Doctor Who and the Daleks


Picture by James Murphy.

After earlier reporting that talks between the BBC and the Nation Estate had fallen through, somebody must have blinked for now comes the report that the BBC has successfully negotiated the rights to use the Daleks in the coming revival of Doctor Who.

In related news, British scientists have been successful in their attempts to extract blood from stones.

Doctor Who was my life for the late 1980s. It became even more my life in the five years after the show went off the air. Now older and wiser, I have been watching Russell T. Davies' revival of the series from an emotional distance. Too much time has passed; I have moved on to other things. I cannot and should not hope that these folks will recapture the magic that powered the series for twenty-six years. The new show might be good, but it will be a new show. It won't be the Doctor Who I remembered.

That's what I said before, but watching from a distance as Russell T. Davies builds his revival, I am gradually becoming excited at the prospect of having good television once again. :Buffy: and :Angel: took up Doctor Who's mantle of quirky programming, featuring solid characters and solid stories that didn't quite take themselves seriously. This new Doctor Who looks set to take the mantle back.

And while it won't be the same, it can't be the same. Television science fiction has moved on since the show went off the air fifteen years ago. The challenge Russell T. Davies faces is how to incorporate the new face of science fiction into the key elements that make Doctor Who unique. And perhaps the best symbol of these challenges is the matter of the Dalek.

The Daleks are very much a creature of the 1960s. They've gotten by on exceptional writing, and by a growing quirkiness built out of the fact that their shape just doesn't fit the science fiction mores of their time -- and yet it still _works_. There have been proposals to redesign the Daleks ever since the Doctor Who entered the 1980s, and the proposed designs have usually been greeted with great groans. In adapting the newfangled technologies of the latest sci-fi monsters, the quintessential quirkiness of the original Daleks was lost. At the same time there is no doubt in the later Dalek stories that their dated appearance is a one-shot deal. In the last seasons, the Daleks got one ninety-minute chance to hit the audience with a blast of nostalgia every four years, then it was back into storage.

Can Russell T. Davies update the Daleks to make them into a true menace in this day and age while maintaining those elements which set the Daleks apart in the 1960s and the 1980s? We'll have to see until the designs come out. The new Daleks may be able to fly (an idea that has been around in the Doctor Who comics since the 1960s), and they may be faster, but if they look roughly the same, I'll be happy. Play with their surfaces and play with their intelligence. Make them more conniving and deceptive (as they were in the 1960s); put some budget into the original design, make it solid, and make that eyestalk focus like a camera iris, and you may have a winner. But most importantly: use them so that they are a menace. And give us something different. Think you can give us six impossible things before breakfast?

Early reports of the Dalek story being written suggests that the authors may take some cues from the movie Alien, wherein a group of scientists/explorers/salvage operators board an abandoned spaceship with the Doctor in tow, and are held off in sixty minutes of tight gothic direction by a single, well-armed Dalek. This recycling of the typical vulnerable-humans-facing-monster-in-isolated-base plot is at once familiar, and at the same time new to the Daleks. If well executed, it could be memorable, and the show could well have achieved the balance between familiar and cutting edge, quirky and serious, that made the program the longest running science fiction show in history.

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