Tradition is a strange thing. The idea of a custom or belief becoming so prevalent in our lives that we adhere to it is odd enough, especially when coupled with the fact that a tradition can be something small and simple. For example, every year since 2005, it has been tradition that Doctor Who has had a Christmas special. From middling to magnificent, these specials have become so ingrained in the consciousness of some many people that the idea of abandoning a tradition such as this seems ridiculous. It’s why the news that there would be no 2018 Christmas special for Doctor Who was such a slap in the face.
To throw my hat into the ring on this subject, I might be in the minority, but I think it’s about time. Christmas is a brilliant theme for an episode and there’s a lot that can be done with an episode where Christmas is the theme but there have been so many Doctor Who Christmas episodes that they have completely worn out their welcome. In addition to the last specials being damn near pitiful in presentation for many reasons, the Christmas episodes of Doctor Who have become too prevalent for huge changes to the status quo. Doctors are always regenerating on the holiday. Hell, The Eleventh Doctor even died on a planet named Christmas. It all became too much and the idea of switching to a New Year’s Special was a natural progression of the idea that I am personally really in favour of. Now, whole new stories can be told with a new setting and allow for a lot more varied events to play out. Plus, for an extra feature, Christmas episodes don’t have to stop, they can always come back when the writer thinks of some new things to do with the specials.
With that part out of the way, it’s time to fully consider the episode we did get: Resolution, a New Years special whose sole pitch was on an idea fans have probably been waiting for all season. Resolution kicks off with narration, explaining an epic story of a vanquished monster that united the world and was scattered to the winds by brave warriors. An archaeologist awakens the monster on our present day Earth and the being begins to reform itself. Amidst Team TARDIS’ own New Year celebrations, the Doctor finds herself pulled back to Earth to face an old enemy, revived and revitalised. It’s name: Dalek.
The choice to make the first battle between Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor and the Daleks a New Years special was an excellent concept. What was really disappointing is that, as fans hoped, the episode was not named ‘Resolution of the Daleks’. This might seem like an odd nit-pick to note, good titles don’t always mean good episodes after all, but I feel it’s a good starting point because it sums up my feelings on the episode as a whole.
Resolution is an episode bursting at the seams with potential and, sadly, it feels constrained by its own ambition. Resolution wants to be so many things all at once. It wants to be a New Year’s Special, it wants to be a return to form for the Daleks, to revitalise the Doctor’s oldest foe for a new generation of viewers. Resolution also wants to be a compelling father-son drama, as Ryan’s father, Aaron (played by Daniel Adegboyega) returns for the episode to hash things out with his son. Resolution also wants to be an action-packed blockbuster of an episode, and if you’ve counted how many things this one episode is trying to cover, you can already see it tearing against its sixty minute run-time.
The parts of Resolution that are really good are brilliant. The Dalek’s new ‘puppeteer’ ability is intimidating and builds a whole new menace for the genocidal conquerors. The best parts of the episode is usually when the Dalek is front and centre of the focus: controlling poor Lin (Charlotte Ritchie, who delivers a stellar performance), exterminating innocent civilians and, ultimately, giving itself a Sheffield Steel redesign, similar to the Doctor’s sonic, that in all honesty is the best look the Daleks have had in a long time. Sadly, everything good about the episode is brought down by everything else jostling for a place on the podium. The opening narration is corny and kind of lame, even for Doctor Who, and the tones clash together in a way that destroys all tension: the best example being a Dalek stealing all UK communications to summon a Dalek fleet juxtaposed with a random family making a stupid joke about having to actually talk to each other for a change. Each of these moments could be good on their own but together, they destroy whatever amusement one might have for either part. The issue is so prevalent it really brings down the episode’s overall enjoyment.
Ryan’s scene with his Dad is also actually really well-done, if very over dramatic in its presentation. The main issue is that it feels shoved into an episode where it really doesn’t need to be. It’d be nice to explore both the return of the Daleks and Ryan’s parental issues separately. Sadly, Resolution is not content with simple and forces itself to impossible limits of storytelling. It wants to be a historical epic, a grounded drama, a sci-fi adventure, a horror film, a political comedy, a normal comedy and in the end, the entire story falls apart. Resolution is so scattered in its focus that it really hurts the overall episode. It’s not bad, per say, just cluttered and the lack of focus really brings down what could have been a brilliant episode. The good moments (A Dalek showdown against the military) is overwhelmed by everything else. The only solid complaints I can muster towards the episode is that the actual resolution of the episode’s conflict is really disappointing, both the Dalek and Ryan’s Dad. The episode falls into Chibnall’s usual weaknesses of a writer of being too ‘standard’ and at times, the episode feels too childish for its own good. To be fair, it is Doctor Who, a show for families and little kids, but the childish nature of some scenes hardly seem like an excuse when compared with the fact that a Dalek-possessed woman brutally murders two police officers, a tech supervisor and a farmer. That’s not even counting all the dead soldiers from the Dalek showdown either.
Overall, Resolution is decent. I can’t muster any real hatred for it but any passion the episode had going for it is snuffed out under the weight of a plot too heavy and complicated for its own good and an underwhelming conclusion. It’s weird to say but, in hindsight, I actually enjoyed The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos more than this, even though the two of them have the same rating in my mind. Personally, I think that’s a demonstration that, sometimes, a more focused form of storytelling can make all the difference. If you’ve loved Chibnall’s run so far, Resolution will give you more of the same, but those who want to see a truly superb Dalek story are probably best sticking to some of the earlier incarnations of the Doctor’s most iconic villain.
Now, this is usually the part where I wrap up and vanish into the ether until the next Doctor Who episode comes out, but I actually want to take this chance to talk about something that really interests me about Doctor Who and a certain aspect of the show that I feel hasn’t been best handled as of late.
Now, let’s get the obvious out of the way first: The Daleks are the arch-enemies of the Doctor, the most popular villains of the show and the best salt and pepper shaker cosplayers in the universe. They’re the most recognisable thing about the franchise apart from the TARDIS itself and as such, are hailed for their status as the Doctor’s ultimate enemy, as well as one of the greatest monsters ever put to the screen.
All of this just makes it so disappointing for me then that so few people actually write good Dalek stories. My first time watching Doctor Who was in the Empty Child two-part story, where I promptly turned off the TV and suffered a long streak of nightmares, but the second time was when the finale of Series 1 of Doctor Who: The Parting of the Ways, and it made me fall in love with the Daleks. There’s a reason why the Daleks are so iconic and have endured for so long despite having such a ridiculous design (and don’t argue they don’t because they have a plunger and an egg-whisk for arms).
The Daleks are powerful, horrifying and weirdly captivating for their dark origins. Originally created by Terry Nation to be the perfect analogue for Facism, particularly Nazi Germany, the Daleks are real monsters, dedicated to purging the unclean, killing everything else in reality until they are the sole conquerors. This dogmatic code, military outlook and lack of compassion and empathy make them the perfect antithesis to the Doctor and the terrifying tyrants that we love to watch. Russell T. Davies and Robert Shearman understood that and managed to channel it into such a compelling way when they reintroduced the villains to the series in ‘Dalek’ and the two parter ‘Bad Wolf’ and ‘Parting of the Ways’.
Sadly, these three men, Nation who created the Daleks and the two who revived them for a new audience, have somehow caused the very problems and recurring themes that now plague and ruin otherwise good Dalek storylines.
Overexposure: The True Way to Kill a Dalek
Terry Nation was a writer that did a lot of good work in his tenure. He wrote Blake 7, Survivors, and many other things besides, though he’s perhaps best known for the creation of the Daleks. Sadly, Nation is no longer with us but his works live on, particularly the Daleks, with the help of his estate, which sadly also appear to be the source of a lot of issues.
Whilst BBC owns the rights to Doctor Who, they apparently jointly hold the rights to the Daleks, due to how writer licensing worked back in the 70’s. Though there have been no specifics given thus far, there is a widely presumed theory that the Daleks have feature in every series of Doctor Who, or else the rights are reverted back. I say theory mainly because everywhere I’ve looked, people give conflicted answers on whether or not there’s any truth to the matter and though many argue the contrary, mainly because the Daleks have appeared in every series. Rumours of the precise deal are abound because the Nation estate has a very complicated relationship with the BBC and originally, weren’t willing to lend the characters to the series. Shearman even had to write ‘Dalek’ with the openness that the series might have to create its own monster to replace them should negotiations go south.
Whether or not these allegations are true or not fails to distract from the fact that the Daleks have featured in every season of Doctor Who. This amount of focus creates a negative effect for the monsters. Due to their over-usage in the past series, the Dalek hype has died down severely and now, Daleks rarely make as much of an impact on screen because they’ve appeared and been defeated so often that their underlying menace has been overplayed to the point of boredom. Overexposure ensures that a Dalek story is hindered by its own existence. A Dalek story is judged harsher than other stories simply because it is a Dalek story and such makes it difficult for any Dalek stories to exist without heavy judgement, considering their frequent appearances and legendary status.
The Human Factor: The Main Flaw of a Dalek.
Dalek by Robert Shearman is one of the best episode in the show’s history. It’s self-contained, well-written and tragic. One of its main successes is actually exploring the character of a Dalek, something very hard considering Daleks are very one-dimensional characters. These creatures are single minded killing machines devoted to racism and purged of all emotion, making telling a compelling emotional story for such a creature really difficult. Shearman’s way of exploring this theme was to inject humanity into a Dalek and explore what the two roles meant and how the two reacted with another. Dalek is brilliant because it reveals things about the Doctor, about Rose and about Daleks themselves. The ending was poignant, beautiful and a great conclusion to an episode that explored the Doctor’s newest enemy in a new light.
The big problem is that Shearman’s approach was so successful that so many Dalek stories that followed modelled themselves off of this same template. Evolution of the Daleks is about the Daleks becoming human hybrids, Journey’s End features a Dalek who gains a conscience, Into the Dalek is about a Dalek becoming more human-like. Even book stories touch on this like the Dalek Factor, but the end result is the same: treading over the same ground and redoing Shearman’s story or relying on old ideas instead of trying to find a new way to make the Daleks compelling or interesting.
An example of this is ‘Rusty’s’ repetition is ‘You are a Good Dalek’ to the Doctor, abusing the ‘we’re the same, you and I’ trope in order to reference Shearman’s masterpiece of a story. Sadly, in re-vitalising the Daleks, Shearman trapped them in a rut that the poor tanks have failed to escape. Even in Resolution, the Dalek spends a large amount of time piloting a human giving us another reference to the ‘Dalek-Human’ hybrid concept.
The Last of their kind: Struggling Survivors
When Russell T. Davies became the head-writer of Doctor Who, he made a brilliant addition to the mythos that drove his era of the show and made it so memorable and epic: the idea that the Daleks had almost all been wiped out in the enigmatic ‘Time War’ and those that remained were merely vestiges of Skaro’s legacy. When Moffat took over, he attempted to revive the Daleks for good with the episode Victory of the Daleks, a great name but a poor episode on the whole. Sadly, the lack of focus on the Daleks overall means that they still haven’t been established as the power-base they really are and all of their recent adventures have gone back to the old theme of single Daleks coming into conflict with the Doctor and his companions.
Resolution falls into the same kind of trap: a stranded Dalek on a new world, the survivor of a war and a recurring exploration of their ability to survive. It’s interesting but all appears to be things we’ve seen before and adds very little to the Daleks besides their awesome new possession ability.
The biggest problem: No-one understands Daleks.
Daleks, as iconic as they are, are a one-note villain but an effective killing machine. They are threatening, intimidating and present an overwhelming force that the Doctor must defeat with their own wits and skills. Sadly, it feels like very few people actually understand how Daleks work. Moffat constructed their society around a ‘parliament’, completely misunderstanding the basic Dalek’s militaristic and hierarchical society. There’s no discussion, no parliament, there’s only death. Few episodes really feature this side of the Daleks: showing them as an overwhelming force of death. Daleks don’t do team-ups like in The Pandorica Opens. They’re proud, fierce and dangerous. It’s hard to write such a one-note threat effectively, but it has definitely been possible in the past.
How do we get a good Dalek story?
Good Dalek stories tend to have a few core things in common: they show the Daleks as a true threat, develop their lore and explore their concepts, but also bring something new into the mix. The Stolen Earth shows the raw power the Daleks possess as they invade and occupy the Earth in a chilling display. For all its faults, Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks explore the factors that motivate a Dalek and asks which of their principles is most important to them: survival or extermination. Resolution tries to give the Daleks something new, but by jettisoning them from their shells and turning them into parasites, it removes the very core of what makes them Dalek.
I’ve never tried writing anything from Daleks myself, so I can’t speak from experience, but looking at past episodes, I think here’s a definitive list of factors that make for a good Dalek episode and stuff I hope to see in future episodes. I hope you all enjoy the list and you all have a brilliant new year.
Jmage owned by the BBC. Source; https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06v86mh/p06v85yb.
Good Dalek Story Checklist
-Treat the Daleks with the gravitas they deserve. They are the scourge of the universe and the Doctor’s greatest foes. Their threat should never be downplayed.
-Explore an element of the Daleks. Their methodology, their history, give me something new and interesting.
-Show how powerful they are. Let the Daleks overwhelm the Doctor and a world. Maybe even let them win from time to time. Make them threatening.
-Let a Dalek story be basic, let the characters and monsters speak for themselves. Dalek is great because it’s a locked door slasher movie with a freaking Dalek.
-Do something new. An interesting twist on the Daleks is just what they need to re-establish themselves.