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Saturday, 24 November 2007

HERE COME THE DALEKS!

NB In a futile bid to keep things timely, I’m posting this precisely one day after the anniversary of Doctor Who’s first transmission but more importantly two days after the unfortunate death of producer Verity Lambert. I’m also writing a companion piece on early Doctor Who in general, though I wouldn’t like to promise when that might appear.
Tributes to Verity Lambert here


(Plot Spoilers: C’mon, you must know the plot of this one by now!)

Pedantic Preamble: If you’re about my age you’re probably used to this series being called 'The Dead Planet'. They didn’t give the stories titles then, Dead Planet came from the first episode. But somewhere along the way it came to be called 'The Daleks', a generic title used in precisely none of the episodes, but a convention the BBC have followed with this DVD reissue. Now we all know what a Dalek is, that’s probably come to be the more saleable title. Personally I prefer 'The Dead Planet' as it captures more of the series’ mood. But onwards…

…whatever you call it, the key is almost casually thrown away. First the Daleks tell the Doctor the Thals are post-war mutations. We immediately assume their little green fingers are crossed inside their metal casings, and what they’re telling us is porkies. But he’s later shown Thal records and it turns out they are mutations. War mutated them from aggressive brutes into blonde, noble pacifists.

The Daleks are mutated by war too, but differently - literal personifications of the bunker mentality, trapped inside metal shells which are themselves trapped inside a metal city. (In this first story, they can’t leave the city which powers them.) They spend their time spying through long range scanners, or peering paranoid at people through their eyestalks. Driven quite mad, they throw away their chance of peace and reconciliation with the Thals. (Personally I’d have tweaked the plot to have the Daleks assuming the Thals are out to betray them, and deciding to get their retaliation in first. As things stand, the Daleks have physically mutated too far, cures just poison them and so events almost drive them to confrontation.)

It’s surely no coincidence the most popular Dalek story, 'Genesis of the Daleks', returns to their wartime origins and yields an even greater literalisation of the bunker mentality. But overall this sense of the Daleks trapped in their own folly gets steadily lost. Here we not only have the famous rubber-gloved glimpse of the ‘thing’ inside the box, but Ian ‘drives’ a Dalek canister like it’s just a vehicle and they’re even compared to dodgem cars! Yet as time went on the Daleks would become their metal casings, and with it the embodiment of unadulterated evil. And absolute expressions of evil tend to the absolutely uninteresting.

But the Thals are a different kind of trapped; scarred by war they’ve retreated into a pacifist ideology. This dead planet is of course a liberal Englishmen’s metaphor for ravaged post-war Germany; the remnants of Nazism locked inside their fanaticism but the good, blonde Germans driven too good – demilitarised, reluctant to take up their role in contemporary conflicts. The Thals even have their own Neville Chamberlain, who reads peace into a piece of paper and gets exterminated for his efforts. They were even originally intended to have more Germanic sounding names such as Stohl, Vahn and Kurt but before transmission these became Temmosus, Alydon and Ganatus. (See www.shannonsullivan.com/drwho/serials/b.html) Admittedly, the change to these ‘classical’ names was probably more aimed at engendering audience sympathy than disguising this metaphor.

But there’s enough nuances to stop it getting too schematic. Despite the somewhat underwhelming ‘final battle’, the last line is a nice touch. No-one slaps Ian on the back for being right; instead they look round at the pile of corpses and lament “if there had only been some other way”. We’re reminded what the Thals have not forgotten, that it was such conflict which ravaged their planet to begin with. The series has commendably kept this insistence that victory rarely comes without a price, and a refusal to accept easy resolutions. But it’s not a note you’ll hear played often in other modern dramas. There’s a post-war bleakness to everything, which makes it bizarre to think that Terry Nation was previously known as a comedy writer. (Turning the story into a comedic matinee adventure, as the 1965 film does, is somewhat like a Shostakovich concerto being covered by a popular beat combo.)

The Daleks doesn’t just live up to its rebranded title and deliver the Doctor’s most popular foe, it’s the start of ‘proper’ Doctor Who. The opposition of bad, city-based overlords to noble simple peasants (the Thals are farmers) will recur again and again. Previously distrustful of each other, the TARDIS crew stage a mock argument, but then work together to disable their Dalek guard. Though it achieves it by Maguffins, the script doesn’t allow them to leave until they’ve healed their environment - something which would become a fundamental rule of the show.

The one exception is the Doctor himself. He’s suitably outraged at the Dalek’s amorality, even offering up the TARDIS as a bargaining counter to slow up their plans. But its still Ian who saves the day, not only teaching the Thals to fight but rescuing the Doctor and Susan. If less self-serving than previously, the Doctor is still remote and irascible. At one point his insistence on facts and logic leads him into a big argument with Susan, only reconciled by Barbara’s intervention. His curiousity drives him to trick the others into visiting the Dalek city, and his fascination with its gizmos gets him and Susan captured. (A moment played not for drama but as a fait accompli.)


Of course with deadlines then so hasty, what we see on the screen is simultaneously launch and dummy run. The Daleks had originally been intended to have grabber hand next to their exterminator, but time and budget restraints left them stuck with the now-familiar sink plunger. Somewhat hilariously, the script was obviously left unamended and we see these plungers employed for all sorts of unlikely tasks, passing bits of paper between them and – perhaps best of all – carrying trays of food. (While the film version gave them grabber hands, the series stuck with the sink plungers. The daft objects now seem so lodged in popular perception, even the souped-up Daleks in the souped-up relaunch didn’t get grabber hands – just souped-up sink plungers!)

The downside of watching this 1963 show today isn’t its cheapness, though the production values are often so shoddy as to make you laugh about loud. (Its hilarious to consider the BBC all but cancelled it at this stage because it was getting too expensive!) Perhaps this is partly down to my generation, but in my youth an appreciation of science fiction involved accepting out of necessity the hairdryer spaceships and plywood sets - as signifiers rather than the signified, triggers for your imagination. The petrified forest on the screen is just a peg to hang the petrified forest of my mind; which looks something more like Ernst’s famous surrealist painting Europe After the Rain (below), a bizarre mix of the barren with the mutated. And the Dalek city of my mind looks more like… um… a city. Similarly the science fiction I would read required a similar effort, as it tended to grand, mighty ideas delivered in the most leaden prose. It was like reading an art book which was actually full of rough sketches. (But please note this is not to entertain the notion that special effects somehow stunt the imagination. This oft-heard but absurd argument is merely a repositioning of the old saw that reading comics or watching films somehow stunt the imagination – an argument which has been defeated but regrouped many times. If anyone wants to argue that '2001' stunts the viewers’ imagination while Doc Smith’s novels enhance it, please let them go ahead.)


No, the real obstacle is in the slowness. An important plot point is told you two or sometimes three times over, and there’s so much padding that at times you feel you could watch it on fast forward and miss nothing. (The cave episode, tellingly titled The Ordeal, seems particularly endless.) Though completely different in tone (not to mention hugely inferior), the 1965 film manages to cover every major plot point here and come in at 83 minutes.

But even here it can feel like a necessary counterbalance. If these seven episodes should have been three or four, today they’d be one or (if we were really lucky) two. Of course as soon as we clap eyes on the Dalek city we know we’re going to end up there. But here there’s sufficient space where that doesn’t happen straight away, and we have time to wonder what might be in there. When Ian is punishment exterminated, he can’t walk for some time afterwards. Today he’d be either alive or dead. Somewhere between William Hartnell and David Tennant, there lies a happy medium.

That aside, this story not only kicked Doctor Who into gear. Production history tells us it was nearly shown much later in the season or not made at all… concepts which now suggest an alternate universe. It not only established much of the furniture it also enabled a series willing to tackle challenging issues, and unafraid to pretend they had easy resolutions. More importantly than inventing the pepperpot, this story set a high bar. Whenever things started to go wrong, this would tend to be the template people would look back to.

3 comments:

  1. I have literally just learned about Verity Lambert as I have learned about her passing. She left a large legacy because so many people enjoy what she greatly contributed too even if they do not know her name. Thanks for posting about her.

    Peace,

    James

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  2. Thanks for your comment, James.

    To be honest she deserves a far better send-off than I gave her here. I'd (mostly) written this piece already and posted it when I heard the news.

    I suspect she was quite crucial in the way early Doctor Who was able to 'do the double', create intelligent and thought-provoking science fiction that found a general audience. I hope someone who knows more about its production history writes something that does her some justice.

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  3. "Europe After the Rain'? In hindsight, I should have known the lurid psychodramas of Ernst were too flashy, too damn continental to truly stand for anything from 'Doctor Who.' But alas at the time I was simply ignorant of the war pictures of Paul Nash. They're of the First World War, while this storyline was a clear analogy for the Second. But their unsettling stillness, their drab nightmarishness, nevertheless make for a closer fit to the petrified forest of the mind.

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