by Ruth Long
“How do you get into a Dalek’s head?”
Steven Moffat is known for finding new and creative methods of exploring a monster almost as old as Doctor Who itself. The unnerving corruption of the nanocloud, the horrific Dalek sewers, the revelation that their own casing is built to censor and distort the words and intentions of the being inside. But perhaps most intriguing is his use of the Daleks in relation to his characters, and one specific character in particular. In her duration on the show, Clara Oswald has been placed within a Dalek shell no less than three times. On each of these occasions the circumstances have varied greatly, yet there’s something rather fascinating about such an unusual recurring theme, and even more so the curious manner in which it’s consistently framed.
When presented in parallel with the Doctor, the Daleks (and indeed their creator, Davros) are often used as analogues for his hatred of their race. Hatred is the sole valued emotion of their kind (all else is considered impure and weak); a quality they believe to be admirable, divine even. Thus the Doctor has been called, both implicitly and directly, ‘a good Dalek’.
“I thought you’d run out of ways to make me sick… you think hatred is beautiful.”
“Perhaps that is why we have never been able to destroy you.”
Of course, this phrase has dual meanings depending on context. What constitutes ‘a good Dalek’ is subject to one’s definition of the word ‘good’. If you regard the term as proficient, fit for purpose, possessed of desired traits, then this will equate to a Dalek unmarred by any concept of altruism, compassion or (in theory) mercy. They are nothing but cold efficiency, warriors driven solely by an intense revulsion of the other. There is no allowance for ‘good’ in any truly moral sense. Consequently, we’re met with a strong contradiction between a good Dalek, and a Dalek that is good. The nature of a Dalek renders these two statements incompatible; both cannot be true at the same time.
Which brings us to Clara. The notable thing about her affiliation with the Daleks is that, unlike the Doctor in many (though not all) cases, particular emphasis is placed not on their similarities, but on the ways in which she differs from them. And this, ironically, is frequently achieved by putting her within the mind and perspective of a Dalek – sometimes quite literally. Clara isn’t without her ‘black mirror’ figures; the likes of Missy, Bonnie, Ashildr and in some respects the Doctor himself have all played that role. The Daleks, however, are never really used to reflect on the darker aspects of her persona; instead they become a means with which to examine her relationship with narrative authority, identity, vulnerability, control and power of will. This, in turn, broadens our idea of what this notoriously inherently evil species is capable of.
The approach of portraying a Dalek sympathetically certainly isn’t a new one. 2005’s ‘Dalek’, the episode that reintroduced them to the revived series, is about the discovery of the last one in the universe. This creates a clear thematic link between it and the Doctor; sharers in a solemn, undesired bond as two lost and lonely survivors of the Time War. Furthermore, the presence of a companion in Rose adds another significant element to the mix: humanity. A touch – something innately ‘un-Dalek’ – is all it takes to alter the Dalek’s very DNA, changing it into a new entity… and destroying it in the process. To imbue a Dalek with that which is beyond it is to defy what a Dalek is, and so it chooses death over living with what it has become. To put it another way, a good Dalek could not bear being good.
“Are you frightened, Rose Tyler?”
“So am I. Exterminate.”
It’s this abhorrence for deviation that drove the Emperor Dalek and his acolytes to madness in ‘The Parting of the Ways’. Disgusted by their contaminated origin from human genetic material, self-loathing consumed them in crazed religious zealotry. ‘Daleks in Manhattan’ and ‘Evolution of the Daleks’ continues the theme of Dalek-human hybridization, again culminating in the mutinous destruction of what is deemed an abomination by a race obsessed with purity. The emergence of traditionally humanoid traits such as a desire for freedom or integrity swiftly results in a purge: the insurmountable conflict of opposing natures. Even Caan in ‘Journey’s End’, betrayer of his kind for a supposedly just cause, had been left insane by his previous experiences (leading to ‘morality as malfunction’), and he ends up burning along with the rest. The question ‘can there be such a thing as a good Dalek?’ is repeatedly answered with extermination.
Years later, ‘Asylum of the Daleks’ would tackle this in a new way. For the first and only time, deep in the heart of where the Daleks themselves fear to venture, we hear one cry. The resolutely human mind of Oswin Oswald prevails against the siege of Dalek hatred. In defiant spite of a total physical conversion she drowns out invading voices with opera music, battles inner trauma by baking soufflés, immerses herself in a convincing dream to preserve and fight for her identity. She is a rebellious bird trapped in a cage, like the lyrics of Carmen’s Habanera that announce her arrival. Only when the terrible truth is spoken out loud does the illusion shatter, but Oswin’s horror and pain in that moment shows her to be more human than ever. Her final act is one of selfless sacrifice, a last victory against the Daleks; her triumph punctuated with a break of the forth wall as she looks beyond fictional bounds. In the end, she wins.
“I am Oswin Oswald. I fought the Daleks and I am Human! Remember me.”
‘The bird you thought you’d caught beat its wings and flew away…’
Indeed, who better to confront the emotional and ideological subjugation of the most oppressive creatures in existence than Clara Oswald, a woman of such endless audacity that she will challenge every barrier set before her? In some ways her interactions with the Daleks are contemplation of their emotional capacity, but this unique affinity, crucially, is founded on aspects integral to who Clara is. Her most treasured beliefs in the power of stories and infinite potential; her association with the limitless flight of birds and the vastness of stars; her pride in nonconformity and pursuit of the extraordinary: all are the antithesis of Dalek doctrine. Therefore, to bring these two together, and on such an intimate level, yields a rich amount of meaning.
“You’ll kill me anyway. What difference does it make? I’m not afraid, I’ll leave that to you.”
‘The Witch’s Familiar’ sees the return to an old prison from another life. Yet here Clara is stripped of her greatest weapon: words. ‘I love you’ becomes a cry for murder and even her name is silenced by the tyranny of Dalek language. This time, she isn’t the untamable Dalek with a young woman’s voice, but a trapped young woman who must speak through a Dalek. It’s interesting that as the former she had great external influence while a war waged within, where as the latter she is whole but helpless, afraid; ostensibly little more than a common Dalek soldier. The challenge now is not one of will, but communication: it’s a different kind of struggle, though one that, at its core, is just as much about Clara’s personal storytelling. So, when all else fails, when desperate pleas are suppressed, she finds another way of breaking through. For we witness a Dalek that doesn’t just comprehend mercy, but expresses it. That gives the Doctor pause.
“I could never kill you. You are the last person I would ever kill.”
“I show mercy.”
To state the obvious, Clara (accounting for her and Oswin collectively) is not a Dalek; she doesn’t represent the twisted Kaled mutants of Skaro. Nevertheless, she has been their convert, their rebel, their manipulator, their hostage, their infiltrator, their prey, their imposter and their captive. Most importantly she is, arguably, someone who has experienced what it is like to ‘be’ a Dalek better than almost any other living outsider. Alongside and through Clara, a character with which we can identify, we are granted deeper insight into the Daleks through an empathetic lens. It’s an allegorical exploration, capturing the clash between a Dalek’s rigid, destructive psychology and the autonomy and moral awareness of humankind; specifically Clara’s own individual outlook.
Is it any wonder, then, that in ‘Into the Dalek’, an episode that addresses the notion of a ‘good Dalek’ head-on, she is the one to reach a conclusion the Doctor himself overlooks? Evil refined as engineering: stood at its very heart. Clara Oswald, who sees unlimited possibilities in a simple leaf, is able to recognize that for a time, a Dalek had expanded its consciousness, considered things beyond its natural terms of reference, and she teaches the Doctor to do the same. Again this is Clara the author, asserting control over the story through her understanding of the narrative they are in. A test of will, communication and here, perception: always answering the same question…
“Daleks are evil. Irreversibly so. That’s what we just learned.”
“No, Doctor, that is not what we just learned.”
“You thought there was a good Dalek. What difference would one good Dalek make?”
Having once wiped the memories of every Dalek, she’s now releasing them in this one’s cortex vault; showing a Dalek a star, like those she longed to see while enclosed in a familiar nightmare. Though ultimately, even this isn’t enough to deter Rusty from his inborn path of hatred, merely invert its course; channeled through the Doctor’s own. And yet, was that ever the point? Was that really what this was all about? Or was it a greater discussion of good men and soldiers; of morality not as a state of being but a choice; of a woman and a symbol that serves as something more than monstrosity. A commentary on a character, an anomaly: a good Dalek. So what have we learned? What difference would one good Dalek make?
“All the difference in the universe, but it’s impossible.”
Is that a fact?
Ruth “The Lazy Cat” Long is the world’s leading expert on Clara Oswald and has contributed to multiple works on the character, including the book “101 Claras to see“. That article was originally published on her Tumblr (http://the-lazy-cat-bakes-souffles.tumblr.com/ ) and is reproduced here with her permission.