‘Doctor…? The Doctor…? Exterminate!’ This must be one of the most picked-over Doctor Who episodes ever: the first new series Dalek story and the first explicit adaptation of tie-in media (Robert Shearman’s 2003 Big Finish audio Jubilee). It was a stroke of genius to hold back the Daleks (or Dalek) until Series One’s mid-point, and it really does act as the linchpin of the season, suddenly bringing the background detail of the Time War into sharp focus, revealing that the Daleks and the Time Lords were both wiped out in the final battle, and that the Doctor ‘made it happen.’ He’s not just the survivor, he’s got more blood on his hands than anyone else in the universe. No wonder it’s a touchy subject.
Anyone who’s heard Jubilee will recognise the main beats: the Dalek imprisoned, tortured and pathetic, winning the companion’s sympathy only to reveal its true evil and cunning once it is free, but then appalled by its own corruption and begging to be exterminated. However, beyond the skeleton the two stories are very different beasts: Jubilee was a vast, grand guignol horror of alternative timelines and black comedy. Dalek is the successor to Horror of Fang Rock, taut and single-minded. Its aim is to restore the Daleks to their rightful place as the Doctor’s archenemies, and to scare kids.
Everyone can spot the ways Shearman demolishes all the tired jokes about sink plungers, Dalek bumps and staircases. This Dalek is a pitiless killing machine, a genocidal genius, smart enough to manipulate Rose’s emotions and the Doctor’s feelings for her to free itself. Cruelly, Rose’s compassion is turned against her, and, most brutally, it stops the Doctor dead as he tries to McCoy it into killing itself with the statement, ‘You would make a good Dalek.’ The death count is as massive as in an Eric Saward script, and Shearman makes us feel them: the emotional jolt of De Maggio’s sacrifice; the physical crack of Simmon’s skull; the silent rainfall on the corpses of scientists drafted in to mount a last-ditch attempt to stop the Dalek’s escape.
Around the edges, some of the standards of the RTD years are coming into focus: the greedy billionaire who endangers the world in his quest for power (see also Joshua Naismith, Luke Rattigan, Mr Diagoras, John Lumic – all successors to the likes of Harrison Chase and Tobias Vaughn). The Doctor’s willingness to resort to violence against the Dalek is returned to in The Parting of the Ways, and there’s a shot of Rose leaning against a wall, separated from the Doctor that foreshadows Doomsday. Adam, “the companion who failed”, is introduced as a twink version of the Doctor, showing off his knowledge of alien tech and declaring, ‘fantastic!’: Rose really needs to pick better boyfriends.
For me, though, the most poignant moment comes right at the start, as the Doctor comes face to face with a classic Cyberman head in a display case and wistfully ponders, ‘The stuff of nightmares reduced to an exhibit.’ It beautifully sets up the central notion of this episode, even the first New Testament series: nostalgic collectors’ items are all well and good, but they can never be a substitute for a series that’s setting out to scare the most kids it can. By the end of Dalek, the stuff of nightmares have been unleashed again, and Doctor Who really has stopped being a museum piece.
Next Time: The Long Game