And over the last 50 years they have gone together an awful lot, with the deadly pepperpots coming to define the BBC sci-fi series just as much as (if not more than) the Doctor, the Tardis and any other Who monster you’d care to name.
Now, after a bit of a break, the fascist space mutants have returned for Doctor Who’s New Year’s Day special.
It seems like a rest was as good as a change for the most sore-throated of all Doctor Who villains. Put simply, Resolution is the most interesting, fun, exciting and hide-behind-the-sofa scary that the Daleks have been in a long while – and a lot of that comes down to us being denied them for a bit.
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After years of fans complaining of the Daleks being overused (inspiring rumours that the estate of creator Terry Nation required them to appear at least once a series), series boss Chris Chibnall called our bluff and kept them out of Jodie Whittaker’s first series, citing a desire to create new monsters.
But secretly, he had an ulterior motive…
“Knowing that we would have no old monsters in the series was really a build-up for the special, so that when the Dalek appears, it’s hopefully exciting, it feels rare, and fresh, and thrilling,” Chibnall said after a screening of the episode.
“It’s also the first encounter for Jodie with that iconic monster. We knew we wanted to do that as the kind of climax of the series.”
For me, this delayed gratification pays off handsomely. I appreciated the slow reveal of the Dalek all the more now that the novelty of seeing one has been restored (the Daleks weren’t in Peter Capaldi’s final series much either, which helps the effect). Seeing Whittaker’s Doctor finally battle a familiar monster was also thrilling after weeks of slightly less-than-stellar creature features (remember the evil dirty rags?).
Still, I doubt the effect would have worked so well if the episode didn’t also have some interesting new ideas for its metallic guest star. Chibnall introduced us to a new kind of “Recon Dalek”, sent out from Skaro during the early years of Dalek colonisation with a grab bag of never-before-seen abilities.
Removing the squid-like Dalek creature from its armour has been done before on the series but rarely so extensively or effectively. Seeing it in its organic form created a genuine sense of menace as it stalked our heroes through the Sheffield sewers. Then there was the shivering bit of body-horror after it took over the body of Charlotte Ritchie’s Lin, Ratatouille-style, and forced her to carry out its plans.
Credit here has to go to Ritchie for her performance as a sort of ‘human Dalek’, just managing to stay on the right side of comedy when she’s meting out death and spouting Dalek catchphrases, in a part that could have veered into farce. Nicholas Briggs, longtime voice of the Daleks, also does a great job in this segment of the episode, creating a new, less staccato and more oleaginous take on how the species talks that oozes with malice, arrogance and contempt.
In fact, it’s almost a shame when the Dalek manages to forge itself a new exterior and leaves Lin behind. Watching a female Doctor face off with a malevolent, ‘female’ Dalek in the Tardis created a brilliant new dynamic that wouldn’t have been possible in previous series, and brought a real charge to what could have been a by-the-numbers Doctor vs Dalek scene.
Still, when the Dalek does return to its infamous form, the action picks up a notch (I’ll personally never get tired of seeing a Dalek absolutely destroy human soldiers in open battle), all leading to a pretty standard conclusion where the Dalek is defeated by love. Sure, it’s cheesy, but it’s a Doctor Who classic.
When the Dalek did get its togs on, I’ll confess I wasn’t the biggest fan of the redesign: the red light inside the head is a little bit wacky, and the way they’ve changed the shape of its central component makes the Dalek look like it’s wearing a corset.
But there was something very satisfying about watching the creature re-forge itself anew from spare parts in a shed, a twisted reflection of the Doctor’s construction of her sonic screwdriver in her first episode (this Dalek now presumably also has added Sheffield steel). This mirroring works even better when you remember that the alien psychopath is technically being played by a woman as well.
Given the context of the episode (the Dalek is an old design, and it rebuilds itself from memory using rusty spare parts) Chibnall and his team have cleverly left themselves a bit of wiggle room to change up the design again in future episodes if they so choose. No risk of repeating the 2010 ‘Teletubby Daleks’ reboot, when a much-heralded redesign was so unpopular that the show quietly brought back the older model after a year or two with no explanation.
Here, the show has a built-in explanation for the change – it’s an old, special model badly rebuilt – that doesn’t preclude changing it back. Personally, I’d like to see a fully-functional version of this new design in the new series if the Daleks return again (which Chibnall has hinted could happen), but one of the great things about this episode is how little the Dalek shell design actually matter. For the first time in a while, we understand that the real threat lies within.
No, Resolution isn’t a perfect Doctor Who episode (certain characters’ inclusion felt a little pointless, and the ending required some suspension of disbelief), and it’s certainly not the best Dalek episode. It probably doesn’t even make the top five.
But what the New Year’s special does do is offer up a Dalek episode that has something new to say, and tells that story in a terrifically entertaining form that die-hard Who fans and newcomers alike can enjoy. Just when we thought every possible option had already been exterminated…
This article was originally published on 1 January 2019