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Tuesday, May 03, 2005
Doctor Who: Dalek
By Rob Shearman
Directed by Joe Ahearne

Doctor Who fans will argue until the end of time which of the gallery of rogues, villains and monsters in the second greatest adversary the Doctor has faced in his 27 seasons on television. But make no mistake—there is just one monster that over the years can generate a level of excitement, anticipation and make all of our geeky hearts skip a beat when we hear the name mentioned.

Daleks

I will admit when I first heard Doctor Who was coming back, I was excited but a bit disappointed that, at the time, the series couldn’t retain the rights to use the Doctor’s most popular adversaries in the new show. Finally, the news broke that the owner of the Dalek copyright had relented, thus paving the way for the metal monsters to return to the small screen. And I admit—as absolutely pumped, excited and twittering with anticipation as I was about the new series and the first episode, the prospect of the sixth episode was on that sent me into orbit with anticipation.

It was the sixth episode that would feature the return of the Daleks in all their glory.

I have to admit, this tidbit along with the preview from last week had me doing cartwheels. See, it was the original Dalek story back in the 60s that saw Doctor Who come into its own. It was the Daleks who saved the show, made it a pop culture icon and ensured it had the long run that I enjoyed so much. And while I’ve been pleased with the new series so far (even after last week’s disappointment with “World War III”), I still felt as if the series was finding itself and hadn’t really come into its own.

This week, the new Doctor Who came into its own with “Dalek.”

For 45 minutes, I was on the edge of my seat, totally immersed in what was happening, loving every second of what we saw on screen. I’ve not been this blissfully into a new Doctor Who story since the first time I saw “Curse of Fenric.”

For all the anticipation I had coming into “Dalek” part of me was prepared to be disappointed. To not like the show.

I shouldn’t have worried.

“Dalek” not only met every expectation I had, it blew away my pre-conceived notions of how good the new Doctor Who can and should be. It’s set a new standard for excellence for this show and it’s rocketed into my top ten of all-time great Doctor Who stories, among the likes of “Curse of Fenric” and “The Caves of Androzani.”

Yes, it was just that good.

Why?

Robert Shearman. I first became aware of Shearman when a friend gave me a copy of his audio story “The Chimes of Midnight” and said I had to listen to it. I did and was suitably impressed. Shearman had a great grasp of just what made Doctor Who, Doctor Who. But he also knew how to combine the past strengths of the show with the current conventions to tell some great stories. I feared he’d be a one hit wonder, but as I heard more from him, I liked more and more what I heard.

When I heard he was writing for the new series, I was delighted. When I heard he was doing the Dalek story, I was even more delighted. If there was one person who could pay homage to the past while bringing the Daleks into the modern age, it was Shearman. And he did.

The Daleks are back to their old manipulative selves. If anything, this story felt like a modern retelling of the two Troughton Dalek stories. In those, we saw the Daleks as manipulative and treacherous. They weren’t just evil killing machines running about shouting “Exterminate!” and killing everything in sight. They were cunning, ruthless and would do whatever it took to win the day. And we got that here with the Dalek that is held by Jason Van Statten in his underground bunker. Watching the Dalek manipulate Rose by playing on her sympathy for it in order to regain its strength was great. Then after it’s escaped and has Rose in its sight, the Dalek allows the Doctor to think she’s been killed in order to manipulate him into allowing it to go free when it holds her prisoner. (The taunting of him for caring about Rose was a great moment).

Also, along the lines of the classic 60s story “The Evil of the Daleks” we see the Dalek become infected by the human factor and begin to act out of character. The new found emotions it finds are in conflict with its main programming of seek, locate and destroy all life forms that are different. And in the end, the Dalek is forced to destroy itself because it’s become less genetically pure due to using Rose’s DNA to reactive itself. Stunning all of it.

As a Who fan, it’s hard to think of feeling any sympathy for a Dalek. Or to even understand it a bit more. But yet Shearman’s script pulls it off with style to spare. We come to see the Dalek not just as a killing machine but we also understand why it does what it does. We don’t forgive it, but in the end, we understand the choice that must be made.

And yet in all of this, Shearman avoids the de-fanging of the Daleks too much. I was worried that we might get an “I, Borg” like story in which the audience is made to feel a lot of sympathy for a previously heartless, ruthless monster that was presented on screens. And while we did understand a bit more about what makes a Dalek a Dalek, I didn’t ever feel like Shearman was trying to make them cute, cuddly and better understood. Yes, it was sad when the Dalek was destroyed, but because of the fact that it felt it had to destroy itself for being unpure. The conflict within it was great—from a brutal killing machine to one that realizes it is the last of its race and the universe just might be better off without it. That all resonated and worked well.

And visually, it was nice to see the new modern Daleks get to be full 360 action mode, go up stairs and open the hatch to reveal the mutant inside. This is exactly the right way to take advantage of the new modern effects.

All that alone would have been almost enough. But there was more.

Just as the series comes into its own, Christopher Eccleston comes into his own as the Doctor in this story. He’s been good up to this point, but he kicks it into a whole near gear here. When the Doctor first encounters the Dalek in the bunker, we see terror and fear in him. This is countered moments later when the Dalek reveals it has no power to weapons, leading to the Doctor taunting it, teasing it and berating it. Over the course of the episode, we see the Doctor run the gamut from being grilled by Van Statten for information on the Dalek to his anger and hatred at the Dalek, as well as his insistence that it must be destroyed. The scene with the Doctor and the Dalek trading barbs that ends with the Dalek saying the Doctor would make a good Dalek was chilling.

It also brings up the question? Has the Doctor become little better than his greatest enemies? Has he walked too far on the dark side and now become what he so long fought to stop?

We get some confirmation of a lot of things. The Time War was fought by the Time Lords and the Daleks. Both sides are now gone. The Doctor was somehow responsible for this. We know from “Remembrance of the Dalek” that the Doctor destroyed Skaro. (Thankfully we don’t have to deal with the retcon of John Peel here…I can blissfully pretend it never happened!) And we get the confirmation that the Doctor is the last of the Time Lords. (Though you have to wonder if the Master is still skulking about the universe and if he’d count as a Time Lord any more between his stealing the source of Traken to keep alive and his encounter with the Cheetah people.)

All of the show worked. Every last second of it. I was hooked, glued to the TV for 45 minutes and sorry when it ended—because I wanted more and I wanted it now.

And I haven’t even gone into how great the supporting cast was. Van Statten was well realized. He reminded me a bit of some a Professor Stahlman from “Inferno”—a character who can’t see beyond his own vanity and agenda to the overall picture until it’s far too late. And Anna-Louise Plowman as Goddard was a nice touch as well. And we even got a new companion in Adam. I admit we got to see just enough of him to interest me and make me smile that he chose to go aboard the TARDIS.

So, I guess you can say I loved this episode. And I did. It’s everything that the new Doctor Who should be and more. It’s easily one of the top ten episodes of the entire show’s run and it joins the ranks of “Curse of Fenric” and “Caves of Androzani” as one of the true greats of Doctor Who.



posted by Michael Hickerson at 5/03/2005 08:56:00 AM | |
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