Daleks! Well, Dalek.
It isn’t perfect, but it *is* a huge improvement on the previous story, and actually a strong contender for the best episode of the new series so far.
To get my quibbles out of the way up front: the introduction to Mr Collector Guy is much too broad. After a promising start, his whole walk-and-talk is the kind of OTT Kid’s TV characterisation that hamstrung Aliens of London. Satire is one thing, but it doesn’t excuse lazy sitcom writing in a drama.
My other niggle is an image of Arnold Schwarzenegger uttering the words “I know now why you cry”, which the end of this episode brings irresistibly to mind. However, in its defence it manages to successfully walk the line between pathos and bathos, whereas Terminator 2 meanders drunkenly all over the line shouting “You’re my besht mate, you are”.
So, onto the good points.
The opening “alien museum” scene is not only one of those iconically cool ideas, but it makes me actively squee at the sight of a Tom Baker ‘Revenge of the Cybermen’ era helmet. The Doctor’s solemn contemplation of the helmet, through its reflection, is an early indication of why this episode works: because it respects continuity, but is not anally retentive about explaining every last detail, and because it uses classic monsters to bring out fascinating aspects of the Doctor.
The rest of the episode is an archetypal Doctor Who premise; the Doctor and his companion arrive into a hermetically sealed environment under threat, and must overcome initial antagonism to fight alongside the inhabitants. It does give things a new spin, however, and the psychological complexity of the episode is streets ahead of your typical “base under seige” storyline.
The Dalek itself has undergone a subtle but important redesign that simply works. Everything about it is harder, chunkier, more militaristic and less…. well, plywood. Even its movement is smoother and more purposeful, and it never once feels like a bloke in a wooden box. Added to that, the episode takes all of the classic denigrations (“pepper pot”, “dustbin”) and steamrollers right through them. The Dalek can now swivel its midsection, levitate, deflect bullets, regenerate, put its ridiculous sucker to useful purpose, and even plan a combat strategy. In all ways it is a competent killing machine, and the potentially laughable aspects of its design are kept firmly in the background. I could have done without the “el-e-vate”, and all the standing around staring at it, but otherwise this was a much-improved Dalek. You only have to watch Doctor Who Confidential on BBC3 to remind yourself just how improved.
As pleasing as all that is, the most significant asset this Dalek has on its side is Christopher Eccleston. From the outset it’s his reactions which sell us on this creature, and the threat it represents. If he’d wisecracked his way through the episode in cheesy grin mode, the whole thing would have collapsed, but his fear, hatred and guilt are a marvel to behold, and absolutely key to the episode’s success. He even goes so far as to “sacrifice” Rose to prevent the Dalek’s escape, and given all that we’ve seen of their relationship to date, this is an extremely revealing moment.
Rose is put to good use here, as usual representing the human, emotional response to the situation, and very importantly coming to the Dalek “cold” without any of the shared history with which the Doctor is struggling. It must be said that this episode comes dangerously close to doing an “I, Borg” on the Daleks. The introduction of emotions to an implacable foe is generally a big mistake. Even the aforementioned I, Borg, although a good episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, was the beginning of the end for the Borg as a credible threat, because it undermined the very thing which made them appealing; their unreasoning implacability. Thankfully Doctor Who handles this in a way that preserves the essence of the Dalek’s characterisation. Rose builds a relationship with the Dalek which is largely one-sided, and she does this without overly sentimentalising it, naming it or becoming its best mate ever. Ultimately the Dalek doesn’t sacrifice itself out of nobility or concern for others, but because it’s been “contaminated” and it can’t face living that way. This ties in with the Doctor’s nod to the Dalek’s Nazi-like obsession with its own racial purity and superiority. Indeed, the more I think about the episode’s resolution, the darker it becomes.
It must be said that the counterpointing of the Doctor and the Dalek is hardly subtle, but it is however dark, interesting and satisfying, and it shows more clearly than any example I can name why this show is not just kids TV, but also has sensibilities which appeal to a broader demographic. The Doctor is struggling with anger towards the Dalek for its part in destroying his people, but more importantly he’s angry at it because its race made him into a killer. We’re accustomed to the Doctor showing compassion to even the most evil of creatures, but here he wants it dead because ironically it’s the only way to eradicate his guilt. The Dalek, meanwhile, finds itself with feelings of its own, but these cause it to question its identity, and its purpose. As the Doctor rediscovers his equilibrium, the Dalek loses its own. In a sense, this is fairly broad stuff, verging on the twee at times, but it does work, and it avoids most of the cuddly cliches in favour of some surprisingly dark ideas.
Overall I have my reservations about some of the episode’s more sentimental moments, but mostly it’s crisply written, intelligent skiffy with a nice line in dark psychology. The OTT humour is kept to a severe minimum. A few more like this would do very nicely.