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‘As Frightening & Unpredictable as They Ever Were!’ | Piers D. Britton

Will Hartnell - Daleks

The Daleks were the only recurring villains in Doctor Who to be retro actively given an origin story during the classic series’ run in the descriptively named ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ (1975). Here, the Doctor is sent back in time by the Time Lords to avert the Daleks’ creation by the geneticist Davros, or at least to make them less hostile. In a predictable anti-climax, the Doctor fails to do more than delay the Daleks’ development by a thousand years or so, but the run-up allowed for unprecedentedly vivid debate about the rights and wrongs of changing history through pre-emptive violence. If the Daleks’ future and the Doctor’s moral probity were largely undisturbed at the end of the story, ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ led to one signifcant change in their subsequent narrative portrayal, though in many ways it was not an enriching one. The Daleks were, in effect, relegated to the status of satellites to Davros who was to prove as resilient and as predictably recurrent as the Daleks themselves. In every subsequent Dalek story from the 1970s and 1980s the creatures seemed reliant upon, obsessed with or fugitive from Davros, when they were not actually in servitude to him. Increasingly often, too, they seemed to be on the brink of fi nal defeat or extinction, a tendency which persisted in the new series until it was emphatically overturned in ‘Victory of the Daleks’ (2010).

The revitalization of the Daleks began with their last appearance in the classic series, ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ (1988). The Daleks’ origins as fi gures for Nazism had been over time obscured by the fact that they had come to evoke nothing so much as themselves. ‘Remembrance’ heavily underscored their fascist roots. Set in 1963 in Shoreditch, at I. M. Foreman’s junkyard and Coal Hill School, the sites of the series’ origin in ‘An Unearthly Child’, the story represented internecine confl ict between two forces of Daleks disputing their relative claims to racial purity. The story also found them allying themselves with British neo-fascists whose rise in the early 1960s formed the cornerstone for Ben Aaronovitch’s script. In short, ‘Remembrance’ restored the Daleks’ ideological signifi cance by turning Terry Nation’s Nazi metaphor into a simile.

Over a decade later the producers of the Big Finish audio dramas recuperated aspects of the Daleks’ origins in a quite different way. Dalek audio serials focused primarily on affective rather than ideological precedent, selectively winnowing away or emphasizing aspects of the Daleks’ history and character. Significantly, the Daleks made their Big Finish debut without Davros, and they have appeared without him in the majority of subsequent audio releases. No less importantly, the styling and tenor of their early audio outings deliberately recalled aspects of Dalek serials before Davros’s advent in 1975 and more particularly Dalek serials of the mid-1960s, a period which was thus in effect identifi ed as a ‘golden age.’

Mike Tucker, a special-effects artist and long-time fan who had written a number of BBC-published novels and short stories in the late 1990s, was author of the fi rst Dalek release from Big Finish. This was ‘The Genocide Machine’, issued in 2000. Tucker expressly wanted ‘to present the audience with a Dalek story of a type that we hadn’t had since Pertwee’s era’ (i.e. before Davros’s introduction). ‘The Genocide Machine’ portrayed the Daleks as creatures of guile and tactical brilliance, as they had been in the more sophisticated serials of the mid-1960s, rather than the inept, blustering brutes they had increasingly become in the following two decades. Significantly, there are a number of scenes in which Daleks converse at length not only with the Doctor, his companions and allies but also with each other, rather than merely squawking clipped instructions or chanting battle cries. ‘The Genocide Machine’ also invoked an array of conceits suggestive of earlier Dalek stories, calculated to evoke nostalgia in long-term fans. Tucker prominently featured the Daleks’ use of duplicate humans as infi ltrating agents, a device first seen in Terry Nation’s 1965 story ‘The Chase.’ In terms of atmosphere, Tucker honoured one of the clichés of Nation’s Dalek scripts by setting his story on a jungle planet, and even allowed himself an in-joke by naming an incidental character Tarrant after a protagonist in the 1974 serial, ‘Death to the Daleks.’ ‘The Genocide Machine’ also followed a well-worn tradition of the sixties and early seventies by leaving it to the end of the first episode to reveal theDaleks.

While it is easy to isolate the elements in ‘The Genocide Machine’ which are distilled from Doctor Who’s past, it is less easy to demonstrate that, to paraphrase Cranny-Francis and Tulloch, the narrative speaks from the social and political context of its own time. Indeed, it seems clear that Tucker and his collaborators were primarily concerned with Doctor Who’s internal history and ethos rather than external referents. In other words, the Doctor’s struggle with the Daleks does not really ‘stand for’ anything here: the story’s prime function is to embody an ideal meta-text, correcting perceived deficiencies of the later Dalek serials in the classic series. By extension, if Tucker’s script does represent a particular historical moment, then this cannot be defined in terms of a contemporary national imaginary. Rather, ‘The Genocide Machine’ reflects the historical moment when a group of professionalized fans ceased to be textual poachers of Dalek narrative and became textual gamekeepers.103 If, as Jenkins suggests, fan writing does not so much reproduce the primary text as ‘rework and rewrite it, repairing or dismissing unsatisfying aspects’, then ‘The Genocide Machine’ marks the point at which Tucker and his collaborators were for the first time able to rework and repair the Dalek narrative under license.

Dalek - London

The three Dalek audio releases following ‘The Genocide Machine’ all contributed to the embodiment of the ideal Dalek meta-text in a variety of ways. The monsters were consistently presented as consummate and ruthless strategists, and there was also continuing, nostalgic homage to motifs or atmospherics from Dalek serials in the early years of the classic series. For example, the marginal conceit of a time machine built with mirrors in ‘The Evil of the Daleks’ became central to ‘The Time of the Daleks’ (2002), which finds the Daleks appearing incongruously in different periods of human history, as they had done in ‘The Chase’ (1965) and ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ (1965–66). Big Finish’s Doctor Who producer, Gary Russell, also took the opportunity to consolidate the hyperdiegesis. For example, ‘The Apocalypse Element’ for the first time brought the Daleks into direct conflict with the narrative’s other primary time-travelling race, the Time Lords, culminating in a brief Dalek invasion of Gallifrey. Moreover, all the first four Dalek stories were linked at a conceptual level and to some extent in terms of internal Whoniverse chronology, not only with each other but also with Big Finish’s concurrent Doctorless spin-off audios, Dalek Empire.

One of the primary traits identifi ed in Jenkins’s analysis of fan fiction is ‘recontextualization,’ the device whereby fan writers fill in gaps in the primary narrative in order to increase its coherence or redolence, especially at the level of emotional credibility.  A version of this motif appears frequently in licensed Doctor Who texts, most closely adhering to Jenkins’s model in the several short stories which reflect on the experiences of the Doctor’s companions after they have left the TARDIS. The device could also be applied, in modified form, even to such unpromising objects as the Daleks. ‘The Mutant Phase’ (2000) includes key scenes in which the Fifth Doctor visits Dalek-occupied Earth in 2158, a few years before the events of the second Dalek narrative from the classic series, ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ (1964). However, in ‘The Mutant Phase’ the TARDIS sets its passengers down in rural Kansas rather than London, where the original story took place. In this case it is not really a chronological gap which is filled; rather the new vignette offsets the Anglocentrism of the classic-series narrative, strengthening the sense of a truly worldwide Dalek occupation. Any perceived social-political significance in the original choice of setting – such as the collective need to revisit Britain’s resistance to Nazi tyranny, inferred by Cull – is here thoroughly subjugated to increasing the cogency and richness of the hyperdiegesis. It is worth noting that nostalgic allusion to ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ also takes the form of a specifically aural homage in ‘The Mutant Phase.’ Daleks in the scenes set during the twenty-first century occupation are distinguished from those in the narrative’s ‘present’ (from our perspective, the far future) by meticulous recreation of the staccato speech patterns used in their earliest screen appearances, which had gradually been modifi ed after ‘Dalek Invasion.’ The suggestive layering of ‘inherited’ tonal and narrative elements in ‘The Mutant Phase’ epitomizes the way in which many Big Finish Dalek audios have been built primarily around expressive rather than political concerns.

Yet I am not suggesting that there is rigid homogeneity in either the writing of professionalized fans or the taste of fan audiences. The various traits outlined above – the appeal to an ideal meta-text, the ‘inward’ focus on the hyperdiegesis, the privileging of the affective over the allegorical – represent a strong but by no means exclusive pattern in the licensed audios dealing with the Daleks. In fact, this pattern was abruptly broken with the fifth Dalek release from Big Finish, ‘Jubilee’ (2003). Robert Shearman’s script was avowedly intended as ‘an aggressive attack on contemporary culture’, reflecting the author’s declared view that ‘we have turned everything of power and passion into plastic collectables.’ With its portrayal of a jaded, militaristic English Empire, ‘Jubilee’ is exceptional among Big Finish’s Dalek audios in the ferocity of its social satire, but it has certainly not been marginal in terms of fan approval. Although the majority of subsequent audios featuring the Daleks (and for that matter the Cybermen) have inclined more to the internally focused paradigm of ‘The Genocide Machine’, ‘Jubilee’ was from the outset a fan favourite, topping a reader’s poll in the Doctor Who Magazine the year that it was released. Strikingly enough, Shearman was invited to develop one of the most unexpectedly affecting elements in ‘Jubilee’, the curious friendship between a captive Dalek and the Doctor’s incumbent companion, in the new series script ‘Dalek’ (2005).

This leads me to one further point about the ongoing influence of fan preoccupations in the most recent Doctor Who texts, the new series and NSAs. It would be a serious mistake to imply a radical break between the licensed texts of the so-called hiatus and the new series which debuted in 2005. The trend towards ‘asking “fannish” questions within the text’ has been just as evident in the new television series as in the audios and novels of the hiatus, most notably in the revival’s treatment of the Master and the Cybermen. Certain scripts for the new series even stray into the realm of ‘fanwank’ through such scenarios as the unprecedented on-screen conflict between Daleks and Cybermen in ‘Doomsday’ (2006) and the consortium of old adversaries who form an alliance against the Doctor in ‘The Pandorica Opens’ (2010). What has necessarily been abandoned in the revival is the leisurely exploration of ideas drawn from the classic series narrative and the layered recombination of tonal and motivic elements from the past, both of which are only likely to be interesting to committed and knowledgeable fans. ■

This article was extracted from Piers D. Britton’s book, TARDISbound: Navigating the Universes of Doctor Who.

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This entry was posted on June 18, 2012 by in Who Watching.

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