(From Doctor Who’s Greatest Hits)
2005 (Series 1)
TARDIS Team: Ninth Doctor, Rose, Adam
Adversaries: You get one guess.
Written by Robert Shearman
Directed by Joe Ahearne
Incidental Music: Murray Gold
One 45-minute episode
First broadcast: 30 April 2005
Rating: 8.63 million
WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
It’s about the Doctor coming to terms with his guilt over the actions he took in the Time War. It’s about human greed and the collection of alien artifacts by a man who has his own little empire. But really, it’s about bringing the Daleks back to Doctor Who.
WHAT MAKES IT GREAT:
When it was announced in 2003 that Doctor Who would be returning to television, one of the first questions asked by the audience was “What about the Daleks?” An understandable response, considering the Daleks are the most iconic element from the show, arguably even more so than the Doctor (aside from a general image of floppy hat, oversized coat and impossibly long scarf). It’s safe to say that expectations were high, and had the Daleks for any reason not been included as part of the package, a very large chunk of the audience would have felt cheated.
But that’s very nearly what happened. As Doctor Who without the Daleks is an unthinkable prospect, the Daleks’ return was planned from the very beginning, and Robert Shearman was contracted to adapt his Big Finish story “Jubilee” for television as the vehicle that would bring them back. However, the Terry Nation estate, which owns the conceptual rights to the Daleks, didn’t at first grant the BBC permission to use them in the show. Negotiations went back and forth, there were varying reports in the press about where the conflict stood and which side was “winning.” With the possibility looming that the Daleks might in fact not be revived along with the rest of the series, Russell T Davies sculpted a replacement for them: a spherical, partially robotic creature that would turn out to be humans from the future. Shearman redrafted his scripts to include these beings. Fortunately for all concerned, an agreement was finally reached and on August 4, 2004, it was announced that the Daleks would indeed be featured in the new Doctor Who. And much rejoicing throughout the fan community commenced.
Part of what’s so great about this episode is the way it makes the Dalek work for the whole audience: It gives a solid introduction for anyone who has never heard of them (granted, that’s a pretty tiny percentage of this episode’s original British viewership) or had never seen them in action; it addresses familiar points for anyone who only knows Dalek by popular reputation; and it presents new surprises for those of us who have known the Daleks intimately from decades of Who fandom. First, we’re given all the basics: that the Dalek is an old enemy of the Doctor; that the Daleks have a creator who is a madman; that it isn’t a robot but rather a living being inside a high-tech tank; and that it hates. Second, everything that is commonly known, especially the things that had become a joke, were turned on their heads and shown to be deadly. The plunger can be used to manipulate keypads and to crush a guy’s face in. The Dalek is not, as is commonly thought, stymied by a flight of stairs (even though that one was actually dispelled in “Remembrance of the Daleks,” Season 25, 1988). But best of all, there was still new things for us old-timers to learn right alongside the newbies. The Dalek’s midsection can rotate independently of the rest of its body, making it able to shoot in any direction. It can generate a force field around itself sufficient to stop bullets. The whole body-section opens up to reveal the creature inside. The balls along its skirting can be activated so the Dalek can self-destruct. And most importantly, it’s in this episode that we learn that the Daleks are the foe that the Time Lords faced in the Time War (even though we suspected it all along).
In addition, we see that the Dalek is cunning and manipulative—it coaxes Rose into feeling pity for it and laying her hand upon it, triggering its restoration. We see also that it is in fact a skilled tactician—the Dalek at one point destroys an entire squad of soldiers by setting off the sprinklers and electrocuting them all. But first it just hangs in the air, allowing them to spray it with hundreds of bullets, just to demonstrate that they can’t harm it. And that’s the key: the thing that truly makes this episode great is that it shows the audience, old and new, just how damn dangerous one Dalek is. It’s not a dustbin, it’s not a pepperpot, it’s not a joke—it’s a tank. It’s a bubbling lump of hate, as the Third Doctor once described them. It’s a deadly, relentless killing machine that will not stop because it is doing what it was bred to do. It’s pure. Or, as the Doctor tells van Statten, it’s honest.
But then, the episode turns the entire set up on its head. When Rose touched the Dalek and it absorbed some of her DNA, she did more than rejuvenate it. She infected it. What we have is an impure Dalek, contaminated by the sickness of emotion, compassion and morals. A Dalek who cannot bring itself to kill. And it knows that that makes it an abomination, an anomaly, and that even if the Dalek race were to survive through it (as it proclaims earlier in the episode), it wouldn’t be the true Dalek essence. It is a soldier, weary of battle, alone in the world, with no one to give it orders. For this episode to take a single Dalek from captive to rampaging murderer to abandoned soldier, and to bring us to a place where we are able to sympathize with it and feel pity for it, is nothing short of an extraordinary feat.
But what is even more extraordinary is the change that we see in the Doctor. Christopher Eccleston is thrilling in this episode, giving us one of the performances that most defines his Doctor. We see here what a complex being the Doctor is underneath it all, damaged as he is by the Time War. Everyone who has been a Whovian more than 5 minutes can quote the one line from this episode that sums up what the War made the Doctor into: “You would make a good Dalek.” It’s one of the most appalling statements about the Doctor in the entire history of the show, mainly because we all know that there is a ring of truth to it. This sentiment is revisited repeatedly in the New Series, saying that on some worlds ‘Doctor’ is the word for ‘warrior,’ Davros telling the Doctor that he makes soldiers of his companions, etc. But nothing has the impact that this six-word sentence has. Nothing.
It’s a shame that most of the Daleks’ subsequent appearances in Doctor Who don’t measure up to this, their reintroduction. This is an incredibly intelligent and well-thought-out story that delivers everything we want from a Dalek story and then some—including some stuff that we never knew we wanted and never thought to expect. It’s a brilliant story that gave the New Series a big jolt of energy. No longer were we dealing with lightweight stories about flattened skin people or silly nonsense about farting aliens—this is the real stuff right here.
BEHIND THE SCENES:
- When Russell T Davies initially made his pitch to the BBC of a revived Doctor Who, he included as one of his ideas a story called “Return of the Daleks,” based largely on Shearman’s “Jubilee.”
- RTD’s idea about future humans encased in spherical machines did not go to waste—they became the Toclafane a couple seasons later in the two-parter “The Sound of Drums” (Season 3/29, 2007).
- Having a Dalek episode at this point in the season (it’s episode six of thirteen) was very much part of RTD’s and co-executive producer Julie Gardner’s scheme: If the season failed to get good ratings, “Dalek” could serve as a second launching point to help propel the back half of the season (it was a concern that proved to be unfounded).
- It was also Gardner that suggested having a Cyberhelmet in van Statten’s collection.
- This is the only single-episode Dalek story during RTD’s tenure as showrunner. All other Dalek appearances are in 2-parters.
The obvious place to go from here is directly to “Jubilee.” Robert Shearman is the author of a number of Big Finish’s early classics, like “The Chimes of Midnight,” “Scherzo” and “Holy Terror,” all of which are superb. “Jubilee” is something special, and it’s a great deal of fun to hear the original version of this story and recognize the scenes that were used to build the TV version.
Opening in theatres the same weekend “Dalek” went out on television was a new big-screen adaptation of former Doctor Who script editor Douglas Adams’ seminal novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It was . . . not quite as successful as the original novel or the 1981 BBC Two television version, despite a spectacular cast that included Helen Mirren, Martin Freeman, Bill Nighy, Alan Rickman, Warwick Davis, John Malkovich and others, and despite being co-written by Adams prior to his death.