Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Daleks: Looking Back

Last week I spotted the Den of Geek's Top 10 Dalek Stories posted in anticipation of this season's reboot of the creatures. They've come a long way since their genesis on Skaro, and I too want to celebrate. Unlike the Den of Geek, I'll have to ignore the Hartnell-Pertwee eras, because I'm not as familiar with those stories and most are still unavailable on DVD. But since the stories from Tom Baker to Matt Smith total 11, there's no point to a top 10 list, so I'm simply going to rate the 11 episodes in descending order, from the crown jewels (1-4), to the very good (5-6), to the worthy (7-8), to the mediocre (9), to the stinkers (10-11).

And because I'm obsessed with body counts these days, I'm throwing in that bit of trivia too. The numbers represent people we see getting killed onstage, not necessarily the total killed in the story. For instance, in Genesis of the Daleks, there are thousands of Kaleds killed by the Thal rocket, and just as many Thals exterminated by the Daleks in the war; but we don't witness all that. At the end of Dalek we learn that about 200 of Van Staten's employees were killed; we saw a tenth of those exterminations. Resurrection of the Daleks is legendary for having the highest (onstage) body count in the history of Doctor Who, let alone a Dalek story. Needless to say, a high body count doesn't necessarily a good story make, though it's often a good indicator that the Daleks are being taken seriously like they should be.

1. Genesis of the Daleks. 5 jelly babies. What can't be said for this classic? It presents the bleakest and darkest image of war ever seen in the history of Doctor Who. It introduces the Naziesque character of Davros, and develops him brilliantly across six episodes. It has one of the most famous and compelling character moments for the Doctor, as he agonizes over whether or not to commit genocide on the Daleks -- his argument being that killing an intelligent lifeform would make him no better than they, and future worlds will become allies because of the Dalek menace. That many of us disagree with the Doctor only makes his alien way of thinking more fascinating. The conclusion is superb, as the Doctor fails in his mission: he's unable to either destroy the Daleks or alter their genetic engineering, but he knows, as he assures Sarah, that "out of their evil must come something good". No Dalek story can ever hope to beat this one.

Doctor: 4th (Tom Baker)
Setting: Skaro, c. 5700 BC
Body Count: 32

2. Dalek. 5 jelly babies. The first Dalek story of the new series (thankfully not written by Russell Davies) is a character piece above all, with a lone Dalek survivor of the Time War eliciting opposite emotions from The Doctor and Rose. Unlike Sarah who had ages ago urged him to obliterate the entire race, Rose has to stop him from blasting the last Dalek to bits, as it acquires feelings of compassion from her DNA. The Doctor's rage and Rose's empathy play off each other beautifully, and it says something about the script that a single Dalek is able to terrify more than many hordes of them do in other inferior stories. Rightly hailed as the best Dalek story of the new series, and a stroke of genius. In the space of only 45 minutes we are made to feel what it really means to be a Dalek, and that kind of transcendence is rare in Doctor Who.

Doctor: 9th (Chris Eccleston)
Setting: Utah, 2012
Body Count: 21

3. Revelation of the Daleks. 4 ½ jelly babies. Morbid and gruesome, even for Doctor Who, and one of the most original scripts penned in the history of the show. Like Genesis it's more a Davros than Dalek story, and we get to see him in full control for the first time since he created the Daleks, now cultivating a new breed of Imperial Daleks from preserved cadavers on a mortuary planet. All that remains of him now (or so it seems anyway) is his head, preserved in a life-support vessel from which he gleefully watches over everyone in the comfort of his laboratory, orchestrating events with three times the amount of cunning and sadism we saw back in Genesis. I adore this story, and the only thing preventing a 5-rating is the incredibly annoying character of the DJ.

Doctor: 6th (Colin Baker)
Setting: Necros, c. 4610
Body Count: 12

4. Remembrance of the Daleks. 4 ½ jelly babies. Dalek civil war comes to Earth, and at the engineering of the Doctor no less, who is at his most manipulative thanks to the Cartmel Masterplan. The pacing is flawless, and Davros is commendably held in reserve until the final episode. If Genesis contains the Doctor's most compelling character moment, Remembrance features his most jaw-dropping, as he decides to annihilate Skaro. Far from being squeamish about wiping out a race of xenophobic killers, he has come to believe that the destruction of an entire solar system is worth an attempt to cripple the Daleks. There is the flawed bit about Daleks dependent on a battle computer for logic (they were never creatures of logic until Destiny of the Daleks, on which see #9 below), and the brief reintroduction of this trait prevents the story from getting a 5-rating. Otherwise it's near flawless.

Doctor: 7th (Sylvester McCoy)
Setting: London/Skaro, 1963/c. 4660
Body Count: 10

5. Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways. 4 jelly babies. The Daleks find religion, and their god is as fearsome as Davros. The drama of this apocalypse revolves perversely around reality TV, where on a satellite orbit people are forced to play games and losers get vaporized. There are awesome sights here -- zillions of levitating and flying Daleks, chanting horrible mantras in defense of the Dalek God, "WORSHIP HIM!", "DO NOT INTERRUPT!" -- but held at a 4-rating due to the whacking plot holes. Most obvious being when the Daleks invade the station, which they no longer need, to stop the Doctor. Since they are melting entire continents on Earth, they could do the same to the station. But that wouldn't allow the Doctor to face the moral dilemma demanded by RTD's script: use the delta wave and kill the Daleks, but also every form of life on Earth; or let the Daleks live so that they can kill every form of life on Earth, which is exactly what they're already in the process of doing by melting continents. Aside from blunders like this, the story is fantastic.

Doctor: 9th (Chris Eccleston)
Setting: Satellite Five, 200,100
Body Count: 5

6. Army of Ghosts/Doomsday. 4 jelly babies. This is a Who-fan's wet dream: the two most popular villains, Daleks and Cybermen, invading Earth, and then fighting each other to see who's best. The first time I saw this, the appearance of the Daleks caught me way off-guard; the cliffhanger to the first episode is classic genius. And I love this Cult of Skaro: four elite Daleks with names, designed to think as the enemy thinks, and whose authority supersedes even the Dalek God who died in the previous season finale. A great moment is when the Cyberleader proposes an alliance with the Cult, is refused, and demands: "You would destroy 5 million Cybermen with four Daleks?" Reply: "We would destroy 5 million Cybermen with one Dalek. You are superior in only one respect: you are better at dying. This is not a war, this is pest control." As apocalyptic as Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways, and just as good, though similarly weighed down by certain RTD'isms.

Doctor 10th (David Tennant)
Setting: London, 2007
Body Count: 9

7. Resurrection of the Daleks. 3 jelly babies. Notorious for having the highest body count in the history of the show, this is a fun adrenaline ride that unfortunately involves messy plotting. The Daleks resurrect Davros to cure a virus that is crippling them, which is fine and well, but for all their insistence that "Without Davros, we have no future," they suddenly reverse themselves and try to have him killed when he starts taking control -- before he even finishes a cure. Their plan to immediately invade Gallifrey is another whopper, since they are at their weakest, and seems introduced only to provide a reason for their wanting to capture the Doctor alive. The human duplicates don't make much sense, and the way one of them breaks free of mental domination is horribly contrived. But with enough suspension of disbelief this action-packed story is rewarding, and shows Davros becoming increasingly volatile since the days of Genesis.

Doctor: 5th (Peter Davison)
Setting: London/Space Station, 1984/c. 4590
Body Count: 64

8. Victory of the Daleks. 3 jelly babies. A terribly rushed story (it should have been twice as long), this World War II piece sees Britain training an army of Daleks to be thrown against the Third Reich. Churchill gets a nasty surprise when they show their true colors, and quite literally: the resurrected race has a new caste system (red = drones, blue = strategists, orange = scientists, yellow = eternals, and white = supremes), and new plans for the post Time-War era which will undoubtedly come to fruition by the end of the current season five. The space battle between Britain's Spitfires and the Dalek ship is delightful (if a bit ludicrous), but the climax involving the neutralization of the android-bomb is too melodramatic. Alone worth the price of admission is the Doctor's fury as he assaults a Dalek with a spanner, surpassing even the Ninth Doctor's rage in Dalek. Not a stellar achievement, by any means, but quite enjoyable.

Doctor: 11th (Matt Smith)
Setting: London, 1941
Body Count: 4

9. Destiny of the Daleks. 2 jelly babies. A weak story to begin with, it sags under the weight of an unacceptable distortion. In contradiction to everything maintained throughout the Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee, and early Tom Baker eras, the Daleks are suddenly portrayed as logical robots. No longer the cunning xenophobic blobs motivated by paranoia and hate, they are reduced to the equivalent of rational Cybermen, locked in perpetual war against another race of robots as they continually outthink each other. When the Doctor calls the Movellans "just another race of robots no better than the Daleks", that's more an insult to the Daleks than the Movellans. The resurrected Davros should have been ashamed to find them in this state. This is worlds away from the Naziesque terror of Genesis. Thankfully, after Destiny the theme of logic was mostly dropped (though it briefly resurfaced in Remembrance).

Doctor: 4th (Tom Baker)
Setting: Skaro, c. 4500
Body Count: 6

10. Daleks in Manhattan/The Evolution of the Daleks. 1 jelly baby. Miserably painful to watch, and one of the worst Who stories ever, let alone Dalek stories. Which is unfortunate, because the setting of New York during the Great Depression is greatly cinematic. The story is complete crap. The Cult of Skaro -- four elite Daleks introduced at the end of Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, designed to think like the enemy -- had incredible potential, but the idea of them trying to evolve into humanoid form was doomed from the start. Dalek Sec looks and sounds ridiculous. I was applauding when the compassionate Sec finally got exterminated by his mutinous colleagues; he was enough to turn me into a trigger-happy Dalek myself. Then there are the embarrassing pig-men. On top of all that, I've never seen so many terrible performances from guest stars. But just when you think things can't get any worse...

Doctor: 10th (David Tennant)
Setting: New York, 1930
Body Count: 16

11. The Stolen Earth/Journey's End. 0 jelly babies. A complete shower of piss. Not only is there nothing remotely positive to say about this story, it cannot be said to remain faithful to the essence of Doctor Who on any level. It's all fanwank and no plot. In the first half everyone is just trying to telephone the Doctor, ending in the mother of all cop-out cliffhangers (the Doctor starts regenerating but doesn't). The second part gets exponentially worse, with more cop-outs, mockeries of Rose's closure in season two, mockeries of Donna's character and fate, and (wait for it) a romantic duplicate of the Doctor who lives happily ever after with Rose. As for the return of Davros and the Daleks themselves, they're in almost every frame, but not there. Meaning they never feel threatening, they don't even kill anyone (save the indestructible Captain Jack), and are disposed of way too easily with a cloud of deus-ex-machina technobabble. Soulless in every way.

Doctor: 10th (David Tennant)
Setting: London, 2009
Body Count: 0


Anonymous Doug Chaplin said...

What, you put the Stolen Earth last! :-)


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