“DALEK” – Series 1, Episode 6, Story 162 – Written by Robert Shearman; Directed by Joe Ahearne – The Ninth Doctor and Rose answer a distress signal and end up in a museum in Utah in 2012, where a rich dick has been collecting alien artifacts and turning their tech into huge profits for himself. He’s got one living artifact that he keeps tied up and tortured. The Doctor tells the prisoner he’ll help, but then it turns out to be the only Dalek remaining from the Time War. The Dalek fell through time but regenerates to full health when Rose touches it, only the Dalek becomes more than a Dalek and starts having emotions. He gets confused and orders Rose to order him to kill himself. Because Emotions Make Him Feel Funny In His Tummy.
Dalek serials tend to get a few extra points of credit from viewers, I think, just because they include Daleks. On a rare occasion, this can work against a serial, such as the Rainbow Daleks serial of the Eleventh Doctor’s run, but usually I think it works the other way. This raises the question for me of how to evaluate the Dalek serials; how many points are you allowed to allocate to a serial just because you get that resonant thrill of seeing these bulky machines rolling around, with their cheap looking plunkers and elongated eye piece and their nightmarish voices screaming, “Ex-ter-min-ate! Ex-ter-min-ate!”
Watching television isn’t a scientific endeavor, and I try not to treat these reactions as scientific endeavors, which is why, even though they are reviews, I try not to call them reviews. I just try to write about my reactions to a given story – sometimes that takes the shape of a more formal review, sometimes not. If you toss a Dalek or Cyberman or Sontaran you’re going to get a bit of extra credit from me right from the start, the same way you’ll get those points if it’s a horror story.
All that is prelude to saying that DALEK is a very good, very big, very emotionally-complex serial serial. It would still be a good serial if you took the Dalek out and replaced it with an entirely new alien species that had been involved in the Time War (if they had used, for instance, the last Gelth remaining with a physical body), but the added resonance of this being a Dalek, of this being the last Dalek, helps to overcome some of the episode’s shortcomings.
The script is by Robert Shearman and not Russell Davies, but it’s got Davies’ signature “big emotional centerpiece.” In fact, it’s got a few of them: one with the Doctor and the Dalek, one with Rose and the Dalek, and then a final one with all three of them.
A rescue signal pulls the TARDIS off-course, directing it to an underground museum in Utah. Locked inside glass cases are hundreds of alien artifacts. Setting the proper “classic resonance” vibe that the episode will rely on once the Dalek is revealed, the Doctor sees a Cyberman helmet near where the TARDIS lands. The Ninth is almost nostalgically wistful as he looks at the helmet of his vanquished foe. “The stuff of nightmares,” he remarks, low and somber, “reduced to an exhibit.”
It’s the Doctor, of course, who ended the Cybermen threat back in the Seventh Doctor serial SILVER NEMESIS, tricking the Cyber Leader into destroying the Cyber Fleet that was waiting in Earth orbit, so this is hardly a moment where the Doctor is bemoaning the fate of the Cybermen. And yet there is some level of dissatisfaction with seeing the helmet behind glass; the Doctor is hardly smiling and joyous, nor is he proud and content that this threat has been removed from the universe. Instead, there is the sense that seeing the Cybermen helmet behind the glass makes the Doctor simply feel old, like the weight of his nearly 1,000 years of life and all those adventures is pushing down on him. He is not wistful or nostalgic to have the Cybermen running around the universe again, but I think there is a part of him lamenting that absence of time before the Last Great Time War through that Cyber helmet.
The Doctor taps the glass and armed guns instantly descend and we find that we’re in the museum of an American businessman named Henry van Statten, who simply acquires anything alien that he can in order to attempt to profit from any technology that he might be able to strip from them. Van Statten claims broadband internet comes from tech leeched from the Roswell crash, and he’s got a young man named Adam Mitchell buying whatever he can at whatever the cost.
Van Statten and the Doctor go at it verbally a bit and the collector agrees to show the Doctor his one living specimen – a specimen that they’ve been torturing in their attempts to get it to talk. The Doctor enters the dark room, barely noticing or caring that van Statten locks the door behind him. “I’m not like van Statten,” he tells the glowing blue spot of light on the other end of the room.
And then the lights come on, the Ninth sees that it’s a Dalek, and he completely freaks out, running to the door and banging on it, “Let me out! Let me out!” When the Dalek can’t fire, however, the Doctor quickly turns ecstatic, running to him and chiding him about being captured, and wanting to know what he’s doing here.
The Dalek tells him he’s waiting for orders, which makes the Doctor almost giddy. “Well, you’re not going to get any! Not ever!” he mocks, delighting in delivering the bad news as we get more information about the Time War. “They’re never gonna come. Your race is dead. You all burned. Ten million ships on fire. The entire Dalek race, wiped out in one second.”
“I watched it happen! I made it happen!”
“You … destroyed us?”
At this, the Doctor becomes sullen again and walks away, the weight of his actions coming down hard onto him. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for all season, from the moment when the Doctor told the Nestene Consciousness back in ROSE that he’d fought in “the war.” This is the moment that will provide the context to all of his weepy fatalism we’ve seen him experience this season. That he delivers the confession to the Dalek, to the last surviving member of a race he thought he had destroyed, adds to the weight that presses down on him.
“I had no choice,” he says in an attempt to justify what he did. His eyes and voice are haunted; he’s talking to the one living Dalek but he’s facing the rest of them inside his head.
“And what of the Time Lords?” the Dalek asks about the Doctor’s kind, and his answer to this question gives us a fact we knew but a context we did not.
“Dead. They burnt with you. The end of the last great Time War. Everyone lost.”
After a moment’s pause, the Dalek hits the Doctor hard, stating simply, “And the coward survived.”
The accusation snaps the Doctor out of his sullenness and back into full rage mode. He taunts the Dalek, telling him he caught his distress signal. “Oh, help me!” he taunts, but then turns almost instantly sullen again. “But there’s no one else coming,” he says, describing his own situation as much as the Dalek’s, “cause there’s no one else left.”
It’s the Dalek’s turn to be sullen now. “I am alone in the universe,” he says.
“Yep,” the Doctor smiles through watered eyes.
“So we are the same,” the Dalek insists.
This equation, of course, makes the Doctor freak out again and he’s instantly denying the Dalek’s accusations when he stops and reconsiders. “Maybe we are,” he realizes. “I know what to do.” Smiling through hurt eyes, he taunts the Dalek with its own favorite word: “Exterminate.” The Doctor throws the power switch, electrocuting the captured Dalek as the Dalek pleads for pity. “Why should I?” the Doctor asks. “You never did.”
Van Statten’s men save the Dalek from the Doctor’s torture so they can torture him later themselves. So it goes …
Robert Shearman’s script is playing a risky game here. Long time fans will know what the Daleks are capable of, and while they might not support torture, they can certainly understand the weight of the long years the Doctor has spent fighting them, watching them destroying life all across the galaxy. He had a chance, once upon a Tom Baker, to end the Dalek threat forever, but let the moment pass. All those lives the Daleks took from the universe are laid at the Doctor’s feet. For new fans who might be experiencing the Daleks for the first time, they might be less inclined to understand (to say nothing of supporting) the actions of the Doctor. Taken without context (which is the position Rose, van Statten, and all the GeoComTex employees would have), the Doctor is unhinged, frightened to panic but ultimately no better than van Statten is his willingness to torture the Dalek – one does it for business, the other for personal reasons, but the result is the same.
In all, it’s a fantastic sequence, with the Doctor’s shifting moods coming fast and furious, seemingly snapping this way and that at the simple turn of a phrase. We finally get some details about the war itself – instead of simply knowing that the Doctor is the last of the Time Lords, we know now that he’s responsible (or at least that he feels responsible) for the deaths of all the Daleks and all the Time Lords.
For its part, the Dalek is equally fantastic; he’s been put in a sympathetic position by the script: he’s the last of his kind, he’s been tortured, and he’s unable to defend himself in any manner, except if someone makes the mistake of touching his casing (in which case they burn up). Cleverly, they make this Dalek a simple soldier, not a member of the high command, opening up the possibility that this Dalek was “just following orders,” that he’s just an average Dalek and potentially open to not being as evil as the Daleks that normally get a voice.
The Doctor and Dalek are further put on equal terms by van Statten. As the Doctor tries to tell the businessman that the Dalek will kill everyone, Vvn Statten now realizes the Doctor is worthy of being collected, as well, given that he’s also an alien and also the last of his kind, and so the Doctor is stripped, strung up, and tortured, as well, though not nearly to the degree that the Dalek has been tortured.
During all of this, Rose is off with Adam, who’s trying to play the expert with someone who knows more than he does. Rose doesn’t let on all she knows, but she tests his desire to go off into space and explore these collectible items as they exist in life, not death. Adam brags about his genius intellect and hacks into the security feed, where Rose sees the Dalek being tortured. Not one for standing around, Rose demands Adam take her to the cage, where it’s her turn to talk with the Dalek.
“I am in pain,” the Dalek tells her, his voice clearly attempting to elicit sympathy. “They torture me, but still they fear me. Do you fear me?”
“No,” Rose answers, never having seen or heard of a Dalek before now.
“I am dying,” the Dalek tells her. When Rose informs him they can help, the Dalek foreshadows the end of the episode, insisting, “I welcome death, but I am glad that before I die I have met a human who was not afraid.”
Feeling sympathetic, wanting to help, Rose touches the Dalek and leaves a sizzling imprint of her own hand. The Dalek instantly perks up, his mission accomplished. “Genetic material extrapolated! Initiate cellular reconstruction!” Rose has only been traveling with the Doctor for a short time, but it has been enough for the Dalek to feed off the DNA of a time traveler to regain its full strength, its exterior shell becoming all new and shiny again. Busting out of its chains, it begins a long and destructive march through the complex.
It chases Adam and Rose, who end up running through a security ambush. The Dalek looks at Rose, who can feel that there’s something inside, something looking right at her, “and it knows me.” By absorbing Rose’s DNA, it has apparently absorbed some of who she is; the Dalek is mutating, becoming something other than a pure Dalek, and this confuses him.
The Dalek is still without orders, however, and desperately asks the Doctor what to do through the complex’s camera system. Using the same strategy he employed when he was the Seventh and not the Ninth (back in REMEMBRANCE OF THE DALEKS), the Doctor tells it to kill itself.
In the most chilling line of the episode, the Dalek icily tells his foe: “You would make a good Dalek.”
Angry and fearful, desperately wanting to trap the Dalek deep underground in van Statten’s complex, he orders the vault sealed off, even though there’s a chance Rose won’t make it out in time. It’s a marked change from the previous episode, WORLD WAR THREE, where his concern for Rose stunned him to inactivity. Whether it was a lesson learned or simply the threat of a Dalek getting loose on Earth, the Doctor takes that risk this time. The script forces his hand by playing funky with the complex’s power – literally forcing the Doctor to make the decision to seal the Vault before he knows Rose is free. It’s a trick of the script, but given how slow the Dalek is, and given how dramatic running is … it’s not an unrealistic scenario and it serves the purpose of forcing the Doctor to make a huge decision that could legitimately cost Rose her life.
Knowing the Doctor will carry this guilt, Rose puts the blame on herself. “Sorry,” she tells him, “I was a bit slow,” and then tells him it wasn’t his fault and absolves him of blame when she declares that she “wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
The Doctor can only hear and not see the Dalek give the traditional, “Exterminate” declaration, followed by the sound of it firing, allowing the Doctor to think his Companion is dead.
The Dalek hasn’t killed Rose, of course, because he doesn’t understand how her DNA is changing him. He’s confused, and feels “contaminated,” his purity compromised. Just as the Doctor believes he didn’t have a choice in killing all the Daleks and Time Lords, the Dalek didn’t have a choice either; if it wanted to get free from Van Statten’s chains, it had to be touched by a non-Dalek, thus saving itself and damning itself with the same gesture.
Ordering the Doctor to open the door, the new emotion-infused Dalek uses this new set of feelings to his advantage: “What use are emotions if you will not save the woman you love?”
The gambit works. The Doctor unseals the Vault, but then goes off with Adam, looking for the biggest weapon he can find to kill the Dalek before it escapes.
The Dalek tells Rose that what it really wants is freedom. Blasting a hole in the roof when they reach Level 1, the Dalek asks Rose how the sunshine that pours in feels. He opens his the casing and we see the Dalek in the heart of the machine.
It looks a bit like Starro, if Starro looked like it was made of snot.
The Doctor arrives with a huge gun, ordering Rose out of the way. She refuses, pointedly asking the Doctor what’s become of him. Because the words come from Rose, the Doctor immediately drops his gun. The Dalek informs them that it’s mutating: “I can feel!” he cries, and the Doctor realizes he doesn’t need to kill the Dalek because it will do it himself.
Rose wonders if the mutation is a good thing. “Not to a Dalek,” the Doctor says quietly, no sense of victory present in his voice.
Now impure, the Dalek wants to die, and orders Rose to order it to kill itself. Simply (and a little too quickly, but the clock is ticking towards the end of the episode), Rose tells him to do it.
“Are you frightened?” the Dalek asks her.
“So am I.”
The Daleks final question to the Doctor lingers: “Why do we survive?”
Then it kills itself.
Van Statten’s highest ranking employee (a rather fetching, ice-cold redhead named Goddard, whom I wouldn’t mind seeing more of …) takes control, ordering her boss mindwiped and the Vault cemented.
The Doctor and Rose head towards the TARDIS when Adam comes running up, telling them they have to get out of here. Rose wants Adam to come along. The Doctor doesn’t, but he’s not going to say no. “He’s very pretty,” he chides. “I hadn’t noticed,” Rose deadpans, and Adam follows them into the TARDIS, in one of the lamest Companion additions in the show’s history. (The history history, not just the relaunch history.)
DALEK is a complex story that probably could have used another ten minutes, but the cramped nature of the story matches the cramped location, and adds to the pressure on the Doctor to deal with the Dalek and to get everything resolved. Van Statten is a bland villain, more of a meathead with a wallet than anything else, but his stubborn simplicity is probably exactly what the script needs; if he was too much the thinking man then it would just get in the way of the Doctor-Rose-Dalek emotional showdowns.
Shearman’s work with the last Dalek, however, is really exceptional, giving a Dalek a depth of thought and action (even before the Rose mutation) rarely seen.
Ultimately, Shearman makes us feel the loss of the last Dalek, garnering sympathy not for the loss of the Daleks as much for the Dalek’s adherence to racial purity and unwillingness to change. It’s a great story.
Someone somewhere (Mark Waid, maybe?) said that everyone had one great Superman story in them. Maybe the Daleks are the same. Maybe every DOCTOR WHO writer worth their salt has one great Dalek story in them.
Robert Shearman’s certainly got at least one in him.