Sunday, 14 September 2008

Dr Who 2005 and Beyond...the Return of the Metaltron...

Watching ‘Dalek’ now – three years and a handful of more bombastic Dalek episodes later – it’s quite difficult to know what to make of it. As the resurrected series’ first ‘sit-up-and-take-notice’ episode since ‘Rose’ it stills packs a punch, it still reminds you how the series has changed (for the better) in its new century. Bigger, bolder, with special effects the old series could only wistfully dream of and, even in the story of a rampant monster on the loose intent on mass destruction, still able to pack the new emotional punch the series is looking for. But hindsight does strange things; looking at this story of the fractured survivor of a devastated race – that’d the Dalek as well as the Doctor - it’s really hard not to be coloured by the knowledge of the Dalek invasions to come, of the return of their maniacal creator in the most recent series finale, and of the fact that…well, actually, despite all the angst and the self-pity, this isn’t the last Dalek, not by the longest of long chalks.

Once again the series calls into the question its own peculiar timeline. ‘The Unquiet Dead’ suggests that time is in flux – nothing’s set in stone, nothing’s necessarily as it appears to be and things can change at any time in any time. This is the only way we can reconcile the enormous continuity problem thrown up by ‘Dalek’. Set in 2012, deep below the salt plains of Utah, Henry Van Statten is holding captive, in chains, a living alien artefact which plunged, screaming, to Earth years before. We know it, of course, but he doesn’t – and neither, presumably, does the rest of the human race. He calls it a ‘Metaltron’. As you would. But bearing in mind that, in Dr Who’s own TV future, the Daleks attack Earth en masse twice just a few years earlier – the battle of Canary Wharf with the Cybermen which concludes series two and the whole planet being invaded by Dalek battleships and the Earth itself being moved across the Galaxy at the end of series four – you’d think that there might just be someone out there who vaguely remembers any of it happening! Quite frankly it gives me a severe case of brain-ache to try and reconcile this any other way than by use of the ‘time in flux’ theory – it’s handy, it’s convenient, yet it somehow makes anything and everything that ever happens in the series almost seem a bit trivial because none of it necessarily happens in any timeline the Doctor finds himself. Whoops, there goes my brain, starting to ache a bit…

But back in 2005, the world of Dr Who is shiny and new and these are problems for the future (and, frankly, they’re ones which don’t seem to bother any of the ten million odd devotees the show now has so maybe I should just put my anorak away) and episode six of the new series (cleverly placed mid-season to give the show a useful publicity/ratings boost if needed), after much legal wrangling with the estate of Dalek creator Terry Nation who, incredibly, weren’t initially best pleased at the idea of Nation’s creations returning to their spiritual home, tentatively reintroduces the series’ most famous icon. And Rob Shearman’s script cleverly does the trick by not only re-establishing the Dalek as an implacable, unstoppable killing machine, pitiless and entirely without conscience, but also by examining the nature of what makes a Dalek what it is by introducing a random element of humanity – Rose’s absorbed DNA – into the creature’s genetic make-up. Such is the strength of the script that the audience actually finds itself sympathising with the Dalek’s anguish as it struggles not to be human but still craves the feeling of sunlight on its hideous mutated flesh and makes the final, most human decision if all – to take its own life.

Beyond its examination of the Dalek the episode also nicely counterpoints the differences – and the chilling similarities – between the Doctor and the Dalek. Both are the last of their kind (except, as we now know, they’re not) and both are living with the guilt of being the only survivors of the terrible Time War which wiped them all out (except, as we now know, it didn’t!). It’s the Dalek that seems to deal with it most rationally – it resorts to type, exterminating everyone in sight and setting out on a killing spree, behaving exactly as Daleks do because it know no better (until Rose’s DNA starts to do its work). The Doctor, however, is clearly a man battling with his demons. He’s uncharacteristically – and disturbingly – terrified when he’s trapped in the cell with the chained-up Dalek – and then he gloats manically when he realises the Dalek is powerless and he resorts to goading it into destroying itself. But the Dalek has got the measure of the last Time Lord, telling him that they are not so different from one another and, in one memorable sequence after the Doctor has been raging at his enemy, suggesting to the Doctor that "You would make a good Dalek." It’s an idea that brings the Doctor up short and it seems to hit home. It’s underlined in the scene where the Doctor sets out to destroy the Dalek with the biggest, baddest gun he can get his hands on – even Rose is appalled, demanding to know what, as the Dalek turns human, the Doctor might be turning into… Interesting themes and ideas sadly not really touched upon again in any depth in the series.

Like the best Dr Who episodes though, ‘Dalek’ works on several levels and one of those is clearly a big action adventure episode in its own right. Director Joe Ahearne really works at making the Dalek, this relic from a more innocent TV time, a formidable fighting machine for the twenty-first century. Cleverly redesigned so it actually looks like a tank rather than the rather wobbly fibre-glass casing of the old days, Ahearne’s powerful direction presents the Dalek in all its glory, its centre-section swivelling to wipe out rear-end attackers and, of course, the script goes to great pains to kill off, once and for all, the old ‘Daleks can’t go upstairs!’ gag. Now Daleks do go upstairs (albeit quite slowly) and they float and hover and fly too. There’s nowhere to hide any more. It’s a genuine thrill to see the Dalek wipe out the soldiers in its initial escape from its cell and the sequence of the Dalek in the hangar exterminating en masse by turning on the fire extinguisher system and electrifying the water is beautifully-realised. Some problems remain, though; Rose and new boy Adam Mitchell spend a lot of the episode running away very fast from a Dalek which, it has to be said, is moving very slowly indeed. But such is the power of the script and the direction that in some ways this makes it even more terrifying; the creature has been established as powerful and unstoppable and watching it glide, unhurriedly, along corridors and into hangars, serves to emphasise the fact that there’s no escape from this machine, that it’ll find you and exterminate you wherever you hide, however long it takes.
Christopher Eccleston clearly relishes the challenges of Shearman’s wordy script. His first encounter with the Dalek is hair-raising stuff, the Doctor’s dialogue full of fury and venom and when Rose challenges him as he’s about to destroy the Dalek just for once the Doctor’s almost speechless, as if his inner despair has finally consumed him and there’s nothing he can say. The coda to the episode, with the Doctor and Rose about to set off, seems to close a certain chapter in the Doctor’s life as he sadly has to come to accept that he’s the last of his kind, there’s no-one else out there. He’s seen off the last of his enemies (except, as we now know, he hasn’t!) and in some ways that makes him more alone than ever. Billie Piper continues to impress, flirting with Adam and then facing up to the Dalek when it looks like her number’s up. And ultimately it’s Rose who talks the Dalek down, persuades it that there’s more to life than killing and finally, reluctantly, orders it to destroy itself when she recognises that its torment at becoming humanised is more than it can bear.

There’s a new boy aboard the TARDIS as it sets off into space. But ‘Dalek’ isn’t about him and as he joins the TARDIS crew the audience is wondering quite why he’s there and if his presence his going to upset the new TARDIS dynamic. As we’ll see in ‘The Long Game’ that just isn’t going to happen…

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