The Good: Character development, Plot progression, Impressive acting (especially by Christopher Eccleston)
The Bad: Thematically heavy-handed in context
The Basics: “Dalek” restores a single villainous adversary to the Doctor Who universe . . . with powerful results for The Doctor and Rose.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation, one of the most compelling character arcs involved Captain Jean-Luc Picard wrestling with the consequences of his abduction by the villainous Borg. In one of the few serialized elements of the largely episodic series, Picard’s emotional confrontation with a single Borg was explored in a popular and powerful episode called “I, Borg” (reviewed here!). It is tough for genre fans not to make a comparison between “I, Borg” and the Doctor Who episode “Dalek.”
For those not hip on Doctor Who, the most popular, powerful, recurring villains are the Daleks. The 2006 Doctor Who reboot was set following the end of the Great Time War, which was alluded to in bits and pieces throughout the first five episodes. In “Dalek,” the conflict is made a bit more explicit as The Doctor is forced to wrestle with the consequences of his actions that resolved the Great Time War. Unfortunately, The Doctor was responsible for the genocide of the entire race that fought the Time Lords. The Doctor was the last surviving Time Lord, but in ending the Great Time War, he supposedly destroyed each and every Dalek in existence. In “Dalek,” The Doctor finds out that he is not the only survivor of the Great Time War: there is a single Dalek alive as well!
The TARDIS is drawn off course to 2012 Utah where The Doctor and Rose find themselves in a subterranean museum. The facility is packed with artifacts that are all related to The Doctor’s prior adventures and experiences (like a stuffed Slitheen arm and a Cyberman head). The museum’s owner is Henry Van Stanton, who promptly captures The Doctor and Rose. Van Stanton is keen on information on his one living specimen in his collection, a creature he calls a Metaltron and that has life readings inside its metal shell. The creature is a Dalek and despite the Doctor’s initial fear of it, he is delighted when it turns out the Dalek is powerless and unable to harm him. Revealing the nature of the Daleks to Van Stanton, Henry Van Stanton realizes that The Doctor is not human.
With The Doctor captured, Rose – who has befriended Van Stanton’s genius assistant, Adam Mitchell – witnesses the Dalek being tortured. Feeling compassion for the creature, Rose breaks into the chamber that houses the Dalek and, as it appears to die, she reaches out and touches its metal housing. That allows the Dalek to extrapolate her DNA and regenerate its organic component. Repaired and absorbing the whole of human knowledge from the internet, the Dalek goes on a killing spree and menaces the entire facility. To prevent the Dalek from killing everyone, Rose and The Doctor use captured alien technology to slow the Dalek down. In the ensuing combat, The Doctor puts Rose in mortal peril and together they work to keep the menace contained to the facility.
The emotional punch of “Dalek” comes at the episode’s outset and climax, with a long stretch in between where the episode degenerates into a firefight between Van Stanton’s forces and the Dalek. The initial reactions of The Doctor when confronted with the Dalek takes the character through the entire emotional range and it’s an impressive acting exercise for Christopher Eccleston. Realistically, Eccleston portrays The Doctor as horrified, then euphoric, then angry and the transitions hardly seem erratic as they would from a lesser actor. When The Doctor witnesses the might of the Dalek, Eccleston’s portrayal of utter shock is incredible.
“Dalek” features decent transitions between the action-packed portions and the philosophical elements. Despite the somewhat abrupt initial transition from a very conversation-realistic (if not heavy) episode to an extended chase sequence that is light on dialogue and heavy on gunplay. But then, Doctor Who fans and those who like good television have reason to rejoice; “Dalek” turns philosophical with The Doctor actually talking with the Dalek. When Stanton’s people are unable to keep the bulkheads in the bunker open, the episode utilizes the opportunity to have The Doctor go on a moralistic tirade. It’s refreshing to watch science fiction that has a philosophical component and watching both The Doctor and Rose debate with the confused Dalek is intriguing and interesting to watch.
The episode, however, is a little more problematic in context. “Dalek” is episode six and three of the five adversaries from those episodes have identical motivations. The villain in “The End Of The World” (reviewed here!) and in the Slitheen arc are both after profit. Greed is a motivation for villains, but so far it’s the motivation for all the big villains and with Henry Van Stanton being motivated by profit motive, too, the theme is getting pretty stale by this point. That said, within the episode, the theme works wonderfully. Van Stanton’s greed is a foil to the Dalek, which wants nothing other than to exert its superiority over all other life forms, and because it cannot be bribed, only a philosophical battle makes sense for resolving the conflict.
Amid the philosophy and character journey for The Doctor, one which is intended to bring him some sense of peace following the issues that brought him to Earth at the outset of the series, the relationship between The Doctor and Rose Tyler deepens. This episode marks a departure from the usual flirting between The Doctor and Rose and instead it gives them a chance to explore something more intense. After Rose flirts with Adam, she tries to absolve The Doctor of his guilt when she is convinced she will be killed by the Dalek. That moment is an intense bonding moment that cements their relationship in a way that the prior episodes have only been building to. That an emotionless Dalek can recognize The Doctor’s love for Rose pretty much codifies the implicit romance between them.
On the design front, “Dalek” makes an intriguing implicit statement about the relationship between the Time Lords and Daleks. The Daleks are designed with a color scheme and metal balls that are similar to the interior of the TARDIS. That the two opposing races are so, apparently, intertwined, seems to imply that the Daleks and Time Lords are really only philosophically different and in their technological focus (destruction vs. exploration).
“Dalek” is not quite on the philosophical level of “I, Borg,” though it makes a powerful statement and is a solidly entertaining hour of television. This is one of the more impressive conceptual episodes of Doctor Who that actually pushes forward the characters as opposed to working hard to sell a convoluted plot or audacious theme. The Doctor is a fun and interesting character, but the conflict in this episode does not quite reach a philosophical peak that one might hope for (Rose actually has one of the biggest epiphanic moments).
[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete First Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the sole season with the Ninth Doctor here!
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