The twelfth story of the second season of Doctor Who builds up and up, rushing headlong as it combines the mystery of strange spirits all over the Earth with the resolution of the Torchwood storyline and the sudden reappearance of the Cybermen. It coalesces around a mysterious golden sphere that has appeared out of nowhere in Torchwood’s headquarters. What the heck is inside? Theories abound: Romana? Toby, the devil-possessed man from The Impossible Planet? Adric?
Then, as the action builds to a crescendo, and the Cybermen take over the Earth, the sphere opens. Who’s inside? What’s coming out? Is it… ohmyGod! It’s the Daleks!
A fair chunk of fandom went “oh my God” at the sudden return of the show’s lovable pepperpots, but Erin had a different reaction. At the time of the great reveal, she flopped back in the couch and said, “aw, f———!” And I could tell by the tone of her voice (and the fact that she was swearing for the first time that month) that her reaction was a mixture of equal parts “oh, man, they’re so screwed” with “oh, man, can’t the Daleks just die already?!”
Up to that point, the revival of Doctor Who had had considerable success with the Daleks, starting with the sixth episode of the first season, entitled simply Dalek. This brilliant tale, by Rob Sherman, pitted the Doctor against what was supposed to have been the last of his greatest adversaries. The episode was remarkable on a number of levels. Excepting the Autons, it was the first overt connection between the new series and the old. It opened up the plotline of the Time War and it coloured the ninth Doctor as a damaged character. Moreover, as I mentioned in this review, it had achieved the impossible: it actually made us feel sorry for one of Terry Nation’s tinpot creations.
But then we had Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways, which showed us that the last Dalek of Dalek was wrong: he wasn’t the last of his kind. Somehow the Dalek Emperor escaped the Time War and rebuilt a terrible army. This we could buy, and it made for an excellent season finale, bringing the storyline of the Time War and the ninth Doctor’s damaged character to a close. Or rather, not so much, as just next year, Davies resurrected them again.
And again the year after that with Daleks In Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks (which, to be fair, was less of a cheat). And again with The Stolen Earth.
The Daleks are as closely identified with Doctor Who as the TARDIS itself. Even in the latter years of the original series, when they were up to five years gone, the people who remembered the show never forgot the evil pepperpots. It took an incredible act of will by Russell T. Davies to keep the Daleks out of the pilot episode of the revival, and the BBC paid the Terry Nation estate &250,000 to use the aliens on the new series over the first five years.
But the Daleks are almost a one-trick pony. They have all the menace of a tank, which is to say, a lot, but they have little of the terrifying subtleties of a sniper. It takes a lot of work on the part of a writer to give the Daleks deeper motivations, to make them master planners as well as brute force villains. Too often, the temptation is there to just stick the Daleks into the narrative, toss away the plot, and blow things up. Fortunately, with this revival’s budget being what it is, much of the audience still finds it easy to go “WOO!”
But if you go to the well too often, not only do you diminish the emotional impact of the stories past, you diminish the impact of the stories to come. The remarkable Dalek has already been rendered as an afterthought. The ninth Doctor’s sacrifice in The Parting of the Ways has been rendered moot. How many times can the Doctor and the Daleks have that ultimate battle before it stops being ultimate and starts getting silly? The next time the Daleks appear — and they will, unless Stephen Moffat takes the wiser course and lets them rest for five years or more — it won’t be a surprise, no matter how hard you try to conceal it. And it won’t be special, no matter how big you try to make it be.
Doomsday was probably the last kick at that can for a “big” return of the Daleks in the series’ revival. Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks, despite their flaws, still took the right approach by having the four Daleks go underground and try to grab glory through cunning rather than brute force. Dalek is a better story than its successors precisely because the Daleks could only hint at their power. This gives the Daleks nuances in their character to explore, telling us that there is more to them than just a force of nature, and the full power and brutality of the Daleks is filled in within the audience’s imagination. More stories in that template could have given us our yearly Dalek fix without making the Daleks boring, but alas it was not to be.
An update for the family and those following our travels: we’re still in Des Moines, resting up, but we may head up to Jackson, Minnesota this weekend for a memorial service for Wendy. And we’re working on a baptism for Eleanor later this month. Plans are being formalized, and there will be lots of pictures.