Dalek, by Billy Seguire (and Robert Shearman)

Happy 60th birthday, Doctor Who! This week, I’ve been blogging Doctor Who books, and here’s another one.

The first New Who episode with a Dalek was shown the Saturday before the 2005 UK election; I was blogging a lot about New Who at the time, and celebrated the Radio Times cover:

I hugely enjoyed the actual episode:

That was excellent. An existential Dalek, no less! The back-story of the Time War comes into clearer focus. The mutant inside was, as put it, “suitably squamous and rugose, not to mention dripping with mucus”. The three-way relationship between the Doctor, Rose and the Dalek. (Oh yeah, and Adam. Who is a bit pretty.)

I’ve watched it a couple of times since, including the lockdown group watch in 2020, and enjoyed it every time.

Coming back to it now, I felt that Corey Johnson as Van Statten is perhaps a little underwhelming, but the rest is still great. We know a bit more now about Eccleston’s personal demons, and it deepens my appreciation of his performance.

The second sentence of the third chapter of Robert Shearman’s novelisation of his own story is:

It might be thought that they had been paired deliberately as comic contrast. But they hadn’t. Van Statten didn’t have that sort of sense of humour. And now as he swept into the Cage operations room, they both snapped to attention and saluted. They knew that their boss wouldn’t acknowledge them, that he probably wouldn’t even notice they were there – but it was the correct form of the thing. If they were surprised that he’d brought the intruder with them they didn’t show it. They were paid not to be surprised.

When I first read it two years ago, I wrote:

Great novelisation of one of the great New Who episodes. You have seen the show, here’s the writer’s cut, as it were, giving new background to a number of the characters, smoothing out a couple of plot kinks, with combination of tight-third for Rose interspersed with notes from the omniscient narrator explaining what was happening. We lose a couple of the good lines (“He’s a bit pretty” / “I hadn’t noticed”) but we get a lot more in other areas. Well worth adding to the collection. You can get it here.

Coming to it again just after rewatching the TV episode, I noticed several significant points that I should have remarked on first time around. Goddard is actually an FBI plant, and takes over operations from Van Statten a bit earlier (which makes sense). We get a lot more about everyone’s background, including the security guards. Adam’s personal weapons cache has been built up by him in case he might need to shoot his way out. It’s very satisfactory.

I am in a mood of tracing roots of stories at the moment, so I listened again to Shearman’s earlier Big Finish play, Jubilee, which is credited on screen as the basis for Dalek. It was the 40th Big Finish audio, produced in time for the 40th anniversary of the show in 2003. When I first listened to it in 2007, I wrote:

Jubilee was of course the basis for the superb Ninth Doctor story Dalek. I was surprised, though, by how different it was. There are similarities – the first confrontation between Doctor and imprisoned Dalek, the relationship between Dalek and companion (done more convincingly on TV), the Dalek’s quest for orders (done more convincingly here); but there is a huge difference in setting, the audio play taking place in an alternate 2003 where the world is ruled from London by the villainous Mr and Mrs Martin Jarvis, thanks to the Doctor’s intervention a hundred years earlier. And yet this doesn’t fall into the category of Doctor-returns-to-the-scene-of-a-previous-adventure stories, because the earlier Sixth Doctor is still there. It’s a good one, but the TV version is I think better (not always the case; see Spare Parts).

I confess that on this listening I didn’t feel that it worked as well. The two core moments – when first the Doctor and then his companion meet the imprisoned Dalek – are both very good and ended up much less changed for the TV story. The first half is fine, as we get dug into the horror of an parallel timeline where the UK’s dictatorship maintains its position by whipping up fear of the Daleks; but I felt it lost the run of itself at the end, with too many cases of characters revealing that their real motivations are completely different to what we had been told; and I did not feel that all the plot strings were tied up. There is some great humour – especially the opening sequence which parodies the whole concept of Doctor Who – but some dark shifts of tone which seemed to me dissonant rather than masterful. It’s probably fair to say that fannish expectations were different back in 2003, when it looked like the Wilderness Years would last for ever. You can get it here.

Billy Seguire has delivered an excellent analysis of the story and everything around it in this Black Archive. It has nine chapters and an interview with Robert Shearman, so I’m afraid I will run through them fairly quickly, while still recommending the book to the interested reader.

The first chapter, “‘And Now I Know Your Name’”, looks at the significance of the epsiode’s one-word title and the way in which Daleks can be named; the Dalek of the episode is referred to subsequently as “Metaltron”.

The second chapter, “The Myth of the Great Curator”, looks at museums in Doctor Who; there are plenty of them.

The third chapter, “‘That’s What They Called It the Last Time’”, looks at the evolution of the story from Jubilee to the TV story and then to the novel. Its (long) second paragraph is:

Words like ‘adaptation’, ‘remake’, and ‘reboot’ are all used to describe a work that is drawing on a past version of itself. ‘Drawing’ is a loaded word in this context, one which can apply either to what an adaptation takes, as in drawing water from a well, or what it defaces, such as drawing a shape on a blackboard. Both meanings apply to the concept of adaptation through the way the past and future versions interact. In the case of Jubilee, becoming ‘the story that became Dalek’ breaks it down to those elements which were carried forward and removes contextual factors like the anniversary nature of the story, or public perception of the sixth Doctor, from consideration. In a sense, this applies to any progression of history. Our present circumstances come into play when interpreting the past in a way that wouldn’t have applied to contemporary analysis. History requires perspective. Yet adaptations are unique in that they allow us to bridge, and affect our understanding of, two distinct periods through direct contrast. There’s a continuing presence of the original in an adaptation that links it to the past work. There is also a way in which the original is now affected. When someone says that a revived work ‘ruined their childhood’, what they really mean is that the new work has infiltrated their perception of the original, that the elements that made it work were removed. This is particularly true in ongoing works, such as the Star Wars franchise, where new entries are made to fit into various states of canon or validity. An adaptation is different from a sequel because they tell the same story. Some elements are bound to contradict, meaning whichever version becomes the prime text often directly overwrites the original.

The fourth chapter, “‘And When I Close My Eyes’”, looks at the story as a portrayalof consflict-related trauma in the context of Abu Ghraib and the conflicts of the early 21st century.

The fifth chapter, “‘And You Made Me Better’”, looks at the character of Rose as a transformative agent for the Doctor (and the Dalek).

The sixth chapter, “Who Owns the Internet?”, looks at the portrayal of the online world in the story, which came just before the growth of social media. (Van Statten’s original name was “Will Fences”, but this is obviously too close to Bill Gates.)

The seventh chapter, “The Dalek Surprise Party”, looks at how Joe Ahearne’s direction and Murray Gold’s music maintain our attention.

The eighth and longest chapter, “In the Absence of God”, makes a convincing case that the Daleks tell us something important about religion and belief. A couple of previous Black Archives have made the mistake of banging on about theology too much, and this seems to me much better-judged.

The ninth chapter, “‘Why Don’t You Just Die?’”, looks at the tricky topic of how suicide is (and can be) portrayed in Doctor Who.

An appendix includes an interview with Robert Shearman, with some interesting reflections on the creative process.

The scene which I’m in some ways happiest with, just because I just think it’s got the best bit of writing in it, is the scene where Chris [Eccleston] gets really angry and goes off about van Statten dragging the stars down. That got very nearly cut. After being filmed, Joe Ahearne said to me, ‘You know, I don’t think we need that.’ I said, ‘Could we keep it?’ And he asked why and I said, rather painfully, ‘It’s just the bit I like the most.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, all right.’ I mean, bless his heart because that’s not his job, and you don’t need it. You don’t. But it’s still a scene which, when I watch Dalek, I remember writing that bit and being quite proud of it. I’m really pleased that it survives.

And unusually there is an online supplement, a chapter that didn’t fit into the book, looking at the online extras surrounding the 2005 relaunch in general and Dalek in particular, including a game where you actually play the Dalek trying to escape and finish by exterminating the Doctor!

A solid and interesting piece of analysis which deepened my appreciation for a favourite story. You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Talons of Weng-Chiang (58) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | Vincent and the Doctor (57) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52) | The Haunting of Villa Diodati (56)