Tuesday, February 10, 2015

"Day of the Daleks"

Aired Jan. 1 - Jan. 22, 1972

4 Episodes

Story 60

Written by Louis Marks

Directed by Paul Bernard


When Sir Reginald Styles, international diplomat, is nearly assassinated by a guerrilla who then vanishes, UNIT is called in to investigate. Styles is preparing for a momentous peace conference in which he will attempt to bring the world back from the brink of WWIII, so tensions are high. When another attempt is made on Styles' life, the Doctor uncovers a rudimentary time travel device has been used to send these soldiers back from two centuries in the future, apparently to murder Sir Reginald.

Sending Styles away for his own protection, Jo and the Doctor keep vigil at his estate, along with Capt. Yates and UNIT soldiers. Once again, the guerrillas attack. While the Doctor convinces them to at least explain their actions, one of the guerrillas is separated from the others. Things go from bas to worse when Jo accidentally activates one of the time devices and is hurled into the 22nd Century. The Doctor and the guerrillas go after her, but their missing soldier, Shura, remains in the 20th Century. 

Jo encounters alien mercenaries called Ogrons, who appear to be working for a man named the Controller, a high-level government official. Charmed by the Controller's cooperative and friendly attitude, Jo begins to trust him. Unbeknownst to her, the 22nd Century is a world decimated by war and ruled by the Daleks. The Controller is their quisling, and the Ogrons are their henchmen. 

The Doctor explores this world briefly, seeing the deprivation and brutality inflicted on the survivors before he is captured and reunited with Jo. He manages to convince her of the Controller's true nature, and they manage to escape with the help of the guerrillas.

At their secret base, the guerrillas explain to the Doctor that they travelled back in tim because they believe Styles detonated an explosion at the peace conference, setting off global war that left Earth vulnerable to conquest at the hands of the Daleks. Realizing that Shura is still back in the 20th Century, and that he will undoubtedly try to complete their mission, the Doctor tells them that their actions will lead to the very explosion they're trying to prevent; they created their own future.

With help from the Controller, who sacrifices himself in an attempt at redemption, the Doctor and Jo return to the 20th Century, where they manage to evacuate the house just as the Daleks and Ogrons arrive. The invaders are killed when Shura sacrifices himself and detonates the bomb, though the future is seemingly spared. 


Reading my synopsis above, you might be fooled into thinking Day of the Daleks is a cracking good adventure with a healthy dollop of classic science fiction thrown in; a classic featuring the long-awaited return of the programme's greatest enemies. You'd be wrong.

To be fair, it very easily could have been great. The scripts were written by Louis Marks before they decided to bring the Daleks back, and I'd love to see those scripts, because I imagine they're better than what we wind up with. The time travel concept at the heart of the story may be an old chestnut as far as science fiction is concerned, but this kind of paradox was rarely attempted in classic Doctor Who, which gives the story a fresh and novel feel. Additionally, the guerrillas and their dystopian future is well-defined and the plan they come up with makes total sense from their point of view. The scene where the Doctor figures out the rebels have created their own future is a classic of the series, and it's superbly delivered by Pertwee.

So, why doesn't it work? It's the Daleks. At this point, they had been away from the series for nearly five years. The BBC brass included an executive who was a huge Dalek fan, and he wanted to see them return as soon as possible. Terry Nation, creator of the Daleks, allowed for their return (though there's some dispute over when this happened. Some reports claim he didn't find out until they were in production, that his agents had okayed it without checking), and they were hastily dropped into Marks' existing scripts with a few edits.

The problem is, the Daleks don't do anything special at all. They rant in a control room, they torture the Doctor, and then they attack a house. They are completely reactive here, and there's really no need, story wise, for their presence. Marks' scripts reportedly had the Ogrons originally being the despots(hopefully depicted as a tad smarter than in the finished story). If you make that substitution, the plot doesn't alter at all. Heck, if the audience never finds out exactly who is in charge and we only see the Controller, there's very little change to the plot at all. I'm not sure that wouldn't have been better.

From a production stand-point, the return of the Daleks is an even greater letdown. They have three Daleks. Three. That's all they could find. They get a paint job and get wheeled into the studio. From there, the production team were unable to secure the original voice actors, so they hired all new actors to voice the Daleks. But no one could quite remember what they sounded like, so the new actors did a generic robotic monotone, aided by electronic effects that were produced using a different method than the classic ring modulator. The result is a shabby, cheap and frankly pathetic outing. This was supposed to be their triumphant return, but the production team muddles it badly, ham-fistedly inserting them into a story without taking the time ensure their presence matters, and then not having the resources to make their physical presence imposing enough to allow us to forget they don't do anything. The final assault on the Styles estate is laughable, easily one of the most ill-conceived production shortfalls of the classic series. No wonder the DVD release features a special edition with re-shot action scenes and re-done Dalek voices. It makes the story much better, even if the Daleks are still unnecessary, plot-wise.

There are things to like. As I said, the central plot is intriguing, and the guerrillas are interesting. It's a sci-fi trope, creating your own future, but it's nice to see Doctor Who tackle it in its own way. The journey of the Controller is nice, as we get to see a character move from despicable to somewhat sympathetic, or at least more nuanced. That's a big change from the usual two-dimensional traitors and quislings we often see. 

As for the regulars, I think this is where the classic period of Pertwee's performance begins. His waspish put-downs have been curtailed in favour of a slightly snooty arrogance that is warmer than it was last season. The scenes of him droning on about Sir Reginald's wine and cheese are supposed to make the Doctor look ridiculous, of that I'm convinced (even if Jon Pertwee might not have been in on that joke), and his action-gentleman persona is perfected at this point. His rapport with Jo is also very nice to watch, and you can see the great feeling they have for each other in every scene. And his fiery moral authority is always fun to watch, Pertwee might be the actor who best exemplified the Doctor's contempt for bullies and tyrants.   

Paul Bernard makes some baffling choices in this serial, such as the silvery face paint for the Controller and his team that waxes and wanes throughout. Are they supposed to be robotic in some way? Is this an affectation? And why does he leave the musical sting in the reprise for each episode? His options were of course badly limited by having only three Daleks, but a more inventive director would have modified that final battle to minimize things. Bernard chose a lot of wide shots, which only serve to point out, hey, there's only three Daleks!

All things considered, Day of the Daleks is a story marred by the inclusion of the Daleks themselves, but with good potential underneath that doesn't get many chances to shine through the short-comings of both the direction and the production.

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