of the wider TV series it comes across as silly, bordering on the outright ridiculous. Certainly, when compared to the TV version of this story, all the grimness and sharp edges of the story have vanished, its occasionally-nightmarish atmosphere completely dispelled. The much higher production values of the movie don’t really work in the story’s favour, much reducing its rawness and darkness.

Having said all that… this movie is still a tremendous amount of fun. The Daleks look fabulous, better than they ever did on TV until the 80s at least, and there’s Peter Cushing giving us his take on the Doctor, too. Given that Cushing took the role partly because he wanted to shake off his image as the horror man (shades of William Hartnell!), it’s not really surprising that his performance here is much more mannered than usual: he’s putting on a rather affected voice and acting older (he was 52 when this film was made). I’ve heard his Doctor described as a doddery old gent, but if so he’s no worse than the first Doctor of the TV show. There’s steel here, too, when it’s called for, and also a very charming mercuriality that Hartnell himself could never quite manage.

Even when the film is being monumentally silly, it still entertains. Bernard Cribbins plays most of it fairly straight, but he does get the chance to participate in the awesome food machine sequence. Andrew Keir (who played a surrogate Cushing for Hammer a couple of times, as well as a brilliant Quatermass) appears to think he’s in a serious drama, but still doesn’t come across as ridiculous for doing so.

And it is still fundamentally classic Doctor Who in terms of its imagery, its structure and its plot: there is good versus evil, the merest dash of moral ambiguity, the triumph of wisdom over brute force, and an overwhelming faith in the power of kindness, decency and silliness as a defence against the horrors of the world. I’ll buy that and call it Doctor Who, any day of the week. Peter Cushing was apparently always grateful to have been involved with the world of Doctor Who, even in such a peripheral way. I hope we have finally reached a point where everyone who cares about Doctor Who can be proud of – and indeed celebrate – the fact that we can count an actor as great as Peter Cushing amongst our Doctors.

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It would be misleading to suggest that the original producers of Doctor Who did not intend to make any Dalek stories other than the first one. The original producers of Doctor Who did not intend to make any Dalek stories at all, and only ended up using Terry Nation’s original scripts because there was literally nothing else available to fill that particular slot. This did not sit well with Doctor Who‘s godfather, Sydney Newman, one of whose founding principles was ‘No bug-eyed monsters’.

However, to be fair to Nation, on their first appearance the Daleks are hardly that: these are not really the familiar liquidate-all-opposition space conquerors, but an alien race specifically written to suit the particular story the writer had in mind. It’s still not particularly well-known that in the very first script outline for the story which will forever be known to us as The Daleks, The Dead Planet, The Mutants, Dr Who and the Daleks and/or Doctor Who In An Exciting Adventure With The Daleks, the Daleks are not an immutable force for evil who are soundly defeated in the final episode.

The original scripts make the point that neither the Daleks or the Thals are entirely sure who started the war that devastated Skaro all those years ago, and in the final episode the mystery is solved: a third group of aliens appear and reveal it was all their fault – sorry! The Daleks and Thals resolve to live in peace and rebuild the planet.

Would Doctor Who have lasted half a century if the scripts for The Masters of Luxor not fallen through and The Dead Planet gone unmade? Would it still be here if Nation’s original outline had made it to the screen intact? (I seem to recall that it was only the paucity of the budget, which wouldn’t run to a third set of aliens, that forced Nation to rewrite his ideas.) Well, Doctor Who isn’t here now solely because of the popularity of the Daleks, but I strongly doubt it would have made it through its first six years without the rocket boost of Dalekmania and the associated media attention.

And things were never the same again.

And things were never the same again.

A final-act redemption of the Daleks (how long before a story called Redemption of the Daleks actually hits our screens? It couldn’t be any worse than Asylum of the Daleks) would be almost impossible to pull off in any other story, but in The Dead Planet you can just about imagine it working: if these Daleks are intent upon killing everyone else in the story, it’s because they are in a literally them-or-us situation. These Daleks are dependent on a heavily irradiated environment to survive, something which is toxic to the Thals and the other characters. For the first part of the story, at least, it’s surely easier to identify with the Daleks, who are doing their damnedest to stay alive, no matter what, than the Thals, who seem quite prepared to roll over and die rather than breach their own principles. Sure, a few Thals get exterminated along the way, but this should by no means rule out an eventual rapprochement – there are other equally implausible accounts of warring parties putting hostilities behind them with improbable speed elsewhere in Doctor Who.

In short, the Daleks of The Dead Planet are fundamentally different creatures from the ones we are familiar with today. There’s no real sign of the over-riding Dalek imperative to kill all other life on sight, and they are physically very different too: limited in their mobility by the need for an external power supply, and dependent on a radiation-saturated environment for their survival. Neither of these latter things is ever the case again, although there is a sort of hand-wave concerning the former in their next appearance. Simply from a continuity cop’s point of view, it is very difficult to explain exactly why these Daleks should be so unique – the Doctor later suggests that these are members of some sort of degenerate, relict population in the distant future, but Planet of the Daleks appears to indicate it is set considerably before the mid-26th century, as the events of the story have become Thal legend by this point. This is only compounded by the origin story given for the Daleks on their first appearance, which involves a war lasting a single day and a neutron bomb attack. The Daleks’ on-screen origin story, when it arrives 12 years later, actually features a thousand-year war and a distronic missile attack (whatever one of those is). For a long time it was customary to assume that everyone on Skaro is just very bad at history, and the two wars and attacks are the same – but given the conundrum of the physical distinctness of the Dead Planet Daleks, continuity-wise it really does look like two separate groups of Daleks originated on the same planet, sharing only the same basic appearance.

But what an appearance. It’s an odd fact that any Dalek story, no matter how plodding or repetitive or silly, is somehow lifted when the Daleks themselves are on screen and in action. Both the design and the voice are arresting and compelling, and it is very obvious why the makers of the series chose to bring them back in late 1964 for The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Having said that, it’s pretty much just the design and the voice that get brought back, because nearly everything else about the creatures has been tweaked, wholly rewritten, or invented from scratch to suit the story.

Rather than crippled survivors of an apocalyptic war on a devastated planet, the Daleks of this appearance are much more recognisably the ambitious would-be universal overlords with whom we have become so familiar: they are much more mobile (there’s a small-but-sufficient explanation given for this), appear to have no particular environmental requirements, and are clearly extremely capable technicians and engineers. Is this, then, our first sighting of the True Dalek characterisation?

Well – I would argue not. There’s a brief but illuminating bit of dialogue which is often overlooked, wherein the Doctor and his soon-to-be grandson-in-law discuss just why the Daleks have conquered Earth. According to the Doctor, the existence of humanity is a matter of supreme indifference to the Daleks – man is a work machine to be exploited, nothing more, and one they would ignore if it weren’t necessary to their plan. This does not sound very much like the Dalek characterisation we are familiar with today – modern Daleks don’t seem to be supremely indifferent to anything, except possibly the quality of the scripts they appear in, and the series makes a point of showing them going out of their way to terrorise and kill innocent life-forms. One is of course inclined to wonder just where the Doctor’s getting his insights into the Dalek mind from, but nothing on-screen in the story contradicts his analysis. No explanation is given as to why the Daleks want to spread their presence throughout the universe, either.

The Chase gets round the problem of explaining the motivation of the Daleks (another possible future story in the offing: ‘Now on BBC3, it’s Motivation of the Daleks, and terror ensues as the evil pepper-pots capture Constantin Stanislavski and force him to give them acting lessons’) by being a revenge-oriented plot, albeit one that does interesting (I am being very charitable) things with the concept of the Daleks as a diverse race – so we get such experiments as a stupid Dalek, and a speech-impedimented Dalek. The Daleks’ Master Plan puts them back in the position of space conquerors again, this time willingly teaming up with a bunch of other aliens to take on Earth and the rest of the Solar System. Once again, the story is in no way interested in why the Daleks are behaving as they do, or how their culture functions – it just trusts to the reliable magic of the Dalek design to hang together.

However, Dalek characterisation takes a quantum leap forward in The Power of the Daleks, which I recently wrote about at some length. This is a story in which characters interact with the Daleks on a number of levels, rather than simply running away or hiding from them, and it genuinely seems interested in the idea of what it means to be a Dalek and how they view the rest of the universe – it’s here, for the first time, and not in a Terry Nation script, that we get the first proper glimpse of the Dalek characterisation that has since become so dominant – while rabid xenophobia had been part of the Daleks’ psychological make-up from The Dead Planet onward, here it is coupled to the pathological homicidal mania that gets its most powerful expression in the ‘Law of the Daleks’ and ‘Daleks conquer and destroy’ sequences.

The standard stays high for Evil of the Daleks, even though this is a story I’m rather less impressed with – again, this is a story about the essential natures of things (specifically Humans and Daleks) and what it is that makes them different. Whitaker’s treatment of this idea is just a bit too allegorical-fantastical for me, and the story makes a few too many demands of the audience’s credulity, but it does introduce a concept which has echoed down through the series for much of the intervening period – that of the Daleks at war with themselves. For a race which (the standard characterisation tells us) is fundamentally driven by hatred, it always feels oddly appropriate to have that hate turn in upon itself and destroy them. I’m still not sure this story would live up to its legend if it were found, though.

Five years on and we find ourselves in the wilderness years of the Daleks – the magic and specialness of their sixties heyday over, they appear in a number of bland and repetitive stories with the third Doctor. Probably the most interesting of these is the first, Day of the Daleks, which at least does novel things with the notion of time travel and the ethics of terrorism. Unfortunately these are the two elements of the story which involve the Daleks least. The makers of the story have admitted the Daleks are just there as a big hook for the audience, and narratively it’s not especially about them – any old alien invader or authoritarian bloc could be swapped in for them and it would not make very much difference. The other two stories are both generic B-movie SF tales, but it appears that Terry Nation did perceive the need to come up with some kind of gimmick to make the Daleks fresh – invisible Daleks in Planet of the Daleks and disarmed Daleks in Death to the Daleks. However, on both occasions the gimmick is briefly toyed with but rapidly abandoned in favour of more of the same old stuff in sandpits and corridors – the Daleks as an unquestionably malign force whose motives, methods, and morality are so simplistic as to need no explanation. (Although, for our purposes here, it’s interesting that in Death to the Daleks the Daleks have infected the galaxy with a lethal plague, not to wipe out the other races as you might expect, but to give them some leverage over them and force them to comply with the Daleks’ demands – but we never find out what these are.)

Given the relative sophistication of the treatment of morality in the third Doctor’s era, it’s not surprising that the old-school villainy of the Daleks makes for some of the least interesting stories of this period, nor that the makers of the show were reluctant to keep using them. In 1975’s Genesis of the Daleks we finally get another properly intelligent and thoughtful look at them, and if the price of that is a story in which the Daleks themselves barely make an appearance, it’s surely worth paying in the long run. Here the elements of the classic Dalek characterisation finally get articulated as a cohesive whole, not to mention explained – the progeny of a madman, himself mutilated by a devastating race-war, the Daleks are depicted as being genetically programmed to have a fundamental belief in their own supremacy – the desire to wipe out all other forms of life seems a logical consequence of this. Genesis‘ morality is complex and ambiguous, however, extending beyond this – despite the Time Lords having predicted the ultimate triumph of the Daleks, the Doctor famously rejects the option of destroying them in their infancy on ethical grounds, while elsewhere the story makes no bones about how successful Davros is as a strategist – the Doctor and his friends can do nothing to impede his plans beyond destroying a single tape (and this is a subplot, anyway), it’s Davros’ own overreaching ambition that results in his ultimate downfall.

The series’ treatment of the Daleks after 1975 is interesting. There seems to have been no legal reason for the creatures to be unavailable to appear in stories, as was the case for several years following 1967, yet four years pass between Genesis of the Daleks and Destiny of the Daleks, and another four between Destiny and their next proper outing in Resurrection of the Daleks (we appear to have reached the point at which story titles have crossed the line from portentousness into actual absurdity) – although, inevitably, they were initially scheduled to appear in the closing story of season 20 a year earlier. Terry Nation was actively talked out of contributing a second Dalek story in 1975, eventually submitting The Android Invasion instead (and I’m tempted to say that, without the brilliance of other people’s Dalek designs to grab the attention, it’s The Keys of Marinus and The Android Invasion that give the fairest impression of the general standard of Terry Nation’s scripting for Doctor Who). It’s tempting to draw the conclusion that the makers of the series had concluded that there were no especially interesting stories left to tell using the Daleks, and they were only rolled out when a producer felt the need for a comforting hit of publicity. Even then, the stories are always about Davros rather than the Daleks.

It’s not really surprising that the series should return to Davros time after time in subsequent stories – he gives the Daleks a voice and a face, and allows the Doctor to engage with their philosophy on a deeper and more narratively interesting level. The ongoing story of the Dalek civil war instigated by Davros also serves as a useful hook to hang the various stories on, although Destiny of the Daleks has the interesting concept of the computer stalemate between the Daleks and the Movellans. (Here again Nation appears to either have forgotten the original nature of the Daleks or be attempting to casually revise it: there’s virtually nothing in the broadcast version of Destiny to indicate the Daleks aren’t a totally robotic race.) Ultimately, though, we’re left with a situation where the Daleks are routinely a support act for someone else, with accordingly limited screen-time, or more interested in killing each other rather than threatening anyone the audience might care about. The best of the post-1975 stories, to my mind, is Remembrance of the Daleks (possibly a candidate for most-misspelled story title in the original run), which at least explicitly addresses the standard conception of the Daleks as Nazi-analogues (through their alliance with a group of Fascist humans, for example).

As I’ve said before, the real change in emphasis between the original run of the series and the one starting in 2005 is that one is a plot-oriented undertaking and the other is character-oriented, and one would expect that the presentation of the Daleks might benefit from this. The 21st century series’ approach of assimilating the original series and producing a synthesis of the best of it seems to have been in effect, and the Daleks benefit from this – their characterisation is both deeper and more broadly consistent than in most of their earlier appearances. Bearing in mind my suggestion that the basic Dalek casing design is essentially the only real constant across their many stories, it’s interesting that the meeting of creative types to discuss the revamp of the creatures (apparently known as ‘Resemblance of the Daleks’, according to Rusty Davies) rapidly concluded that there really wasn’t very much to be done beyond reinventing the wheel.

Most of these 21st century stories do adhere to the ‘classic’ characterisation of the Daleks as pathologically homicidal where other races are concerned, and driven to kill members of their own species (even themselves) should they become contaminated with alien genetic material. The Parting of the Ways, though it ducks this issue a tiny bit, interestingly has a go at conflating the Daleks with religious fundamentalists, which actually works quite well as a concept – the Daleks were turning themselves into suicide bombers as far back as Destiny of the Daleks, so it’s not a completely new idea.

Another novelty: mix 'n' match Daleks.

Another novelty: mix ‘n’ match Daleks.

One of the characteristics of Moffat era Doctor Who is its willingness to tinker with the established format and structure of the show, and comment on things which previous regimes wouldn’t really have engaged with. In this vein, Victory of the Daleks isn’t the first time a new Dalek design has been introduced (leaving aside colour variants and one-off individuals, there have been at least five previous Dalek designs), but it’s the first time the revamp has been addressed in the actual story itself – in fact, the story is largely about the revamp. Quite why the new Daleks are so reviled by many fans is a bit of a moot point (for me it’s a combination of the garish colour scheme and the distortion of the traditional Dalek silhouette), but at least their personalities seem to have remained unchanged.

There’s another departure in Asylum of the Daleks when more than one model of Dalek casing appears on screen, with designs from across the history of the series appearing (if you squint at the background, anyway). Possibly this is intended to indicate the Daleks are a diverse culture where groups with different levels of technology work in concert – but this does go rather against the generally monolithic and conformist nature of the classic characterisation.

The true nature of Dalek society and culture is, perhaps sadly, something the TV show has never really concerned itself with – we don’t even really know where little Daleks come from. Are they a clone species like the Sontarans? Are the Daleks still in fact a gendered race? Do they occasionally slip out of those uncomfortable casings for a little intimate time together? (Asylum of the Daleks presents us with the somewhat-awkward revelation that the Daleks occasionally ‘convert’ humans if they have useful skills, something which is hard to reconcile with the standard xenophobic characterisation, but then if you made a list of all the things in Asylum that are hard to make sense of…)

Culturally, the Daleks of the original story still have sculptures in their city, but apart from this they are presented as a supremely utilitarian race. Just assuming they had won the Last Great Time War and gone on to eradicate all other life forms in the universe, what would they have done then? Freed from the pathological fear and hatred which (it seems a fair guess) has motivated most of their actions, what direction would their civilisation follow? Gareth Roberts, in his novel I Am A Dalek, actually has someone ask a Dalek this question, and the answer is that they would devote themselves to art and science and philosophy (which is apparently all they really want to do anyway). It’s a curious concept and one you could imagine them getting a story out of, somehow.

On the other hand, stories exploring the nature of Dalek culture and society could prove problematic – fundamentally, the Daleks aren’t an alien race to be examined, but monsters whose job is to be a threat and scare the audience. One of the brilliant things about the Daleks – perhaps the single most brilliant thing about them – is the fact that they are so visually and verbally iconic, unmistakable as anything else, and this iconic status means not only that we don’t actually need to know very much about their background as a species for them to work as an adversary, but that their goals and methodology and – occasionally – their very nature can radically shift from story to story without it impinging too much on the audience’s attention. It is the very weakness of the Daleks’ characterisation that makes them such a brilliant all-purpose recurring monster and the undisputed leaders of the Doctor Who adversary pack.

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