‘The Black Archive #54: Dalek’

A rewarding examination of one of Doctor Who’s greatest stories, writes Huw Thomas.

My introduction to Doctor Who came when I walked into my nan’s sitting room and found my older brother glued to Dalek. The sixth episode of the programme’s 2005 rebirth, it was written by Robert Shearman and sees the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and Rose (Billie Piper) discover a single, battle-scarred Dalek as the centrepiece of a museum of alien artifacts. My brother had been watching since the new series launched and probably wanted to keep it to himself. Hard luck – it quickly consumed my life entirely.

I was enchanted by a story rich in emotion, by the frenzied Doctor, the imperious curator Henry van Statten and especially by the gold, metallic creature I dubbed “the Exterminator”. At once unusual and fearsome, it had an immediate appeal (I later realised I’d seen one before – Mr Bean introducing a toy Dalek to a nativity scene was a gag I’d never understood). I had stumbled across Doctor Who reclaiming a great chunk of its past in bold fashion; a brutal acknowledgement of its hero’s fallibility and a spiritual expansion of the raving, novel villains it had to revive. Canadian writer and podcaster Billy Seguire explores Dalek’s liberation of its namesake in the fifty-fourth instalment in the Black Archive series from Obverse Books.

Dalek nearly didn’t happen. The BBC initially failed to come to an agreement with the estate of Terry Nation to allow the pepperpots’ inclusion in the new series. The estate had only recently been rattled by the unauthorised use of their property in Looney Tunes: Back in Action. This followed spoof appearances in the likes of KitKat adverts and TV Offal. Dalek, then, restored dignity and agency to the creatures. Seguire examines how the episode presents identity and individuality. He posits “Dalek is an episode not only about ‘a Dalek’, but about an individual with individual desires, drives, and agency well beyond any Dalek we’ve seen before”. Seguire is particularly good on how preferred names and pronouns denote power in the story, from the etymology of “Henry van Statten” and “Adam Mitchell” to the denigrating moniker “Metaltron” given to the seized Dalek by its captor.

The Black Archive series seeks to examine the themes and ideas of each television adventure of Doctor Who. Fans will be used to seeing production details under the microscope, from the invaluable research of Andrew Pixley to Doctor Who Magazine’s The Fact of Fiction articles but it’s rare for the themes and ideas of each story to be seriously analysed. Consequently, there may be an element of whiplash for any newcomers here. Passages like a discussion of the interplay between van Statten’s museum, situated half a mile beneath Utah, and its real-life location, National Museum Cardiff, are a world away from most Who writings in style and scope. It’s a deserved treatment, though, and those keen on production minutiae will be impressed by the breadth of Seguire’s research. His understanding of context and the way he weaves seemingly disparate threads makes for excellent reading.

The Doctor that returned from the so-called Wilderness Years was irreparably changed. Christopher Eccleston’s character was the broken survivor of the unseen “Last Great Time War”. It’s a development that indisputably reflects the traumatic global landscape of the 21st Century. The Doctor is a veteran of an unseen war in which “everyone lost”, a lived experience dissonant with current surroundings and company. Seguire considers how this reflects the impact of the United Kingdom’s participation in the wars in Afghanistan (2001-14) and Iraq (2003-09).

One sequence in Dalek is among Doctor Who’s most memorable moments – the first meeting between the Doctor and the chained Dalek. It’s an intense encounter unlike any seen in the programme before. Forget mannered ego battles with Davros, here was the Doctor confronting just a Dalek, with the character absolutist in his hatred and Eccleston impassioned in his performance. We see the Doctor gleefully taunt the damaged creature when it attempts to use its inactive gunstick “If you can’t kill, then what are you good for, Dalek? What’s the point of you? You’re nothing”. Seguire posits that the scene transforms the Doctor “into a version of the character whose morals and behaviour are almost antithetical to the idea of the Doctor as we know him”. With the character having hardened into a kind of conservatism, Seguire argues that it is Rose Tyler, 19 and an outsider to the Doctor’s conflict, who fulfils Doctor Who’s typical moral centre.

Seguire discusses the relationship between Dalek and an earlier Robert Shearman work, the 2003 Big Finish audio drama Jubilee starring Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor. Dalek’s resemblance to its forebear is often overstated; where Jubilee riffs on the Daleks in popular culture and how “the memory cheats”, Dalek strips away at its storied namesake and reaffirms its power. Shearman has described the core of Dalek as an ‘exploration of the Dalek as a character, and the way that character changes”. The sympathetic Rose acts as what Seguire describes as an “agent of change” and crucial to the story is an intentional ambiguity. Seguire notes how it ends with three characters all at odds with each other but all understandable to the viewer. Dalek is Doctor Who beyond good and evil.

Included as an appendix to this book is a new interview with Robert Shearman. It’s an enlightening read that reveals an instinctual writer. Shearman’s strong memory betrays the care he took in reintroducing the Daleks. Over this in-depth chat (among Shearman’s touchstones are Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), The West Wing and The Simpsons), we get a clear vindication of Seguire’s analysis. Shearman delights in noting “every year I’m pushed more towards the middle of Doctor Who’s run. It excites me that I’m now part of the history because when we did the first year of Doctor Who, we all felt a little bit like we were pretending to be doing Doctor Who”. With this book, the sunlight has been let in on Dalek. In outlining new dimensions in one of Doctor Who’s most acclaimed stories, Billy Seguire has created an invaluable work and an excellent addition to the Black Archive.

❉ ‘The Black Archive #54: Dalek’ by Billy Seguire is out now from Obverse Books, RRP £3.99 – £8.99. Buy Black Archive books from the Obverse Books website!

❉ Huw Thomas is a musician and writer from Radnorshire, Wales. His special interests include Northern Irish band Cruella De Ville, Cardiacs, Back to the Egg and Oh No It’s Selwyn Froggitt. He tweets as @huwareyou.

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