Doctor Who reviews: Day of the Daleks

Recently I’ve been enjoying fellow WordPress blogger Chance November’s ongoing look at the entirety of Jon Pertwee’s five year run as the Third Doctor on Doctor Who.  She’s been doing an excellent job at it.  After Chance penned a write-up on “Day of the Daleks” I was inspired to take my own look at it, since it is one of my favorite Pertwee serials.

“Day of the Daleks” was one of the earliest Doctor Who stories to be released on VHS, back in 1989.  In a turnaround, it became one of the last DVDs, coming out in 2011, ten years after the BBC began re-releasing the series on disk.  However, it was worth that decade-long wait.  The two disk set of “Day of the Daleks,” in addition to the original broadcast show, has a Special Edition with new visual & sound effects, as well as an assortment of extras.

Day of the Daleks DVD

Examinations of the complications and paradoxes inherent in time travel are rather common in the revived Doctor Who series.  “Father’s Day,” “Blink,” “The Big Bang,” “The Girl Who Waited,” and practically every episode to feature the character River Song have all touched upon the notion of just how strange, convoluted, and dangerous time travel can be.  The excellent 1998 novel Vanderdeken’s Children by Christopher Bulis also dealt with time paradoxes in a very eerie manner.  But back during the show’s original run from 1963 to 1989 this was very seldom addressed.  Ninety-nine percent of the time, time travel was simply a device to get the Doctor and his companions to the particular place in the past or future where they needed to be for the story.

The first Doctor Who serial to address the possible complexities of time travel was the underrated, thought-provoking 1965 story “The Space Museum” written by Glyn Jones.  It would not be for another seven years, in 1972, that the series would dive headlong into the same waters, when Louis Marks penned “Day of the Daleks.”

Most long-time fans of the series will already know the plot of “Day of the Daleks.”  The premise revolves around a group of guerilla resistance fighters traveling back in time 200 years to the late 20th Century in order to alter history.  By assassinating the politician Sir Reginald Styles, they hope to prevent the outbreak of World War III and, in its aftermath, the total subjugation of the Earth by the alien Daleks.  The dramatic twist of the story is the revelation that the guerillas are caught in a predestination paradox: by attempting to alter history they have actually caused those events to take place.  The first time I saw “Day of the Daleks” this curveball blew my mind.  It was both clever and frightening.

It’s worth noting that the Daleks are implied to be the original instigators of history being altered.  They inform the Doctor “We have changed the pattern of history,” and later on explicitly travel back to the 20th Century to destroy Styles’ peace conference, thereby causing nuclear war to occur, ensuring their future domination of Earth.  It appears that the guerillas, unaware of the Daleks’ own manipulations of time, then went back in time themselves to alter history, but instead became trapped in a paradox.

If “Day of the Daleks” was made today by the Doctor Who production team, I wouldn’t be surprised if they removed the Daleks as the initial cause of Earth’s apocalyptic future.  In keeping with the notion of history as “a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff” (to quote “Blink”), the guerillas’ actions would probably be part of what is commonly referred to in sci-fi as a stable time loop with no actual involvement by the Daleks in the initial alteration of the time stream.  That said, for a Doctor Who serial filmed four decades ago, the time travel concepts Louis Marks introduced in “Day of the Daleks” were very though provoking and revolutionary at that time in the show’s history.

There are a number of fine actors on hand who do a superb job of bringing to life Marks’ brilliant script.  Foremost among them is Pertwee himself, turning in one of his best performances as the Doctor.  The moment when he deduces the cause of history being altered, he gravely proclaims to the guerillas “You’re trapped in a temporal paradox. Styles didn’t cause that explosion and start the wars. You did it yourselves!”  It’s a powerful scene made even more so by Pertwee’s forceful delivery, one that all of these years later gives me chills.

Another instance where Pertwee shines is in the Doctor’s verbal fencing with the Controller, the Daleks chief human lackey in the 22nd Century.  Pertwee delivers stinging condemnations raining down on the Controller.  And on a lighter note I’ve always enjoyed the scenes where the Doctor is, to quote Jo Grant, “carrying on rather like a one man food and wine society.”

The Controller is effectively portrayed by Aubrey Woods (fans of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory will remember him as Bill the candy shop owner).  Although at times Woods’ performance is, to quote producer Barry Letts, “far too theatrical,” it is nevertheless very compelling.  At first the Controller appears to be a willing agent of the Daleks.  However, as the story progresses, we see he is not genuinely evil, but rather weak.  He is terrified of the Daleks, believing them unbeatable.  The Controller rationalizes his collaboration by regarding himself as someone who can reason with the Daleks, gain concessions, and make the occupation of Earth slightly less brutal.  His interactions with the Doctor, who labels him a traitor and a quisling, slowly begin to reawaken his buried conscience.

In the fourth episode, Woods delivers a haunting recitation of the Earth’s nightmarish future to the Doctor and Jo, relating how after decades of war decimated the globe, the planet was crushed by alien invasion, humanity’s survivors turned into a slave labor force to mine resources for the expanding Dalek Empire.  Woods’ monologue vividly illustrates what would have been impossible for Doctor Who to actually visualize on-screen with a shoestring budget and early 1970s special effects, painting a grim picture of a shattered world under the domination of the Daleks.

Day of the Daleks Aubrey Woods

The actors portraying the guerillas are also very good.  Just as the Controller is nowhere near as clear-cut as he first appears, neither is the anti-Dalek underground.  The guerillas straddle the fine line that can exist between freedom fighter and terrorist.  Though their goal is a noble one, to free Earth from Dalek rule, they are seen utilizing such morally ambiguous tactics as assassinations and suicide bombings to achieve their aims.  The actors really bring across the desperation and fanaticism that the guerillas have become gripped by as a result of their gargantuan struggle against the Daleks.

Dudley Simpson composed the incidental music for nearly all of the Doctor Who serials produced between 1970 and 1979, including this one.  His work on the series has a definite consistency and, in retrospect, there is this “sameness” to a lot of his scores.  I think certain serials might have benefitted from another composer to shake things up.  The music for “Day of the Daleks” falls within the earlier period of Simpson’s work, before his signature became quite so uniform.  He was more experimental at this time.  In other words, he goes a bit crazy with the synthesizer from time to time on this serial, although it’s not as insane as what he did for “The Claws of Axos” the previous season!  The music on “Day of the Daleks” may be quite odd in places, but mostly it is effective.

While the writing and acting is almost consistently top-notch, the serial does have a couple of striking deficiencies.  Much has been made over the years of the fact that the Daleks actually have very little screen time.  This is probably at least partially due to the fact that Marks’ initial story did not even contain the Daleks!  His original conception was to have a fascist human government ruling the 22nd Century.  However, both Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks felt the story would make a stronger season opener if the Daleks were in it, and so instructed Marks to insert them into his scripts.

In Marks’ defense, he did this in a rather seamless fashion.  True, the Daleks aren’t actually seen very much.  But the other characters talk about them throughout the story, making them a sort of unseen menace looming above the proceedings.  In a way, this is more effective than having scene after scene of them crashing onto the screen, guns blazing, shouting “Exterminate” over and over.

However, a much more tangible reason for the Daleks’ limited appearances is that there were only had three Dalek props on hand.  True, with some creative editing, a director could make a trio of Daleks appear to be a much bigger force (something David Maloney would achieve in “Genesis of the Daleks” a few years later).  Unfortunately, someone had the none-too-bright idea to have the lead Dalek in “Day of the Daleks” painted gold.  This made it much more difficult for director Paul Bernard to have it appear there was an entire army of Daleks, especially at the end of the fourth episode.

Due to the story’s less-than-spectacular final battle, some have faulted Bernard’s direction.  However, throughout the majority of the serial, he does strong work.  He frames his shots in a dramatic fashion.  I like how he filmed the Daleks’ apelike henchmen, the Ogrons, often shooting them from a low angle, so that they appeared as towering monstrosities. And the editing, the cutting from one scene to the next, is very good, heightening the drama.

Really, one cannot place too much blame on Bernard for the final sequence.  In addition to only having three Dalek props, he had to film them on location.  It wasn’t even easy to get the Daleks to maneuver around the studio back in those days, so I can only imagine the difficulties in the Dalek prop operators had in trying to move about outside on an uneven field.  It’s no wonder that final battle was underwhelming.

Much more of a sticking point for me were the Daleks’ voices.  The two actors who spoke the dialogue in “Day of the Daleks” had not done any other Dalek stories before or since, so the tones sound unfamiliar.  Additionally, a lot of the dialogue is spoken in a drawn out, stilted monotone, with each syllable pronounced almost as if it is a separate word.  These are probably the least effective Dalek voices ever heard on the series.

Since “Day of the Daleks” was an otherwise well done story, in the past it was easy to overlook these few problems.  Nevertheless, many Doctor Who DVDs have featured updated effects, so I thought it would be cool if, when “Day of the Daleks” came out, the producers could change the Dalek voices.  Specifically, I was hoping they’d bring in Nicholas Briggs, who has very effectively voiced the Daleks on both the revived television series and on numerous audio adventures produced by Big Finish.  And if they could also add some extra Daleks to the battle sequence, that would be the icing on the cake.

It turned out the DVD producer Steve Broster felt exactly the same way. With the help of a small group of talented individuals, he created the Special Edition of “Day of the Daleks,” adding new visual effects, extra Daleks, and having the Dalek voices re-recorded by Nicholas Briggs.  As the DVD extra on the making of the Special Edition explains, these were not simple tasks.  I really have to compliment Broster and his crew on creating a new, more visually exciting version of the serial with effects that nevertheless manage to mostly remain in synch with the original 1972 footage.

As for the new vocals by Briggs, well, until I heard them in this story, I don’t think I truly appreciated just how much of the Daleks’ effectiveness as monsters is due to their voices.  Yes, Raymond Cusick’s iconic design is a crucial aspect of their appeal, but their vocalization is equally important.  Re-doing the Dalek voices makes them so much more menacing.  At the same time, Briggs knows when to inject arrogance, panic, and incredulity into his delivery of their dialogue, so that they are not just screaming non-stop, instead possessing a certain amount of nuance.

Of course, if Special Editions are not your cup of tea, the original 1972 broadcast version is still available for viewing on the first disk of this set.  So you can choose which you prefer.

There are a number of other excellent extras included.  One of these, “The UNIT Dating Conundrum,” humorously addresses one of those contentious issues that keep hardcore fans arguing endlessly among themselves, namely when did the UNIT stories take place.  Were they set in the years they were broadcast, or a decade in the future?  The quick answer is that there is no answer, because there’s just too much contradictory information in the stories.  Or, as they say on Mystery Science Theater 3000, repeat to yourself “It’s just a show, I should really just relax!”

Another interesting extra was “The Cheating Memory,” which examines how the brains of children process information, and how our memories from when we were young are often not reliable.  This is looked at in the oft-common context of very young fans who watched the stories in the 1960s and 70s when they were first broadcast, and remembered them as being incredible.  This being before the era of television repeats on the BBC, video recorders, or DVDs, it might often be years, even decades until fans might have an opportunity to re-watch those same shows.

I remember that when I first began watching Doctor Who in the 1980s, I would always hear fans complaining that the current stories were nowhere near as good as the old ones.  In response, then-producer John Nathan-Turner would often respond “the memory cheats.”  A good example of this is when the long-missing 1967 story “Tomb of the Cybermen” was re-discovered in 1992 and a number of fans had to admit that, while still very good, it was nevertheless not nearly as brilliant as what they remembered seeing when they were little kids.

Even I’ve experienced a bit of this myself with several stories when I watched them on PBS in the mid-1980s and then didn’t have an opportunity to see them again until they came out on VHS or DVD a decade or more later.  So I certainly identify with “The Cheating Memory.”

Day of the Daleks novelization

By the way, if you want an alternative to the DVD Special Edition, there is always the novelization written in 1974 by Terrance Dicks.  Unrestrained by a limited budget or primitive special effects, Dicks gives an expanded view of the post-apocalyptic dystopian future via a prologue entitled “Terror in the Twenty-second Century.”  Dicks also includes scenes featuring dozens of Daleks, gives background information on the guerillas, and he even makes the rather goofy motorized tricycle chase from episode three seem exciting & suspenseful.  Dicks concludes his adaptation with an introspective final chapter, “All Kinds of Futures,” that bookends an earlier scene from the televised story where the Doctor and Jo briefly encounter versions of themselves from elsewhere in the timeline.

Dicks wrote several dozen Doctor Who novelizations over the years.  Some of the later ones he penned were rather by-the-numbers, and it almost seemed that Target / W.H. Allen had the poor guy chained to a typewriter with orders to churn out a book a month.  But if you look back on the earlier books he penned in the 1970s, Dicks did an excellent job developing many of the serials beyond the confines of the television screen.  In the 1980s, before the VHS and DVD releases, those books were often the best way to experience the early stories.

*Whew!* That was a long post. I certainly had a lot to say. Thanks for reading.

One thought on “Doctor Who reviews: Day of the Daleks

  1. Great review, man! Those were some great points about how this serial focused on the complexities of time travel. Stories like that are, in my opinion, what makes the show so fascinating.

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