Sympathy for the Dalek

Dalek at Dr Who exhibition Brighton

TV This could well be the best of the series so far. At no point during Dalek did you feel like you had to make allowances for moments designed y'know for kids. No farting or burping here. This was a story sleekly designed to frighten the bejesus out of everyone and was all the better for it. Arguably, for the first time, the series held its back story on its sleeve throwing references for long term viewers and fans all over the place, to Davros and Cybermen, without needing to name any names. But new mythology was created for new fans, with the adversaries in the Time War spelt out for the first time and The Doctor's part in it.

The scariest moment for me were the scenes in which The Doctor confronted the Dalek. He just ranted at it, face red with anger, veins popping out all over. We've seen Eccleston do comedy in the series, but this was the first time we saw his out and out anger and I just sat clutching the armrests of my chair. I jumped as we saw The Doctor's face bending around the Dalek's line of sight. Hartnell smirked, McCoy underplayed, Eccleston boiled over. Billie Piper was at it again too bringing even more dimensions to her work. The moment when we were led to believe the Dalek had killed Rose, even though having seen spoilery clips of later episodes we know she'll still be around, was heart breaking because the histrionics and screams which could have greeted her end are replaced with a quiet "seeya" to The Doctor.

But it wouldn't have worked if Nick Briggs, in his voice work as the Dalek, hadn't been there giving as good as he got. I've been following Briggs' Daleks for years in the Big Finish audio dramas but I haven't witnessed anything like the performance he gave tonight. In the diary in this month's Doctor Who Magazine, he talked about how he was asked to loosen his intonation slightly and he comments that he'd been wanting to do that for years (perhaps constrained before by expectation). It really showed. This Dalek had an emotional range which made it even creepier -- as it tricked Rose into caring for it to the extent that she would touch and reinvigorate -- with that quiet whisper. Terrifying.

Much like The Unquiet Dead the episode benefited from having a small number of humans. It's tricky for the main guest cast to make an impression in circumstances such as this, but Corey Johnson's Henry van Statten had just the right level of smarm, Anna-Louise Plowman (who was previously in the Stargate tv series) oozed charisma and Bruno Langley had to just the right amount of charm without you wanting to throttle him. I like that he'll be travelling to another adventure -- he's a good counterpoint to the now slightly darker Doctor. Also want to mention Jana Carpenter who I think was the guard on the stairs who stood her ground against the Dalek -- along with Beccy Armory who played Raffalo the plumber in the second episode its an example of someone really making you care in only a few moments of screen time.

But again, to demonstrate what an intricate jigsaw this episode was, none of their work might have been as good had Rob Shearman not produced another gem. I'd thought it would be a more traditional work than Big Finish's Chimes At Midnight and particularly Scherzo. So it was with all the action and chase sequences. But there was still something else going on. You have an episode with a Dalek. What to do with it. I mean you could just drop it in a city and letting it go on a killing spree, and that might be exciting and scary (and expensive) but what would be the point we'd need to do something new. And as has been the case with this new series and Shearman's past work it was bound to subvert expectations.

They've invaded Earth, the universe and time on countless occasions. We've seen their beginning and now and then their ultimate end. What next? Make us care for them. Actually make them the wounded and The Doctor the aggressor, wanting their ultimate destruction. No crouching on the floor with two wires debating whether they should be destroyed. They just needed to die at all costs, the hero standing almost over one with a giant gun hoping to finish the job of wiping out their race for the final time. And we didn't want him to. Actually the Daleks have been given feelings before, way back in the Troughton era in The Evil of the Daleks when they were infected with the human factor leading to them inploding in on themselves in a civil war. Then it was a cool way of ending the adventure in some excitement. We never heard of that faction again (give or take a comic strip).

The programme makers knew that if you gave them feelings it took away the one thing which made them different. That they just wanted to kill everything else. Watching tonight I was reminded of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode I, Borg in which that series' version of the unstoppable killing machine was drawn away from its kind, spent time with humans and started to question its purpose. In that series it had the ultimate effect of weakening the foe for years afterwards, because we knew that under their organo-metal exterior they still had the capacity to care. And even when it returned to its own kind there was that little wink at the end that it had taken the experience with it. They became too human.

Doctor Who didn't make that mistake. The Dalek might have absorbed some of Rose's DNA and was beginning to have new ideas, thoughts and feelings but it didn't know what to do with them. It could have gone either way and made it even better at its job. Instead it just wanted to die. And there it went, imploding in on itself. But we know its just that Dalek and no matter what The Doctor says it was the last of them, in our heart of hearts we know they'll back, and judging by all the flying, plungering and electrocuting, deadlier and scarier than they've ever been.

Some will question whether its right that our hero would go on the offensive in that way -- all of the jelly babies and telling Leela to put away her knife out the window. But we've seen this kind of thing already this series from this incarnation with anti-plastic, withholding moisturiser, gas explosions and honking great missiles. What people probably won't like is how direct it is, in a moment when the enemy is already effectively defeated. Which is an idea entirely in keeping with Shearman's canon -- the deconstruction of what we know -- in previous cases through the restructuring of story, this time the audiences reaction to a Doctor who becomes an anti-hero bent on revenge.

The jigsaw continues with Joe Aherne's direction. His vampire series Ultraviolet was one of the best looking and written genre series of the past twenty years so I was delighted to hear he was directing some Who. In television series like this, it's less easy to see the individual contributions of the director, editor, photographer and producer. But for me this show seemed to flow much better than the rest. It had a fairly linear story, certainly, but the pacing seemed perfect, and it didn't throw in a camera angle to be flashy. Everything seemed in service of the story. I'd include in this Murray Gold's score which demonstrated what he is capable of, pulling back when he needed to in a very Howard Shore way.

But, finally what of the realisation of the Dalek? Considering the horror stories in the past of Spider-Daleks and humanoids I was amazed and overjoyed at actually how respectful this design is. There is something of the Battle-Dalek from their last tv appearance about it, all gleaming metal. The rationalising of the sink plunger as part of its killing armoury worked very well, as did it's new approach to the electronic keypad. The CG effects really demonstrated how far tv has come, especially as the exterminated not only went negative but also transparant, shocks flying through skeleton.

After the disappointment of the film version of The HitchHiker's Guide To The Galaxy, I feel blessed that my actual favourite franchise is being rendered so perfecting in the next century. It took that familiar jigsaw, all of the icons of the series, and cut its own pieces out to fit. Our perception of The Doctor and those Daleks will never be the same again, and that's an extraordinary thing.

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