It’s become a well-known fact that you can’t have a series of New Who that doesn’t have the Daleks in it, one way or another. But has having the Daleks appear in the show so often become damaging to the character of the Daleks? Since they get beaten so often, are they even a threat anymore? These were the kind of questions Steven Moffat must have been asking himself as he took over as showrunner, and he appeared to attempt to solve this Dalek problem by having them appear fairly infrequently when compared to Russel T. Davies’ series, and filling out season finales with short Dalek cameos. But did this strategy work?
There is one thing that can be said about Moffat’s Dalek cameos – they aren’t a new thing. Daleks having a cameo appearance in episodes of Doctor Who in which they aren’t the primary villain has been going on since the classic era. A single Dalek appears as a cameo in The Five Doctors, and kills itself by accident. The Daleks also make short appearances as cameos in several Russel T. Davies episodes, such as The Waters of Mars. So Steven Moffat certainly didn’t invent the idea of the Dalek cameo, but he did appear to overuse it. If you tally up all the ‘Dalek episodes’ for Davies’s era compared to Moffat’s, it’s the Moffat era that gets the most. But the only ones where the Daleks are the primary focus are Victory of the Daleks, Asylum of the Daleks and Into the Dalek. A Stone Dalek is considered the primary villain of The Big Bang and one might argue that The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witches’ Familiar heavily featured the Daleks, but these are not specifically Dalek episodes.
And then there are the cameo appearances – the absolute worst being in The Wedding of River Song, in which a Supreme Dalek appears as a dying survivor of a ship crash only to be ripped apart by the Doctor for information about the Silence. If it weren’t for the finale of The Time of the Doctor that establishes that the Daleks were the real threat to the Silence all along, it would seem as if this was the final nail in the coffin for the Daleks of Matt Smith’s era, as the Silence had truly taken the position of primary villain of the show by this point. A Dalek cameo should attempt to showcase the Daleks as a threat, not devalue the character of the Daleks to the extent that their role in the cameo could be filled by a broken yellowed Acorn Archimedes.
However, just as all hope seemed lost for Dalek cameos in Doctor Who, Series 10 finally gave us a Dalek cameo that works – and in the very first episode, no less. A perfect Dalek cameo, if such a thing exists, involves the Doctor taking his companion to a war zone in the middle of a Dalek attack on an innocent colony ship, dodging and weaving through Dalek blaster fire and attempting to avoid the carnage and destruction – and that is exactly what The Pilot gives us. In an attempt to avoid Heather and her trans-temporal teleportation powers, the Doctor takes Bill and Nardole into what he describes as one of the most dangerous places in the universe – a battle between the Daleks and the Movellans, which Classic fans will remember from 1979’s Destiny of the Daleks. Regardless of your feelings on that episode, having the Movellans appear again – and having them be completely annihilated by the Daleks – does wonders to tying their timeline together and perfectly demonstrates the Dalek’s power. We finally get to see a glimpse of what the ‘Dalek Wars’ of the early 1970s stories would have been like if they had the budget at the time to properly showcase them, and most importantly, it makes the Daleks seem like a real threat again.