Doctor Who reviews: Deep Breath and Into the Dalek

After months of waiting, the eighth series of Doctor Who is here, featuring the full debut of Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor, with Jenna Coleman returning as Clara Oswald.  I canceled cable television several months ago, and I was concerned I’d end up missing the new episodes.  Fortunately I was able to purchase the entire season on iTunes to watch on my laptop.  Here is a quick look at the first two episodes, “Deep Breath” and “Into the Dalek.”

Doctor Who Deep Breath poster

When a tyrannosaurus shows up in Victorian London, it transpires that the newly-regenerated Doctor had landed the TARDIS in prehistoric times, where it got swallowed by a dinosaur, which then got transported to the late 19th Century along with its would-be meal.  Fortunately the t-rex coughs up the TARDIS on the banks of the Thames, where the Paternoster Gang is investigating the presence of the dinosaur.  And so Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint and Strax are reunited with Clara, and introduced to the Twelfth Doctor.

Following on from his transformation at the end of “The Time of the Doctor,” our resident Time Lord is understandably discombobulated.  He is quickly put to bed in Vastra & Jenny’s house, while Clara attempts to process what, exactly has occurred.

To be honest, of all the people in the universe, you would expect that Clara would have the easiest time accepting the Doctor regenerating.  Perhaps she doesn’t really remember her experiences as “the Impossible Girl” whose consciousness was fragmented and scattered about myriad points in the Doctor’s timeline.  However, she quite recently met both the War Doctor and the Tenth Doctor during the events of “The Day of the Doctor.”  So she knows he can regenerate, and that even though he looked young he was really a couple of thousand years old.  This makes it very surprising that Clara is seemingly in shock that the Doctor is suddenly completely different and older-looking.  Perhaps it is a case of the difference between knowing something is possible and actually seeing it occur before your eyes?

Still, Clara’s uncertainty and difficulty accepting the new incarnation of the Doctor does lead to an interesting scene between her and Vastra (Neve McIntosh).  Often the Paternoster Gang is written with a rather tongue-in-cheek manner, and they are typically depicted as moving about very comfortably within Victorian England, accepted by the authorities as experts on strange phenomenon.  Given that, it is easy to forget that Vastra is an outsider, a Silurian who was born millions of years ago, now living in a completely alien world.  Writer Steven Moffat addresses this in “Deep Breath,” showing how she copes with her new existence among humans who are often unable to accept anyone or anything that is strange or different.  It makes sense that Vastra would feel a certain kinship to the Doctor, who is also an outsider.

Truthfully, I did not fine the plot of body-snatching clockwork robots especially compelling.  I was actually wondering at what appeared to be an apparent plot hole.  These mechanical beings supposedly crashed on Earth centuries before and have been harvesting humans to rebuild themselves all this time, but their activities have only been noticed for the last few months, with the London newspapers reporting various instances of supposed spontaneous combustion (they were burning their victims to disguise the stolen body parts).  Maybe this is something that Moffat is going to address later on in the eighth series, that some outside force woke them up.  Perhaps it ties in with that enigmatic woman in black named Missy (Michelle Gomez) who popped up in both of these episodes.

Probably the best part of “Deep Breath” was Capaldi.  Early on, his post-regeneration instability gives him an opportunity to engage in some humorously odd observations.  Looking in the mirror at his new face for the first time, he wonders why he now looks this way, if for some subconscious reason he chose this appearance.  He also has a bit of criticism concerning one particular feature:

“Look at the eyebrows! These are attack eyebrows. You could take bottle caps off with these.  They’re cross. They’re crosser than the rest of my face. They’re independently cross! They probably want to cede from the rest of my face and set up their own independent state of eyebrows.”

Even in this confused state, the Doctor still wants to help return the tyrannosaur to its own time period, recognizing that it is an innocent being that was plucked into a strange place through no fault of its own.  And he is distraught when the dinosaur is killed by the clockwork robots.  We also see the Doctor is genuinely hurt and disappointed at Clara’s difficulty in accepting that he has changed.

Towards the end of “Deep Breath,” Capaldi really comes into his own.  Confronting the leader of the robots aboard its makeshift dirigible floating over London, the Doctor boldly declares:

“Those people down there, they’re never small to me. Don’t make assumptions about how far I will go to protect them, because I’ve already come a very long way. And unlike you, I do not expect to reach the Promised Land.”

In the next scene, following on from the Doctor’s warning, we discover that the robot has been destroyed, having fallen out of the blimp and become impaled upon a metal steeple.  You are left wondering if the clockwork man committed suicide once it became convinced it would never reach the mythical paradise it believed in, or if the Doctor was forced to kill it.

“Deep Breath” was a somewhat uneven episode.  There were a number of good scenes, character moments and performances that perhaps were not connected together as well as they could.  I was a bit underwhelmed, although Capaldi definitely impressed as the Twelfth Doctor.

Doctor Who Into The Dalek poster

I was definitely much more impressed with this week’s episode, “Into the Dalek” co-written by Phil Ford & Steven Moffat.  Sometime in the far future when humanity is engaged in a massive space war with the Daleks, the Doctor rescues Journey Blue (Zawe Ashton) when her fighter ship is destroyed.  Returning her to her home spaceship, the Aristotle, the Doctor discovers that the humans have taken a Dalek prisoner.

Strangely, this captured Dalek seems to have “turned good” and is expressing a desire to fight against its own kind.  Although suspicious and extremely skeptical that Daleks are capable of any sort of change from the conformity that is genetically programmed into them, the Doctor nevertheless reluctantly agrees to help the humans repair it, in the hopes it will aid them in their fight, and show a way in which to grant empathy and creative thinking to the rest of its species.

The Doctor pops back to 2014 to collect Clara from Coal Hill School, where she is still teaching, and returns with her to the future.  Together with Journey Blue and two other human soldiers, the Doctor and Clara are shrunk down and inserted into the Dalek, which the Doctor has nicknamed “Rusty,” to locate & repair its internal damage, as well as determine the source of its personality change.  Yes, it’s Fantastic Voyage with a Dalek, something that the Doctor sardonically lampshades when he comments “Fantastic idea for a movie. Terrible idea for a proctologist.”

This episode really showed us the unsettling, darker side of the Doctor.  He wonders aloud if he is a good man or not, a question he asks Clara.  Once miniaturized inside Rusty’s form, when attacked by Dalek antibodies, the Doctor more or less sacrifices one of the human soldiers, harshly justifying his action by stating “He was dead already! I was saving us!”

The Doctor locates a radiation leak inside Rusty and seals it.  This saves the Dalek, but it also causes its internal computer to begin functioning normally, and it’s conditioning to be restored.  Rusty breaks loose on the Aristotle and begins attacking the humans, as well as summoning the Dalek mothership.  Soon the Daleks are assaulting the Aristotle in force.

Still shrunk inside Rusty, the Doctor is ready to give up, convinced that Daleks really can never change.  But Clara forces him to reconsider, and the two of them, with Journey Blue’s assistance, manage to reboot Rusty’s computers, once again giving the Dalek access to its full memories.  The Doctor mentally taps into Rusty, hoping that what the Dalek sees in his own memories & experiences will convince it to once again reject its programmed ideology…

Rusty: I see into your soul, Doctor. I see beauty. I see divinity. I… see… hatred!
The Doctor: Hatred?
Rusty: I see your hatred of the Daleks and it is good!
The Doctor: No no no no. You must see more than that. There must be more than that!

Unfortunately Rusty is unable or unwilling to listen to the Doctor’s pleas.  Rusty ambushes the Dalek boarding party, wiping them out.  Afterwards, the Doctor, Clara and Blue have returned to normal size.  Even though they have won, the Doctor is disappointed, and Rusty is unable to understand why.

Rusty: Victory is yours, but it does not please you?
The Doctor: You looked inside me and you saw hatred. That’s no victory. Victory would’ve been a good Dalek.

The Doctor really had hoped to change the Daleks, to get them to grow, to put aside hatred, enable them to appreciate the beauty of the universe, to understand that other beings had a right to existence.  Instead, all he was able to do was to cause Rusty to embrace a different form of hate, to turn its destructive abilities upon a different target, namely its own species.  And, worse yet, this experience has once more reminded the Doctor of his own hatred, his own capacity for violence and destruction.

Throughout the episode, it is shown that the Doctor has a great dislike for soldiers and war.  At the end, when Journey Blue asks to join him and Clara on the TARDIS, the Doctor refuses.  “I think you’re probably nice. Underneath it all, I think you’re kind and definitely brave. I just wish you hadn’t been a soldier.”

The Doctor is undoubtedly reminded of his own experiences during the Time War, when he was the War Doctor, fighting against the Daleks.  The dislike for the military he shows here is at least partially due to his own self-loathing for the person he once was.  As much as he likes Blue, the Doctor will not take her with him.  Humans such as Clara have helped to awaken the best qualities in him, often serving as his conscience.  And so he is undoubtedly afraid that someone like Blue will bring out his worst aspects.

Ford & Moffat did an excellent job writing “Into the Dalek.”  The script really is top-notch, the ideas it touches upon complicated and thought-provoking.  The direction by Ben Wheatley is fantastic.  The sets, costumes, and special effects look great.  Capaldi does a superb job working with this material, giving a very compelling performance.  Regular Dalek voice artist Nicholas Briggs turned in a nuanced performance as Rusty, really bringing to life the creature’s emotional turmoil.

Doctor Who Peter Capaldi close up

While not perfect, series eight of Doctor Who is off to a good start.  Peter Capaldi has definitely hit the ground running as the Twelfth Doctor.  I am very much looking forward to seeing more from him in the coming weeks.

Oh, yes, one other thing… I love the new opening title sequence.  As I understand it, it was inspired by a sequence created by series fan Billy Hanshaw that was posted online.  It looks very cool, with a rather steampunk style to it.  Definitely suits the new Doctor.

Doctor Who reviews: Wirrn Dawn

I definitely have a fondness for Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor.  The 1996 Doctor Who television movie may have been a flawed production, but I felt McGann himself was amazing in it.  I also was a fan of McGann from the brilliant cult classic dark comedy Withnail and I.  So I’ve always thought it was a shame that he had only that one outing as the Doctor on TV.

Of course, McGann has reprised the role of the Doctor in numerous Big Finish audio plays over the past 13 years.  And then, to everyone’s great surprise, especially my own, he appeared in the mini episode “The Night of the Doctor,” which revealed how his incarnation came to an end, and he became the War Doctor.  Watching “The Night of the Doctor,” I was reminded of just how much I enjoyed McGann as the Doctor, and I set out to listen to some more of his Big Finish adventures.

“Wirrn Dawn,” written by Nicholas Briggs, was released in 2009.  It’s interesting to listen to it now, because in many ways it has similarities with “The Night of the Doctor.”  In his script, Briggs plops the Doctor and his companion Lucie Miller (Sheridan Smith) right in the middle of a horrific war zone.  The Doctor, especially at this point in his long life, does not want to be a warrior.  He looks upon the carnage taking place, as the human race and the Wirrn come into conflict, shakes his head sadly, but does not want to become involved.  He will not fight, and he believes the chances of bringing about a peaceful resolution are slim to none.  Yes, he tries to help out a little bit where he can, but his primary goal is to get Lucie and himself safely back to the TARDIS.

Wirrn Dawn

Briggs’ story is extremely morally ambiguous. He takes the brief explanatory dialogue from the serials “The Ark in Space” and “The Sontaran Experiment” and effectively extrapolates from it a detailed account of humanity’s expansion across the galaxy, and their war with the insectoid Wirrn.  From the Wirrin’s point of view, the Galsec settlers are not colonists but invaders of their ancestral worlds.  To the xenophobic humans who are attempting to find a new home, the Wirrn are savage, hideous bugs whose practice of laying their eggs in living beings is horrific.

The Doctor takes on a role here much as he has in stories featuring another species involved in a morally complicated conflict with humanity, namely the Silurians.  As a centuries-old alien, the Doctor has the wisdom and experience to recognize that both the Galsec settlers and the Wirrn have legitimate points of view.  Human beings are very capable of monstrous acts.  At the same time, he acknowledges that the idea of being used as living incubators for alien eggs that consume their hosts, both mind and body, is a repulsive concept.

“It isn’t a matter of right and wrong,” the Doctor tries to explain. “It’s to do with survival, nature’s way.”  Reflecting on whether he is correct in his assessment of the situation, he goes on to add “The older I get, the less sure I am about anything.”  McGann does an excellent job with the material.

This is the first story I’ve listened to featuring Sheridan Smith as Lucie.  She reminds me somewhat of a cross between Tegan Jovanka and Rose Tyler.  She definitely has an assertive attitude and won’t accept nonsense from the Doctor or anyone else.  But she also possesses a genuine fondness for the Time Lord.  Her empathy and caring plays a major part in the resolution of the story.

I quite enjoyed “Wirrn Dawn.”  It was an interesting, thought-provoking story with strong performances from both McGann and Smith.  It certainly caused me to have even more interest in picking up some more of the Eighth Doctor’s recent Big Finish adventures, time and budget willing.  Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity soon.

New York Comic Con 2013: a convention report

I really had not planned to go to the New York Comic Con this year.  But at literally the last minute, i.e. Wednesday afternoon, Michele surprised me with a ticket for Thursday.  I knew that once again I was going to be on a really limited budget.  So I decided to just pick up a handful of comics and maybe a couple of sketches.  Mostly I brought along comic books I already owned to get autographed.  And I took a few photos.  My digital camera went bust a while ago, so I had to rely on my crappy cell phone camera.

The first person I went to see in Artist Alley was Joe Staton.  I actually did the exact same thing last year.  What can I say?  I’m a huge fan of his work.  This time around, I really wanted to pick up a copy of the E-Man trade paperback that reprinted the Charlton Comics stories from the 1970s.  This collected edition actually came out in 2011, but the last couple of years when Staton had it for sale at the show, I just didn’t have the money to get it.  So I decided that this year it would be the very first thing I’d purchase.  I ended up breezing through the book, it was such a fun, entertaining read.  I’ll probably do a post about E-Man sometime in the near future.

Joe Staton
Joe Staton

Scott Hanna was also at the show.  I think he does really great work.  He is one of those embellishers who usually attempt to stay faithful to the style of whatever penciller he is working with.  As such, I think that his contributions to the finished art are not as readily identifiably to the casual eye.  Nevertheless, as I’ve mentioned in my Thinking About Inking post, there have been instances where his impact is demonstrable, and always in a positive way.  At NYCC I purchased a page that he did for the miniseries Avengers: Celestial Quest, inking Jorge Santamaria’s pencils, which features one of my favorite characters, Mantis.

Two other people who had a table in Artist Alley were Art Baltazar and Franco Aureliani, the creative team behind Tiny Titans and Superman Family Adventures, as well as their self-published Aw Yeah Comics.  I think their work is so cute and funny and adorable.  Yeah, I know, I also like very dark and serious stuff, as well.  But the thing is, I’m into a wide range of material.  If everything in the comic book biz was grim & gritty, it would be extremely boring.  Diversity is the spice of life.  I got several comic books signed by Art & Franco, as well as sketches from both of them.  Art drew a cartoony version of the Teen Titans’ demonic foe Trigon.  Franco sketched a funny Darkseid vs Streaky the Supercat piece.

Franco
Franco

The one other piece of art I got at NYCC this year was a really nice sketch in my Beautiful Dreamer theme book.  It was drawn by Derek Fridolfs, whose work has appeared in Justice League Beyond and Batman: Li’l Gotham.  You can view it, and the rest of the art I picked up, in my galley at Comic Art Fans.

While I was at the show, I also had the chance to see several other creators, among them Bob Layton, Steve Ellis, Alex Saviuk, Amy Reeder, Brandon Montclare, Tim Vigil, ChrisCross, Jim Salicrup, Vito Delsante, and John “Roc” Upchurch.

Before I knew that I was going to be at NYCC, I had decided to get a ticket for a related event on Friday night which was being organized by Barnaby Edwards of the Doctor Who New York fan club.  Colin Baker, who portrayed the Sixth Doctor on Doctor Who, was doing a question & answer session and signing at the Stone Creek Bar on East 27th Street.  Also present was writer & actor Nicholas Briggs.  In addition to being heavily involved in the Big Finish audio plays, directing many of them, Briggs has famously voiced the Daleks, Cybermen, and various other aliens, both for Big Finish and on the television series itself.  I was really looking forward to meeting both gentlemen.  There was a third, surprise guest, as well: director & producer Jason Haigh-Ellery of Big Finish.  For someone such as me, a huge fan of the Doctor Who audio adventures, this event was a real treat.  I think that Baker has done extraordinary work reprising his Doctor at Big Finish, and both Briggs & Haigh-Ellery have really brought extraordinary levels of professionalism to these productions.   It was also a great opportunity to meet in person several of the people I know online from Facebook and WordPress.

Nicholas Briggs and Colin Baker
Nicholas Briggs and Colin Baker

Of course there were some amazing examples of cosplay at NYCC.  This is where I wish I had a proper camera, so I could have taken more pictures.  I even saw someone dressed as Walter White from Breaking Bad.  I was wondering if anyone was going to do that!  Anyway, here are a few photos of fans in costume that really stood out for me.

It’s always interesting when you see somebody cosplaying as a somewhat more obscure character.  This guy was dressed up as the supervillain Clock King.  In addition to a super-authentic costume, he actually had a working clock on his mask.  Now that is what I call attention to detail!

NYCC 2013 Clock King
Clock King

Here is a lovely lady who was turning heads on the main convention floor, dressed up as a steampunk version of G.I. Joe villainess the Baroness.

NYCC 2013 Steampunk Baroness
Steampunk Baroness

And for this one I really wish I had been able to take a much better picture.  Here were three gals cosplaying as the most famous female agents of SHIELD, namely the Black Widow, Sharon Carter, and Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine.  Jim Steranko was at NYCC, and I wonder if he had a chance to see his creation, sexy spy Val Fontaine, brought to life.  Sorry for the blurry quality.  Trust me, this trio looked fantastic in person.

NYCC 2013 Agents of SHIELD
Black Widow, Sharon Carter, and Val Fontaine

I had a good time at this year’s New York Comic Con.  After she got out from work, Michele joined me at the show and we hung out there for a few hours.  But, at the end of the day, I was exhausted and kind of broke, so I’m glad that I was only there for one day.  Anyway, thanks again, Michele, for the surprise ticket.  I really appreciate it.

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.

Day of the Daleks trio

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.

Doctor Who reviews: Dalek

When Doctor Who was revived in 2005 after a lengthy cancellation, that first new series overseen by Russell T Davies was somewhat uneven, as he and his collaborators appeared to be finding their feet.  In particular, I was very underwhelmed by the two part story “Aliens of London” / “World War Three,” which felt padded out, and featured the ridiculous monsters known as the Slitheen.  However, the show immediately rebounded with the next episode, “Dalek,” written by Robert Shearman.

Arriving via the TARDIS in an underground complex, the Doctor and Rose Tyler, played by Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper, discover a museum of alien artifacts owned by Henry van Statten, a wealthy industrialist portrayed by Corey Johnson.  Among van Statten’s collection is one living organism, a creature he has named the “Metaltron.”  A horrified Doctor immediately recognizes this being for what it truly is, a member of his oldest, most bitter enemies, the Daleks.

Throughout the previous five episodes of Series One, the Doctor has dropped tantalizing hints concerning something called the Time War, a catastrophic conflict that decimated untold worlds across the universe, and left him the sole surviving member of his race, the Time Lords.  Now we finally find out who the Time War was fought against: the Daleks.  And the Doctor reveals that he was forced to destroy the entire Dalek race in order to bring the apocalyptic bloodshed to an end.

Eccleston is absolutely amazing as the Doctor in “Dalek.”  It is startling to watch the Doctor, normally so self-assured, instantly react with such primal fear upon seeing the Dalek in van Statten’s museum.  Once the Doctor realizes the Dalek is helpless, this terror is even more shockingly replaced by venomous anger, as the Doctor begins taunting the Dalek for its helplessness and lack of purpose.  And then the Doctor actually tries to kill the Dalek in cold blood.  As portrayed by Eccleston here, the Doctor is a traumatized, bitter survivor of a horrific conflict, full of rage and sorrow.  The Doctor’s anger is not reserved for the Dalek, as he later verbally decimates van Statten for all his hubris and greed.  Eccleston’s performance in “Dalek” is extremely powerful, one of the highlights of his year on Doctor Who.

Dalek and Doctor: survivors of the Time War

I was also impressed with Billie Piper as Rose.  This was the first episode where I really saw her as more than just a pretty blonde.  Having only recently met the Doctor, she knows nothing about the Daleks.  And so she approaches the creature imprisoned by van Statten with sympathy and pity.  Later on, even after the Dalek powers up again and becomes a dangerous foe, Rose still keeps an open mind, still believes she can reason with it.  And when Rose witnesses just how violent the Doctor is becoming, how he is ready to destroy the Dalek without hesitation, she is the one who talks him down from the moral precipice.

Shearman does an excellent job scripting the eponymous Dalek of the story.  He totally revitalizes the idea of the Daleks as unstoppable killing machines obsessed with racial purity and the survival of their species.  This was probably the best use of the Daleks in a television story since the 1975 serial “Genesis of the Daleks.”  At the same time, Shearman remembers that for their tendency to come crashing in, guns blazing, screaming “Exterminate,” the Daleks can also be incredibly crafty, deceitful, manipulative creatures.

The Dalek plays upon Rose’s sympathies, playing the helpless victim, getting her to touch its casing so it can use the DNA of a time traveler to revive itself.  It reactivates its weapons and goes on a killing spree, cutting through van Statten’s security force, allowing the Doctor to witness the bloodshed on camera, a form of psychological warfare.  When the Doctor coldly informs the Dalek that it is the last of its kind, it has no superiors to report to, and starts screaming that if it wants orders then it should go ahead and destroy itself, the Dalek coldly states “You would make a good Dalek.”  That leaves the Doctor speechless and horrified.  And then the Dalek  plays a trump card, getting the Doctor to release it from van Statten’s underground base by threatening to kill Rose.

In the end, the Dalek is destroyed not by the Doctor, but by its own programmed prejudices and intolerances.  When it absorbed Rose’s DNA, it began to change, to develop the capacity for emotions besides hatred.  It is unable to live with itself, and instead chooses destruction.  Shearman demonstrates that the Daleks, for all their power, are ultimately an evolutionary dead end.  They already believe themselves the superior life form in the universe, they refuse to accept the necessity of evolving, and they completely reject anything that is different, including among themselves.  This is a theme the revival of Doctor Who would continue to explore in subsequent stories, as the Daleks repeatedly thwarted any efforts to change, even if doing so meant their own destruction.

Nicholas Briggs does a superb job voicing the Dalek, imbuing it with a gamut of emotions.  Early on, when it is being deceitful, you really are left wondering just how much of what the Dalek is saying is truth, and how much manipulation.  At the end, when the Dalek realizes that it is changing, Briggs gives the creature a very palpable sense of confusion and sorrow.  His performance really drives home the tragedy of the Dalek’s demise, that this being on the cusp of becoming something greater, and better, instead chooses suicide.

I would not say that “Dalek” is a completely flawless production, though.  I had a very difficult time wrapping my head around the notion that Henry van Statten was so rich & powerful that he owned the entire Internet and had the ability to decide who would become the next President of the United States.  The character is just written as too flippant and silly most of the time.  It would have been better to simply characterize him as an extremely rich, ruthless businessman, and in the process tone down a bit of the comedy.

“Dalek” introduces the character of Adam Mitchell, played by Bruno Langley, who became a very short-lived traveling companion with the Doctor and Rose.  So short-lived, in fact, that he was dumped back on Earth at the end of the very next episode, ‘The Long Game.”  I felt that was a shame, as he was well-written here, and had the potential to become a good recurring character.  I guess that the chemistry I thought could develop between Rose and Adam would eventually occur several years later with the characters of Amelia Pond and Rory Williams when Steven Moffat took over as head writer on Doctor Who.

By the way, this is a minor complaint, but the story title “Dalek” is just rather, well, bland.  I thought a better one would have been “The Survivors,” which would be been a reference to both the Dalek and the Doctor.  And it would have been a clever nod both to the second episode of the original 1963 serial to feature the Daleks written by Terry Nation, as well as to his post-apocalyptic 1975 drama.

In any case, besides a few minor flaws, “Dalek” is one of the strongest episodes of Christopher Eccleston’s year on Doctor Who.  I rank it alongside “Father’s Day” and the two part “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances” as the high points of Series One.