Day of the Daleks

8 Dec

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2011

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It’s the night of 11 September, Nineteen Seventy-*cough*, and our world teeters on the brink of World War Three. The Chinese are massing on the Russian border, and they’re not there for the duty-free vodka. Fingers are itchy on nuclear triggers, and the only man who can save us is British diplomat Sir Reginald Styles. But Styles has just been found on the floor of his drawing room at Auderly House, jabbering something about having seen a ghost. Clearly, we’re doomed. Send for UNIT!

It’s hard to feel too worried about the threat facing the Earth at the beginning of Day of the Daleks, perhaps because it’s all so peculiar. If the Chinese fail to attend Sir Reginald’s peace conference, we’re told, then our planet is toast; and he’s the only man who can possibly talk them into coming. Exactly why remains a mystery. It can’t be down to Styles’ natural bonhomie, because he’s as charismatic as a cold sore. Perhaps he’s flying to Peking with photographs of Chairman Mao in a compromising position with Little Jimmy Osmond and Nijinsky. And is Styles – upon whose shoulders rests the fate of humanity –getting the support he needs? When the UNIT investigation threatens to delay his mission, the Brigadier promises to arrange a special escort to the airport. What? You mean he didn’t have one already? What if he got stuck in traffic? A little later, a radio announcement plays into UNIT HQ, broadcasting direct from the United Nations Centre for Melodrama in Geneva. “WAR NOW SEEMS INEVITABLE!” it bellows, boosting the morale of all in earshot. The radio operators glance furtively about the room, perhaps choosing who to drag into the stationery cupboard when the four-minute warning comes.

As the global situation worsens, Sir Reginald’s reported ‘ghost’ drops his gun in the environs of Auderly House. As ghosts generally aren’t in the habit of packing heat – well, maybe some ectoplasmic flintlock, certainly not an ultrasonic disintegrator – the Doctor is quick to deduce that he’s not dealing with a spook, but an interloper from the future. He and Jo Grant decide to spend the night at Styles’ house, where they will await another manifestation. If nothing else, it’s the perfect excuse for a booze-up.

As he chugs back Sir Reg’s best Chianti, gorges on Gorgonzola and name-drops Napoleon, we find the Third Doctor in the absolute prime of his life. He’s often been described as a ‘mother hen’ figure – “keeping his companions safe under his wing” – but that’s total nonsense. More than any other incarnation, Jon Pertwee’s Doctor is a great strutting rooster. He’s the alpha male, the cock of the walk. Yes, he may sometimes look and sound like Quentin Crisp playing James Bond, but don’t be fooled by the lisp, the frilly blouses or the old lady hairdo. Doctor Three is our Time Lord’s most testosterone-fuelled incarnation. He likes his wine vintage and his cheese pungent. He loves fast cars, wears his TARDIS key like a medallion, and no doubt reeks of aftershave (Hai Karate, of course). He’s so powerfully potent, other men are emasculated merely by standing next to him. The boys from UNIT are as swooning and submissive as any girly assistant. Only the Master – the fox circling this hen house – ever poses any threat to the Doctor’s harem, but even all his powers of hypnosis cannot rival a single Pertwee ‘moment of charm’. And when those special scenes come – like here, with the cheese and wine, or later, when the Doctor is tied up in the cellar with Jo, laying out some rudimentary rules for time travel – it is impossible not to succumb to Pertwee’s quiet seduction. He’s a firm favourite of many, of course, but I think it’s fair to say that the Third Doctor dropped out of fashion with Doctor Who fandom for a good couple of decades. But this year, as his stories dominate the DVD schedule, his simple certainties seem like a breath of fresh air, and it’s proving a real treat to fall for him all over again.

The Doctor spends a quiet night at the big house, but any plans he may have for a champagne-and-caviar breakfast are ruined when a gang of would-be assassins, who have travelled back from the 22nd Century to execute Styles, take him and Jo captive. We’re whizzed through time ourselves – a jump ahead of our heroes, which is odd – to be shown a gloomy future Earth dominated by Daleks, Ogrons, and some uptight ladies in silver nail polish who look more deadly than either race of aliens.

As Daleks go, this bunch are more shrill and fretful-sounding than we’re used to, as if they’re worried that their whole scheme might unravel at any moment. (Given the balance of history, and the fact there are only three of them, this is not an unreasonable view for a Dalek to take.) They’re twitchy enough to begin with, but when they later hear that the Doctor’s in town, they fly into a right old paddy. This lack of cool may be why they miss their big chance, and fail to exterminate their enemy even when he’s strapped to a table right before their eyestalks. Idiots. They could have transmatted back to Skaro as heroes and been showered with prizes by a grateful Emperor. (A family hoverbout! A holiday for two on Darren!) But no – instead they keep busy by nagging their chief human lackey, the Controller, about output at the mines. “There-has-been-a-recent-drop-in-production-figures,” bleats the Gold Dalek. For shame! Doesn’t he know that the overnights are irrelevant in this brave new world – really not even worth mentioning – and to wait for consolidated mining figures later in the week? It’s sunny out, and we already know that the oppressed masses are cheerfully timeshifting.

The Controller is played by Aubrey Woods, and his performance is criticised by the producer on the commentary track of this DVD. Now, Barry Letts was right about many things in his Doctor Who career, but he’s entirely wrong when he describes Woods as being “too theatrical” in Day of the Daleks. Yes, the actor offers a couple of eccentric hand gestures in his early scenes, but this exuberance is soon brought under control, and Woods lends the Controller the air of a man consumed by fear and self-doubt, who’s just about keeping it hidden under a mask of machine-like efficiency. The fact that he conveys all this from beneath an ever-thickening layer of sparkly slap makes the achievement all the more impressive. Woods is the best thing about Day of the Daleks. He’s chilling and charming by turn, and really helps to sell the story’s best scene – where he and the Doctor discuss, over supper, how Earth came to be in this sorry state. However, as the Doctor knocks down each of the Controller’s justifications for working with the Daleks, one can’t help but feel an opportunity is being missed. Actually, it’s more than that. There’s a sense that the story loses track of the natural conclusion that several clues have already pointed us toward.

To explain… By this stage, we’ve learned that the rebels on future Earth have been receiving help from someone in the Daleks’ HQ. We’ve also seen the boss of a factory – a single-scene character – speaking to them on a secret radio, and getting clobbered for his trouble. But is that the end of it? Later in Part Three, the leader of the rebels, Monia, decides to rescue the Doctor. “There’s fresh information from one of our contacts at Control,” he says. “The Doctor is the Daleks’ deadliest enemy.” The key detail here is this: the only person at Control who knows this about the Doctor, at this stage is the story, is the Controller himself. So is he secretly helping Monia and friends? Could the Controller have provided the Dalek time machine vital to their plan to prevent the war? It feels like the story is heading to this revelation, but then loses its way – and that’s a shame. It would have been interesting for the Controller to have had to endure the Doctor’s lecture about being a traitor and a Quisling – without being able to defend himself, because the Daleks were listening – when he was secretly leading the resistance. The Doctor even accuses him of being “from a family of Quislings”, which is a curious detail to include, but perhaps the shame of this ignoble lineage would have offered a credible motivation for a man wishing to wipe away – in a very real sense – all those years of history. The Controller does win a moment of redemption before his ultimate extermination, as he helps the Doctor to escape back to our time, but the nagging feeling remains that – as the most interesting character in the piece – his fate could have been more cleverly entwined with the broader story.

As it goes on, Day of the Daleks has to slow down to fill out its running time – offering as silly an escape sequence as there ever was, where the Doctor is recaptured only because he runs his comedy tricycle into a patch of cow parsley – and then stops dead for a chunk of Part Four in order to lay out the big plot reveal from which the whole story has been extrapolated in reverse. “Styles didn’t cause that explosion and start the war!” the Doctor tells the guerrillas. “You did it yourselves!” As time-paradox tales go, it feels charmingly straightforward in light of the recent adventures of River Song, for example, but it was something entirely new for Doctor Who back in 1972. Sadly, the story pulls its final punch, but while the climactic battle between UNIT and the Daleks has faced criticism over the years – chiefly due, I think, to it featuring one reckless wide shot too many – the real problem is the lack of involvement of any character we care about. The rebels are selflessly surrendering their entire existence to save the world, and no one spares them a second thought. Luckily, the Sir Reginald Styles peace talks seem to stay on track, though one assumes that the Chinese delegate was alarmed to be flown all the way from Peking only to ushered straight through a house which then exploded behind him. Perhaps it was passed off as some kind of special opening ceremony; a festival of fireworks in honour of his culture.

In the final analysis, while I doubt that Day of the Daleks can be anyone’s all-time favourite story – it’s too coolly mechanical for that – it certainly can’t be anyone’s least favourite. If you could feed all of the Doctor Who ever made into a blender and blitz it down, the pulpy concentrate remaining would surely taste of Day of the Daleks. With its Dalek invasion, a trip through time, some rebels, some friends and some monsters, some rescues and some escapes, this story must surely be the precise average of Doctor Who.

And that’s not a criticism – that’s a wonderful thing. Because if even average Doctor Who is as vivid and entertaining as this, then it’s little wonder that it has such a fierce and eternal hold upon us.

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DVD extras

Those Daleks can’t stop invading the Earth. They come to plunder our vital raw materials: our plywood and our castors. However, their most spectacular invasion was never shown on TV, and that’s because it happened at my house. Back in the day, ‘Super Action Transfers’ were the medium of choice for eager young storytellers. These were little drawings, crowded on a plastic sheet, that you could rub down onto a card diorama. The Doctor Who set featured Daleks battling soldiers in front of Buckingham Palace. Forced into a battle they couldn’t possibly win by their deranged commander – hiya!– the loyal lads of UNIT were incinerated by the monsters from Skaro. Oh the humanity! I’d do all the noises too, of course. “Exterm-in-ate!” went the Daleks. (The voice wasn’t perfect – but hey, they always sound different, don’t they?) “Pew! Pew!” went my lasers. “Ka-splat!” went the boys of UNIT. Honestly, it was brilliant.

And so it is that, as I watch the Special Edition of Day of the Daleks on the second disc here, I sympathize with producer Steve Broster’s desire to hear lasers go “Pew! Pew!” and see UNIT soldiers explode in a grim splatter of human potage. I also know that many people will enjoy this new presentation – so primal and visceral are its obsessions – and that any criticism from me will sound churlish in the extreme. But I’m afraid that’s not going to stop me.

I’ve never seen the point in slathering modern digital effects over old episodes. They always look wrong, and only ever jerk me out of the precious, carefully-spun fiction and remind me that I’m watching a television programme. And the arbitrary editing of quirky moments – mistakes, some would call then, but others not – always makes me question the producer’s sense of humour. The most galling example here is the loss of the wonderful “Any complications?”/“No complications!” exchange between the Controller and an Ogron. Surely this moment is one of the unique joys of Day of the Daleks? Furthermore, to cut it is also to imply that what remains is any less silly. This is a tricky thesis to uphold when we find, pasted into Part Four, the overacted extermination of a seemingly super-sized UNIT soldier – which strikes me as far more absurd than “No complications”. You may disagree – as is your right – but that only brings us back to the key point: who is to decide what is and isn’t a mistake to be cut? Can’t we just accept the programme as it was made rather than trying – fruitlessly, unhealthily – to make it somehow more ‘acceptable’? There’s always a creeping sense of shame about it.

I accept that few will take this matter quite so seriously. Many will argue that I don’t have to watch the Special Edition. “On this DVD, you can still see Day of the Daleks as it was transmitted in 1972,” says Steve Broster on a ‘Making Of’ extra. And that would be fair enough – if it were true. But someone has decided to ‘improve’ that version as well, by forcibly re-grading one scene from day to night, presumably because they’ve decided it was a mistake, and now fits better with the script. In the circumstances, this irritates the merry heck out of me.

Let’s move on to less contentious matters. A View From the Gallery is a nice little discussion piece looking at the work of Doctor Who vision mixer Mike Catherwood. As he chats with Barry Letts in BBC TV Centre, it all seems a little uncomfortable to begin with. Indicating a control panel, Catherwood says, “I remember a guy that made the next generation of mixers. He looked at the BBC desk and went: ‘Gee! Dedicated faders!’” Catherwood and Letts have a proper chuckle at this, although it’s hard to tell what’s so funny. Was this visitor cheering the dedication of said faders, or mocking it? “So there you go!” adds Catherwood, clearly feeling his point well made. Happily, matters soon become clearer, and the programme does a great job of bringing home the absurd, impossible conditions under which Doctor Who was made in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The entire methodology of production was structured around one factor: the expense of video recording equipment. Every detail of an episode had to be rehearsed and ready to be played out before the cameras in just a couple of hours of a manic evening, because that’s all the time with the recording machine they could afford. Two hours is no time at all; simply by thinking about what was achieved in those studio sessions will always blow the mind of this viewer. A trip to Cathay. The burning of Rome. The glaciers of a new Ice Age. And voyages to any number of alien worlds: to Skaro, to Karn, to Logopolis. All time and space conjured from tiny studios in West London, and always in a race against the clock. Astonishing.

We go out-and-about for a Now and Then programme looking at the filming locations used for Day of the Daleks, which also offers a sweet little insight into the world of the long-term Doctor Who fan. The narration tells us that the canal-towpath location seen throughout this adventure is now inaccessible, “despite the best efforts of your erstwhile producer”. And there’s the thing. It is a firmly-held belief in Doctor Who fandom that the word ‘erstwhile’ means ‘dedicated’, ‘hard-working’ – something of that flavour – as it is being used here. This comes, I think, from early issues of Doctor Who Weekly, where writer Jeremy Bentham would refer to “the erstwhile Sergeant Benton”. But erstwhile – you probably know this – means ‘former’, and Bentham was merely making quiet reference to the fact that Benton received a late promotion to warrant officer.  But it’s a misuse that turns up again and again in Doctor Who writing, and it’s time that someone spoke up. For this documentary alone, it must have got past a writer, a narrator and an executive producer at the very least, and now seems poised to infect a whole new generation of fans. It must be fought!

The final two extras of particular note are a couple of treats from the BBC archive. An item from Blue Peter marks the return of the Daleks to Doctor Who, and a film from Nationwide sees a line of school children preparing for an important visitor. Knee socks are pulled up as they assemble in the playground, duffels and parkas done up tightly against the cold. Then, to the stirring strings of Elgar, a two-foot-high Dalek arrives in a taxi – and that’s not something you see every day. This pint-sized arrival is the children’s prize for winning a Doctor Who story competition, although the kids seem less than entirely overwhelmed. “What’s more frightening than a Dalek?” asks the reporter. “Dracula!” comes the instant reply. “A ghost!” insists another. “A monster with spiny things sticking out of it!” So almost anything then? Please yourselves. “I don’t like it when the Daleks say ‘Disterminate!’” says an earnest little girl. That’s fair enough, my love ­­– but don’t get too attached to the idea. I’m sure someone will be along to fix that in just a moment.

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One Response to “Day of the Daleks”

  1. Jon March 28, 2013 at 3:10 pm #

    I love your reviews and this is one of your finest. Well said, that man!

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