Review by Paul Bowler
Once seemingly forgotten and unloved by the BBC, Doctor Who was lovingly resurrected from the enforced exile of cancellation in 2005 by Russell T Davies, Julie Gardener, Mal Young, and Phil Collinson. Together they crafted a new vision of the world’s longest running Science Fiction programme, capitalizing on their heartfelt love of Doctor Who and its rich mythology to successfully regenerate the concept in a way that would appeal to fans of the classic series whilst simultaneously capturing the imagination of a whole new generation of fans.
One crucial element, however, was initially missing – the Daleks. So when the TARDIS brought the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and Rose (Billie Piper) to Henry Van Statten’s vast underground museum of alien artefacts near Salt Lake City, Utah, in the series one episode Dalek (2005), we watch transfixed as the Doctor is led to a gloomy cell for an encounter with the proprietors prized exhibit – The Metaltron – little knowing that the hate-fuelled horror trapped inside will prove to be a terrifying reminder of his own not-so-distant past in which he sacrificed everything to save the universe from a war of eternal oblivion…
It’s hard to believe now, that this momentous moment almost never happened. The BBC had initially been unable to gain the permission of Terry Nation’s estate to use Skaro’s eponymous metal mutants in the new series of Doctor Who. Thankfully the matter was soon rectified, allowing Russell T Davies to incorporate Robert Sherman’s own adaptation of his Big Finish audio Jubilee – a story which quite rightly instigated a renaissance for Colin Baker’s undervalued 6th Doctor – as well as providing this seasons “Big Bad” for Christopher Eccleston’s battle hardened 9th Doctor to fight.
The episode Dalek effectively stifled any chance of a mid-season lull by whipping up a frenzy of speculation with a trailer that was little more than a strangled voice in the dark: “DOC-TOR…” The Daleks were back, and with them in place the enduring legacy of Russell T Davies’ bold vision was assured, Doctor Who would soon become an unparalleled success – spawning two spin-off shows, Torchwood and the Sarah Jane Adventures (with new spin-off Class (2016) set in Coal Hill School begin the most recent addition to the Doctor Who universe), animated adventures, merchandise galore, and critical accolades from around the world.
The Doctor’s initial terror at being trapped in the Cage with the Dalek quickly dissolves into pious joy as he realizes the Dalek is unable to exterminate him; although the ranting diatribe which then ensues between the mortal enemies almost chews up the scenery, we, like the Doctor, are all too aware of the destructive capabilities even this solitary Dalek could pose to humanity. The war of words culminates in a chilling realization for both Time Lord and Dalek – for without orders to govern it the Dalek is devoid of purpose or function, while the Doctor, bereft of his people, has been left broken by the terrible consequences of his actions.
To coin a phrase, Christopher Eccelston is absolutely “fantastic” in this episode. His embittered portrayal of the 9th Doctor’s fury is almost palpable here, matching Nicholas Briggs superb delivery as the voice of the equally war ravaged Dalek antagonist word for word, and it is only now in hindsight that we realize how just pivotal this moment was for the new series. Bear in mind that at this point in the new shows mythology the Doctor and the Dalek were as much in the dark as we were, having already learned of the cataclysmic fate that befell Gallifrey during The End Of The World (2005), but nothing more beyond that point.
Of course, the Daleks with all their ingenuity have indeed managed to survive the Time War: The Emperor has been rebuilding his Dalek Empire in orbit above Earth in the far future (2005‘s Bad Wolf & The Parting of the Ways), the Cult of Skaro have escaped into The Void (2006‘s Army of Ghosts & Doomsday), even Davros’ ship somehow evaded destruction after being consumed by the maw of The Nightmare Child (2008‘s The Stolen Earth and Journey‘s End), but perhaps most audacious of all is the lone Dalek Cruiser that travelled back in time to become part of Winston Churchill’s war effort during the Blitz (2010’s Victory of the Daleks), infiltrating Churchill’s War Room with tea-making “Ironsides” in an ingenious ploy to trick the Doctor into activating The Progenitor – effectively resurrecting the Dalek race with a pure genetic matrix unblemished by their past defeats.
Besides the Doctor, the only Time Lord who initially seemed to have evaded the apocalyptic demise of Gallifrey was The Master in Utopia, played initially by Derek Jacobi before he regenerated into John Simm’s incarnation of the renegade Time Lord for The Sound of Drums, and Last of the Time Lords (2007), but a small handful of Time Lords also became stranded in a pocket universe The Doctor’s Wife (2011) where they, and their TARIDS’, unfortunately succumbed to the interstellar parasite known as House. Even Rassilon (played by Timothy Dalton) and the Time Lords would later use their esteemed power and knowledge to attempt to transcend the laws of time to escape the all consuming Time Lock of the final conflict as Gallifrey burned along with the ten million strong Dalek Battle-Fleet in The End of Time Parts 1 & 2 (Dec 25th 2009 / Jan 1st 2010)
So, in retrospect, when the Doctor confides in Rose Tyler that he would be able to sense if any of his people had survived; a point which further emphasises this 9th incarnation’s inherent loneliness. Interestingly it is this one inherent weakness of the Doctor which the imprisoned Dalek in the Series One episode Dalek uses here to its advantage: “And the coward survived…” it grates during their initial encounter in the Cell, then later deflecting the Doctor’s incandescent fury after it has ruthlessly exterminated the security teams sent to cover Rose and Adam’s escape by stating: “You would make a good Dalek!”
Of course, one of the big mysteries in 2005 was how did the 8th Doctor regenerate into the 9th Doctor? It wasn’t until the 50th Anniversary special min-episode The Night of the Doctor (2013) that we learned the exact nature of the 8th Doctor’s (Paul McGann) regeneration and how his role evolved into something far darker in the Time War. The catalyst for this most ignoble of the Doctor’s incarnations regeneration, however, also became entwined with a hitherto unknown aspect of the Time Lord that actually existed before Christopher Eccelston‘s 9th Doctor, after John Hurt was revealed as another incarnation of the Doctor – The War Doctor – in the Season Seven finale: The Name of The Doctor (2013). The Time War itself was finally realised in all its glory on screen in The 50th Anniversary special The Day of the Doctor (2013), effectively rebooting the series once more, with the Time Lords later granting the 11th Doctor (Matt Smith) a new regeneration cycle in The Time of The Doctor (2013), and fuelling the quest to find Gallifrey that would ultimately lead to the 12th Doctor’s (Peter Capaldi) eventual rediscovery and return to his home world for the Series 9 finale Hell Bent (2015).
But it is in the episode Dalek where the genesis of these tangled plot threads inadvertently rests. Of the supporting cast in Dalek, Cory Johnson plays the suitably odious billionaire Henry Van Statten. For all his wealth and power, Van Statten has been unable to capitalise on his most treasured exhibit from another world – the Dalek. Even though it has been tortured remorselessly by the sadistic Simmons (Nigel Whitmey) the Dalek steadfastly refuses to talk to Van Statten. The entrepreneur has built his fortune on the back of extraterrestrial finds such as this, but he also has a contemptible attitude towards his staff – wiping the minds of those who fail him and turning them into homeless junkies. It is perhaps fitting then that he suffers the same fate at the end of the episode when his PA Diana Goddard (Anna Louise Plowman) usurps him and closes the facility down.
Then we have Adam (Bruno Langley) a teenage genus who claims to have almost started WWIII on his home computer. Whether or not Adam was just showing off to impress Rose, it seems he was plucked from obscurity by Van Statten to serve as his personal scientific advisor – cataloguing and discerning the use of every exhibit. Indeed, when the Doctor shows Adam and Van Statten how to play a strange musical instrument, we see a faint glimmer of a potential in Adam, but it’s soon quashed when Adam is revealed as something of a misguided and gutless wannabe after his one – and only – journey in the TARDIS (2005‘s The Long Game).
When the Dalek crash landed on the Ascension Islands it burned in a crater for three days, screaming helplessly within the chaotic embers of a decaying temporal shift, leaving it critically damaged and at the mercy of Henry Van Statten. It soon took pride of place in Van Statten’s collection, which also includes a Slitheen arm and the head of a “Revenge” style Cyberman, where it was tortured to within an inch of it life. The new Dalek design is chunkier than the “classic” version we all know and love: enhanced with ablative armour plating, a wider, more angular “skirt”, and bedecked with a golden livery that belies this Daleks role as a ruthless weapon of mass destruction. Even in this damaged state, the Dalek is mightily impressive to look at. The new eye stalk is particularly unsettling with its blue optics and dilating iris. Once regenerated by Rose’s touch this Dalek displays a wealth of new abilities: it bristles with enhanced firepower, a rotating mid-section, astonishing computational skill, and most sensationally of all – the power of flight. Yes, that age old joke about the Daleks and stairs is finally laid to rest as Rose, Adam, and De Maggio (Jana Montana) make their escape – looking on in horror as the Dalek gracefully rises into the air to follow them up a staircase.
De Maggio sacrifices herself to buy Rose and Adam more time to escape from the Dalek, but Rose becomes trapped in the Vault with the Dalek. The Dalek may have tricked Rose into touching it, thus enabling it to absorb the energy of a Time Traveller and escape, but it didn’t bargain on the exchange being a two way street! Rose notices the change in the Daleks behaviour, even stopping it from killing Van Statten, before leading the Dalek towards the upper levels where it blasts a hole in the concrete overhead. The sun pours in through the gap as the Dalek opens its casing to reveal the mutant inside. It basks in the sunlight a moment, perhaps lost in some latent Kaled race memory, to a time before Skaro was consumed by war…
Rose is horrified to see the Doctor train the energy cannon he is carrying on the Dalek. Billie Piper gives a magnificent performance here, as Rose makes him see what has really happened to the Dalek, how it has been changed by her DNA, and the Doctor almost falls to his knees with the horror of what he has become. The Dalek asks Rose, in another standout moment for Billie Piper, if she is afraid, as if seeking some bizarre recompense for the contamination that her DNA has caused it. She realizes how horrific it must be for the Dalek to survive in this state, so she complies, and orders the Dalek to self-terminate so that it’s twisted; miserable existence might finally come to an end.
Dalek is one of the major highlight of Doctor Who Series One, but its also the episode that really made us all see the Daleks as more than just mindless killing machines. Brilliantly directed by Joe Ahearne, it also featured a critical juncture in the relationship between the Doctor and Rose, reaffirming the vital role which the companion plays in providing the light that tempers the Time Lord’s steely resolve. Dalek is still my favourite episode from Christopher Eccleston’s brief tenure as the 9th Doctor, it stands as a powerful portent of the many adventures that followed, and indeed those that no doubt are still to come, and remains a landmark event in Doctor Who’s triumphant return!