6 January 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 736: Dalek

Dear diary,

Dalek has something of an unenviable position within Doctor Who history, doesn’t it? Introduce the Daleks to a whole new generation - with the added complication that they’re now inescapably tied up with the programme’s background mythology. Be the first Dalek story of the 21st century. Stand on its own as a decent story, not too overwhelmed with continuity. Introduce a new companion. And all that in 45 minutes. Looking back on it a decade on, the episode has even more importance now we’ve learnt more about the Time War, and it holds a pivotal place in the Doctor’s personal story.

And, frankly, it’s the best episode of the modern series so far. It manages to take all of the things noted above and pull them off rather well. By the time Adam steps inside the TARDIS at the end, I feel as though I know enough about him to accept him in the TARDIS (perhaps the fact that I know he won’t be around for long mans I’m expecting less of him, somehow, but I still think we’re given everything we need, even if he doesn’t get an awful lot to do here). There’s a decent enough story going on here that would be enough to keep my interest even if it wasn’t a Dalek in the Vault - though, let’s be honest, the story would lose a lot were it simply a Toclafane, as briefly considered, or some other nondescript alien, in place of the Doctor’s Arch Enemy.

Because that’s the real success of this one. It manages to take the Daleks, those funny little Pepper Pots who’ve been showing up at fairly regular intervals in the Doctor’s life since the programme’s fifth episode - which I watched two years ago yesterday - and bring them right in to the 21st century. It manages to put a Dalek on screen that is quite unlike any Dalek we’ve ever seen in the programme before… and yet perfectly capture exactly what the Daleks have always been like in our heads. This does however, bring me to the one problem I do have with this episode;

The Daleks aren’t really ever this powerful again!

Dalek presents us with a single creature - the last surviving Dalek in the universe - and goes to great lengths to make sure we know just how powerful it is. Once it’s out of its cage, the creature can download the entire internet in a matter of moments. It can crack a code with a billion combinations in two seconds. Bullets have a hard time getting at the Dalek because they melt when they get close to it. The centre of the machine swivels round, allowing the Dalek to attack in any direction. At one point, the Dalek is able to take out a room full of trained soldiers with just three blasts of the gun. When the Daleks pop up again at the end of this season, a few of them retain these special abilities, but then we don’t really see a lot of them again after that (I don’t think we’ve seen the bullet-melting at all since).

I’ve just about got a workaround in my head, but I’m not entirely convinced by it. It’s based on the idea that this really is the last surviving Dalek in the universe - the Doctor’s counterpart, from the other side of the battlefield. The only reason that this Dalek is so powerful - more powerful than any Dalek we’ve seen in the series before - is because it’s been off fighting the greatest war in Dalek history. Throughout the war, the Daleks have upgraded themselves further and further in an attempt to gain the upper-hand (The Time War-set novel Engines of War suggests that the creatures even go so far as to head back in time to alter their evolution - perhaps the failure of that experiment is what led them to simply upgrading their casings so much here?).

So. Let’s consider where this Dalek has come from:

GODDARD

The records say it came from the sky like a meteorite. It fell to Earth on the Ascension Islands. Burnt in its crater for three days before anybody could get near it and all that time it was screaming. It must have gone insane. 


DOCTOR

It must have fallen through time. The only survivor.

Using bits of lore that have been added to the series since this episode was first broadcast, I think we can paint a fairly accurate image of what might have happened. Imagine, if you will, the closing moments of the Time War. Thirteen TARDISes (Fourteen, the Seventh Doctor came twice) all spinning around Gallifrey, preparing to take it out of time and space, and keep it nice and safe in a Cuppa Soup. The Daleks know what’s happening - the War Council report an increase in firepower. Every Dalek in the universe has been summoned to Gallifrey to take part in this final assault. Among their number is this Dalek. Amidst the chaos the the battle and the whizzing blue police boxes the Dalek somehow realises what’s happening. As the planet below disappears and Dalek firepower starts to take out its own comrades, the Dalek attempts an Emergency Temporal Shift.

With so many versions of the same TARDIS whizzing around, compounded by the sheer number of time manipulations that have gone on during the war itself, there’s no wonder the Temporal Shift hurtled this poor Dalek into the Vortex, spiralling it backwards in time until it lands in the Ascension Islands. It’s also no wonder it screamed for three days - it’s just watched a lot of its comrades wiped out. It doesn’t know yet that all the other Daleks have gone, just that the large majority certainly have, and it’s not until the last surviving Time Lord shows up that it learns the truth…

…And I’m going to have to leave it, there. There’s more to my suggestion of why the Dalek we see here is so uniquely powerful, but I’ll have to wait until we reach The Parting of the Ways to explain further, as the events of that story play heavily in to my narrative, and I want to refresh my mind on everything that’s said there and make sure it all fits before I continue.

I do hope that you’ll forgive me these occasional flights of fantasy into my own personal head canon, but they tick away in the back of my mind so much that it’s sometimes nice to share them with you all. 

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