Wednesday, September 16, 2015

8.2 Into the Dalek

--Was the sermon good?
--What was it about?
--What did the preacher say?
--He was against it.
               Calvin Coolidge, attrib.

Daleks are fun. Daleks are baddies but they are fun baddies. Children are scared of Daleks but they mostly want to be Daleks. Pirates are baddies but children do not on the whole go to parties dressed as the noble members of Her Majesty's navy who arrest them. It's more fun to be bad. And members of Her Majesty's pirate-hunting forces don't say "Arrr". 

Last week we had “regeneration considered in the style of a BBC drama”. This week we have “Daleks considered in the style of a big budget sci-fi movie.” I enjoyed the spaceships whizzing around Lucas-style in the pre-cred. I enjoyed the “rebels” — the sort of nasty space soldiers that populated Terry Nation universes, with some modern family angst to keep us rooted in the modern age. (Does anyone know what they were rebelling against?) I enjoyed the all-too-brief scene inside the Dalek spaceship, with loadsadaleks in the control room. I enjoyed the big fight scene with space marines and walls of flame and ray-guns, oh my.

But it only looks like a movie. Like a collection of movie-ish vignettes. It's actually another Dungeons & Dragons scenario in which a party of not terribly interesting characters explore a mysterious alien environment and the Doctor goes all psychodrama on us.

I like Daleks. I have the 60s Dalek annuals displayed in my study. I have read the 70s Dalek annuals so often I could set them to music. Thumping military choral music. But it felt like the rayguns and explosions and space ships were there as an apology, as a sop, a bit to put in the trailers and then rush past as quickly as possible so we can get to the angst and characterization and a big dramatic revelation about the Doctor which is exactly the same as the last seventeen big dramatic revelations about the Doctor.

Laugh? I almost typed “J.C Wright has a point.”

Back in 2007 when New Who was New and could do no wrong, there was a story about a Dalek called Dalek. It was a reworking of a Big Finish story about a Dalek called Jubilee. Both stories were sort of experiments: is it possible to write a script in which a Dalek has a personality —  even a sympathetic one — but is still a Dalek? (A “good” Dalek — a friendly creature that just happened to use stylish pepper pot shaped wheel — would be perfectly feasible but entirely uninteresting.) The answer was “yes”, and virtually all subsequent stories have allowed the Daleks to be just one shade more nuanced than they were in the olden days.

There is a moment in the TV version when the Doctor is ranting at his ancient foe (”Why don’t you just die? Rid the Universe of your filth!”) and the Dalek responds “YOU-WOULD-MAKE-A-GOOD-DALEK”.

This is a crucial moment in the Season 1 story arc. Doctor Chris, as a result of his experiences in the Time War has become like a Dalek. And that is not who he is. His relationship with Rose, and his eventual regeneration into Doctor David, is framed as a kind of redemption.

Seven seasons, three Doctors and oh god about eleven Dalek stories later, “you would make a good Dalek” has become practically the whole of the Doctor’s personality. I think it may be part of the series-bible that ever episode has to conclude with the shock revelation that that gee-whizz the Doctor is a twisted reflection of his enemies.

There is a Dalek. It appears to have discovered morals. It is quite literally a good Dalek. (And therefore not very good at being a Dalek, because Daleks are meant to be good at being bad.) For reasons I didn’t exactly get, the space marines decide to miniaturize the Doctor and insert him into the Dalek to find out why. The Doctor remembers that there’s a movie called Fantastic Voyage but forgets that there was Doctor Who story called The Invisible Enemy. He makes a bum joke.

One of the fun things about Fantastic Voyage was that Prof. Scientist kept telling you interesting stuff about the part of the body the miniaturized submarine was currently passing through. One longed for those kinds of scenes tonight. “We are now crossing one of the Dalek’s balls: they are really sensor devices you know…” “This is the bit where the sink plunger connects to the stick: let me tell you an interesting thing about sink plungers”. I failed the Anti-Dalek Force aptitude test in three consecutive years, but let me tell you: all those schematics look as if a Dalek is a big machine with wires and cables and gears. Climbing along wires and cables and gears and seeing a Dalek from the inside should have been fun. But it turns out that the inside of a Dalek looks pretty much like the inside of any spaceship or shopping center. All these corridors look the same to me.

New bits are added to the Dalek mythos, on the hop, to create little computer game actiony bits. The Daleks have got on just fine for years without being space cannibals. We really don’t need to be suddenly told that they liquify their “victims” when they need protein. There is no particular reason why a Dalek shell shouldn’t have “antibodies”, any more than there is any particular reason why, a Sontaran’s ray gun shouldn’t occasionally catch a cold. But I liked it better when the machine was a big scary tank that the Dalek creature lived in. 

It transpires — excellent word to use when you can’t really follow the plot — that this good Dalek turned good not because of radiation or a previous Doctor injecting it with the Human Factor but because it heard one of Sarah-Jane Smith’s speeches about how the universe is a wonderful place and you can be anything if you try. OK, if you insist, it saw a star being born. There is a bit of jiggery pokery in which it loses the memory of this event and turns evil again; and then Wonderful Clara works out how to restore the memory. But the big set piece is when the Doctor plugs his Time Lord mind into Dalek’s mind while acting a lot.

And get this: what the Dalek sees in the Doctor’s mind is not how much the Doctor loves the Universe but how much he hates the Daleks. So the good Dalek reverts to being a good Dalek: except instead of wanting to exterminate all humans it wants to exterminate all Daleks. The Doctor is horrified by what he has done. “I am not a good Dalek”  the good Dalek explains. “You are a good Dalek.” And we’re back where we were eight years ago.

Since the days of Stan Lee, all superheroes have been reducible to their origin story. And ever since Tim Burton’s daft Batman movie, it’s been fashionable for superheroes and supervillains to share the same origin. If possible, the hero and the villain are supposed to be mutually self-begotten. Batman was responsible for the accident that disfigure the Joker; and the Joker was responsible for the tragedy which caused Batman to become a crime fighter. I made you but you made me and so betwixt the pair of the them they licked the platter clean.

The Doctor, whose origins are by definition shrouded in mystery, acquires a new origin myth at the rate of about two a season. They always diminish the character. Before you make up a silly story that tells us how the Doctor became what he is, you have to know what the Doctor is, and the Doctor isn’t any one thing. 

So, this time, the big revelation is that the Doctor is defined by his hatred of the Daleks – which is ironic because “hate” is the Daleks’ schtick, which is why he would make such a good Dalek.

“See, all those years ago, when I began. I was just running. I called myself the Doctor, but it was just a name. And then I went to Skaro. And then I met you lot and I understood who I was. The Doctor was not the Daleks.”

It doesn’t matter that this isn’t true. Our folk memory of what happened in old episodes is much more important than the episodes themselves. If the Doctor now says that he was radically changed as a person when he first encountered the Daleks then it is neither here nor there to say that no, that’s not at all what happened on the DVD. (Running? The original Doctor was a wandering scientist, interested in learning stuff, and trying, not very urgently, to get back home. The Daleks he first met weren’t the embodiment of evil, but bitter deformed survivors of a war that wasn’t completely their fault. Changed by the encounter? He tells the Thals he’s too old to be a pioneer, and spend the next few months meandering around the Far East with Marco Polo.) What does matter is that it’s boringly, tediously reductive. The Doctor, defined by not being the Daleks? Defined by not being the one-dimensional embodiment of total nastiness? You might as well say that your unique selling point is that you’re in favour of happiness and against wickedness. 

There is a sub plot.

There is a teacher at the school where Wonderful Clara teaches. He teaches Maths. He used to be a soldier. He is a good soldier, because when one of the children ask him if he ever killed anyone, he cries, and good soldiers feel bad about killing. Wonderful Clara and him are going to go on a date, awkwardly.

Does anyone know what Wonderful Clara teaches? I suppose the references to Roman Emperor’s is supposed to imply “history”? There is a precedent for lady history teachers from Coal Hill School travelling with the Doctor. There is even a precedent for them being fond of soldiers, assuming Ian had done his National Service.

We see where this is going. Wonderful Clara no longer thinks of herself as sort of dating the Doctor so it’s okay for her to start date a normal guy in her place of work. I imagine it will end in tears.

Do you know what I would like?

A Dalek story.

Not a story in which the Daleks are a metaphor for id evil dark reflection ego fascism, but a story about outer space robot people hatching a dastardly plot to conquer the entire universe and world and the Doctor foiling them. 

In the meantime, this was actually an okay story. The Dalek fizz was fun but the symbolism was flat.