When you get as excited as I do about Doctor Who, you run the risk of raising expectations so high that you set yourself up for disappointment. Other times, when the advance reviews you hear are bad, your expectations are lowered to such an extent that you are pleasantly surprised by what you actually discover.
I think this was what was at work when I viewed Aliens of London and World War Three. The advance reviews of Aliens of London were mixed, with some people really hating the silliness. I ended up liking the story. The advance reviews of World War Three suggested that this episode was better than Aliens of London, but I ended up being less impressed.
It’s safe to say that Dalek was the most anticipated episode of the revived Doctor Who’s first season. The Daleks are iconic to the series. Ever since BBC Designer Raymond Cusick and writer Terry Nation put their heads together and realized that the best way to eliminate the man-in-suit monster impediment to audiences’ suspension of disbelief was to remove the monster’s legs, the Daleks entered Britain’s popular culture the same way as the TARDIS and the show itself. In the seventies and the eighties the Daleks became a parody of their old selves, but the series’ producers never tampered with the basic design, which was now charmingly retro. What would Russell T. Davies do to the Daleks? Would he be able to update them enough to make them a credible threat in the 21st century? And would doing so remove the charm they’d carried throughout the original series?
Initial reviews for Dalek were glowing. My interest piqued to a fever pitch, as did my expectations. Was I disappointed?
No. Smegging. Way.
I spent most of my hour utterly gobsmacked. Dalek is remarkable in every category, in every sense of the word. Rob Sherman and Russell T. Davies goes beyond all that Doctor Who has ever been able to accomplish with the Daleks. I’m not surprised that they were able to make the Dalek powerful, or ruthless (the violence was everything I expected), but it is truly amazing that they were able to make the Dalek seem, at certain moments, sympathetic. But the story is even more than that.
Christopher Eccleston goes berserk in this episode. The depth of his hatred, the size of his personal demons, is unveiled in ways that were only hinted at before. This Doctor is one very damaged man, and Christopher Eccleston portrays that in looks, action, expressions that are scary.
The script sent chills down my spine in places, as the Doctor and the Dalek engage in a battle of wits, and show the audience that not much separates the two. The Dalek’s line to the Doctor, “You would make a good Dalek” is deeper than 95% of Dalek dialogue in all the Dalek stories of the original series.
My friend Cameron notes a nice directorial touch in the teaser, when the Doctor views the exhibit of the Cyberman head. The Doctor’s face overlays the reflection of the Cyber head so that the two appear almost one in the same. As Cameron says, if that isn’t amazing foreshadowing, I don’t know what is.
The direction in general was just top-notch. I loved the focus on the Dalek eyestalk; very sinister. And the redesign of the Dalek was a success, keeping the retro feel but adding details that suggested heft and durability. The iris focuses! The sucker arm is actually useful (and dangerous). The middle section swivels independently!
I could quibble over the number of plot conveniences Rob Sherman uses to get us into this situation, but I’d be excessively anal if I did so. This episode almost turns the Doctor into a Dalek, and it turns a Dalek into almost a human. The psychology here is amazing, and punctuated with moments that tear at your heart; high among these being the moment when the Doctor closes the bulkheads, sealing in Rose along with the Dalek. The moment where the Doctor explodes at Van Houtan recalls those rare moments when Tom Baker’s Doctor almost completely loses himself to fury.
I’d better stop myself here before I gush myself into a pile of goo, but Doctor Who reached a high water mark this week. Dalek stands among the best the original series has to offer, and it takes the series into areas it has rarely gone. Everything has clicked. Doctor Who is back.
But then, we already knew that, didn’t we?