Sunday, May 01, 2005

Doctor Who - Dalek

So we come to the episode that the press have been waiting for. With their obsessions with the Daleks, sofa, stairs and 'Exterminate', it was perhaps up to this single episode to redeem Doctor Who in their eyes ... so did it succeed? From my point of view it most definitely did. Robert Shearman delivered a script that was intelligent, tense, exciting and very watchable, and which also fitted the 45 minute duration perfectly. The cast were all suberb, and the main characters gelled together excellently, providing an episode which held my household at least glued to the television for the duration. The TARDIS arrives in an underground museum - rows of cases hold alien artefacts of all sorts. I think I saw one of the Alien eggs from the film Alien in the background, and there's also a Slitheen arm, and a Cyberman head (though the head is of the style from Revenge of the Cybermen, and as far as we know this particular variant never visited the Earth, so there's either a slight continuity glitch there, or an implication that these Cybermen did visit Earth somehow). The Doctor and Rose are promptly arrested and taken to meet Henry van Statten, owner of the museum (and also, apparently, 'owner' of the Internet) who wants to know how they got into his complex which is buried under the sands in Utah. Shortly, van Statten takes the Doctor to see his only living specimen ... which turns out to be the Dalek of the title, battered and chained. This triggers some sort of death-wish in the Doctor and he starts raving about Time Wars and how all the Daleks were wiped out along with his race - this is the final Dalek to still be alive, just as he is the final Time Lord. Quite how the Doctor leaps to this conclusion is unclear ... he says later on that the Dalek must have come back through time, and so presumably at this point there could well be lots of other Daleks around. However the Dalek can find no mention of them on the Internet. Obviously it wasn't using the right search engine! The Dalek itself is a masterpiece of retro-redesign. It looks battered and war-weary, but is also strong and effective looking. Despite its chains, it is still dangerous - the last man to touch it burst into flames apparently - and the Doctor snaps and tries to kill it with electricity, but to no avail. Meanwhile Rose is chatting with Englishman Adam, van Statten's procurer of Alien Artefacts, and here we get a sense that he and Rose like each other. In fact, it's more than a sense as the music over this scene is intrusive and schmaltsy and hammers home the romantic interest - incidental music should not be noticed if it is working, but this stands out like a sore thumb and is perhaps the weakest aspect of this episode. Realising that the Doctor is also the last of his race, van Statten tortures him with some sort of laser beam x-ray device thingy and finds that he has two hearts. But before he can start cutting the Doctor up, Rose and Adam go to find the Dalek as Rose sees it on a monitor being drilled by one of van Statten's henchmen and crying out in pain. Rose talks to and then touches the Dalek as she feels sorry for it, and it immediately draws some of her DNA and uses it to regenerate itself. It quickly breaks its bonds, escapes from the cell and draws more power from America generally (as well as absorbing the entire content of 'the internet' into itself). This makes it gleam and shine, becoming a new soldier Dalek rather than the battle-scarred relic, and it goes off on a rampage. These are easily the best scenes of Dalek mayhem we have ever seen. The Dalek's movements are slow and precise, with not a jerk to be seen. Its gun fries victims to a crisp, revealing their contorting skeletons in the process, and it can even turn its middle section around to fire behind it, as well as ... wait for it ... being able to elevate up a flight of stairs. I bet the newspaper people were wetting themselves with excitement at this point. The scenes are superb, and the Dalek manages to wipe out all the opposing forces easily, with cunning and intelligence before the Doctor and van Statten, watching from the top level, decide to shut the bulkhead doors and trap it ... but of course Rose cannot run fast enough and is trapped with the creature. I do wonder why van Statten has so many armed troops at his disposal though, and, it seems, only a handful of scientists and other workers. Given that his facility is just for the storage of these artifacts which he is buying from around the world, why would he feel the need for his own private army ... but then maybe this is just his nature - he is certainly a man who likes to get his own way. Despite the Dalek crying 'Exterminate' (more new trousers for the newspaper people please who would be wetting themselves by this point) and us hearing its gun fire, the creature does not kill Rose, preferring instead to have a chat about fear as it seems to have absorbed more than just DNA from Rose. This is really the aspect which wins the Pip and Jane Award for meaningless gobbledegook. Apparently Rose's DNA was different because she had been travelling in time ... quite how or why this is, is not explained ... perhaps the TARDIS does more than just attune itself to your brain. I wonder why she didn't burst into flames as well, or why the Dalek couldn't use plain old human DNA to regenerate itself. The Doctor is forced to allow the Dalek to escape again, but while he's waiting for it to arrive, he decides to get tooled up with the biggest gun he can find in Adam's storeroom. Rose, meanwhile stops the Dalek from killing van Statten, and instead discovers that all the metal meanie wants is 'freedom'. So the Dalek and Rose take a walk to another area, where the Dalek shoots a hole in the ceiling to allow the sunlight to flood in. It then wants to know what it feels like and so opens its casing to reveal the mutant within, so that it can indulge in a spot of sunbathing. The effects here are simply awesome. The Dalek casing opening is impressive enough, but the mutant creature is both horrifying and sympathy inducing at the same time. The little tentacled creature seeming hardly dangerous enough to warrant the Doctor arriving with his big gun, wanting to blast it to pieces himself. Rose won't let him, though, and the Doctor, it seems, realises at last that he was becoming as bad as the Daleks. As Rose says, the Dalek wasn't the one pointing a gun at her. The Dalek finally asks Rose to order him to die, and this she does. The Dalek releases its balls and they form a ring around it and it vanishes ... presumably in a puff of its own logic. There seems to be no other reason for this final effect than to show off the CGI work, but it's impressive enough. The audience breathes freely once more as the Dalek is destroyed, but along the way, Shearman's story has offered hints of all manner of themes and ideas, some which might go against what we think we know about the series, others which explore the nature of survival, and the idea that a soldier without a war and without orders to follow might as well not exist. It's all powerful stuff, and Shearman's script manages to get it right pretty much all of the time. I can't let this review finish without giving special mention to perhaps the most important and siginiciant contributor to this story ... Nick Briggs. I have known and been friends with Nick for many years and his vocal talents lend this Dalek the most alien and yet human qualities I have yet seen in Doctor Who. He manages to catch the inflections just right, and adds pathos and believability to a role which could have descended into the rantings of a madman (Ok, mad Dalek). It's an extraordinary achievement, making this Dalek seem alive and dangerous and yet still make it sympathetic and Briggs manages all this with just his voice. When you add up everything that this episode has going for it: the cast, some superb direction, innovative ideas, a great script, a brilliant Dalek prop, some superb set pieces, and state of the art effects both mechanical and CGI, then it's not surprising that a simple story about a lone Dalek survivor has turned out to be the highlight of the series to date. I'd give this 10/10 if it wasn't for the slightly overbearing and in places just plain wrong music. But it's a delight from beginning to end, and I hope that the series can continue in this darker vein and start to really plumb the depths of our emotions in weeks to come.


Anonymous said...

I have to agree with you about the background music, David. It sounds like it's been done on the cheap. (They must've dragged a busker and his electronic keyboard in off the High Street).

The Co-ordinator said...

Great stuff indeed David - it will be hard for anything to top this episode, but fortunately we still have another 7 weeks to find out!

One thing I do disagree with you, Barbara Davies and, from what I have read elsewhere, much of fandom about is the music. I think Murray Gold is doing a fine job and that the classical quality of some of his work in "Dalek" was among the best I have ever heard in Doctor Who.

Regardless of that issue though, these are halcyon days indeed!