Sleeping With the Enemy: A Brief History of Human-Dalek Collaboration

If you ever wanted to know where it all started going wrong for the slasher movie, you’ll find the answer lurking in the shadows somewhere in 1996. That was the year Wes Craven unleashed the postmodern masterpiece that is Scream on an unsuspecting world: a world that had become numbed to an epidemic of onscreen stupidity. Because the fact of the matter is that most characters in the movies don’t seem to watch any movies themselves. Monologuing your evil scheme in front of the captive hero? Check. Running upstairs when the killer is in the house? Check. Having sex, generally? Well, a man’s gotta do, right?

Then along came Scream, with its breakout cast and clever-clever self-awareness, and nothing was ever the same again. Here – for the first time in mainstream cinematic history, it seemed – were a bunch of people who were not only aware that they were in a scary movie, but who knew how scary movies worked and how they were supposed to survive. That not all of them did is testament to the intelligence of Kevin Williamson’s screenplay, and it’s true that the great thing about the Scream films (at least the early ones) is how they manage to maintain a state of onscreen tension even while taking a pickaxe to the fourth wall. But for Hollywood, there was no going back, and everything since Scream has either had to learn from it or pay the price.

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The Halloween series – the most obvious inspiration for Scream – is a notorious example. Halloween H20, released in 1998, circumvents the post-Craven problem by having a character arrive home in the middle of the day to find that her house has been burgled. Rather than inspect the premises alone – which is the sort of thing you’d expect, say, Drew Barrymore to do – she has her neighbour call the police. Then she immediately leaves the house and goes next door, where she’s promptly stabbed by the killer. To contrast, the next film in the sequence, Halloween: Resurrection, features a filmed event in Michael Myers’ childhood home – at a point where Myers is still very much alive and at large – that someone actually decided should take place on Halloween. It mines every cliché in the book, and the result is the worst kind of cinematic dross. Characters look away from the monitors at crucial moments. Security guards investigate mysterious noises alone and without radioing for backup first. Oh, and two characters have sex in the basement for absolutely no reason at all. It wouldn’t be so bad had it not been made abundantly clear that we were supposed to take this absolutely seriously: in a house full of irritating, disposable teenagers and stunt-cast rappers, there is no room for a knowing wink at the audience.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, because Power of the Daleks is the first in a series of adventures that will have you screaming at your TV/laptop/smartphone, featuring as it does a group of humans who apparently don’t watch Doctor Who.

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Let me explain. There are 25 televised Dalek stories in the TV canon, given that two-part installments count as single entries and allowing for a certain amount of give and take. Nine of these feature humans actively and willingly cooperating with the Daleks, either for their own ends or under the naïve misapprehension that they’re working with the good guys. (That’s nine at my count, not yours. It’s a relatively subjective thing and if you come up with a different total, I’m not going to nitpick.)

There are two types of people here: the naïve, and the wicked. It’s never a good idea to corroborate with the Daleks, although the reasons people have for doing so vary enormously – from love (Edward Waterfield) to purely financial (the complicated and ultimately tragic Gustave Lytton). But there’s a fine line between the Machiavellian streak of Diagoras and Theodore Maxtible, and the pragmatism that drives, say, the Master to ‘bring along a few old friends’ in the closing scenes of Frontier in Space; the Master walks out of the situation alive purely by being the Master, a man smart enough to keep the Daleks at arm’s length and not trust them an inch.

At the other extreme are those who simply don’t see the danger in befriending an outsized pepperpot with a rasping voice and a laser gun. It doesn’t matter that it’s big and threatening. It’s promised them good things like free minerals and fantastic technology. On the one hand, it’s easy to scoff at such people; on the other, there’s something quite sweet about it, even though our knowledge of reality is a luxury that the unwitting – and sadly doomed – supporting characters are typically denied. In a twisted sort of way, it’s almost nice that people are willing to trust other beings that look, sound, and behave so differently. It’s what Galaxy 4 strives to teach us. It also calls to mind The Devil in the Dark, the first season episode of Star Trek in which it is the miners, and not the creature attacking them, that pose a real threat – albeit a threat that is eventually abated with rather less bloodshed than you might expect. (Doctor Who fans will note, of course, that The Beast Below is to all intents and purposes a partial remake.)

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The notion of supposedly unruthless Daleks is explored to comic effect in the ‘dizzy, dizzy’ sequence not far from the climax of The Evil of the Daleks, but it takes its roots from Power. Because it’s the first time we see a Dalek attempting something that might be called subterfuge, rather than simply herding its prisoners from one labour camp to the next and lining up the dissenters to be shot. Power of the Daleks features one of Skaro’s finest bellowing ‘I AM YOUR SERVANT’ at full volume even as the Doctor pleads for sanity; it’s a theme that Mark Gatiss chose to continue (or at least reference) in Victory of the Daleks, which sees khaki-green metal Daleks defending the roofs of Britain, calling themselves soldiers instead of servants but still finding time to ask ‘WOULD YOU CARE FOR SOME TEA?’. (I used to entertain guests with that very same routine. It always got a laugh, although it eventually cost me my job with Fortnum & Mason.)

This is dramatic irony at its most obvious and potentially clumsy. The Daleks become the poorly disguised pantomime villains (something Anthony Ainley did particularly well in the ’80s, to the extent that we didn’t always realise it was him) strutting across the stage to offer Snow White a poisoned apple, ignoring the hissing from the audience. And yet the inclusion of such a scene in Power of the Daleks (all right, it’s not a scene; it’s the whole story) is vital to the development of the Second Doctor, establishing as it does the sense of continuity from one Doctor to the next: this is an incarnation who possesses all the memories of his predecessor as well as the same sense of outrage, and who is tasked with the burden of explaining all about Skaro and the Thals to a new, unsuspecting group of friends. There’s a strange logic to the fact that failure to trust the Doctor usually leads to certain death, but there it is. Ben and Polly – despite being saddled with a strange, floppy-haired man who is all but unrecognisable – are content to take him at his word, while Bragen, Janley, and Lesterson all pay the price for believing that the Daleks are a force that they can control.

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It’s possible to take this further. What’s interesting about Dalek (2005) is the extent to which it mirrors Day of the Daleks (1972) by introducing the intergalactic pepperpots through the eyes of the companion. In the 22nd Century, while the Doctor is being interrogated by the Ogrons, Jo is being fed grapes and gradually introduced to the benefits of totalitarianism: in the early 21st, while the Doctor is being interrogated by Henry van Statten, it is Rose who is left to wander the corridors and inadvertently fix the captive Metaltron. Truthfully, that’s where the comparisons stop: the motives behind the 1972 Daleks’ machinations are never in dispute, and the only thing that Jo has to learn is their role in events. Robert Shearman’s 2005 narrative is altogether more ambiguous, and our ambivalence towards the Dalek’s killing spree is heightened, taking its place as it does within the Ninth Doctor’s wider narrative arc. What’s lovely about Shearman’s script is how he encapsulates everything we want to say about this earlier, angry Ninth Doctor into a single line: the notorious “YOU WOULD MAKE A GOOD DALEK”.

But this is the exception, rather than the rule. Both Day of the Daleks and Dalek were designed – the latter more obviously than the former – to ingratiate a new, younger audience to the concept of a creature they may have only previously encountered in comic strips, family mealtime chatter, and Blue Peter clips. For a great many millennials, Dalek was their first Dalek story. The same can probably be said for many of their parents and Day of the Daleks, and it’s a shame that this earlier story is comparatively messy (not to mention morally reprehensible, at least in that bit with the ray gun). I mentioned ambiguities, but ambiguities often make up something far more transparent: NuWho wears its pacifism like a badge of pride, with Dalek sat at the forefront of that inaugural series.

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Unless you’re going to count Into The Dalek – perhaps the only story to include a new-and-improved Dalek sloping off home with its metaphorical tail between its legs – then, for the most part, all these associations are going to end in tears. Trusting them is tantamount to disaster and no amount of shouting at the screen is going to change that – but for all the narrative sloppiness of, say, Victory, it’s nice to have a show that isn’t afraid to indulge what is still a family audience. It’s not that this is a new idea. The locked-up-and-falsely-accused-of-murder thing was used practically every week (and, in the case of Frontier, multiple times in the same week) and too often arrogant base commanders have counted the cost of failing to heed the Doctor’s words of warning.

But there’s something special – something particularly evil – about the Daleks that makes us shout all the louder, and while the post-2005 pace has slackened, perhaps that’s why we keep returning to it. It’s simply the way we react. It’s the part of me that shakes my head when Lesterton pleads “I gave you life!” or when Solomon genuinely thinks he can plead to the Daleks’ better natures just before they unceremoniously gun him down in the middle of Bute Central Park. Idiots that trust the Daleks aren’t going anywhere – Power was the prototype, but the formula works, even if you can see it (and its logical conclusion) coming a mile off. Or, to directly quote the central character in Jeepers Creepers – which is, at least for its first half hour, one of the scariest films ever made – “You know the part in scary movies when somebody does something really stupid, and everybody hates them for it? This is it.”

  • bar

    James I absolutely love this article, interesting meanderings on the subject and just my sense of humour. I first watched Power of TD (recon) this summer, and enjoyed how ahead of its time the structure and ‘meta’ stuff was.
    And how did I miss your excellent article on pacifism? There’s a lot in Davros’ charge that the doctor turns his friends into weapons. But somehow that’s more realistic than the american gun lobby answer to everything – wait for one man with a bigger weapon to come in and fix everything for you, while you remain passive if not pacifist. Whether it’s most of Clint Eastwood’s stuff, or the recent Matt Damon Illysium, the answer is never ‘rise up and defeat the enemy yourselves.’
    The Doctor is always getting ensnared in conflict – be it small and personal, or inter-galactic. He never pretends there’s a solution without effort, loss, cost. And never without getting others involved. I must rewatch the Girl Who Died and try to see his rallying of unpromising troops in the light of your article. Interesting that he does it cos the baby girl cries…