Thursday, April 11, 2013

New Who Views: Daleks

The Daleks.

In classic Doctor Who, no enemy was more dangerous, no race was more feared, and no monster sent as many small British children hiding behind the sofa.

They needed to be a major part of the revival.

The Problem:
The new series had a major upgrade in effects technology and budget,

In the days of human legged giant ants, green painted bubble wrap transmutation and silver bondage pajamas with dryer hoses stuck on them, their look wasn’t a problem.

But how did they foster the proper sense of menace in the high definition digital domain of the current show with a Dalek looking like a bumpy pepper grinder with kitchen and bathroom accessories stuck on it?

Like everything else on New Doctor Who, they did it in stages that allowed Daleks to be successfully used in the climax of four of the first five seasons.

It all started with the sixth episode: Dalek.

Writer Rob Shearman approached the problem by asking his girlfriend, not a fan of the original show, everything she thought was silly about the Daleks, and attacked them one by one.  This led to the face sucking plunger scene, as well as the 360 degree rotating head and cannon, the force shield and, of course, hovering up stairs.

We old fans know they’ve been able to conquer stairs since 1988’s “Remembrance of the Daleks,” but viewers were in rapid decline by then, requiring a reaffirmation of the Daleks. (Wonder when they’ll use that title?)

The key to the credibility of the Dalek wasn’t primarily from what it did, however. It came from the way Eccleston played the Doctor’s reaction to it.  Here was a 900 year old time travelling alien who’d been from one end of the universe to the other.  He yelled at Rose for being narrow mindedly opposed to letting space gas ghosts inhabit the bodies of the dead, because, “Hey, what could go wrong?”

But when he saw a bumpy pepper grinder with kitchen and bathroom accessories stuck on it he completely lost it, and went psychotic…two separate times.
Once the threat of a single Dalek (to the ENTIRE WORLD) was established, a whole mess of them closed out the season.

Yet again in both “Bad Wolf” and “Parting of the Ways” we saw the Daleks push the Doctor to lose his cool.  We also got views into more of their evil than the destructive ability to take out elite troops and threaten the globe as shown in “Dalek.”  The intelligence and planning of the galaxy conquering race is demonstrated by revealing they had been a dark force slowing human progress (with a striking combination of religion and TV) and abducting people to swell their own ranks for centuries.

There was never an indication that ANY effort against the Daleks could deter, never mind stop, them as they slaughtered their way through Satellite Five and then headed for Earth, until the end of the story.

Finally, armed with an omnipotence upgrade, Rose (the compassionate character who talked the Doctor down from his initial Dalek inspired flip outs) deemed what appeared to be the entire Dalek race to be deserving of genocide at the end of the first new season. 

The effect of the Daleks was also greater than any formerly faced foe, leading to both the Ninth Doctor’s and Captain Jack’s death.  (Granted, they both got better, but that’s a separate feature of the show.)

Season two’s biggest return was the Cybermen, arguably easier to translate for a modern audience.  The suits and weapons were given visual and functional upgrades, and the theme of overdependence on technology coupled with the horrific representation of that technology causing a loss of humanity rendered them an immediately believable, visceral threat.

After clearly demonstrating the disturbingly easy way the Cybermen could take over both Pete’s world and the “real” one, terrifyingly converting known characters along the way, they were used in “Army of Ghosts” and “Doomsday” as jobbers for the Daleks.

For the non Professional Wrestling fans in the crowd, a “Jobber” is a skilled wrestler whose primary function is to lose to the star he is in competition with while making the star look good.

The abject fear the Doctor and his companions displayed when a handful of Daleks appeared AFTER the Cybermen effectively ruled the planet showed how powerful a threat they were. The Cult of Skaro’s trash talking after the Cybermen proposed an alliance was icing on the cake.  I’m putting the whole exchange here, because…

Cyber Leader: Daleks, be warned. You have declared war upon the Cybermen.
Dalek Sec: This is not war. This is pest control!
Cyber Leader: We have five million Cybermen. How many are you?
Dalek Sec: Four.
Cyber Leader: You would destroy the Cybermen with four Daleks?
Dalek Sec: We would destroy the Cybermen with one Dalek! You are superior in only one respect.
Cyber Leader: What is that?
Dalek Sec: You are better at dying.

…It was awesome.

Basically it proclaimed, “You may be a giant, evil army that conscripts people with a nightmare combination of the common fears of automation and surgery and has conquered the Earth without expending an ounce of effort - but next to four bumpy pepper grinders with kitchen and bathroom accessories stuck on them, you suck.”

And once more, the Doctor’s biggest losses, in this case Rose, came after battling the Daleks.

Season three brought “Daleks in Manhattan” and “Evolution of the Daleks,” which added an important piece of the Skaro puzzle back in.  The Daleks have always been very clearly based on the Nazis. (As were almost all villains in British media for a long period after World War Two, for understandable reasons.)  Mad Experimental Scientists/Evil Genetic Engineers have been a large portion of that, both in the Dalek origin stories, and later tales.  While earlier episodes referenced somehow increasing their ranks by capturing humans, it was never explained or done on screen.  There were no obvious visuals rivaling the disconcerting Cyber-conversion.

The Frankensteinian nature of Dalek scientists was brought to the fore in this tale.  Progress through MWA-HA-HA-HA laboratory work was the name of the game.

One personal note that I noticed in this episode:  Hovering Daleks increases the fear factor, because they can get you even after climbing. However, I found flying Daleks much less scary.  I think it’s because they seem more powerful and confident if they don’t have to expend the effort to hurry up when they want to kill you.

The big call back party for the Tennant years, “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End,” brought in an entire fleet of Daleks and Davros, plus an insane, broken, precognitive Dalek, in case the monstrous withered husk of their creator wasn’t disturbing enough.

Again, it wasn’t only the plan that made the Daleks a viable threat. (Although, destroying all of reality is kind of hard to top, as far as plans that are a viable threat go.) It was the reactions of the characters.

Sarah Jane and Captain Jack had seen, fought, and beaten countless human, alien, and era and dimension displaced foes in Doctor Who and their own spin offs. They’d seen whole armies, god like beings, time shifting reality warpers and even “THE! Loch Ness! Monster!” defeated.  Yet when bumpy pepper grinders with kitchen and bathroom accessories stuck on them appeared in the sky, it was, “Oh crap! We’re all gonna die,” time.

Martha, who witnessed a half subjugated/half destroyed world, not only rescued, but returned to pre craptacular event goodness through only the power of, “Clap your hands if you believe in Time Lords,” was ready to blow up the Earth because the Daleks couldn’t possibly be defeated.

Yet again, the Doctor’s most painful losses (his woman sealed in another universe with a replacement, his best friend no longer allowed to remember him) came after fighting his worst enemies.  There’s little doubt that Russell T Davies and company had returned the Daleks to their former glory.

Then it was up to Steven Moffat to make them scary.

Maybe it’s just me, but I found the polite, tea offering Ironsides in “Victory of the Daleks” more horrifying than any Dalek appearance before or since.   Besides my personal weirdness issues, this episode had several very important points to it.

A) Showing the scientific brilliance of the Daleks, as well as their ruthless tactical intelligence, allowing them to first trick the Doctor, using his hatred of them, and then escape based on understanding his “weakness” of caring for others.

B)  Highlighting that The Doctor and The Daleks are each intrinsic to the other’s definition, and in doing so, cementing their arch enemy status.

And by that defining: “I am the Doctor, you are the Daleks…”

C) Bringing back true, pure Aryan…I mean Dalek…DNA - not only sledgehammering home the Naziesque racial purity side of the Dalek mindset, but also continuing Moffat’s returning elements from the classic series.  (You’ll notice his Cybermen are from Mondas, the Ice Warriors and Zygons are on the way, and there’s a familiar face in the opening credits.)

Russell T Davies’ and Julie Gardeners’ step by step approach to rebuild the new series was exactly what was needed to pull in viewers without having them need knowledge of thirty years of back story. However, once they established the sandbox, filled it with toys and settled new crowds of fans into it, Moffat’s full on crazy style of toy building and play in that sandbox could flourish and be appreciated.

The pure Daleks took up leadership positions amidst the Doctor’s foes in the fifth season penultimate chapter, “The Big Bang.”  The next episode really demonstrated how strongly they’d come back.  In the “Pandorica Opens” a Dalek cowering in terror is used to establish that River Song was one mind bogglingly dangerous lady.  The scene only worked because of five seasons of excellent writing and acting developing a bumpy pepper grinder with kitchen and bathroom accessories stuck on it into the most feared race in the galaxy.

By season seven, the appearance of the Daleks automatically generated fear in the viewer for the safety of the characters.  However, it still didn’t make them scary in and of themselves, not counting my tea offering issues. 

That’s where “Asylum of the Daleks” shone.  For the man who made telephones, ticking clocks, statues, shadows, tally marks, and later Wi-Fi scary, it’s about time the new show runner got around to this classic foe.

The thought of, “What is a crazy Dalek?” is pretty unnerving all by itself.  Instead of following that route directly though, Steven Moffat went for a different angle.  The title of this season’s opener might as well have been “Haunted House of the Daleks.” 

And not only were the bumpy pepper grinders with kitchen and bathroom accessories stuck on them in the haunted house…they could also have been IN YOUR HEAD or REANIMATING THE DEAD!!!!!!

Yes, Moffat turned the old Robotmen idea into Were-Daleks and Zombie-Daleks!

Meet you behind the sofa.


longbow said...

I also liked the idea of crazy Daleks and I thought that was quite explored enough.

We'll know this incarnation has gone soft when they do "Daily affirmation of the Daleks":
I'm smart enough
I'm evil enough
and dog-gone-it, I'm going exterminate all other forms of sentient life.

Jeff McGinley said...

Thanx for posting. Yeah, the crazy Daleks were only residents of the "haunted house" it would have been nice to look deeper into some of them.

Looking forward to the Stewart Smalley Dalek now.

longbow said...

This can't presage anything good

Jeff McGinley said...


Thanx for the warning.