Thursday, August 23, 2012

Geekfight: Dalek versus Jedi

"Who would win in a fight?" is a perennial question within geek culture. (Perhaps it comes up outside of geek culture, but I don't have those kind of conversations with non-geeks.) Gandalf or Magneto? DC Captain Marvel or Marvel Captain Marvel?  Hot buttered elves or Greg the hot elf-butterer?

You get the picture.

And with the rise of the World Wide Web there have been a couple sites dedicated to this kind of thing. My favorite iteration of the concept was Grudge-Match. I checked out Wikipedia to see if there might be a stub about it, only to see that someone had put a lot of effort into the page. I liked Grudge Match, because it looked past the straight up fight question, for example, at who might win in a pie eating contest or if James Bond or Indiana Jones would get the magical relic from the Nazis first. Alas, the site was winding down when I found it and only exists as an archive now.

I read a bunch of blogs, mostly though RSS. (I'll probably do a blogroll thing eventually. If you like Josh's blog, you'll love MightyGodKing!) John Seavey, author over at Fraggmented wrote a piece on a Dalek vs. Jedi fight. I disagreed with his conclusions, and replied, but I do think it is a little rude for my very first comment on the site to be "You're wrong and let me tell you why!" We exchanged a couple comments, but I didn't want to make a bad first impression, so I decided that rather than badgering the good man on his own site, I would just write my own piece on the same topic here. (Since I wrote that, we each posted again, so if you want to see this topic from the other perspective, just click the links.)

And while we're on the topics of blogs I read, Fraggmented is at the top of the list. Seavey did a bunch of really fine work for Feng Shui, one of my favorite RPGs. And I don't want to imply any kind of endorsement from him. I don't think he has any idea of who I am except for the guy who disagreed with him on the subject of Daleks and Jedi. I just felt like writing about the topic further (and discussing it in the comments, if anyone is so inclined) without irritating someone whose work I enjoy. (I was going to mention this post over there, but everyone hates someone who just pipes up to plug his stuff. I figure that if he's so inclined, he can follow the links to his page to find this.)

So, Daleks and Jedi! Let's get to it! I think the first thing to is to determine which version of the participants we're discussing. Both have had very long histories across many different formats and you can find wildly different power levels for both.

Obviously the old series Daleks that were thwarted by stairs and loose shale and which pop like explosive pimples when hit by small arms fire (to say nothing of the very early Daleks that were dependent on the floor of the complex where they were found for power) are going to lose to anybody.  And on the other end of the spectrum, we had Jedi in the Expanded Universe Novels doing ridiculous things like conjuring planetwide storms who would wipe out legions of Daleks and pulling Star Destroyers down from orbit.  And if you poke around, I'm sure you'll find wimpy Jedi as puny and world-smashing Daleks as powerful as the extremes on the other side.

Ideally, I'd like to find an iconic version of each. I'll try to limit it to what is seen on screen for the Daleks (both series, old and new Who) and to the six movies for the Jedi, with emphasis on the prequels, simply because that's where we saw the most Jedi action. I'm going to weigh claims for their plausibility against what we see. So, even though Darth Vader says "The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force," when all he does in that movie is strangle a tubby admiral until Tarkin tells him to knock it off, kill an old man, and get bopped off into deep space for a Corellian freighter, I'm going to assume that his claim was just tough talk and he was not, in fact, sandbagging the ability to destroy a planet across the trilogy. The same trait is in play with the Daleks.

The Doctor talks them up a lot, but when they're actually on screen doing things, they're not that impressive  I think the real problem stems from their popularity, and it's a problem that every popular villain has. They can't win, but you don't want to kill the pepper pot if it's laying golden eggs, either.   Dalek episodes are popular and, each one has to top the last. Every new encounter raises the stakes, and every one of those encounters culminates in a defeat for the Daleks even more humiliating than the last. At the beginning of an episode, they're these horrors, and at the end, they're jokes. The production team never waits long enough between defeats for the Daleks to regain their cachet. Even as a kid, watching them Saturday nights on Public television, I could never take the Daleks seriously. I remember a 4th Doctor story where he blinds a Dalek by hanging his floppy hat on its eyestalk, then takes a merry-go-round ride on it as it spins around impotently. In Journey's End, I thought Rose and Sarah Jane were riding along the Dalek, my wife thought they were pushing it along the floor, but either way, it doesn't seem like these things should engender the pants-wetting terror we always see from the main characters. Oh noes, Daleks are invading! Just like they did last year. And the year before that. And, yes, Virginia, the year before that. I think we'll manage. 

For the Daleks, I think I'll go with their first appearance from the new series. I think it's impressive, but not overwhelming. The Doctor says that the Dalek could wipe out all life in Salt Lake City very quickly (I want to say 24 hours, but it's been a while since I've seen the episode) if it escapes from the bunker, but, well, the Doctor says a lot of things. It does pretty well against the forces in the bunker, but the impression I get is similar to that of the original Alien movie. It is an impressive killing machine, but it's only doing as well as it is because it's going up against opponents who don't have the tools or the knowledge to fight it. It's very dangerous, but nowhere near as unstoppable as the flavor text makes it sound.  (If you'll excuse the digression, I thought that episode was a great introduction to new viewers. This one Dalek could do all that. And then you see there are a whole lot more out there in later episodes.)

The Dalek in this match has the standard array of eyestalk, death ray and plunger. I remember Daleks with machine guns in the old series. I want to say Pertwee era? Oh, hey, Wikipedia has a whole piece on Dalek variants.  But we're going with something as standard as possible. Older source material called the bumps on the bottom of the unit sensory devices, the Dalek episode showed them as a component in a self-destruct sequence, but hey, why not both? (The old FASA RPG book had some interesting information, sadly no longer canon about the composition of the shell and the psychology of the Daleks.)

For the Jedi, I think I'll go with someone comparable to Kenobi. I, of course, mean the Jedi, and not my friend's beagle of the same name. Wikipedia gives five ranks of Jedi, younglings, (sigh, I hate you Lucas), padawan, Jedi Knight, Jedi Master, and a single Jedi Grand Master. Let's call our Jedi a Knight, one who has completed his or her training, but not yet trained a padawan. 

What's the standard Jedi compliment of gear and abilities? Lightsaber, of course, great for both cutting things and blocking them. I think the canonical reason for Jedi reflexes is short term precognition. They're able to react to situations before they occur, so there's that. They're also capable of impressive feats of acrobatics and athleticism. They have the Mind Trick, too, but I don't think it would work on a Dalek, and it strikes me mostly as a non-combat tool anyway. The last common trait seems to be telekinesis, too, which was expressed as the Force Push Obi Wan often did in the movie.  Am I missing anything? I think that about covers the vanilla Jedi abilities. They're also trained as envoys and diplomats, but it seems unlikely that kind of thing will come up in an encounter with a Dalek. The rest seem specific to certain oddball Jedi who developed them on their own, or Dark Side Powers like Force Choke or Force Lightning.

I think a single Jedi versus a single Dalek has the strong advantage. In fact, barring something unforeseen, I'll just come out and say that the Jedi would win. We have on-screen support for Jedi deflecting non-standard projectiles, e.g. force lightning. It's possible that there exist some kind of anti-Jedi weapons, but, unless I'm mistaken, in all instances when lightsaber-wielding Jedi are hit by energy weapons, it's a case of user error. The lightsaber was capable of blocking the attack, but the user failed to do so for whatever reason. So, the fight probably goes something like: Dalek fires at Jedi a distance, Jedi closes to melee range, deflecting death rays, topples the Dalek over with a Force Push, then it's one and two and through and through with the lightsaber as it's righting itself.

Small units, I think it would be a lot closer, as Daleks are built for war and Jedi are ambassadors/philosophers/pilots/medics/explorers/a ton of other things who happen to include fighting as one their duties. As every Dalek is pretty much the same, and Jedi are not, the Daleks would have a great deal more team cohesion, an advantage that will only magnify as the numbers increase.

As was pointed out in the original post from which this one was spun off, numbers are where the Daleks have their biggest advantage. There's a ton of them. In a big rumble between every Dalek and every Jedi, it would be an absolute rout. There is nothing the Jedi can do against numbers like that. I want to say there are maybe ten thousand Jedi at their height, versus millions, possibly billions of Daleks? No way.

However, that ignores an important factor. The Jedi do not exist in a vacuum. (In fact, with all that sound in space, I'm not even sure there is a vacuum in Star Wars! Hey-o!) They are servants of the Republic and the Galactic Republic is probably a lot bigger than the Dalek Empire. They're not going around conducting wars of genocide against everybody, after all, and thus, they probably suffer a lot less attrition. True, a large percentage of the Republic is composed of civilians, but there are things one can do to support a war effort as part of a civilian population too. There hasn't been an Army of the Republic for ages (indeed, that was the whole point of the second prequel), but there are no shortages of big spaceships with lasers on them, and it's reasonable to infer that planetary militia exist. Why, I would go so far as to say that without a competent Planetary Militia, you might as well hand your planet over to a 15-year-old and resign yourself to occupation by racist caricatures from the Trade Federation.

Too soon?

Anyway, the Daleks are not subtle and would almost certainly not be able to encounter the Republic, learn of the nature of the Jedi, get to all the Jedi and eliminate them without drawing a lot of attention along the way. It's more likely that it would be something like, "Hey, a new civilization! EXTERMINATE!"

As hidebound and ineffective as the Senate is, when they see that a previously unknown alien force is attacking them with the express purpose of extinguishing their civilization, I think that would push them pretty quickly to war footing. The US got mobilized pretty quickly after Pearl Harbor, and I think something similar would happen here. And the Republic is probably on a comparable technological keel as the Daleks, with one exception, and the Republic did in fact mobilize fairly effectively between Episodes II and III.

I could argue that the Separatists would join in and contribute their Roger-Roger robots to the fight once they see what an existential threat the Daleks are, but someone else could argue that the Separatists would try to ally with the Daleks, and frankly, I think both situations are probably equally likely, so it's a wash.

The exception I mentioned about technology a while up? Time travel. The Daleks have it. It's kind of cruddy compared to what the Time Lords have, but they do have it. I'm most familiar with the original series, where it was mostly "Time Corridor" stuff transporting between two points. I'm not sure how this would play out, because it was mostly a plot device the few times I saw it. I don't think they could go back in time and prevent Jar Jar Binks from being born, as appealing as such a gambit would be, but I think it's more a function of transporting troops and intelligence from the future to the past. Something like this would probably be a big disturbance in the Force, so the Jedi would never be caught completely unawares by it, but the ability to know where your enemy will be weakest coupled with ability to send a big army there is nothing to underestimate. However, since this is pretty much already the Dalek strategy anyway (hit them with an overwhelming number of Daleks until everything is EXTERMINATED), it may not be as influential as it seems at first glance.

Hey, writing this was kind of fun. I think I might make this a regular feature. Please comment, either for or against.


  1. Regular feature! This was great. I agree with your conclusions, especially single combat vs. large numbers battling it out. Except one thing- my beagle could take the Daleks. Also, high nerdery alert: it was in Destiny of the Daleks that the Doctor throws his hat on the Dalek and spins it around. Romana II episode!

    There is an exception I can think of to the Daleks looking like jokes at the end, but it comes from the Matt Smith era, which you hate, so you might not have seen it. In Victory of the Daleks, they don't succeed in blowing up the planet, but they do get away in the end with a whole new plan to regenerate themeselves. The Doctor even goes so far as to say they won. But then, the new, giant, multicolored Daleks look kind of silly, so maybe that counts as looking like jokes in the end.

    Doctor Who comes up in a British show called Q.I. from time to time. In one episode they were joking about how Daleks can't go up stairs, and one guy said that disabled access ramps are a Dalek conspiracy.

    1. Well, your dog is a Jedi after all.

      If you're interested in the other side of the argument, click on the links above. I do like his writing, even if I don't agree with his reasoning in this particular debate.