Friday, 9 August 2013
The Daleks. Almost synonymous with Doctor Who, they've been part of (and largely responsible for) the series' success since the very beginning. But they've also been derided, their menace undermined. Not just by spoofs like Spike Milligan's, or the Kit-Kat advert, but also by the show itself. Not this time. This episode deliberately presents us with a terrifying, murderous, hard-as-nails Dalek as if to say "Oh, were you laughing at THIS?" It's no coincidence that the first victim smugly sneers at the humble plumber's sink plunger before it grasps hold of his face and starts audibly crushing bones (our first Behind The Sofa moment of the new series too). The Dalek smashes its way free and starts blazing death in all directions until the puny fleeing humans start to climb a staircase. Cue more smugness, from Adam this time as he mocks the last child of Skaro for its most famous inadequacy.
Some context. It's been said, I forget where, sorry, that there are layers to being a DW fan, like geological strata. The first is knowing the Daleks can fly because of Dalek. The second is remembering or discovering the 1988 cliffhanger where Sylvester McCoy is chased up some stairs by one that can float. The third is watching the 1965 Mary Celeste-set episode of The Chase, in which a Dalek is shown on the upper deck, and instinctively grasping that it can only have got there by levitating - bonus points for pointedly ignoring that it doesn't just fly away when crew members push it into the sea soon afterwards. But out there, amongst normal humans, if you stopped and asked one hundred of them to say anything at all about the Daleks before this epsiode, ninety-nine of them would have said "They're a bit rubbish aren't they? They can't go up stairs."
The renewal of the Dalek in this episode, the beefed-up design, the competence and efficiency with which it achieves its objectives, all this is a metaphor for the show itself. It partially explains why there is so much sympathy for the Dalek creature in this episode. When it starts exacting its horrible revenge upon the humans who have persecuted it, I am cheering it on. It is showing all the doubters what this silly old programme can do, taking all the old criticism and ridicule and exterminating them. Dalek is the episode where Doctor Who throws off the shackles and stands up for itself. It is wonderful.
But its not just jaded old fanboys who take the Dalek's side here. Brilliantly, this episode effortlessly coaxes empathy from its audience for this most unhuman creature. It goes beyond being a radical or original take on the Daleks and into sheer iconoclasm. It's entirely unambiguous: this Dalek is a victim, its suffering is genuine and even undeserved. Rose offers us this new perspective, showing us how our own humanity makes us capable of feeling sorry for something so unlike ourselves. How is it that we can do this and yet still dehumanise and detest our own kind? Unfortunately, for this particular Dalek, this is a two-way street and it to begins to find itself experiencing new feelings like pity and compassion while the Doctor simultaneously is overcome by his survivor's guilt, transformed into a gun-wielding, hate-filled figure.
It's all the more extraordinary because of what comes after. There isn't a single Dalek story after this which makes them anywhere near as scary or as interesting as they are here, and only Asylum of the Daleks is able to provide anything like the fresh perspective of Dalek.
This episode had a notable effect on viewers at the time. The Daily Mirror's TV critic (to pick one) wrote "for 30 pant-shittingly wonderful minutes, BBC1's new Doctor Who was the best thing on telly. Ever."
William, similarly blown away, called it "the saddest Doctor Who story I can remember", which is startling. He gave it a 10. Chris just about kept the lid on, giving it a 9: "it was a little bit sad but a lot cool." I'm amazed and delighted by their response to these old episodes: they haven't once been bored or unimpressed. I'm choosing not to decide that this means there might be something unformed about their critical faculties (I know all too well that they can find all sorts of wonderful things dull if the mood takes them). Rather I wonder if their lack of familiarity with these shows has thrown them off guard: this is New Who as far as they're concerned, but will they be as kind to later Tennant and Smith episodes that they know better? Or will they have to find some bigger numbers?