Series 1 of Doctor Who reaches an important turning point with “Dalek”, an episode that has a pretty spoilery title. Any newcomers to the franchise probably wouldn’t know what a Dalek is going in to it, so the title would mean nothing to them, but let’s just say this episode doesn’t even attempt to hide what it’s about, presumably to draw in returning viewers from the classic series and get them excited about it. In fact, most of the Daleks’ episodes have their names in the titles, since the Daleks help to boost ratings.
I consider “Dalek” to be the lynchpin story of Series 1, the one the rest of the series’ story arc and the Ninth Doctor’s character arc pivots around, as well as the second great episode of Series 1 so far (after “The Unquiet Dead“). It covers a lot of ground in just forty-five minutes, so like “Rose“, “Dalek” has a very compact, succinct and tightly-written screenplay that doesn’t waste a moment diving into what makes the Ninth Doctor tick or doling out significant character-establishing moments for the supporting cast. “Dalek” was written by Rob Shearman, who adapted it from his previous Dalek audio story, “Jubilee”. Rob Shearman never returned to write another episode for the revival, which puts him in the camp of writers who wrote unique, standout episodes for “Doctor Who” but opted out of a repeat performance, along with Matt Jones (“The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit“), James Moran (“The Fires Of Pompeii“), Richard Curtis (“Vincent And The Doctor“), Neil Cross (“The Rings Of Akhaten“, “Hide”), and Paul Cornell (“Father’s Day“, “Human Nature / The Family Of Blood“). The last five episodes have taken their time easing us into the world of “Doctor Who”, and this episode is when we get our first large taste of Whoniverse lore when we’re introduced to the Doctor’s greatest enemies, and the series’ arc villains, the Daleks.
While the Doctor has had an increasingly large role in the last five episodes, as we’ve learned more about him, “Dalek” is the first real Doctor-centric story of the series. The pre-titles sequence gives us some more insight into the time lord’s weary, jaded mindset of someone who’s lived longer than they would particularly like. Discovering an old, hollowed-out shell of a Cyberman in Henry Van Statten’s museum causes Nine to wax nostalgically about his adventures in the classic series, back when everything was so much simpler. After that, the rest of this episode gradually pushes his personality to the extreme. By this point in the season, the audience has a pretty good grasp of the strict moral code the Doctor tries to adhere to, the example he tries to set for others, so it’s both jarring and very effective writing to see him behave wildly out-of-character in this episode, especially since we’ve known for a while that the time war is a massive trigger for him.
When he’s locked in a cage with a Dalek, the Doctor is at first absolutely terrified, practically trying to claw his way out to safety, before he realizes the creature is defanged and he starts laughing madly, descending into a spiteful, vindictive rage. In a rare moment of malevolence, lashing out at the Dalek, the Doctor reveals to us all that he wiped out the Dalek race and his own people in the great war, for the greater good of the universe. As far as edgy anti-hero backstories go, that’s pretty fucking edgy, RTD. When Russell brought “Doctor Who” back from the dead, the classic series had a ton of lore and continuity tied to it, especially involving the time lords and Gallifrey, that he chose to forego for a while in favor of a clean slate. To simplify things, he chose to nuke all the time lords offscreen with the Daleks, and had the weight of what the Doctor had done to try to save the universe (preventing one slaughter with another slaughter) be the source of his character development for the next four series. In fact, we don’t even meet another time lord besides the Doctor until we encounter the magnificent villain that is the Master in Series 3.
The Doctor hates the Daleks because of what they are – racist, genocidal warmongers – and what they did to his people and the rest of the universe. But they also get under his skin in a way no other villain can, because as much as he would like to deny it, he sees a bit of himself in them and what he has the potential to be. The Dalek keeps drawing parallels between them and insisting they have things in common to infuriate him, since the Doctor is apparently a genocidal war criminal with a good deal of hate and bloodlust in his heart when it comes to the Daleks (Jackie’s concerns about the Doctor’s influence are seeming more and more justified by the day, aren’t they?).
As the Doctor grows increasingly desperate to stop the Dalek’s warpath, his actions get more and more disturbing, especially if you’ve seen the Moffat era and you know the sort of moral standard he usually tries to hold himself to (‘Never cruel or cowardly’? Not in this episode). He tortures it, tries to kill it, screams at it to kill itself so it can put the Dalek race out of it’s misery, and finally starts to compromise his core principles by putting Rose at risk, which nearly gets her killed. By the end of this episode, the man who normally abhors guns and violence is charging at the monster with an over-sized gun so he can try to blow it off the face of the Earth. Having had enough, Rose accuses him of staring into the abyss for too long; if he keeps going to such extremes and betraying who he is, there’s a very real chance he’ll turn into the things he’s fighting. Now, the Ninth Doctor can avoid that sort of claim coming from a Dalek, albeit uneasily, but not from Rose. Realizing that she’s right, he finally calms himself down and feels utterly ashamed of himself. The Doctor’s experience in this episode was a painful one to watch, but it was one he needed to have so he could get a lot of things off his chest and make the right decision later when he’s confronted with the Daleks again in the season finale.
The big hook of the episode is the return of the Daleks: the franchise’s signature villains from the classic series. The Daleks are genetically engineered cyborgs from the future, created by a madman, whose sole interests are maintaining the purity, integrity and longevity of the Dalek race, and exterminating all other forms of life in the universe that they consider to be inferior. A wizard at racial cleansing, the Daleks were basically conceived as space Nazi analogues, but grew beyond that because of their robust designs, distinctive voices and fiendishly evil personalities. The Daleks are a great concept for a monster, but they’re probably a bit difficult to write for as villains, for the same reasons as the Cybermen: they have very rigid motivations and they’ll only ever want one thing – the Daleks will always want to exterminate people, and the Cybermen will always want to convert more people into Cybermen. This is probably why a lot of Dalek episodes in NuWho involve them behaving out of character for some reason or another, in order to facilitate the main conflict of the plot.
In any case, Rob Shearman set out in this story to reestablish the Daleks as a major, credible threat to a new audience, while also daring to give them some complexity. The Dalek the Doctor encounters in Van Statten’s base shows how stubborn, stationary and utterly devoted each soldier is to the Dalek cause, but it also has to deal with the crushing idea that his entire race is dead and he is the only Dalek left in existence – completely alone in the universe because of the Doctor – when he wasn’t designed to have any other emotions besides fear, hatred and bloodlust. He has no purpose anymore, he undergoes something of an existential crisis, and it’s fascinating to see such a vile villain try to process this dilemma. With nothing left to lose, he breaks out to stubbornly fulfill his sole function – wiping out all other organic life on his own.
The Dalek may be an army of one, but this episode makes it clear that the cyborg singlehandedly wiping out humanity is actually a possibility, by showcasing how frightening of a concept the Daleks actually are. The Dalek slaughters every human it encounters without an once of mercy, and it does so effortlessly. Nothing they throw at it stops it or slows it down, and it keeps charging on like an unstoppable, invincible tank. The Daleks are seriously overpowered villains: the Doctor can usually handle them because he’s also an overpowered hero (search your feelings, you know it to be true), and because he and his friends have plot armor protecting them, but every redshirt in the vicinity is so screwed whenever the Daleks show up.
Still, even after he’s cleansed most of the base, the lone Dalek still feels empty inside. His existential crisis only seems to be getting worse, especially as his emotional range widens. The Dalek played on Rose’s human sympathies to steal his freedom, and in a bit of karmic justice, absorbing Rose’s DNA proves to be his undoing, since he also took on her humanity. He begins to mutate into a new lifeform that can doubt its ideology, imagine brand new things and appreciate organic beauty. The Dalek was damned from birth as a creature of hate and murder who knew no other way of life, and now it has a chance for a fresh start. I love that he rejects the opportunity. He would rather die than relinquish his purity or venture out into the terror that is the unknown, so he clings to his base nature and kills himself. He remains a bitter, insane racist to the end, afraid of a brave new world, albeit one the audience has gained a new understanding of and just a touch of sympathy for. In his own twisted way, the Dalek gains some closure and peace in death and is free to move on from the time war, while the Doctor is stuck soldiering on and shouldering his own inner demons.
Despite being sidelined for a change, “Dalek” is one of Rose’s best portrayals as a companion, showcasing her bravery and empathy that’s been allowed to shine more ever since she met the Doctor. When the Dalek is being tortured by soldiers, Rose goes down to comfort it and listen to its sob story about being the last of its species, playing right into its trap. Speaking of which, Rose must be really good at repressing some horrible memories. In this episode, doing what the Doctor would do and trying to be nice to a helpless alien winds up getting a base full of soldiers killed. Only two episodes later, trying to save her dad’s life winds up getting even more people killed by the reapers. That’s two stories in close proximity where Rose’s good intentions almost cause the end of the world, and as far as I can tell, she was not permanently scarred by them.
Another personality trait that I admire about Rose is that she always accepts responsibility for her decisions and where they’ve led her, and refusing to let the Doctor infantilize her by shouldering all the blame himself (though this case was mostly his fault); she did it in previous episodes as well as this one, when she thinks she’s going to be shot by the Dalek. Towards the end, Rose develops an unexpected, striking connection with the Dalek. When she realizes her DNA is causing it to question its purpose, she tries (and fails) to get it to embrace it’s new humanity. She also talks down the Doctor when he shows up looking for another fight, not liking what she’s seen of her friend’s behavior. After all the violence, rage and murder, I like that the emotional climax of this episode is just two, tired war veterans from opposing sides having one last, cathartic conversation, with Rose acting as a mediator, before the Dalek takes itself out of the picture, leaving Rose behind to offer the Doctor some emotional support.
Henry Van Statten (Corey Johnson) is a genius entrepreneur and an egoistical businessman on a power trip. The head man in charge of his secret underground bunker, he commands his own small army of mercenaries and a team of scientists who analyze alien technology so they can reverse engineer it – and be bites off way more than he can chew when he decides to study a captive Dalek. Mr. Van Statten is a pretty straightforward antagonist and basically embodies all the personality traits that could piss the Doctor off. He’s greedy, ruthless, arrogant and vain; he doesn’t appreciate the beauty of life or the finer details of the technology he’s studying, since he only cares about making a profit; he has a callous disregard for the lives of his own employees and considers them all to be disposable; and he only becomes cooperative when he wants to save his own ass from the Dalek.
He’s such a pathetic and morally defunct human being that he loops back around to being pitiful towards the end, and despite angrily protesting when his soldiers mutiny against him, he really got off easy. Considering he did everything he could to piss off the Doctor and a Dalek, he’s lucky one of those two people didn’t get rid of him themselves. In Mr. Van Statten’s employ is Adam, a cocky boy genius from across the pond. Adam is something of a braggart, but he’s mildly charming. He’s curious about alien technology and he would love to see the stars someday, which is why he took the job when Henry recruited him. Rose clearly fancies him, so she invites him onboard the TARDIS with her and the Doc at the end. The Doctor is clearly wary about how wise her decision is, but he still acquiesces her request, because she did him a major favor in this episode and he feels like he owes her. Adam doesn’t actually do much, since his appearance in this episode is mostly to set up the next one, but Bruno Langley is pleasant I suppose.
Joe Ahearne helms this episode as the director and he gives it a queasy, off-kilter atmosphere. Right from the pre-titles sequence, there’s something foreboding and unsettling about the way this episode is filmed, with plenty of tight, reserved angles and quiet moments of silence. The lighting and color grading probably contributes to it. While nearly all the other episodes before now have been bright, vivid, colorful and campy affairs, “Dalek” has an overall muted, gloomy and desaturated color scheme, filled with dull greys and flat browns. The choice subliminally suggests that the Daleks suck all the fun out of “Doctor Who” whenever they appear, an idea that will be far more in pronounced in the somber, dark blue finale, “Bad Wolf“. The cold, sharp Dalek POV shots are probably my favorite in the episode, as they heighten the unrelenting predator themes of the monster.
The CGI in this episode has improved a lot from the previous two-parter. While there’s still a bit of uncanny valley on display, the Dalek extermination effects are very effective in their brutality, and the cyborg floating up the stairs after Adam and Rose is a pretty intimidating image. Murray Gold composes a rich, dynamic, and almost overpowering score for the episode, his best one so far. The music he writes for the oppressive, villainous pepperpots, entitled “The Daleks“, is an electronic piece overlaid by a thundering, howling choir as the Dalek mows down everyone in it’s sight. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, Murray pens a surprisingly heartfelt and memorable cue for the creature’s send-off. “The Lone Dalek” is a stirring, morose theme, performed on lonely, languishing strings, that captures the song of the villain’s sorrow. It keeps returning to the same central melody again and again, searching for some form of closure, before it finally bows out with a freeing, choral crescendo. “The Lone Dalek” would later receive an equally bittersweet reprise in the closing minutes of “The Satan Pit”, the following series.
“Dalek” is a pretty great episode of “Doctor Who”, and a triumphant return for the evil, xenophobic pepperpots of doom. It’s kind of funny though, how the coda tries to fool the audience into thinking the Daleks are gone for good now that the last one has exterminated itself. There is no way in hell that the BBC would have killed off their cash-cow villains in only the sixth episode. We’re gonna be seeing some Daleks again in the finale.
* You wanna know how you can tell this episode aired a decade and a half ago, besides the dated special effects? The Doctor and Rose visit the year 2012, and Rose considers it to be the future. Well, that makes me feel old.
* Speaking of which, does Rose’s hair seem much bushier and frizzier than usual in this episode, like she just came back from the 1980’s?
* “The question is, how did you get in? Fifty three floors down, with your little cat burglar accomplice. You’re quite a collector yourself: she’s rather pretty” “She’s going to smack you if you keep calling her she”.
* “Mr. Van Statten owns the internet” “Don’t be stupid. No one owns the internet” “And let’s just keep the whole world thinking that way, right kids?”
* “Your race is dead! You all burnt, all of you. Ten million ships on fire. The entire Dalek race wiped out in one second!” “You lie!” “I watched it happen! I made it happen!” “You destroyed us?!”
* “We’re not the same! I’m not… No, wait. Maybe we are. You’re right, yeah, okay. You’ve got a point. ‘Cos I know what to do. I know what should happen. I know what you deserve. Exterminate!”
* “Thank you, Doctor, but I think I know how to handle a tin robot!” You know, there are some tropes you can always count on finding in movies and TV shows. Authority figures are almost always corrupt, policemen are almost always useless, and soldiers are almost always egotistical idiots.
* The Dalek makes sure to turn on the sprinklers so he can get all the soldiers wet, and then electrocutes the floor so he can save time and kill all of them at once. Did the Dalek watch “Carrie” by any chance, when he downloaded the internet?
* “What should I do?!” “Alright then, if you want orders: kill yourself” “The Daleks must survive!” “The Daleks have failed. Why don’t you finish the job and make the Daleks extinct? Rid the universe of your filth?! Why don’t you just die?!” “You would make a good Dalek”.
* “Let me tell you something, Van Statten. Mankind goes into space to explore. To be part of something greater!” “Exactly, I wanted to touch the stars!” “You just want to drag the stars down and stick them underground underneath tons of sand and dirt. And label them. You’re about as far from the stars as you can get!”
* “They’re all dead because of you!” “They are dead because of us!” Damn, bro.
* “You, in a fight? I’d like to see that” “I could do!” “What are you gonna do, throw your a-levels at them?”
* When Rose argues the Dalek is changing, she claims it couldn’t kill Van Statten as evidence. I’m pretty sure he was totally gonna blast that dude before Rose got in the way.
* One of the more stunning and cinematic visuals in this episode has to be Rose and the Dalek, the beauty and the beast, walking side-by-side as they try to get a glimpse of the outside world beyond the base, basking in sunlight together. Murray Gold’s bittersweet score on top of that completes the moment.
* “Are you frightened, Rose Tyler?” “Yeah” “So am I”.