“I’m giving in to the inevitable. Daleks, death, and taxes.” – The Seventh Doctor
I’m putting forward a proposition: “The Lights of Skaro” is the best Dalek story of them all.
Some context is required, though, be it only because it doesn’t have the same fame as “Genesis” or “Power” or the New Show’s episodes. So. “The Lights of Skaro” is the last story on the first boxset of the New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield, published by Big Finish in 2014, and written by one of the company’s greatest assets, the genius known as James Goss. I’ll do my best to provide a summary, but honestly, this is going to be spoiler-filled and if you still haven’t experienced it, you should absolutely do that right now, by any means necessary: while I can’t pretend to have the exhaustive knowledge of Big Finish that my dear co-editor Scribbles has, I definitely feel like (and he agrees, so here’s your appeal to authority) it’s one of the absolute best releases they ever did.
The whole boxset is structured around a quest: Benny is tasked by the Seventh Doctor, after a memorable night of drunkenness (seriously, “The Revolution” is one of the funniest pieces in the whole of Doctor Who), to go and find Ace, who has mysteriously disappeared. After getting lost in a labyrinth created by Dalek time-travelling tech and meeting the ghost of her mother, she finds Ace on a planet stuck in a neverending time-loop, and gets involved romantically with an artist called Klinus. Except they do find a way to break the time-loop eventually, and the cat gets out of the bag: they have been on Skaro the entire time. A Skaro ravaged by an ancient Time Lord weapon Ace has brought to the planet in order to destroy the pepperpots once and for all, being wracked with guilt and anger after her mother died and the planet the Time Lords asked her to oversee was destroyed. A Skaro that’s unstable, allowing Benny to travel through its history, meeting the Emperor, Klinus (who is, in fact, a Kaled), experiencing the annihilation of the planet’s sun after the Hand of Omega was triggered, and so on … At the end of the day, the weapon stays inactive, the Doctor accepting that the Daleks are a fact of the universe, inevitable, and Benny joins the TARDIS team again.
Those are the facts, now for the analysis.
“The Lights of Skaro blaze again across the universe, and they will never again be extinguished!” – Davros
James Goss, as a writer, seems to be fascinated by the concept of History. Not linear, factual history – although he did write a couple period pieces, such as “Mask of Tragedy” (Monthly Range #190), or the Victorian scenes of “The Torchwood Archive“. History as a whole, as a conceptual space to explore. It’s no coincidence that his two most important stories, “The Lights of Skaro” and “The Torchwood Archive“, basically present themselves as a history lesson, or rather a stroll through a museum: a single character wandering through a space, encountering different characters, different vignettes, everything building on to a metatextual conclusion. “Lights” is probably the superior story (and you can see its influence on a lot of Goss’ Torchwood range – not just in “The Torchwood Archive”, but also in Joseph Lidster’s “Broken”, which basically uses continuity porn to create emotion, in a weird alchemical process that is nevertheless incredibly effective) – mostly because its central character, the museum visitor, if you want, is not just some random dude hired by Jack (or by a gay ghost) (yes, “Archive” is weird) but Bernice Summerfield. There’s something just brilliant about pitting the Daleks, the immutable, aggressively masculine pepperpots, against an embodiment of Doctor Who’s campest, most feminine aspects (not to forget a healthy dose of queer, considering Paul Cornell is on record as saying River and Benny were totally a couple at one point, and that her son is gay) – be it only because it forces the story to get out of the binary Doctor/Dalek dichotomy, where one is the polar opposite of the other. In the previous episode of this series, we discussed the problematic aspects of such a division: it forces the Doctor into a role of absolute embodiment of good, against the evil of the Daleks (pun!), a role he doesn’t fit and cannot occupy without a form of uncanny tension. True, the story does play around this idea of the Doctor and the Daleks being ultimate nemesis: through some canon magic, Goss implies that, post-“Genesis”, the Daleks regressed into the dangerous, but not quite genocide-practicing demons of hell, scientists seen in their very first outing, under Hartnell; and that it was the Doctor, and the revelation he carried of life in other worlds, that put the creatures back into the tracks of an eternal war for racial purity. It’s a cliché, by that point, hammered home by “The Dark Knight” and who knows how many media – the superhero creates supervillains, the good needs evil as a balancing force –; Moffat did his own take on it with “The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar”. But, just like that story, Goss avoids deftly the trap of over-simplifying the narrative: as Ace points out, someone, at some point, would have come to Skaro and awakened (once again, note the awakening motive) the Daleks. The Doctor just happened to be that person, but at the end of the day, the Daleks were always inevitable: pretending otherwise is impossible, because the very existence of Doctor Who, as we know it today, rests on them.
“Daleks don’t leave a history, just a scar across the universe” – Klinus
And that’s the genius of “Lights of Skaro”: it’s a story about the history of the Daleks that, at the end of the day, denies the very concept of a Dalek history. Skaro here is not a place of linear time – it’s a jigsaw puzzle designed by a crack addict, a confusing collage where famous episodes, characters, and events intersect with each other in random and unpredictable ways. And by doing that, the episode manages to make the Daleks themselves into intriguing, complex figures; most of the time, when a story achieves that goal, it’s by making them more human (“Dalek” and “Jubilee” fall into that exact same category), or by using them in an allegorical setting that ultimately aims to speak about humanity. Here, though, they are very much this fascist block, this lifeless mass leaving only destruction in its wake – which could be awful, but really isn’t, precisely because the setting of the story, and the unfolding action, really adhere to this vision in a way never really seen before or since. The problem with many Daleks story is that they take what is essentially an ideological, pretty abstract monster, and play it straight, putting it in a context that may not be entirely realistic, but at the very least aims for verisimilitude in its diegesis – even “Genesis of the Daleks”, which takes place on another planet, is still grabbing to realistic signifiers, from the Nazi uniforms to the minefields; its conception of war and politics is something that parallels ours, creating a weird, awkward tension. Skaro, here, though, is an entirely postmodern setting. Time is not linear: you meet Davros first, then go back to Troughton first and “Evil of the Daleks”, then fast-forward to “Remembrance” and the blazing end of their homeworld … It’s the embodiment of the Dalek mythos, not their home planet: and that’s the space where the Daleks make sense, where they finally cohere and work fully. Maybe precisely because fascism, this fascism they embody, is a fiction: the followers of fascism believe in an enemy that’s both fundamentally weaker than them but also a terrible all-powerful danger that threatens the very essence of their civilization; they believe in a leader that’s infallible even in his failures; they believe in a fictional narrative. That’s a point made pretty clearly in “Jubilee”, where adherence to a fascist dogma ends up literally breaking down the barriers of reality and summoning forth the Daleks, this ideological cancer. “Into the Dalek” did pretty much the same thing – but it basically shoved the Dalek Mythos into the conceptual space of series 8, bending and twisting it along the way; there’s nothing wrong with that, and honestly, Doctor Who would be better if the writers were ready to follow that kind of path more often, but at the same time, it’s never really “about” the Daleks. This episode follows the same approach, but places the Daleks front and center.
“Life that doesn’t know what do to with itself but to wipe out any other life. Sounds familiar?!” – Ace
And not only that – it puts life back into them again. Because yes, any pedant fan will be prompt to correct you if you say that the Daleks are robots – but at the same time, their status as a real, true lifeform is not something their episodes have been good at conveying. Thing is – ideologies are real and important, but they only make sense if they are alive. Functionally, too often, the Daleks are nothing more than talking bacteria, or pre-recorded slogans. They shout in anger, but their appearances are so bound by ritual and storytelling conventions it’s hard to really make the viewer feel all the extent of their malevolent vitality. But here, life is everywhere – the Daleks are coming back to life, Bernice Summerfield, this embodiment of fun adventurous joy, is trapped in a fight for survival, and, of course, we’re treated to a reminder that yes, the Daleks used to be people. The conversation between Klinus and Bernice is the highlight of an already fantastic story – it’s also a perfect fix to a ton of “Genesis”’ problems. The fact that the Kaleds had artists and poets and sculptors – it’s just such a wonderful concept, all the more haunting when it’s implied that Davros had those killed to create the first Daleks. It’s an auto-da-fe, in a way, a ritual burning of books and works of arts destined to bolster the ideology of a regime – linking the Daleks to that act is fantastically clever: it sort of marks a point of no return – if you have got as far as going against your culture, the very blood and life of your reality, your civilization, your country, then you have unleashed the mythical monsters of absolute, ugly despotism. Not to forget that this is basically the best justification for refusing to eradicate the Daleks: that they are all that remains of an annihilated culture. Oh, sure, “Genesis” made gestures in that direction, but it never went as far as to actually show it to us. Here, we get to see this culture, we get to experience what it meant to people, and what tragedy its loss is. And when we learn how much the Daleks suffer, that they have to kill and destroy over and over, and obey the blind orders of madmen just to make the pain less hard to bear … Well, you do feel a little bit sorry for them. James Goss shows us the Daleks at their most human (in other scenes, too, like when a Dalek meets a Kaled and kills her on the spot, jealous of her physical appearance, of her embodying, better than him, the Platonic ideal of racial purity) just to rob us of that on the spot and turn them inhuman – and that twofold movement is what makes the Daleks, finally, interesting. That’s the truth about the Daleks: they’re not a mutant in a tank, they’re not even a casing that can convert the people placed inside (a vision the latter episodes of the New Show tend to follow), but a process. And in a way, this story is a requiem: a way to honor the past of the show, the victims of the Daleks, and the mangled humanity inside them.
When the Doctor refuses to kill the Daleks, at the end of “Genesis”, it’s an act of moral superiority that doesn’t seem to need more justification than “the Doctor knows best”. When Bernice refuses to kill the Daleks here, it’s rather because it would be too simple – it would be refusing to accept their humanity and past; it would be trying to erase them from history instead of facing this darkness inside them, a darkness that also lurks within the boundaries of the show, and inside the viewer. Acceptance of the Daleks, here, is not a last resort solution, something you do because you have no better option, or, as Briggs wrote in his War Doctor audios, an act of blind cowardice – it’s an active choice. Facing the inexorable and the absolute evil. Facing the inevitable to, maybe, change it.
Random note: I have a Tumblr now, if that’s of any interest to you.