Tuesday, 30 October 2012

I, Pepperpot

Doctor Who
Series One, Episode Six

Doctor Who and the Daleks.  They're synonymous.  Show someone with no idea about Doctor Who a picture of a Dalek, there's a good chance they'll know it's not a novelty spice-grinder.  So it was a safe bet that when the show came back, the angry pepperpots would turn up as well, ready to terrify and fascinate a new generation of kiddywinks.  (Though this nearly didn't happen due to copyright issues.  You've got to wonder what else the Daleks had planned besides coming back to Doctor Who.  Village fetes?)  It falls to Robert Shearman, adapting his dark Daleky audiodrama Jubilee, to do the honours.

Some Daleks still work as after-dinner speakers,
usually with limited success.
We waste no time getting to the introductions.  The TARDIS is summoned by a distress call to the last Dalek in existence, loitering in a billionaire's dungeon and refusing to talk.  The Doctor strolls in hoping to help a distressed alien, but all he has to do is say his name.  Familiar lights flash.  "Doc-tor?  THE... DOC-TOR?"  Uh.  Oh.

I can only imagine what this must be like for someone who didn't grow up afraid of these things, but this scene is one big chill down my spine.  The direction nothing but a blue light visible, until those first words – makes it an instant classic.  And Christopher Eccleston knocks it up a notch: the Doctor's sheer terror, followed by venomous hatred, tells us all we need to know about Daleks in seconds.  We also find out who the Time War was against, what the Doctor's involvement was, and why he's been so sullen and guilty since he came back.  "I watched it happen.  I made it happen!"  It's all there.  What a scene.

But squint, listen, and you'll notice something odd going on here.  Nicholas Briggs (undisputed king of Dalek voices) has more to do here than just shout the E word:  "I... AM... ALONE."  Down goes the eyestalk, the music going sad along with it.  Wait, wait, no, stop, stop I say!  The Daleks have been back thirty seconds and they're already acting sympathetic?  A sympathetic Dalek?  Couldn't it just sit there and be scary as hell for a little while?  I know the episodes are only 45 minutes nowadays, but are we really in that much of a hurry to de-fang the show's most famous, most popular, most scary creation?

It's not enough to ruin the scene completely, and I'll poke anyone in the nose who says that it is.  But it highlights something annoying that festers at the heart of this episode: is the Dalek scary, or isn't it?  You can have scary Daleks (and you should), and you can have not-scary Daleks (you probably shouldn't), but it seems crazy to attempt both in their first episode back.

Still, at least it is both.  When Rose meets Tim Nice-But-Dalek and offers her sympathies (because she's never met one so how should she know?), Briggs plucks at our heartstrings like a drunk puppeteer, but once she gives him a sympathetic pat full of useful DNA, it turns out he's fibbing!  I love this.  Depressing as it is to hear all that "I'M GLAD I MET A HUMAN WHO WASN'T AFRAID OF ME" stuff, and oh boy is it depressing, it's totally in character for a Dalek to lie, cheat and manipulate to get what it wants.  That'll teach Rose for not listening when someone says "Whatever you do, don't touch the Dalek."  It doesn't quite redeem the sad-Dalek stuff, because they've barely even started on that yet, but at least it's a second great Dalek moment.  Hoorah for that.

Pretty soon the inevitable occurs, and the Dalek starts doing what it does best.  (What it does best rhymes with "Frecksterminate.")  Downloading the entire internet might not be its biggest asset; it now "knows everything", so presumably all about kittens, movie trivia and adult entertainment.  But it's soon back to its former glory, and yeah, the new bronze design looks terrifyingly gorgeous.  The Doctor's "release me if you want to live" is a nice nod to The Terminator, and a good way to keep the Dalek scary (though perhaps not as scary as Topless Eccleston).  The Dalek's effortless and eye-popping extermination of everyone it sees puts paid to any images of little men sat inside shaking sink plungers and egg-whisks.  This thing means business, and no, getting up those stairs will not be a problem.

Then the episode's subtext drops by to say "Coo-ee!", and the Dalek tells the Doctor "YOU WOULD MAKE A GOOD DALEK."  Now, hold your horses there, Mr Metaltron: the Doctor might identify with it, because they're both the last survivors and both feel somewhat superfluous in the universe.  But that's about as far as the comparison goes.  This stuff's great acting-fodder, mind you: the Doctor's empathy and even, on some level, respect for the Dalek makes a complicated brew of emotions whenever they face off against each other, and Eccleston sells the long history between them every time he's on screen.  But the Doctor needn't lose any sleep over this.  Did he blow up the Daleks?  Yes.  Does he order this Dalek to die, in effect trying to exterminate it?  Yes.  Because as far as he knows, it's going to get out and kill everybody.  Because that's what Daleks do, it's all they do.  The Doctor himself says that a Dalek is motivated by hate and wanting to destroy everything that's different, and the Doctor isn't like that, so that's that, really.

But they won't let it lie.  Pretty soon Rose's DNA gives it a bad case of emotional turmoil, and while the Doctor's itching to reset the Dalek population to zero (the bastard, with his comprehensive knowledge and experience of Daleks!), all the Dalek wants is to feel the sunlight.  Ugh.  Look, it's just too soon to start re-assessing what Daleks are really like.  Having this one pathetically wiggling its tentacles and mewling about feelings would be horrible anyway, but it's their first episode.  It's like The Terminator, if Ahnuld played a friendly robot before playing a scary one, or Darth Vader telling Luke he wants to look on him with his own eyes, except in the first Star Wars movie.  The whole point is that the character has grown and changed, but that takes time.  You can't run before you can walk.

The Doctor Learns and Grows as a result of Rose's telling off – "He's not the one pointing the gun at me!  What the hell are you changing into?" – but that's wrong, too.  Rose doesn't know Daleks.  This particular pepperpot is having an identity crisis, sure, and it won't kill her, but it's still an absolute danger to everyone else.  Or did she fail to notice stepping over a bunch of corpses?  This is typical Rose, assuming she's A) the most important person involved and B) knows more than anyone else, except possibly the Doctor.  Her obvious glee at knowing more about aliens than Adam, The Boy Genius, is tinged with superiority.  At least the Doctor recognises that the humanity she's passed onto the Dalek is poisonous to it – Rose, the Best Person In The Universe, naturally assumes it's "better"

It's an important watershed moment for the Doctor – "I'm the only one left.  I win.  How about that" and Eccleston's on fire, when he's not made to say dreadful Learn And Grow dialogue like "Oh Rose, they're all dead!"  Rose applies what she's learned so far, but she's not in full possession of the facts, and compassionate as she is, 200 people are still dead.  It's supposed to be a strong episode for both of them, but nope, not quite.  And as for their relationship, the Doctor in fact never said he'd protect her (there was a whole thing about him not saying it last week), and the Dalek's got no reason at all to call Rose "the woman you love".  I smell a Russell T Davies rewrite.

The cast, not to mention all those juicy American accents, add a nice action movie flavour to it.  Henry Van Statten makes a delectable intermediate baddie.  But Bruno Langley's not the most nuanced actor, so I'm not exactly thrilled to have Adam come aboard at the end.  Yet more typical Rose self-importance: she invites him without first clearing it with the pilot.  Hey, I'm sure that'll work out and won't be a total disaster...

The premise doesn't work, as after all those exterminated corpses it's a bit rich to ask us to sympathise.  But the important bit is the corpses.  Ignore the violin soundtrack.  On some level, those scariest of monsters are back, they look better than ever, and don't pretend you're not glad to see them.


  1. Good review.

    The important thing about the Dalek killing itself at the end is, I think, that it's so *revolted* at its added bit of humanity and disgusted by its new emotions that it just offs itself. I've always thought that's pretty interesting and also foregrounds the "human hybrid" Daleks of The Parting Of The Ways, who are far more insane and far more dangerous than anything we saw in Asylum Of The Daleks - with its "millions of insane Daleks even the Daleks are supposed to be scared of but are just like normal Daleks really so don't worry" schtick - simply because the fact they've got all this alien stuff in their make-up is enough to send them crackers.

    As for "I smell a Russell T Davies rewrite" - you'd better get used to that. He rewrote everything in Series I bar the two Moffat episodes. And, as Moffat points out, RTD even did a bit of writing on at least one of those as well.

  2. Fair enough. At least the episodes are a bit consistent in that way. (Although there's a serious issue with Father's Day from a Script Editing p.o.v. More on that in a couple of days...)

  3. I just went and double-checked that they were there. And, yep. So, thanks for making me do that.

  4. You're a Doctor Who obsessive. Counting Doctor nipples is part of the territory.

  5. "Some Daleks still work as after-dinner speakers, usually with limited success."

    But they *are* very dynamic speakers. Really get to the point and such passion in their cause!