Wednesday, May 21, 2008

view from the panopticon- dalek

4-14-06 “Dalek”

“If you can’t kill, what are you good for?” –The Doctor, to the Dalek

Oh my gaaaaaaaaaawwwd. This show is so good. [Daleks are] villains who tended to be overused up into the mid-1980s. But this episode takes such a new approach—and Christopher Eccelston is so good—that the episode can proudly usher in a new Dalek era.

The opening was great—how many times have we seen an episode start with the TARDIS materializing?—and the alien museum was cool. For some reason, it reminded me of where I used to volunteer, the Natural History Museum in Albuquerque. Funny. And Roswell was mentioned! The Slitheen arm was a nice touch—I wish we could have gotten to see more of the museum. I loved the bit with the Cyberman head (prophetic, I wonder?). Though I had problems with the score in this episode (more on that later), it got all spooky at this moment, and it was apt. The Doctor was so reflective when Rose asked the requisite question, “What is it?” “An old friend of mine . . . an enemy, actually . . . The stuff of nightmares reduced to an exhibit. I’m getting old.” I’m not quite sure what Robert Shearman, the writer, was commenting on here exactly, but it made me think of Tussaud’s Wax Museum. There’s such an obsession there with the effigies of murderers (an obsession that started at the genesis of the museum!) and it is a way, I suppose, of bringing evil into a manageable format.

Now, Henry van Statten is a problem. First off, it somewhat boggles this American’s mind at what kind of Americans Shearman is deciding to depict so far with this episode. If we’re all supposed to be like van Statten . . . well, that’s a bad thing. For one thing, he’s like one of those dime-a-dozen human Who villains who are so flat they’re worse than the monsters. There really isn’t any character development in him at all, and though I admit that a sudden turn around as far as morals went would have been unbelievable, his flatness was just disappointing in an otherwise smart episode. Second problem with van Statten: he reminded me a lot of Robert Doniger from the Michael Crichton novel Timeline (which wasn’t even such a great novel to begin with). In fact, the entire setting was reminiscent of that whole book, though instead of being set in the New Mexican desert, it was set in the Utah desert. Instead of developing time-travel, the ruthless billionaire was developing technology based off of alien leavings. Sure, van Statten can claim he’s benefiting the human race (discovering the cure for the common cold and such) but we all know that’s baloney. And how callous is “they’re dispensable,” referring to the military personnel who get creamed by the Dalek? Almost unbelievably callous.

There is one scene in particular that reminded me so much of Timeline: our introduction to van Statten and his assistant, Goddard. The talking was fast and furious, and van Statten majorly annoying. I can’t really see why this joke was thrown in, though I thought it was funny: “What should the next President be, a Republican or a Democrat?” “A Democrat.” “Why?” “Because they’re just so funny, sir?” Are they talking about Howard Dean? I don’t quite get the reference. Aww, and there’s the cute English kid—Adam, his name is apparently.

So, as is often the case, the Doctor gets picked up for basically stumbling into something at the wrong time. Bless him. Van Statten continues to prove how annoying he is when talking to the Doctor: “You’re quite a collector yourself . . . she’s pretty.” And Rose gets back an awesome, “She’s going to slap you if you keep calling her a ‘she.’” And the Doctor delivers: “I don’t need to make claims . . . I’m that good.” I love the Ninth Doctor’s cheeky arrogance. And “Doctor with no name, come and see my pet” just sounds wrong.

Dalek episodes before have attempted to make something of a surprise or twist ending. This episode was titled “Dalek,” so none of us were surprised to find van Statten’s pet was a Dalek. On the other hand, the Doctor was that much more in the dark. He’s just so complex in this episode, beginning here, when he tries to reach out to what he thinks is a harmless alien trapped in a torture chamber (the torture instruments he sees as he enters the Cage remind me of the Mind Probe of “The Five Doctors”). And Eccleston begins to get incredible right here, when he realizes that the Dalek cannot shoot him with its plunger. “It’s not working!” he cries, in the thralls of giddiness. “Fantastic!!” Gotta love him. He then proceeds to call it “a great space dust bin!” And of course, on one hand you wonder if the Doctor’s going a little nuts, but on the other, it’s, like, complete shock. The Daleks obviously remind the Doctor of his long history with them, and more recently, of the Time War. You can’t blame his reaction because of what he’s been through. Sometimes the only way not to cry is to laugh.

I was a little worried about the characterization of the Dalek at the beginning of the episode. First of all, it’s using the pronoun “I,” which I thought wasn’t so often in use with Daleks. I was beginning to wonder if the Daleks were going to go all ‘80s-super-emotive-Cybermen on us. But the Dalek’s actions made sense in the end. Eccelston is wonderful as he goes through all the emotions in this scene: “You were all destroyed,” he tells the Dalek, making tacit reference to his own species in breaking the news of its singleness to the Dalek. Eccleston turns to the camera (ECU; this episode had some great camera angles) and a wave of sorrow, regret, and gravity goes through him (reminded of the Fifth Doctor again): “I made it happen.” Then he quickly becomes the Ninth Doctor we know and love: “I had no choice.” And then he is no longer mum on the subject of the Time Lords: “[They’re] dead. They burned with you. Everyone was lost.” The Dalek makes a very Davros-like remark: “And the coward survived?” (Snape’s “DON’T CALL ME A COWARD!!” anyone?) A fabulously vehement, “We’re not the same!” from the Doctor, before he realizes, “Maybe we are.” And then it is classic Doctor: “I know what you deserve.” The Doctor is saved from playing God by outside intervention—and not a moment too soon.

The companion gets separated from the Doctor . . . and ends up, predictably, with Adam, the Cute Brit. And Rose and Adam flirt. A lot. And the music gets sappy and annoys me. But they are okay; it’s the music that’s making it bad. A cute, “You’re a genius.” “Yeah, sorry, can’t help it.” The kid even gives a “Fantastic!” that even Rose picks up on is reminiscent of the Doctor. Ooh, weird. “No, we’re just friends!” Rose snaps defensively. And Mr. Goo-Goo Eyes is like, “Good.” Aww, I can’t hate the kid, but she’s already got Mickey, not to mention the Doctor! And Adam turns on the monitor of the Cage and remarks that the Dalek looks like a pepperpot. Some genius.

The Dalek gets tortured, and we can always count on Rose for compassion. Meanwhile, the Doctor is negotiating with van Statten, calling the inside of the Daleks “a nightmare.” He even says that van Statten would “like Davros.” Perhaps, as van Statten proceeds to chain the Doctor up à la the TV movie, in the process having removed his shirt (I’m not complaining, but it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense). And we at last find out that the Doctor has two hearts. Eccleston proceeds to get very emotional (he is on an emotional rollercoaster the entire episode), trying to get van Statten to destroy the Dalek (I’m reminded of Jon Pertwee reasoning with Stahlman in “Inferno”): “That creature in that dungeon is better than you!”

Rose, I like you. Every week I’m surprised by how much I like you, Rose. Her character is not without its flaws, but it’s reliable, ready for growth, and loveable. Her compassion is sometimes her downfall, but usually she makes the right choices because of it. Her compassion for the Dalek—knowing nothing of its history—proves this. Heck, when the Dalek admitted, “I am in pain,” I almost felt sorry for it. The amount of screaming it did would nettle anyone—I think of David Wallace Foster’s essay “Consider the Lobster.” Her compassion, of course, sets off the first of several “oh sh*t” moments in this episode: the Dalek absorbs her genetic material, escapes, regenerates, causes general mayhem, etc. And the guns, oh the guns—proving once and for all that it’s not just the British who are obsessed with them. And yay, nice effects! Oh goody, the Daleks can still levitate! Another “oh sh*t” moment.

“Anything different is wrong,” the Doctor explains in relation to the Daleks’ thought process, making the appropriate jump to genocide (explored successfully, I thought, in 1987’s “Remembrance of the Daleks”). And in accordance, the Doctor gets harder and harder, like his Seventh self: he tells the Dalek, “Why don’t you just die?” The Dalek’s response is the jaw-dropping “You would make a good Dalek.” The Doctor realized at the same moment as I did how terrible that was. Then, there’s some running—not in corridors, but up staircases—and Rose must be thinking to herself, “I wish I hadn’t eaten that pound cake.” And the Doctor must make the choice, to save her or to save the rest of the planet. He is heartbroken to do the right thing, and so are we. “It wasn’t your fault,” Rose tells the Doctor tearfully via her cell phone. “Oh sh*t” moment, right there. We hear the Dalek exterminate Rose, but we know that isn’t what happens. The Doctor doesn’t know, though, and exclaims in shock, “I killed her.” The Dalek is having issues, though. It’s been contaminated by Rose’s compassion, and her redemptive act has turned out to be less a costly mistake than an opportunity for transformation. The Daleks seem prone to getting messed up—in “Remembrance of the Daleks,” the Doctor is responsible for making at least one Dalek go nuts.

As the Doctor and Adam race to find out a way to rescue Rose, I was delighted to see the Doctor getting annoyed and jealous. “What are you going to do?” he snaps. “Throw your A-levels at it?” Well, the Doctor finds the gun, but Rose has already worked her magic with the Dalek. It opens up its casing and reveals the gucky stuff inside. And it is gucky. But it’s also pathetic. The Doctor runs in carrying a gun, and Rose is disgusted (I’m glad to see the Doctor hasn’t become a gun-toting action hero). “I have to end it,” he tells her, painfully. “It’s changing.” So is the Doctor, Rose chides. The Doctor wrestles with himself, and lets out a pained, “Oh, Rose . . .” The Dalek says to Rose, “Order me to die. This is sickness.” And Rose does. It’s sad. Meanwhile, Goddard has executed the too-cute ending all too reminiscent of Timeline, again. Rose tries to persuade the Doctor to take Adam with them—“he’s a bit pretty” “I hadn’t noticed”—and eventually the three go off on their next adventure.

So, I had to try to figure out what the Dalek represented in this episode. It was a mindless soldier, needing orders to go on. It was the lonely relic of an extinct species. It was a killing machine. It yearned for mercy-killing. At first, as I said, I thought the Dalek was acting too human, like the new series was trying too hard to “explain” the Dalek as a tortured, abused creature. But the episode didn’t let it go at that. What it did succeed in doing was making us remember the origins of the Daleks: they were human once, and mutation made them into the horrible creatures they are. If the Daleks can transform, the episode seemed to be saying, so can the worst of us.

I just realized that neither Jackie or Mickey were in this episode: it was mostly up to the Doctor and Rose. I thought this was Eccleston’s best episode; he was so intense and torn apart by emotion.


Rob Shearman said...

Thank you. I hope you don't mind me reading your review - I thought it was fascinating. You put your finger on all the bits of the episode I have issues with as a writer - if only I could have made better use of that 45 minutes and fleshed out the human characters more (I honestly did in earlier drafts, but the BBC rightly insisted the Dalek and the Doctor / Rose had to be the focus) - and the bits I feel some lingering pride for too.

Le Mc said...

ME mind YOU reading the review?! Of course not. I'm embarrassed now I sounded like a squee-meister in it, but I really do have a lot of affection for it, it's one of my favorite eps from series 1 and series 1 is overall extremely solid. To a 22-year-old girl watching (as I was) I was quite cut up by everything. So thank YOU! I still need to get "Jubilee" and see how they compare. I hope they will enlist your talents again on TV.

Rob Shearman said...

Thank you! Looking back on series 1 now, it feels very solid to me too - which is, I think, testament to Russell, because I'm pretty sure I spent my year on the show not having a clue what I was doing! (You can still see that in Dalek, that I'm not really sure who the audience is - it's so different in tone to the other stories around it, it feels quite jarring.) I remember watching The Christmas Invasion, on a sofa with Steven Moffat, and saying suddenly, "I now understand how to write this show!" And he pointed out I was about a year too late. Bah.

Jubilee is something of a problem story, to be honest. Whereas I probably try to cram too much into Dalek in 45 minutes, Jubilee goes on for 2 and a half hours...! The comedy bits are quite good, I seem to remember. But it does take a long time to say not very much. If you're going to try any of my Big Finish audios, I'd recommend some of the others first...!

Anonymous said...

You were wondering about the Cyberman head at the beginning of the episode ... here's something a friend of mine suggested at the time and the episode seems to follow through:

If you'll notice, the Doctor's face is framed quite nicely with the reflection of the head in the glass. There seems to be a suggestion that the Doctor has done things in his past which could equate him with the monsters he fights on a regular basis.

You, in fact, mentioned a couple of them when you were talking about the Seventh Doctor (who wasn't above doing things which were equally as bad as any monster he faced) ... Also, there is a hint of foreshadowing in that scene, with the Doctor confronting one of the monsters of his past, if only in effigy, then having to really confront another, more dangerous one.

On the whole, this is one of the best episodes of all four series. I hope Mr. Shearman gets another chance to write for the series in 2010!

Le Mc said...

Heya Lori, didn't quite understand what you were saying about the Cyberman head.

Mr. Shearman--sorry, didn't realized you'd written again! I hear you will be writing for TV again in the future, I am psyched.