In one way, Doctor Who had been violating the idea of “show, don’t tell” for almost its entire existence. It kept telling us that the Daleks were the most dangerous force in the universe, and it occasionally told some incredibly entertaining stories that used Daleks, but it never actually showed these monsters as the unstoppable killing machines that the narrative kept promoting. And so for that alone, Rob Shearman’s “Dalek” deserves a round of applause, because the scenes where the lone Dalek survivor makes its way out of the bunker, mowing down everything in its path, are pretty amazing. And I dearly love the scene where the Dalek – in a delightful, devilish throwback to the cunning Daleks of the black and white years that preyed on human greed and blindness – wins Rose’s pity just to grab a little DNA and help it regenerate.
What happens next is a little unclear. Apparently because Rose has traveled in time, her DNA – for the purpose of rebuilding time-traveling Dalek DNA – is supercharged and it begins corrupting and mutating the Dalek’s pure genetics. But even though some of the machinations are a little nebulous, it makes for a great, great story, apart from the disagreeable revelation that the Daleks were the bunch against whom the Time Lords had a big everybody-loses war.
Liking Doctor Who, for all of its continuity and decades-long stories, means more than just swallowing the occasional dumb episode or serial. It means that you have to deal with the fact that every few years, there’s a big and often deeply stupid change to the narrative. Telling us that the Time Lords couldn’t win an intergalactic, universe-spanning, history-altering war against the most unimaginative, one-note loudmouths in the cosmos, when by himself, the Doctor had, armed with no more than a yo-yo and some celery, been running rings around them for twenty-five years, was taking the easy way out.
It’s just using the Daleks as the enemy because they were the most popular, when they certainly never deserved that kind of stage, and there’s never been a television adventure that provides any evidence to the contrary. It also belittles and diminishes the Time Lords, remarkably so when we get to “The Day of the Doctor” and this big war is nothing more than zap guns and pew-pew lasers. To be fair, the show had also done a good job of diminishing the Time Lords. Honestly, the boring old men of “Arc of Infinity” wouldn’t have won a Time War against a triple-A hockey team, never mind the Daleks.
But when we talked about this episode, which had our son hiding behind the sofa in terror when it looked like Rose’s number is up, and tried to help our son understand what a Time War might mean, and how it probably didn’t happen in linear order, I reminded him of something. We tried to describe how this war must have been fought across different times, with history being rewritten, and I reminded him of “The War Games,” and how the Time Lords had walled off their enemies’ – the “Aliens” – home planet behind a time barrier, and “dematerialized” their leader from time and space entirely, as though he never existed.
(This detoured into a discussion about what those “Aliens” were called, and why they didn’t have a name, and how certainly if I looked them up in a Doctor Who Dictionary, then I must find their name. Discouraged but unbowed, he decided that they came from “Planet Question Mark.”)
For my money, the Time War is one of Who‘s greatest failings. That’s in part because it’s been undone and rewritten to the point that it was never necessary, but mainly because it should have been an epic struggle against an unimaginable foe, something unseen, eternal, extradimensional, and hardly understandable, and not pew-pew lasers.
On the other hand, at least we got this good hour of TV out of the deal. For the Daleks, the law of diminishing returns would set in, but this episode remains pretty darn fun to watch.