This Is Just a Theatre (Time of the Daleks)


It’s May of 2002. Sugarbabes are at number one with “Freak Like Me.” That lasts a week before Holly Valance takes number one with “Kiss Kiss,” followed by Ronan Keating’s “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” and finally Liberty X’s “Just a Little.” *NSync, S Club Juniors, Mary J Blige, and Pink also chart. In news, a lengthy standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem ends. East Timor attains independence. And the Mars Odyssey Rover finds signs of water ice on Mars.

While in specialty shops, Time of the Daleks. For the second time in this “season” of McGann stories, we have to start by remembering that Jubilee hasn’t come out yet. Just as Shearman’s work in Embrace the Darkness is clearly waiting to really break out massively with Jubilee, it’s impossible to look at Time of the Daleks without feeling like its central idea is one that Jubilee did better. At its heart this is Perversity of the Daleks - a story whose raison d’être is having the Daleks do things that feel utterly wrong. And it succeeds. Daleks quoting Shakespeare is gorgeously, deliciously perverse. It’s a brilliant idea, and it in and of itself justifies Time of the Daleks as a story.

The trouble is, and this is what Jubilee figured out a year later, is that if you’re going to do a story based around a moment of perverse wrongness, you need to figure out how to stretch that moment of wrongness and produce variations on it. Jubilee starts out wrong and careens progressively downwards into sicker and more twisted options until you get to properly wonderful moments like the Daleks brutally slaughtering a bunch of little people while archly noting that “Daleks do not sing.” But all Time of the Daleks really has is “Ooh, isn’t it kind of kinky to have Daleks quoting Shakespeare?” And then, after a few minutes of that, it’s out. It’s got nothing other than a very traditional Dalek story.

Which would be one thing if Big Finish hadn’t done three of those in its first year, knocking out the Dalek Empire trilogy to which this story is an ostensible sequel. So now, eighteen months after the third one of those, we get another Dalek story that plays at the idea that it might do something unusual with the concept for about an episode, then dutifully goes back to being Dalek Empire, Part Four. But that’s not the world we’re in. This is the fourth Big Finish Dalek story. We weren’t starved for Daleks anymore. And so bringing them back for the fourth time in two years - a rate unseen since the 1965-67 stretch of The Chase through Evil of the Daleks - seems like it should require a more substantial new idea, as opposed to this Shakespeare business, which feels like a bare minimum refresh.

Yes, it’s also Paul McGann’s first Dalek story, which livens things a bit. But it also, in many ways, just highlights the problem. What’s the point of giving every Doctor a Dalek story if you’re just going to do the exact same story every time? Mandatory Dalek stories at least make a bit more sense than mandatory Cybermen or mandatory Brigadier stories, in that the Daleks are part of the fundamental mythology of Doctor Who, but this isn’t mythic recapitulation of some primal force of narrative. This is just redundancy. Adding Paul McGann to the stereotypical Dalek story accomplishes little. And McGann sounds more bored here than he did in Embrace the Darkness, which, for all its flaws, at least recognized the basic value of giving its lead things to do.

The crux of the problem is that this story fails to recognize the virtue of going all the way. These days if you were going to do Shakespeare Daleks you would, at least, embrace the concept fully. You’d set the story in the 16th century, you’d have Shakespeare be one of the main characters, and you’d go all out. I mean, we know how to do this sort of story these days, because “Meet the Historical Personage” is now one of the standard setups of Doctor Who. Whatever flaws Victory of the Daleks may have, and it has an appalling list of flaws, it at least understands that part of its job is to wring every ounce of material out of its premise; it gets what putting Daleks and Winston Churchill in the same frame entails.

Whereas Time of the Daleks seems oddly disdainful of its premise. It’s insistent on coming up with a bigger threat than the elimination of Shakespeare from human history. On the one hand, there are admittedly bigger threats imaginable than that, but why waste them here? To expand the story suddenly to the prospect of the Daleks becoming the master of all of time implicitly sells the actually original idea, Daleks quoting Shakespeare, down the river. There’s no reason to go that big in this story; the elimination of Shakespeare provides high enough stakes. The result is almost necessarily lackluster.

More broadly, Time of the Daleks squanders its other great reveal, which is that Charley is the source of all of the time paradoxes and is unstringing the web of time by her very existence. The build to this has been steady, but here we get the one real opportunity of the second “season” to nail it. As of next story Charley gets parachuted into the fraught problems of Gallifrey, where she can and does hold her own decently. But this is the story where there’s a clear-cut opportunity to make Charley into a proper, massive threat. Because in this story she ends up threatening the Daleks. It’s gobsmacking how much this entire arc could have been improved with just one scene of the Daleks cowering from Charley, establishing the threat she represents as properly, awe-inspiringly mythic. Again, however, Time of the Daleks curiously buries the lead.

Is it overly churlish to suggest that the problem here might be Justin Richards? He is, after all, the same person who has been overseeing the outrageously gun-shy Eighth Doctor Adventures, with their complete failure to commit to the destruction of Gallifrey and amnesia plot. It’s the same Justin Richards who penned The Burning, a novel that marches decisively to the edge of wildly and impressively reinventing Doctor Who before muttering darkly and wandering off. And, for that matter, it’s the one who decided, in the midst of a dramatic revamp of the entire Eighth Doctor line, to keep Fitz in place. Muted dramatics are what he does; his writing of Doctor Who is defined, consistently, by interesting ideas he fails to follow through on.

But it's unfair to lay this entirely at the feet of Justin Richards. This is what the wilderness years were like, especially the schismatic portion of them. Post-Ancestor Cell the line's defining author was, in many regards, Lance Parkin, a writer who was characterized in a large part by writing Julius Schwartz-style impossible premises and then finding a way to defuse them. Scaled back ambition was the order of the day.

This is in some ways a fundamental problem of the late wilderness years. We've noted several times the way the authors all ended up at loggerheads with one another, nobody particularly interested in expanding on or exploring the ideas of anybody else. And over time that had exactly the negative impact you'd expect it to have: everybody curtailed their ideas.

I cannot imagine that the spectre of Lawrence Miles and the War arc didn't loom large over everybody, Justin Richards, ironically enough, included. Go too far in any direction and you'd get shot down. The obvious conclusion to draw from Miles's overall reception in fandom was that fans got excited about the appearance of a big idea, but mostly blanched at the actual execution of it. The truism is that superhero readers want the illusion of change. But early aughts Doctor Who fandom was far worse: they wanted the illusion of originality.

Time of the Daleks is a particularly good symbol of this problem, however, given the way that it repurposes one of (for our purposes at least) the iconic images of Doctor Who. The time machine that summons the Daleks, based as it is on mirrors and clocks. This is an obvious callback to Evil of the Daleks and the alchemical time machine there. But there’s a big difference, which is that Time of the Daleks attempts a quasi-scientific explanation of the time machine, whereas in Evil of the Daleks Whitaker made no attempt to have the time machine work as anything other than an alchemical device. Time of the Daleks, in other words, quite literally drains the magic out of its premise, avoiding anything too strange in favor of the easily compartmentalized and explicable.

But if we’re paralleling Time of the Daleks to Evil of the Daleks there is an odd way in which it redeems itself - a way that mirrors the “Season Twenty-Two As Exorcism” theory I’ve previously espoused. Let us consider briefly the parallel between Learman and Maxtible. Maxtible, of course, built a time machine and summoned the Daleks in order to acquire the secrets of alchemy. Within David Whitaker’s moral universe this makes him a parable of the dangers of ambition and greed. What if, then, we were to maintain the allegorical structure in our reading of Time of the Daleks? That is to say, what if we were to assume that Learman is meant to be a parable about the dangers of something? The question, of course, is what the something might be.

It’s tempting to look at Learman’s status as a quasi-dictator who stubbornly refuses to hold elections or to devolve power, and thus to decide that the story is about her will to power. And certainly that would make sense. It would extend Whitaker’s moral schema nicely, in fact. The Daleks, in Evil of the Daleks, represent Maxtible’s ambition taken to its unchecked extreme: a ruthless and unstoppable ambition of power. And this direction works fine for Time of the Daleks, with the Daleks becoming a parable about extreme militarism. It’s not particularly clever, but it works, and it’s almost certainly Richards’s intent.

But let’s consider the alternative explanation. In addition to being a military dictator, after all, Learman is a bardolater. She may be a military dictator, but her time travel experiments are separate from that, and are based primarily, it seems, on her obsessive love of Shakespeare. In this regard, if we’re to slot her into the Evil of the Daleks paradigm, she’s not a parable about ambition. She’s a parable about fandom and its dangers. Which bends Time of the Daleks neatly into an exorcising self-critique, given that so many of its problems are, in the end, caused by the dangerously small community of Doctor Who fandom in the late wilderness years and the all-encompassing nature of fan politics that we discussed back in Seasons of Fear.

But this would require us to read the Daleks as the purest expression of destructive fandom. This, however, isn’t entirely out of line. The idea that the Daleks adore Shakespeare is, within the story, ostensibly dismissed. And yet they keep quoting Shakespeare long after all their ruses have been discovered, suggesting that on some level they are sincere in their adoration. Similarly odd is the way in which they hold to their bargain with Learman even as they betray her, making her into a Dalek with the complete works of Shakespeare installed within her, a puzzling case of misplaced fealty that is, in an odd way, a cutting commentary on the nature of the fannish tendency to lose the forest for the trees.

But more broadly, the Daleks serve to represent fandom simply because they are the Daleks, and their existence within the narrative is symptomatic of fandom. They are in a sense the eternal compromise of Doctor Who. The series only survived because they were wildly popular, and was thus obliged to bring them back again and again. But they were inimical to the original concept of Doctor Who - Sydney Newman famously hit the roof when he saw them, seeing them as the most craven selling out of his “no bug-eyed monsters” edict imaginable. They are, in a sense, the embodiment of fandom haunting the series: the thing that is a part of it only because of its popularity, and that is thus both necessary to the series and oddly hostile to it. The fact that McGann has to have a Dalek story - in a real and genuine sense, as opposed to the pseudo-sense of the Brigadier and the Cybermen - demonstrates exactly how the Daleks do serve as the excessive embodiment of Learman’s fandom, neatly tying the self-critique up.

In this regard it’s telling that we are just six months away from the second story of the new series, Jubilee - a story that is, in fact, about exactly this aspect of the Daleks. After the exorcism has been completed there is room to grow. (And fittingly, Jubilee is set in the wake of the previous exorcism.) But perhaps more to the point, it demonstrates the greater basic strength of Doctor Who at this point in its history. For all its marginality and obscurity in the dying days of the wilderness years, it was able to, within only a few months, not only respond successfully to this critique, but to integrate the main point of the critique as an advantage, using the fact that the Daleks represent Doctor Who’s fraught relationship with its own popular appeal as a fundamental element of the story. And, of course, when the story was repurposed for the new series this was added to, with the Daleks being pitted against the other fundamental symptom of fandom within Doctor Who.

Speaking of which.


David Anderson 7 years, 10 months ago

In what sense do you mean Jubilee is 'the second story of the new series'? Are you making a condensed reference to Chimes of Midnight?

It seems to me that talking about series here is a bit artificial? Big Finish are releasing one story a month. Although the Eighth Doctor stories are released as a consecutive block in the way the past Doctor stories are not, there's no formal demarcation. And given that some of the past Doctor stories that have original companions, there's a move away from the present and the past to a situation where there are multiple presents?

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Daibhid C 7 years, 10 months ago

I took it as a reference to Jubilee being the same story as Dalek, although I'm not sure how we get "second" from that, since Human Nature and Spare Parts both came before it.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 7 years, 10 months ago

Largely because I don't think any of the actually interesting bits of Spare Parts got adapted into Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel, and that the writer didn't carry through, whereas Human Nature and Jubilee were both adapted by their original writers. Spare Parts inspired a new series story, Human Nature and Jubilee both became new series stories.

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Daibhid C 7 years, 10 months ago

That makes sense.

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jane 7 years, 10 months ago

But all Time of the Daleks really has is “Ooh, isn’t it kind of kinky to have Daleks quoting Shakespeare?” And then, after a few minutes of that, it’s out. It’s got nothing other than a very traditional Dalek story.

I was wondering why I didn't like this one so much. I thought it might be the continual grating Dalek voices, the lack of emotional payoff to the Charley revelations, or the hard time I had visualizing what was happening. For all the alchemical elements, there really didn't seem to be an alchemical bent to the story itself, not even about the question of Identity. (All those mirrors! Alas.)

Just as Shearman’s work in Embrace the Darkness is clearly waiting to really break out massively with Jubilee, it’s impossible to look at Time of the Daleks without feeling like its central idea is one that Jubilee did better.

I think you mean Chimes, not EtD, right?

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J Mairs 7 years, 10 months ago

I hate your cliffhangers. It can't be Neverland you're about to launch into...

The connections between Learman, the Daleks and Extremist Militarism have always made see this as a thematic prequel of what I like to think of as Big Finish's cycle of stories dealing with 9/11 and post 9/11 - Neverland, Zagreus + Gallifrey S1.

(You know, beyond the fact that it's before them in the ongoing arc)

But I like the Daleks-as-fans idea - I mean you really don't have to go too far in DW fandom to find Fanleks - including a large segment of the fanbase who will consider Moffat to have RUINED THE SHOW FOREVER (again) if we don't stop for at least an hour in November to have EVERY DOCTOR (available) on screen - not matter how inappropriate it might be.

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Iain Coleman 7 years, 10 months ago

Because it probably won't be picked up in proofreading for the book version: it's "Sugababes", not "Sugarbabes".

As an aside, did the Sugababes / Girls Aloud / Xenomania thing ever take off in the States?

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Ununnilium 7 years, 10 months ago

Post-Ancestor Cell the line's defining author was, in many regards, Lance Parkin, a writer who was characterized in a large part by writing Julius Schwartz-style impossible premises and then finding a way to defuse them. Scaled back ambition was the order of the day.

While I agree with your overall point, I don't see how that's an example of scaled-back ambition - surely the entire point of Schwartz-style impossible premises is to be as clever as possible in working them into your status quo.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 7 years, 10 months ago

Well, yes. But I still think scaling back ambition describes the Schwartz-style approach - huge ambition in the cover, but an active let-down on the inside. Still very fun, and I love them dearly, but there's very much a stepping back from the grand sweep of the premise implicit in them.

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Nick Smale 7 years, 10 months ago

If we're proof-reading, I should probably point out that Mars Odyssey is an orbiter, not a rover.

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Ununnilium 7 years, 10 months ago

Hmmmmmm. Yeah, I see what you mean. (The best can take an impossible cover and come up with a solution even more interesting than the one the cover implies - but even they can only do it every so often.)

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5tephe 7 years, 10 months ago

As was probably your intent, I can't help but read the ALL CAPS above in a Dalek scream. "Fanleks" - well played.

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