Finding themselves in a militaristic underground museum in Utah, The Doctor and Rose find that the collection contains more than just a handful of dusty old alien relics – but the apparent last surviving member of the Daleks.
Dalek is considered to be the first great episode of Doctor Who’s revival, kicking off the show’s slow-burn reveal of all the old-school show elements which will take the forefront as Russell T. Davies’ time as showrunner continues onwards. First come the Daleks this year, then the Cybermen next year, before the Master shows up etc etc. Here, though, things are relatively low key: the Doctor finds himself face to face with the last surviving Dalek, who accidentally fell out the Time War, crashed on Earth, and was promptly captured by a billionaire sci-fi enthusiast.
The episode starts out with the Doctor and Rose stepping out into the museum of Henry van Statten, the American who “owns the internet” and uses his money to acquire rare alien items. When he sends the Doctor to go examine the latest item – a living Dalek – it causes both the Dalen and the Doctor to reexamine themselves and look for new purpose. After flirting with the idea of the Doctor as-relic at the start of the episode, the story then moves more towards being an examination of Dalek-kind instead. There’s something interesting in the idea of the Doctor being this forgotten relic, who has been missing for centuries and is only now finding new purpose for himself, but perhaps it’s better to lay that focus down for the Dalek’s arc instead.
This is the first time we’ve seen a Dalek in a decade or two, after all. But what gives the episode its strength is that the Dalek isn’t the primary villain of the episode, but is instead largely a prisoner, trapped and lost without any sense of purpose. Through iffy sci-fi means the Dalek gets infused with some of Rose’s humanity, but that really wasn’t needed – the humans are clearly the villains here. Not individual humans, but humans as a whole.
For me, the villany of van Statten is so over the top in certain ways that he doens’t even register as the villain of the piece. He’s meant to come across as a desperately arrogant (hence: American, which is a recurring piece of shorthand for the Davies era of the series) man with no level he won’t stoop to if it seems convenient. He has no interest in human life, especially those of his employees, and he has a singular focus on how things make him look in the eyes of others.
Also the whole kidnapping aspect, even if it is a Dalek he turns out to have kidnapped and tortured. For all that, we surely should be looking at this guy as an absolute monster and the worst of humanity. Instead, he feels like a pantomime villain with no centre – he’s the person people are meant to be paying attention to, but throughout the episode my main takeaway was the complicity of everybody within his organisation. Most of the morally unforgivable characters are killed off in the Dalek’s wave of destruction, but some of them survive.
Adam, most notably for me. Previously when watching the episode you see him as an innocent caught up in something bigger than he could have understood, and so it makes sense to see him flirting with Rose and keeping away from the more unacceptable acts of evil going on in the base. Here, though – and I fully understand this may be because actor Bruno Langley recently was arrested for sexual assault and that’s colouring my opinion – but the performance seems to suggest that the character is far more aware of van Statten’s activities than I remembered.
It actually comes across more now that Adam’s sole goal here is to look impressive and knowledgeable about outer space and alien artefacts in front of the pretty girl who just showed up. Once it becomes clear that Rose actually has experience and knows far more than he ever could, he changes tactic – she insists on seeing what’s going on in the vault, and so he makes the choice to take her down there, because it might help him seem more impressive to her. He’s consistently calculating his own morals in order to ensure that Rose stays interested in him. Note how he starts reverting a bit more to form once the Dalek is loose: he taunts it, and then he makes damn sure he gets to safety in time, as the Doctor notes when it looks like Rose may have been killed.
A common theme through the episode is hubris, especially human hubris. Everybody seems to think that they are the only person who can right the situation, and get to the bottom of things. van Statten owns the building and believes he owns the Dalek, while his torturer can’t resist a few extra elements of sadism to his job title – again, showing the complicity of everybody working there. Adam proudly flashes his credentials in order to get Rose through to the vault; but then Rose is the worst for it as she believes she is the only one who can get through to this damaged alien and teach it humanity. She is the one to set the Dalek free, after all.
It’s fitting therefore that the Dalek is allowed to come across as strangely likeable throughout the story. Every time it kills another one of its captors, the special effect shows the victim being electrocuted, so their skeleton flashes into visibility – a reminder of the human hubris of each and every guard who thinks they can stop this silly “tin can”. The humans think they can surround the Dalek: they get murdered. The humans think the Dalek will be stopped by a set of stairs: it murders them. The Doctor is the only one with the experience and wisdom to treat the Dalek with the respect – and fear – it should receive, but he’s compromised the entire episode by the Time War.
When the Dalek seems to genuinely pause halfway through its killing spree to ask the Doctor what it should do, there’s a moment where you can see that this is possibly a genuine request. Any other Doctor might have tried to take it, but this Doctor has only been out the Time War for a very short period of time, and the memory is still fresh. In the most shocking moment of the episode, he orders the Dalek to kill itself. That level of pure hate and exhaustion surprises even the Dalek, who responds by saying “you would be a good Dalek”. Now that doesn’t quite ring true, but you can see where the episode is coming from there.
And the Dalek does choose to exterminate itself at the end of the episode, mainly due to the iffy sci-fi shenanigans earlier involving Rose’s DNA. It’s a strange ending for the episode, but as part of a longer plan it works incredibly well. And it leaves the Doctor, once more, completely alone. Well no, not completely alone – Rose is still there for him, acting as his rock… even as she asks him to bring Adam onboard the TARDIS. Uh-oh.
Doctor Who Series 1 Episode 6: Dalek
Written by Robert Shearman
Directed by Joe Ahearne