Day Of The Dalek
Who ’s back and one of Skaro’s scariest denizens has returned with him. Nick Setchfield catches up with the Dalek’s newest incarnation during a day’s shoot in Cardiff…
“It’s Dalek day!” beams Christopher Eccleston, striding down a chalky corridor in the bruised leather jacket that will soon become the defining image of his Doctor. He hums with charisma, so electric that you suspect he may be powering the lashings of cables that twine around this makeshift film set. Clutching a script and a bottle of Brecon Carreg mineral water, he’s boyishly thrilled to be facing off against SF’s ultimate personification of evil – the true acid test of anyone aspiring to the crown of television Time Lord. “The weight of responsibility!” he grins. “Don’t f**k it up!”
“Hi, I’m Barney the Dalek,” says a wee man who will soon clamber inside the casing of the iconic menace (“Joanna Lumley wanted the part,” he later tells us, “but she was just too tall...”) Eccleston pumps his hand, delighted. “We’re making history!” he declares. And they walk away together, swapping insights on Skaro’s mutant master race.
It’s an October Wednesday in 2004. There was almost the taste of Christmas as I caught the train to Cardiff, early in the blue-dark morning. No, not Christmas. Something even tinglier. After some 15 years’ absence, a new series of Doctor Who is underway, and SFX has been invited to witness this tiny miracle. Only as I step on set does it truly hit me: I’m not here to simply capture the scramble and madness of a television shoot. I’m also about to watch a brand new episode of Doctor Who . Imagine if they’d cancelled Christmas for 15 years and you begin to approach my giddiness.
My first hit of new Who proves to be a man sat on a little green box in a boring corridor, barking dialogue into a microphone. “Doc-tor! The Doc-tor! Ex-ter-min-ate! Ex-ter-min-ate! EX-TER-MIN-ATE!” This is Nick Briggs, who has mastered the staccato screech of Dalek dialogue after years of appearances in the Big Finish range of Doctor Who audio adventures. You can only imagine his joy at being part of the TV revival. What seems to be a succession of camp hand gestures punctuates the broken syllables – only later do I realise that Briggs is acting as a human metronome, cueing a man with a remote control that operates the lights of an unseen Dalek, allowing them to flash in synch with the grating speech.
There are thumps and shouts from the set. Somewhere close by, just out of sight, the new Doctor is facing his greatest enemy. “I am alone in the u-ni-verse,” bleats the Dalek, with more angst than you might imagine possible from a bubbling lump of hate with a taste for cosmic genocide. “Have pi-ty!”(opens in new tab)
A soundman comes over and chats with Briggs about the arcane topic of modulation. “There’s something weird in this building,” he says. “All that metal.” Briggs listens to a playback. “Yes, that’s much beefier,” he nods. A fleece-jacketed member of the Stadium staff walks by, holding a plastic bag of sarnies, looking suitably bemused by all this strangeness. It’s a long way from match day.
I’m led onto set, and finally confront the Dalek for myself. By the holy hand of Davros, it’s gorgeous, gleaming with a burnished golden sheen, slyly updated while retaining the timeless power of a design classic. The script of this episode calls for it to be held captive in an underground base in Utah in 2012 – “Biggest joke in the universe, innit?” says Eccleston. “A Dalek without power!” – and so heavy iron chains criss-cross its torso, anchoring it to four concrete pillars. Behind it, a screen glows with annotated schematics of the Dalek’s armour. On the walls, cryptic signs inform you that “The World Is A Better Place With Geocomtex”, while a sticker warns “Level Three Access Only”. The unreality of it all is punctured by a murmur of Welsh voices, debating lighting and getting drunk.
I take my place by the lighting man’s monitor. There’s barely time to clock a stash of rubber monster costumes piled on a trolley in the corner – is that a giant, clawed beetle in space boots? How rum – before red numbers race on a digital clapperboard. “Transmitters on, please. Chris in, door closed. Standing by for a take.”
Now I really am watching new Doctor Who . The Doctor enters the shadowy chamber and faces the Dalek. Christmas. Pure Christmas. Eccleston is shockingly good, like a boot boy Peter Davison with sudden flashes of 100% proof Tom Baker lunacy. This is a pivotal scene, and, frankly, it’s a masterclass, Eccleston nailing every emotion from cockiness to fear to fury. Emotions bleed on his face. He’s sweet but scalding, thuggish but magical, streetwise but otherworldly. It’s a two-hander between a 900 year-old alien and an armoured blob, and it’s played with the absolute conviction of a Jimmy McGovern script.
Director Joe Ahearne watches the scene end and then dashes on to the set, sending his chair tumbling. He’s a ball of intensity, a perfectionist, demanding that the lighting be lowered so as not to spoil his crucial reveal of the Dalek. “Darker,” he says. “It has to be darker.”
A genre fan, Ahearne brought noirish vampire thriller Ultraviolet to the screen in 1998 and knows exactly how Doctor Who must work for a new audience. “When I did Ultraviolet , vampires had become a bit of a joke – and a lot of people joke about Daleks. I don’t think they’ll joke about this one. We can use more of the language of film now. Post- Star Wars , people have different expectations of how things should look. With the early Doctor Who , a lot of it was sets that you had to light very brightly and you were shooting the action from a distance, whereas now we can do many more things with montage and big close-ups. I don’t want to give anything away, but the way that the Dalek moves and the things that it does are slightly enhanced. Everything has been souped up a bit. ”
Eccleston wanders over as I marvel at the Dalek once more. “Someone’s just told me we’ve never had a gold Dalek before,” he says. “Get some Brasso on there!” I tell him that his jacket is impossibly cool, very Superfly Time Lord. “Yeah, Russell’s got one just like it!” he laughs, admiring the weatherworn leather. “I’m just following orders, as usual.” It looks as if the Doctor has been rummaging in a corner of Scope for his new wardrobe. “Yeah, it does,” he nods. Did he find any strange old gubbins in the pockets?
Eccleston considers this. And then he flashes a startling, manic smile that’s sublimely Doctorish. “Yeah – jelly babies!”
The future is in safe hands. And so is the past, the present and all points in-between. He’s back, you know.