Series 1, Episode 6
By Robert Shearman

Existential questions from an impure Dalek

200-word synopsis

The Doctor and Rose arrive in an underground museum of alien artefacts, in Utah, in 2012. They meet Henry van Statten, the megalomaniacal bully who owns the place. They soon learn that van Statten has an alien exhibit that is alive. Being an egotist, he shows it off to the Doctor.

The exhibit is a Dalek. It is weak, unable to attack, and chained up. Although it hadn’t responded to van Statten’s attempts to rouse it, the Dalek readily engages in conversation with the Doctor. The Doctor reveals that the Daleks all died in the Time War, and that he was responsible. He then attempts to destroy the Dalek, but is stopped by van Statten.

Van Statten takes the Doctor away to perform tests on him, while Rose gets acquainted with a young genius on van Statten’s staff. She then gets acquainted with the Dalek. She touches it, allowing it to use her DNA to restore to full health. It then breaks free and kills every unnamed character. It stops short of killing Rose, doubting its purity as a Dalek. Overcome with disgust, it destroys itself.

Rose invites the young genius, Adam Mitchell, aboard the TARDIS. Because she fancies him.

When a Dalek takes on some human DNA, it gains more than just life. It picks up the essence of humanity: emotions. Yet it is the absence of emotion that makes a Dalek a Dalek, so this Dalek-human hybrid has some very deep questions to ask about itself. In the course of its existential crisis, we see in relief the essence of humanity, of the Doctor and of the rapacious Henry van Statten.

And because this is a theological blog, it’s about time we appropriated a chiastic structure to proceedings. So we’re going to see:

  • A) Being a Dalek: exterminating
    • B) Being van Statten: Worse than the Daleks
    • B’) Being the Doctor: Better than the Daleks
  • A’) Being a human: emoting

A) Being a Dalek: exterminating

Apart from having a plunger and a whisk for weapons, the most ridiculous thing about Daleks is that they are utterly two-dimensional characters. The only emotion they experience is hate. The only action they undertake is to exterminate. They are, frankly, not very interesting – a run-of-the-mill Dalek couldn’t carry a whole episode like this on its own. They need a bit of humanity to come to life, in both narrative as well as spiritual terms.

We first meet our Dalek in a pitiable situation: underpowered and imprisoned, it is unable to do the only thing it was created to do: kill everything in its path. The Doctor kicks off the existential questioning:

If you can’t kill, then what are you good for, Dalek? What’s the point of you? You’re nothing.

In other words, if you are unable to do what you were made to do – unable to fulfil your life’s ambitions or goals – then your life is not worth living any longer.

This is crushing stuff. It is the philosophy that gives rise to the abortion of foetuses on account of the fact that they will grow up into children with disabilities. It is the philosophy that gives rise to euthanasia of the ill or infirm on account of the fact that are unable to live lives that are seen as productive or fruitful for themselves or for society. In the mind of the Doctor, the theology of the body seems to be this: be useful or die.

Chillingly, the Doctor is preaching to the choir. This is the mindset of the Dalek. This is its philosophy; its logic; its life. No wonder that the Dalek drily observes of the Doctor, “You would make a good Dalek.”

But the Doctor has got something wrong. He has forgotten that the Dalek isn’t programmed to kill everything in its sight purely for its own pleasure – it doesn’t have the capacity to experience pleasure. It kills because it is programmed to preserve Dalek-kind at all costs.

The Doctor: Don’t you see it’s all gone? Everything you were. Everything you stood for.
Dalek: Then what should I do?
The Doctor: Alright then. If you want orders, follow this one: kill yourself.
Dalek: The Daleks must survive!
The Doctor: The Daleks have failed. Why don’t you finish the job and make the Daleks extinct? Rid the universe of your filth? Why don’t you just die?

The Dalek won’t kill itself because it has a higher purpose, which the Doctor is too individualistic to recognise. The Dalek must preserve and protect its species. It might be an emasculated Dalek, but it is a Dalek nonetheless, and therefore must be kept alive.

B) Being van Statten: Worse than the Daleks

Moustachioed monster Henry van Statten has a pretty bad day in the office. He starts the episode as the owner of the world’s largest collection of alien artefacts and he ends it as a witless wanderer with a wiped memory and place to call home.

Yet it’s hard to feel pity for the man. He has committed two great sins, as far as the Doctor is concerned at least. The first is to operate out of sheer self-interest, lying and cheating and stealing to build his own empire. He is a bully; he thinks nothing of torturing the Dalek simply in order to entertain himself with the things he might learn about it when he does. The Doctor thinks very little of this – it is even worse than the Daleks themselves:

Do you know what a Dalek is, van Statten? A Dalek is honest. It does what it was born to do for the survival of its species. That creature in your dungeon is better than you.

But van Statten’s worse sin seems to be the way he tries to contain the universe. For all his alien memorabilia, his world is surprisingly small. It is all about him. So instead of exploring space, like the Doctor does, he wants to collect fragments of it. Instead of respecting space, he wants to exploit it. This is anathema to the Doctor: to see something more of the universe, but to think less of it as a result rather than more.

The Doctor: Let me tell you something, van Statten. Mankind goes into space to explore. To be part of something greater.
Van Statten: Exactly! I wanted to touch the stars.
The Doctor: You just want to drag the stars down and store them underground underneath tons of sand and dirt, and label them. You’re about as far from the stars as you can get.

B’) Being the Doctor: Better than the Daleks

The Doctor, by contrast, is all about enjoying the universe. That is what differentiates him from the Dalek when they would otherwise seem to be kindred spirits. The similarities aren’t lost on the Dalek itself:

Dalek: I am alone in the universe.
The Doctor: Yep.
Dalek: So are you. We are the same.

But they aren’t. The Dalek is there to dominate and destroy, while the Doctor’s role is to protect and heal. So his visceral reaction to the sight of a Dalek is not one of blind hatred; it is a response to the threat the Dalek poses to the world. His anger towards van Statten in motivated in part by the fact that he is putting other people’s lives at risk for his own personal benefit.

The Doctor seems to put people’s lives at risk quite a lot, too. But he does that for the greater good and he tries everything he can to save them first. When Rose is trapped the wrong side of a giant door with a Dalek advancing on her, the Doctor allows the Dalek through in order to increase his chances of saving Rose.

What use are emotions if you will not save the woman you love?

The Dalek views the Doctor’s actions scornfully, but there is truth to what it says. This kind of love is what sets the Doctor apart from the Dalek.

Being a human: emoting

The Dalek is all about exterminating: killing and destroying everything in its path. To achieve this, it has had every emotion but hate bred out of it. Our Dalek, though, rejuvenates with a little dose of Rose’s DNA – and so absorbs a little bit of humanity in addition to its otherwise pure hatred. The result of this “contamination” is a lesson in what it means to be human; the effect of a little bit of humanity in an otherwise murderous world.

Dalek: I feel your fear.
Rose: What do you expect?
Dalek: Daleks do not fear. Must not fear. You gave me life. What else have you given me? I am contaminated.

Along with emotions such as fear, it seems to develop something of a conscience. As it finds itself incapable of committing acts of barbarity like it used to, it begins to question itself. It has an existential crisis.

Rose: You didn’t kill me.
Dalek: But why not? Why are you alive? My function is to kill. What am I? What am I?

The Dalek doesn’t just have cold feet when it comes to exterminating innocent young women. It becomes open to persuasion when face-to-face with van Statten himself. Rose exploits its new-found deeper longings in order to spare his life.

Dalek: Exterminate! Exterminate!
Rose: Don’t do it! Don’t kill him! You don’t have to do this any more. There must be something else, not just killing. What else is there? What do you want?
Dalek: I want freedom.

This is all good news for van Statten manages to survive the ordeal because the Dalek finds its inner humanity. The pursuit of freedom trumps a desire to maim and kill. (Presumably Rose’s DNA was post-enlightenment Western liberal DNA.)

It is bad news for the Dalek, however. Unable to come to terms with the loss of its purity, it is overcome with unwelcome emotions. Eventually it is fear that gets the better of it. Afraid of what it means to have overseen the end of the purity of its species, and afraid of becoming like the things it has always hated, it decides to end things once and for all.

Dalek: This is not life. This is sickness. I shall not be like you. Order my destruction! Obey! Obey! Obey!
Rose: Do it.
Dalek: Are you frightened, Rose Tyler?
Rose: Yeah.
Dalek: So am I. Exterminate.

Isn’t it funny that Rose ends up ordering the Dalek to do the very thing the Doctor had tried when he first set eyes on it? In the space of about half and hour, both Rose and the Doctor tell the Dalek to kill itself, but for different reasons. The difference is pity.

At the beginning, although the Dalek looks totally helpless, the Doctor is intent on seeing its destruction. It is a threat to civilisation. And even if it isn’t, it’s a barbaric killing machine that needs to be obliterated. The Dalek is guilty; it doesn’t deserve mercy.

Dalek: Have pity!
The Doctor: Why should I? You never did!

The Doctor gets his way in the end, but by a strange reversal of fortune it is pity that ends up killing the Dalek.

In its final moments, Rose takes pity on the Dalek in its helpless estate. The Dalek is facing some kind of dysphoria, failing to marry its native desire to hate with its new emotions of more positive merit. Poor Dalek, struggling to come to terms with being nice: you must be better off dead.

This is portrayed as humanity in action: it is emotions that save the day. Morally, we are supposed to side with Rose. “You would make a good Dalek,” the Dalek says to the Doctor. Rose asks the Doctor, “what the hell are you changing into?” She is shown as the positive moral voice when she opposes the unilateral killing of the Dalek, and then again when she tells it to dispatch itself after suffering the indignity of become partly human.

Both of these moralities stand against Christian principles of life and death. The Doctor thinks the Dalek should die for who it is, leaving no room for mercy – the God of the Bible would agree with the first point, but disagree with the second. Rose thinks the Dalek deserves pity for who it is, leaving no room for judgment – the God of the Bible would agree with the first point but disagree with the second.

If it’s OK to anthropomorphise a Dalek and to appropriate feelings for God, perhaps this would be a more biblical outcome to the episode. If God stood face-to-face with the Dalek, he would side with the Doctor in recognising the evil in its heart and determining that it deserved death. But he would also side with Rose in having mercy on it. He would give it the opportunity to repent of its evil ways, and would make a way for its evil to be punished in its place.

If the Dalek’s “contamination” with human DNA might correspond to the sanctification of the Christian believer, the real question is whether it could cope with its new-found identity as one marked for life rather than death. In this instance, the Dalek chooses death because it rejects its new heart. Rose is held up as a hero for aiding that outcome, but it should not be so. She was only half right. Right to pity, but wrong to seek death as an escape route from the transformation the Dalek was undergoing. Similarly, the Doctor was wrong not to give the Dalek the opportunity to change, but was ultimately right to see it punished for its evil.

In other words, there is more to true humanity than being emotional and taking pity on evil things without any recourse to judgment.

Doctor Who Doctrines

  • I have emotions, therefore I am human.

Posted on 18/09/2016  •  2322 words