Dalek: A Lost Experience

BLACK ARCHIVE 54: DALEK – BILLY SEGUIRE

A LOST EXPERIENCE

Online Ephemerality in geocomtex.net, The Last Dalek, and #TheMetaltron

‘404. That’s an error. The requested URL was not found on this server. That’s all we know.’

[Google]

There’s a history to be told alongside Dalek’s transmission that could only exist on the internet itself. A medium of interactive and ephemeral experiences, the internet presents an opportunity for experimentation and distribution without gatekeepers at the cost of a final definable product. The page where this chapter currently resides may no longer exist 10 years from now. Conversely, it may still exist in several conflicting versions, accessible only through preservation efforts such as the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine or the recently launched European Web Archive. The chances are that even if the text survives, the vast majority of the material this page both links to and discusses does not, leaving you, as the late-to-the-party reader, with an incomplete record of what we initially laid out. As cartoonist Scott McCloud described in Reinventing Comics (2000), the internet is where ‘everything is either here, not here, or connected to here.’[1] I would add that as time allows those connections to sever, a fourth state of ‘was here’ is forged, and it is this state that best defines our relationship to online experiences in the long term.

Yet, that ephemerality is a trade-off for the rewards of a unique medium. Without the strict definition of a final definable form, the internet also provides an ‘infinite canvas’ on which an artist’s work can exist without concern for structural limits[2]. It offers an unprecedented ability to interact, bringing people and experiences together all over the globe. From the web of 2005 to the one we inhabit today, Dalek has maintained a presence on the internet, taking advantage of those strengths both in how BBC Wales used the web to market the episode and how its audience used the web to experience it. The internet provides a medium that is unique in terms of scale, impermanence, and interconnectivity. How does Dalek specifically take advantage of this medium in a way that supports its narrative?

geocomtext.net

‘You just need to tap in the following code: [SETUP] [SETUP] Then “Menu” then: 384.5544308664.’

[GEOCOMTEX – Support Site & FAQS]

In 2005, the BBC would be understandably interested in taking advantage of the internet’s power as a practical marketing tool. It had already tested the potential audience for online content with webcasts of original material[3] and sites where users could access information about old episodes. Those uses treated the internet as either an information repository or broadcast medium. They ultimately didn’t do anything that either books or television couldn’t already do. In the case of Flash-animated video, it was intentionally geared towards emulating those existing mediums. A revived Doctor Who television series would require a different sort of content, expanding the series into an interactive experience.

To this end, the Doctor Who Web Team created geocomtex.net for Dalek, an in-universe website for GeoComTex, Henry van Statten’s fictional company, presented as a legitimate business. There were no activities or videos on this page linking back to Doctor Who. It was nothing more than an informational website for an American tech company. Still, the details were right, even going so far as to use a global .net top-level domain rather than the standard .co.uk domain a BBC site would generally use. This page would work in tandem with other web pages such as whoisdoctorwho.co.uk and unit.org.uk as a form of early Alternate Reality Game (ARG) for ‘players’ to explore, using the entire internet as a platform of experience rather than a standalone page. The networked narrative, connected only by discovery from the players themselves, would coincide with series 1 as new episodes were released. As James Goss explained in Doctor Who Magazine, ‘it’s not an enormous in-joke for fans – it’s a game. Each week, you’ve got a mission […] along the way you’re plunged into a vast online world.’[4]

This sort of promotional ARG was popular in the mid-2000s, with obvious incentives of active audience engagement for those content creators willing to give it a chance. The low overhead of creating simple websites with meaningful clues would allow viewers to interact with traditional media as if their browsers had taken them to a page inside the universe of the fiction. For example, in World War Three (2005), Mickey logs into the UNIT website with the password ‘buffalo’. This password would allow users of the real-world unit.org.uk website to view a hidden page on the Doctor. Notable ARG campaigns appearing around this time include the I Love Bees (2004) campaign for Halo 2, The Lost Experience (2006) for the television series Lost (2004-10) and the marketing campaign for the Nine Inch Nails album Year Zero (2007). Speaking about The Lost Experience, ABC Entertainment’s senior vice president of marketing, Mike Benson, described these sorts of games as ‘a hybrid between content and marketing’[5], making them something of a trend enjoyed by content creators and consumers alike.

The appeal of tie-in pages like the GeoComTex website to media creators is twofold. The first is that it was relatively cheap, a motivating factor in many decisions made about Doctor Who going back before the internet was ever invented. The other is that this sort of website creates authenticity, emphasising that 2005-era Doctor Who took place fully entrenched in the modern world. The sites created by the Web Team would present themselves as if they came from the same universe as the series. It’s only on the Disclaimer page of geocomtex.net that users would discover it to be ‘a fictional website created for the new series of Doctor Who.’[6]

As a storytelling genre, the core tenets of an ARG are its asynchronous communal consumption and timed exclusivity. Users visit the site at different times and come together elsewhere to share what they found to work out the clues and make discoveries. In many ways, geocomtex.net follows these ideas of what you would want a good Doctor Who ARG of the time to do. A morse code sequence in the ‘Support’ page for geocomtex.net translates to BAD WOLF. Searching for many of these codes or puzzles still brings up discussions from science-fiction forums. However, that evidence is also fading[7]. Yet even though it’s the website for the company of a man who owns the internet, geocomtex.net only had limited player engagement with the ongoing Doctor Who narrative. While whoisdoctorwho.co.uk would update as the series progressed, geocomtex.net was simply the website itself, with a few easter eggs about Bad Wolf and in-jokes from the creators. It was a destination to be linked to and not from. A digital cul-de-sac, the site was a dead end to be reached when the other sites ran banner ads for GeoComTex on their pages. Once its initial puzzles were figured out, the website remained dormant.

While the Doctor Who ARG as a whole was successful, this particular instalment was not positioned to thrive. Of the three in-universe websites created for series 1, geocomtext.net is the only one to go permanently offline. Whereas whoisdoctorwho.co.uk and unit.org.uk could both interact with the ongoing narrative of the series, geocomtex.net is tied to one specific episode. The last of the in-universe websites produced for series 1, it feels like an add-on. Circling back to some of the points raised in Chapter 6 of Black Archive #54: Dalek, the failure of geocomtex.net to engage its audience can be read as a critique of Henry van Statten’s internet. It’s a static page, as emblematic of Web 1.0 as one may imagine. The only interactivity available on the site is a ‘Contact’ page, which itself doesn’t actually function.

It’s a shame. With the combination of online secrets and real-world events, geocomtex.net could have included a virtual recreation of van Statten’s museum, an online location for the audience to explore the physical objects series one of Doctor Who had to offer[8]. The world of geocomtex.net could alternatively be set in an earlier period in the history of 2012 GeoComTex and engage with the pivotal moment in its history, perhaps one where users could take advantage of the fact that they were also out of sync with Doctor Who. We get a little of that with an interview with a young Henry van Statten (pictured with a full head of hair) on whoisdoctorwho.co.uk, but as it stands, the company we saw presented on goecomtex.net was a tech company, answering typical Frequently Asked Questions about PIN numbers, multi-region coding, and flange differentials.

The Last Dalek

‘Drive forward and exterminate both scientists. The north door will open. Go through the door. In this room, kill all three scientists and go east, then north and through the door. In here, kill both scientists.’

[Ben Williams][9]

The second piece of internet ephemera released in April 2005 in conjunction with the episode, The Last Dalek is an in-browser Flash game, the first in a line of online experiences created by New Media Collective where players could play through a version of a television episode. In an interview with the BBC Leeds website, lead developer David Eccles discussed how designing an online game like this was a different process than it had been even a few years before, explaining:

‘We do lots more than just develop games. We have to put in hard graft. […] Although some people still think it’s like the years of the dot.com boom when there was some stupid investments and silly money flying around […] The last couple of years has shaken out a lot of those weaker firms. Now you’ve got to be good. Clients want value for money and are more savvy with the technology.’[10]

Unlike geocomtex.net, which was designed to be something familiar, The Last Dalek was intended from the start to be something new, taking advantage of the evolving internet as it existed at that exact moment in time.

This was a period when Flash video games dominated the online gaming space, with sites like Newgrounds hosting the games, often independently produced, alongside other user-generated content. As a professionally produced tie-in product, The Last Dalek was hosted on the official BBC Doctor Who website, immediately removing it from many of the elements that players remember about Flash games. Still, it retains the easy accessibility and simplicity required to make a hit. This boom occurred for many reasons, from the increased penetration of broadband internet over dial-up to the emphasis on casual games that catered to demographics the traditional console and PC gaming markets had ignored[11].

For its part, The Last Dalek reached more than 500,000 plays in just three weeks[12], making it one of the more popular online features of the BBC website. In-browser Flash games were clearly exploding in popularity on their own, but Daleks also lend themselves very well to these sorts of video games. Not only are they easy to portray as pixels and require no complex animation to represent realistic Dalek movement, but their motivation is also easily translatable to the video game sphere: namely, shoot everything that isn’t you.

From a gameplay perspective, The Last Dalek was constructed as a relatively simple isometric shooter. The player, as Metaltron, progresses through the levels of Henry van Statten’s bunker, controlling the character with WASD keyboard and mouse controls[13]. Unlike an ARG, an online video game allows for direct interaction, but only through predetermined options in set parameters. The game sets its full experience from the start, and players can either follow the critical path and win, or deviate from what the developers intended and lose. The limited movement of the keyboard is perfect for controlling the Dalek. The Last Dalek is not a game about making choices. The player can move and kill, but little else.

On a deeper level, The Last Dalek asks players to empathise with a Dalek in a significantly different way than the episode accomplishes by having them become Metaltron. As they progress through the game, players collect upgrades, avoid gunfire, and move through levels until they reach their ultimate goal: kill the Doctor and destroy the TARDIS. While playing, the role of the Dalek during this game is never questioned. The act of killing is not a moral question. It’s simply the only possible goal. Were the player confronted with Rose’s compassion in this game telling them that ‘there must be something else, not just killing,’ the player would likely respond by clicking furiously on their left mouse button and zapping her with a laser beam.

Interactivity changes perspective. As the player moves through the game, they become actively involved in achieving the goal of Dalek’s antagonist. While Shearman’s script took pains shifting the perspective to allow the viewer to empathise with a Dalek, The Last Dalek accomplishes it easily. However, due to the limited nature of the product, it lacked the nuance and inner complexity that Shearman achieved in making Metaltron more human. Instead, the Flash game does the opposite. In The Last Dalek, Metaltron is a model Dalek of the highest order. The game was essentially a training program to turn the player into a good Dalek.

There’s perhaps no better evidence of this than the callous or detached way that player Ben Williams’ walkthrough guide describes the act of killing scientists and security guards in unemotional, pragmatic terms. In a videogame, actions are means to a predetermined end, and morals be damned. Incorporating Williams’ walkthrough onto the page itself also achieved something else that removes the player-as-Metaltron composite from Metaltron in the episode. For a player who required orders, they were only a click away.

#TheMetaltron

‘So! Welcome to Dalek – the story of what happens when one individual decides to break self-isolation, and the havoc that causes. Pressing play now… #TheMetaltron’

[@ShearmanRobert]

Skipping ahead to 2020, Dalek had an unexpected second life online due to its inclusion in the first wave of the Doctor Who: Lockdown series of tweetalongs organised by Emily Cook of Doctor Who Magazine. This even further emphasises the ephemeral nature of the internet, as it took place not on an easily archivable website of its own purpose but set adrift in the flowing feed structure of Twitter, anchored only by the shared hashtag #TheMetaltron. Rob Shearman, Barnaby Edwards[14] and Nicholas Briggs all officially contributed to live-tweeting this event. Shearman even produced a brand new set of parody early drafts of Dalek that poked fun at both the various drafts Dalek had to go through, and the concept of replacing the Dalek in this episode with anyone else.

As for the live-tweet event itself, the way it grew was almost an accident, growing out of how users experience everything through the filter of social media. As Emily Cook put it, ‘they were initially emergency measures […] it was our only means, using digital and the internet to bring people together.’[15] Yet through #TheMetaltron and other Doctor Who: Lockdown experiences, Cook found a way to connect participants to these episodes and each other in a way that meant more than ever before. She cites:

‘the number of people that have got in touch with me just to say that it has really saved their mental health […] they knew at this time, on this day they were going to get together with people around the world’.

In a way, this moment recaptures the communal capability of the earlier ARG era. As their name implies, participation in these live-tweets is dependent on being able to be there live. That feeling was longed for throughout 2020, a year marred by the global COVID-19 pandemic and a community of fans isolated from each other. This year solidified the idea of social media as the new cultural venue.

In the absence of any significant new material for #TheMetaltron from Shearman himself, Emily Cook’s team also produced the web-exclusive short ‘Sven and the Scarf’ (2020). Written by Andrew Ireland, ‘Sven and the Scarf’ is formatted as a ‘webisode’ of the series, easily translatable to the next home video release’s special features section. However, it does contain some traits that make it feel more at home on the internet. With the character Sven pulling items out of the fourth Doctor’s scarf, the short can be viewed as an unboxing video[16] or even an ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) video[17], genres that originated on YouTube itself.

The use of those genres also emphasises the role of a museum once more in curating objects of the past, expanding the scope of Doctor Who objects within van Statten’s museum beyond what was initially shown. It’s a look at what the museum might have looked like onscreen if Dalek had been made at the time and didn’t have to hide its history away behind glass. The side-stories that these multimedia tie-in pieces explore shine a light on characters, areas, or aspects of the episode that aren’t neccesarily relevant to the important beats of plot, but work to flesh out the world. An invention of Shearman’s 2021 Target novelisation, Sven is known in-episode only as ‘the last guy’, someone the episode has deemed unworthy of further discussion. Van Statten also views his staff members as both disposable and nonessential. In 2020 especially, a year when the idea of an ‘essential worker’ took on new meaning, there is a dark twist to Sven’s ultimate fate, and a poignance to finally knowing more about him.

The Art of Self-Destruction

‘Do not archive or re-upload anything […] This is our last wish. Our parting gift. Stay true to the purpose of our final year or we shall lay down wrath upon those that attempt to escape the end.’

[Unus Annus]

So what do these experiences tell us about the state of the internet Dalek has inhabited? Overall, they point towards the idea of 2005 as an awkward growth point in the medium’s development. ARGs would explode in popularity a few years forward from this point, reaching the peak of their popularity sometime around 2010, when smartphones started introducing dedicated apps and the internet as a whole began to move away from the desktop browser experience. This period also saw the slow death of Flash games as mobile games took hold[18]. These same smartphones ushered in the always-connected social media feed that allowed #TheMetaltron to thrive as viewers watched the series with their phone in hand. Put in perspective with Dalek’s position in series 1, these experiences also show how important a sense of ‘now’ was to modernised Doctor Who. What was new in 2005 is now inaccessible. The museum of Henry van Statten’s collection has been filled with cement and closed, with only whatever artefacts were smuggled out of the museum left to survive.

The current occupant of geocomtex.net is a Japanese financial service and insurance company that bears no resemblance to the American corporation that once claimed to own the internet. The original geocomtex.net is currently only accessible online through the Wayback Machine, a digital archive of time-locked pages founded and hosted by the Internet Archive that presently boasts an archive volume of over 541 billion pages[19]. Much of what was online in 2005 can still be found there. Yet, it is still not the same experience. Where a webpage can change at any moment, an archive (much like a museum) is stagnant, a published version with stability.

In December 2020, Adobe likewise discontinued support for Flash. This effectively walled off access to games like The Last Dalek in modern browsers. While the original website can still be accessed in its original location, it is now unplayable. While groups of users work to preserve these digital artefacts of 2000s culture, the experience of streaming these games online and the communities that grew up around them is effectively lost. The medium they were created for is dead, making Newgrounds’ 2005 slogan, ‘The Problems Of The Future, Today!’, oddly well-suited.

Doctor Who has always interacted with the ephemeral. Many of its earliest episodes are now lost, only intended to be transmitted on their initial airdate. For better or worse, the internet allowed Doctor Who to regain that feature through a new source. The loss of these pieces of Doctor Who history is one of the many ways series 1 evokes the early Hartnell era, where transmission of the episode was a singular event. While the loss of geocomtex.net, The Last Dalek, or Barnaby Edwards’ tweets from #TheMetaltron may not feel as great as the loss of the missing episodes of the 1960s, these ephemeral artefacts are nevertheless worthy of remembrance as examples of how the revived Doctor Who engaged directly with a new medium.

And yet, content creators who have come up online have seemingly embraced this limitation as inherent to the art itself, creating pieces that intentionally destroy themselves once complete. In 2019, YouTube personalities Mark Fischbach and Ethan Nestor, also known as Markiplier and CrankGameplays, launched Unus Annus. This collaborative YouTube channel released one video per day for exactly one year. After that point, they deleted the channel and all of its videos. At the stroke of midnight on its anniversary, the channel disappeared.

The art of destruction is carried in the same philosophy held by artists who work with biological materials, where ‘not only do these artworks have limited lifespans, but they are often created with the intention for them to disappear.’[20] The traditional art of unfixed sand painting, such as the Tibetan Buddhist monks’ mandalas, is also designed to be destroyed when completed. ‘Love Is in the Bin’, a 2018 work by artist Banksy, was created when his 2006 painting ‘Girl with Balloon’ was automatically shredded by a mechanism hidden in the frame as soon as it was sold at auction[21].

In the environment of the museum, preservation is often considered paramount. However, there are other factors, other statements, that defy preservation. In City of Death (1979), John Cleese and Eleanor Bron discuss the concept of afunctionalism in response to seeing a police telephone box presented as an exhibit. While the box no longer has any apparent function, they claim that art can still be found in ‘the redundant vestiges of its function’. They may as well be talking about a dead hyperlink: ‘since it has no call to be here, the art lies in the fact that it is here.’ As the Doctor himself said in The End of the World, ‘everything has its time, and everything dies.’

Looking back at Dalek as it was televised, that idea of connection through technology is poignant. The act of consuming online content is as equally about interacting with the technology and culture of transmission as it is the content itself. The medium is the message, after all. In 2005, the idea of seeking out material on the wilds of the World Wide Web was adventurous. In 2021, we are inundated with more media than we can handle, but the connection to others remains its most valuable asset. Here in 2021, the Doctor’s joy at seeing Rose’s face on a screen is a relatable feeling. The idea of now is crucially important.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Arnold, Jon, Scream of the Shalka. The Black Archive #10. Edinburgh, Obverse Books, 2017. ISBN 978190931555.

McCloud, Scott, Reinventing Comics. HarperCollins, 2000. ISBN 9780060953508.

Periodicals

Goss, James, ‘Production Notes: Face Forward’. Doctor Who Magazine #367, cover date March 2006.

Web

Doctor Who: The Last Dalek. BBC, New Media Collective, 2005. www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho/games/lastdalek/index.html. Accessed 2 March 2021.

‘GeoComTex’. GeoComTex, 2018. www.geocomtex.net. Accessed 2 March 2021.

‘GeoComTex’. BBC Web Team, 2005. https://web.archive.org/web/20050506124732/http://www.geocomtex.net/. Accessed 2 March 2021.

‘Latest Banksy Artwork “Love is in the Bin” Created Live at Auction’. Sotheby’s, 11 October 2018. https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/latest-banksy-artwork-live-is-in-the-bin-created-live-at-auction. Accessed 14 March 2021.

‘The Last Dalek: Made in Leeds’. BBC News, June 3 2005. www.bbc.co.uk/leeds/content/articles/2005/06/03/living_dr_who_game_feature.shtml. Accessed 2 March 2021.

‘UNIT’. BBC Web Team, 2005. http://unit.org.uk/. Accessed 2 March 2021.

‘Who Is Doctor Who?’ BBC Web Team, 2005. http://whoisdoctorwho.co.uk/. Accessed 2 March 2021.

DiNoia, Megan, ‘Decomposing Art: How Museum Professionals Treat Living Matter’. Heritage Bites, 17 April 2019. https://heritagebites.org/2019/04/15/decomposing-art-how-museum-professionals-treat-living-matter/. Accessed 2 March 2021.

Doctor Who: LOCKDOWN!, ‘Sven and the Scarf’. YouTube. 30 April 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Y2RZ2mwMR8. Accessed 2 March 2021.

McLean, Dakota, ‘Looking Back at the Year of Unus Annus’. The Guilfordian, 10 December 2020. https://www.guilfordian.com/opinion/2020/12/10/looking-back-at-the-year-of-unus-annus/. Accessed 2 March 2021.

NakeyJakey, ‘Flash Games Mattered’. YouTube, 10 September 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhvey_FjtXA. Accessed 2 March 2021.

Stanley, TL, ‘Product-Placement-Free Lost TV Show Gets Viral Integration Partners’. AdAge, 24 May 2006. https://adage.com/article/madisonvine-news/product-placement-free-lost-tv-show-viral-integration-partners/109427. Accessed 2 March 2021.

Stoeber, Jenna, ‘A brief history of ASMR’. Polygon, 5 May, 2018. https://www.polygon.com/2018/5/5/17320300/youtube-asmr-meaning-video-explained. Accessed 13 March 2021.

Stoeber, Jenna, ‘A brief history of Unboxing’. Polygon, 25 May, 2018. https://www.polygon.com/2018/5/25/17393882/unboxing-video-history. Accessed 13 March 2021.

Tortoise, ‘Creative Sensemaker Live: #AllTogetherNow: Is Social Media the New Cultural Venue?’. YouTube, 26 February 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5kvOBMdjnFI. Accessed 2 March 2021.

Ward, Mark, ‘Casual games make a serious impact’. BBC News, 18 March 2008. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/7301374.stm. Accessed 2 March 2021.

Williams, Ben, ‘Last Dalek Help’. BBC Doctor Who, 18 July 2005. https://web.archive.org/web/20050721000438/http://www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho/news/cult/news/drwho/2005/07/18/20634.shtml. Accessed 2 March 2021.

[1] McCloud, Scott, Reinventing Comics, p215.

[2] McCloud, Reinventing Comics, p222.

[3] For more detail see Arnold, Jon, The Black Archive #10: Scream of the Shalka.

[4] Goss, James, ‘Production Notes: Face Forward’, DWM #367.

[5] Stanley, TL, ‘Product-Placement-Free ‘LOST’ TV Show Gets Viral Integration Partners.’

[6] ‘GeoComTex’.

[7] A resource I originally intended to link to here, a forum discussion on https://nitescifi.com, has since gone down and appears not to have been archived.

[8] McTavish, Lianne, ‘Visiting the Virtual Museum: Art and Experience Online’.

[9] Williams, Ben, ‘Last Dalek Help.’

[10] ‘The Last Dalek: Made in Leeds’.

[11] Ward, Mark, ‘Casual Games Make Serious Impact’.

[12]The Last Dalek: Made in Leeds’.

[13] Used by many PC games, this term refers to a control scheme where W is up, A is left, S is right, and D is down. The mouse is then used for tasks such as shooting or object interaction.

[14]At the time of writing, Edwards’ contributions appear to have been deleted. Many Twitter users do this periodically as a way of cleaning house.

[15] Tortoise, ‘Creative Sensemaker Live: #AllTogetherNow: Is Social Media the New Cultural Venue?’

[16] Stoeber, Jenna, ‘A Brief History of Unboxing’.

[17] Stoeber, Jenna, ‘A Brief History of ASMR’.

[18] NakeyJakey, ‘Flash Games Mattered’, 10 September 2018.

[19] ‘Internet Archive’.

[20] DiNoia, Megan, ‘Decomposing Art: How Museum Professionals Treat Living Matter’.

[21] ‘Latest Banksy Artwork “Love is in the Bin” Created Live at Auction’.