Saturday, 30 August 2014

Daleks Conquer and Destroy!

A review of Dalek from Series 1 of the New Series of Doctor Who

To kill, to wreck endless worlds on a genocidal rampage that will only end when all things are pure in one’s own image. To crack continents, shatter stars and make ghosts of a thousand future generations. To have every whisper of thought screaming for the death of all other beings.

There is an archaeology in Doctor Who; when tapes of long lost episodes are discovered often cherished theories have to be abandoned in the face of actual harsh evidence. There is also a mythology, a deification almost. Some elements have reached escape velocity and broken the gravity of just being part of a television show. They have taken their place in the constellation of the country’s popular imagination.

The Daleks are one of the BBC’s richest creations in popular fantasy. Creatures engineered to hate, bound in battle armour, an unstoppable, unending force. They are an irresistible mix of the terrifying invulnerability of the machine and the sinister viciousness of the alien creature.

This is the power of the myth – but its portrayal was often not quite up to this absolutism. Mud packs for the eye, revolving at over 78rpm, just being shoved hard in the back; their defeats often left the Daleks seeming a lot less than the overpoweringly intimidating.  The Doctor was always able to defeat them and often in ways that undercut any suggestion that this was a race that was in danger of overwhelming the universe. Any revision must, as its first objective, tackle this history of tawdry weakness for the Daleks to regain any credibility.

That is why Episode Six of the New Series’ first season, boldly entitled just “Dalek”, is such an enormous success. By using only the one creature and engaging it in an onslaught of chaos and death, the Daleks as a race have been revitalised within the space of forty-five minutes. Rose’s palm print is the laying on of hands on a previously moribund science fiction creation, a greater resurrection than anything Davros managed.

The first we see of the creature is of it dormant in an underground chamber, bound by chains that seem more symbolic than practical. The Doctor enters and, true to the core of his philosophy, offers to help, ignorant of what he nears. Immediately it senses the presence of its race’s greatest enemy, it comes to life. Enraged, its frustration only seems to mount as it impotently brandishes its gun.

What follows is, to my mind, one of the greatest confrontations the series has ever provided. Only rarely, and then generally only in the black and white era, have Daleks conversed in any other way than a computer might be imagined too, following some form of logical script pattern. It is a shock then for the Dalek to belittle our hero, to taunt him, to appear frightened and then to beg for mercy. It is masterful production; the scene shudders with tension. In parallel perhaps, rarely have we seen the Doctor stretched so taut. Christopher shows us much more of his Doctor than he had hereto. He is almost helplessly fearful, something the Doctor has virtually never been before. Then he is vengeful and pitiless, again in contradiction to what we know of him.

The focus is the Time War, hinted at in previous adventure. Finally the barest sketch of this obviously cosmic maelstrom are provided for a breathless and insatiable audience. The Daleks and the Time Lords have wiped each other out! In the new series, perhaps for the first time, the Doctor seems changed. For a character with previously no development (as we normally talk of such things) at long last something has happened to alter him. We recognize that he is different, that there is some fracture to him now from how he was when we last saw him in San Francisco and all his adventures to that point. For this life long follower of the Doctor it was an extraordinary revelation.

In an instant we can imagine the Time War. We see it all before us and then we see why this Doctor is so different in so many ways than his previous lives. It is Christopher’s performance that bring this to us and it is in this scene that all of this becomes crystallized.

Oddly, the Dalek is able to reconstitute itself after Rose touches it. Whilst we can accept that traveling through time may imbue one with magical powers, this seems to happen far too quickly to work successfully in storytelling terms.

The action sequences that follow are perhaps some of the most powerful seen in the entire series. The execution of these scenes is so professional that they are reminiscent of sections of typical Hollywood science fiction blockbusters. Their conciseness ratchets up the tension higher than most cinematic equivalents.  The Dalek cuts down American private soldiers with ease. Setting the story in America was an intriguing change – having a Dalek (sprung from a very British science fantasy story) destroying soldiers from the world’s greatest superpower adds a novel twist with a certain, perhaps only half meant, satirical flavour.

The machine’s middle sections swings about, independent of the head turret. A force field saves it from bullets. At last the Daleks are depicted with the comprehensive vigour a modern vision requires.  A choir sings a vaguely Germanic sounding piece and again we are reminded of the cinematic rules of construction that would have applied if this had been a full theatrical release. It levitates upstairs as if Daleks always had from the start all those years ago. Its unhurried pace in these scenes informs us of its power, its serene confidence. Victors in combat win by setting the agenda – clearly Sun Tzu is a best seller on Skaro.

Later the Doctor is told he would have made a good Dalek. He has been reduced to doing little more than watching Rose in continual peril and spits his frustration. Rose becomes trapped and faces extermination. Billie, who had by this stage in the new series made it clear she was not going to be outshone by Christopher, is wonderfully convincing in her portrayal of fear, sadness and desperation in soothing the Doctor. Presumably in conformity with the rules that apply to science fiction movies, she has been running around in a white vest and we are perhaps lucky that someone didn’t sling her a gun. Fortunately her performance is far superior to the average Hollywood production and whilst we never fear she may actually die it's still rather frightening seeing her cornered.

Another favourite scene is the Dalek and Rose in the lift. By this stage the Dalek is taking on the role of Hamlet.  It wobbles, physically and emotionally. Finally the Dalek confronts the Doctor and his former captor, the American multi-trillionaire. 

Once the Dalek releases the owner of the Internet, the story seems to wander off. The Dalek opens it’s casing to let the sun in and the tension out. In a similar vein to Rose’s magical palm print earlier, it is not difficult to understand what is happening. Somehow Rose’s genetic information has infected the Dalek. It questions its need to follow basic Dalek conditioning and slows its murderous rampage. King Kong has a similar theme: the monster humanized by a beautiful blonde.

But whereas Kong fell off the Empire State, here the monster falls from a state of Dalek grace. Choking with self-repugnance, it orders Rose to order it to commit holy seppuku. The Doctor, it being his turn to impotently brandish a gun, interprets for a mystified and somewhat anti-climaxing audience. The Dalek cannot abide being anything but perfect Dalek and the human element she has introduced is destroying this perfection. Tearful again, Rose so orders the machine and sadly it levitates one last time to implode by its own sensor globes (at least that’s what we were always told that’s what they were).

But again, like Rose’s palm print, this is perhaps one of the least successful parts of the episode. It just doesn’t work. It’s easy to feel sorry for the Dalek and indeed some people watching have apparently burst into tears at this point (sorry? Crying for a creature that wants to die because it doesn’t want to not kill you anymore?) but it is not quite the powerful and satisfying ending the rest of the story has been building up to.

Luckily, the relatively disappointing ending does not in anyway detract from the rest of the episode which was well received by both long term fans and people who aren’t intimate with details of Dalek history. It is easily one of the best episodes of Doctor Who in its entire fifty year history and its intensity and drama exemplify why the series has such long lasting appeal.

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