How does one represent the Daleks on screen?
They’re a mass. A crowd of shouting maniacs, a force of fascist destruction. But how do you convey the size and scope of this force? Doctor Who is trapped in an infinite continuity, stretching to infinity and beyond both forwards and backwards – a return to the status quo is always going to be necessary, at the end of the day, because the narrative integrity of the show must be left unharmed and untouched. Their most terrible deed, the destruction of Gallifrey, never actually happened. So, really, the best way to show their nature, on an episode-to-episode basis, is to have them shoot a lot of people. Lasers going off left and right, screams of horror, it’s an amusing spectacle. When Ben Wheatley films it, it’s even kind of beautiful – raygun gothic at its best, dread carried through neon lights. But it doesn’t pack much weight: it’s a tank rolling in a straight line, crushing enemy soldiers; it’s a cat playing with a mouse. It’s the “… of the Daleks” that pops up in the title of all their episodes – a blunt, but bland, statement of power. There’s no tension to it – the Daleks are gods of war, or maybe gods of fate if their victims have deserved their doom through some act of hubris: but Who is no Greek tragedy, its protagonists are not waiting for an inevitable demise, be it only because the presence of the Doctor introduces an element of deep, primordial chaos to the surface of the show.
And there things get interesting. To clamor that the Daleks are too simple an antagonist, just a bunch of tin fascists, well, that’s easy. I know that’s easy, I did it. It’s an obvious criticism – too obvious not to be integrated to the show’s narrative itself, to its toolbox of tropes. Maybe it was deliberate, maybe it wasn’t – writing works in mysterious ways. The end result is still the same: while the Daleks mostly remained that single ideological construct (and that is still very much an issue), the way to portray them was altered. Last time, I made an observation: a fascist is not interesting, but someone that has given himself to fascism is – and the show tries to shift the focus towards this second point by showing us the genesis of the Daleks. Their geneses, rather – and I’m not just referring to the fact they got multiple origin stories, from their first appearance under Hartnell to the Hinchcliffe & Nation serial. No: when you look at it, all the best Dalek stories tend to be about their birth; even if the birth in question is purely symbolical. The time of the carnage, of the battle, is not dramatically compelling – so, it appears necessary to go back to the point where the Daleks intrude. They are creatures of incursion, and the stories chronicle their rise to power.
“Power of the Daleks” is going to be our episode of choice for today – because it’s the first one that applies that method, that specific technique, that clearly. The Daleks, there, are something that lies dormant: they have to be awoken, they have to be activated. And once they’re activated, they have to effectively re-forge and recreate themselves, to get back to their “unstoppable force” status – “Power of the Daleks”, is, after all, a story about work, about craftsmen; it’s set on the planet Vulcan, named after the Roman name for the Greek god of forge and craft, Hephaistos. It makes the metaphor as explicit as possible, showing you a mechanized chain of Dalek-assembling – which has the rather interesting effect of almost making the Daleks a product of capitalistic societies, of industrialized, rationalized means of production; the imagery is certainly charged. You’ve got a twofold process – and those two steps are going to be the basis for countless stories going forwards.
First part – the awakening. A single Dalek is awoken by the touch of a time traveler in “Dalek” (note the symbolism: Rose, the symbol of the New Show, is breathing new life into the iconic character of the Classics); the same plot beat is at the core of “Doomsday”; a password must be extracted from the Doctor in “Victory of the Daleks”; and the life energy of that same Doctor is stolen from him in “The Witch’s Familiar”.
Second part – the resurrection, the building of an army. The dead harvested from Necros in “Revelation of the Daleks”, and the game show participants from “Bad Wolf”; the experiments from “Evolution of the Daleks”; the dead cells of Davros repurposed in “The Stolen Earth”.
Let’s mention an outlier, too – “Remembrance of the Daleks”; which is such a good story precisely because it carries this rebirth process not as a part of the plot, but as pure metafiction – the Daleks get their new origin in that the very history of the show, in all its complexity, is rewritten around Seven’s plots and machinations, changing the pre-existing continuity in the role they hold in it.
And to show the continual rise of the Daleks allows to make a point about the society that allows for this rise. “Power” maybe doesn’t go as far as it could – there are strong parallels with capitalism, as discussed just before, but it never makes that subtext into text, focusing more on the power struggle and the neverending lust for power of politicians. There’s still a level of acidic commentary in there (after all, all parties are fighting for the control of a mining facility), but it’s a pretty conventional, middle-of-the-road message. But then, largely thanks to that initial step, you get, further down the line, criticism of the dark side of mass media in “Parting of the Ways” or a commentary on the alt-right in “The Witch’s Familiar”. The worst Dalek stories have all the same things in common – either they are refusing to focus on the moment of the emergence; or they just don’t find a reason for this emergence to take place. “Victory of the Daleks”, for instance, has all the ideological ingredients required to give the eventual appearance of the Daleks (well, of their new, rebranded self), an incredible weight: World War II context, British Imperialism with Churchill – but, at the end of the day, there’s not much of a point being made. It basically exists because there was an extradiegetic need to reintroduce the Daleks as regular player. Really, it tries to justify the Daleks’ existence with imagery, echoes of storytelling genres, rather than with politics – which is a very Gatiss thing to do, to be honest. The man seems to have an almost allergic aversion to intradiegetic politics. He’s hardly the only one to blame: Helen Raynor’s series 3 two-parter falls into the exact same trap – it recaptures the feeling of those cheesy 50’s sci-fi movies, and the spirit and clichés of the 30’s America, but it doesn’t have anything to say about the Daleks. And, really, it actively detracts from the image of the all-powerful, frightening Daleks – you can’t really have them occupy the narrative space usually reserved to bug-eyed monsters and space cucumbers from Venus (there’s an actual movie about that, I’ll have you know). On the other hand, the recurring motive of the Daleks being created from dead bodies, or the rotting cells of a dying man, now that has some power and punch – fascism as a dying carcass, a rotting ideology that nevertheless finds way to replicate and duplicate itself in new contexts. Daleks can only be efficient, can only find a real purpose in narrative if they’re at the center of a rich and complex web of symbols. And you know what, even if I did just say that Raynor’s two-parter used them poorly, at the very least there’s some truth in the parallels with the creatures from the golden age of schlocky sci-fi: the legions of Martians and little green men you saw popping up on the screen at that time were never intended to be taken as face value – they were symbols, they were ideologically-charged letters in a movie-shaped larger sentence. When we take these antagonists out of context, when we just see their pictures in some compilation of images gazing back at the time period with fondness and humor (and indeed, when the non-Whovian sees a Dalek) – they appear ridiculous. But those made sense, because they really were a transmitter for the political and sociological talking points of the day – and the Daleks definitely can make sense, as long as they are imbued with meaning. On their own, though, they’re just symbols without symbolism – a bit ridiculous, maybe simply because fascism, in all its ugliness, always has something deeply grotesque to it: Adolf Hitler’s transformation into an internet meme is not due to chance. There’s always going to be something uncanny about treating the Daleks as a real alien species, as a culture, a civilization worth exploring. Try to make sense of their continuity throughout the show. No, really, try. I’ll wait. See? At the end of the day, you always fall back on symbols, on visuals. Eyestalks in the dark. “Exterminate!”s. The planet Skaro – which is destroyed under McCoy, is a ruin by Smith, and has apparently been magically rebuilt by Capaldi: but really, history doesn’t matter, the civil wars and the emperors and all that – the permanence and resilience of Daleks, as a repeating pattern, as a recurring meme, that’s what is paramount. “The Witch’s Familiar”, despite its many shortcomings as a story, puts that tension into extremely clear visual terms: the Daleks may build cities, but their very nature, their rotting, erupting flesh will always make them collapse. The Daleks are that, at the end: a formless, black magma wracked with hatred. A surprisingly elusive evil hidden under the most obvious of allegories.
That’s why “Power of the Daleks” is a visionary episode, really. Much more than any other Classic Dalek story, and easily much more than “Genesis of the Daleks”, it understands what the Daleks can bring to the show – and it effectively created a rich toolbox of themes and techniques that are still being used today, as far as their depiction goes. One of most blatant is the way the Daleks are used as a force opposite to the Doctor, a chance for him to build himself, to define himself against something: especially when you have to sell your audience on the personality of said Doctor, which “Power” very much had to do, considering regeneration was then this never-tried-before, incredibly risky gamble. Look at the New Show – the only Doctor that did not encounter the Daleks almost immediately was David Tennant, probably because the show was in a comfortable position of strength after the success of series 1 (and even then, they still popped up in his first series, albeit as much more of a big twist and a PR argument rather than as a storytelling element). But Eccleston? Sixth episode, and really, his whole character is the result of actions directly committed by the Daleks. Smith? Third episode. Capaldi? Second episode. The formula still works! And really, when you look at “Into the Dalek”, you do see Power’s legacy, at every level. While the Moffat story probably goes a bit deeper in the metaphorical aspects of this confrontation, as seen two weeks ago, Whitaker’s script is still admirably strong on that front. It all comes from this genius touch of having the Doctor literally playing a part all throughout the story, having to replace an Examiner (note the lack of identity beyond the title) that has perished in the line of duty – he faces doubt from the base’s denizens and from his own companions; and, at the same time, the Daleks themselves are playing a part, pretending to be these devoted servants. Mirrors, mirrors, mirrors everywhere. The fact that the Examiner was thrown into a pool of mercury is pretty significant as well – as Phil Sandifer will no doubt point out to you, it’s a nice bit of alchemical symbolism. I can’t elaborate too much on that point, sadly, the occultist aspects of DW remaining a far, enigmatic land for me.
But I can still bang on the spatial symbolism of the story, mind you. Much like “Into the Dalek”, the entire story revolves around an inner space, an inner sanctum, an almost holy, dreaded place – here, it’s the Dalek capsule. Really, that too is a bit of a recurring pattern with the Daleks: if we’re always trying to find their origin, well, that origin might be tied to a place, a symbolical birthing ground. Which often is round, too. Because the egg, birth symbolism, you know the drill. Davros in the series 9 Capaldi two-parter, is kept prisoner in a round cell, much like Oswin in “Asylum” (and the whole of the episode is a quest to look for her, I might add). The Crucible in the series 4 finale is a giant round spaceship, and our heroes must enter it. The device used by the Daleks in “Victory” takes the place of a round chamber. There’s something religious about it, really – like chapels in which the wishes and dreams of decadent and corrupted civilizations take flesh and become a hideous creature. Here, the Dalek pod is a Pandora’s box of sorts – containing a terrible curse that is awoken through the greed and hubris of men; well, hubris, not just that. There’s also something of a search for material comfort at work here – the Daleks could make good servants, they could work in the mines. They could, well, do exactly what the colonists do, except better and more efficiently – and this refusal to consider the Daleks as anything other than means to an end, something that can be integrated into a production system destined to bring riches and power to minority is what doom the colonists. They fail to acknowledge that you can’t make a society out of anything, that if you just integrate any ideology, no matter how toxic, in your system, it will eventually collapse and rot away. Science without conscience brings ruin to the soul, said Rabelais – and he knew what he was talking about, as both a man of the Enlightenment and as a former monk. Politics without conscience will bring that too, says Power, and Power is very right. A society that is just concerned about “power”, about the production of stuff, with no room for actual ideas is bound to fall to another sort of Power – the Power of the Daleks, the fascism that lies dormant in its nice little black pod. One day or another, a capitalistic Pandora will open the box, and ta dam! Interestingly enough, though, the contents of this box are also deeply tied to the past – it’s a museum of sorts, really, with Daleks covered in cobwebs, lying in wait. By opening the pod, one makes the past alive again. Which is good, because the vitality at work in the previous era of the show is brought forth again. But it’s also awful – because the ghosts of eras past, of the dead fascism, are reborn in new shapes to torment a new society.
It’s not a perfect story, though. The first part is probably indulging a bit too much in Classic Who’s languid pacing (although the animated reconstitution is certainly of no help) – and the last one, well, is mostly Daleks killing people. Which is not interesting, in any way, shape or form. “Into the Dalek” didn’t completely dodged that problem, but it at least made those scenes absolutely irrelevant in the grand schemes of things: the real conflict is the inner one (pun!), and they amount to nothing more than a bit of a window-dressing. Really, “Into” battle scenes almost play like a parody – it’s so terribly obvious that Rusty is going to turn evil again and wreak havoc that you wonder why it’s presented as a twist in the first place. But at the very least it’s not the crux of the story.
So really, a question needs to be asked – can you really merge the Daleks with Who’s larger narrative? There always seem to be some fundamental resistance there, something that doesn’t quite gel with the wider storytelling ambitions of the show. They’re elements of destruction: can they really be used in a show that defines itself, above all else, as a maëlstrom of creation?