Saturday, 13 June 2009

The Dalek Invasion of Earth

Previous viewings - many

The Daleks are back! And it's about time...

You know, the more I think about it the more I realise how much this is like a new series finale. It's got a large-scale invasion of Earth, Daleks, a slightly cluttered plot, and a surprisingly suddenly climax followed by a rather sad companion departure. I'm guessing this story could be one of Russell T. Davies's favourites? Like those, it's ambitious, but unlike those it was blighted by some unfortunate production mishaps, and his horrifically dated when watched today.

Terry Nation starts off the story with his usual tropes - a slowly unfolding plot starting with the regulars exploring their surroundings, something preventing them from entering the TARDIS, and Susan hurting herself. Because she's Susan and can't go off on her own without suffering some kind of catastrophe. The first episode is excellent, however, and the fact that they're on Earth, and in a non-historical setting, makes viewers sit up and pay attention. They're wondering the same things the Doctor is - why is London deserted? Why is everything so quiet? Why do Ian and Barbara so readily assume that they're in 1963? It's incredibly effective, and despite his sometimes simplistic characterisation (especially of Susan) he is good at clarifying the plot for viewers' benefit, without it seeming as though the characters are stating the obvious.

This and the following scenes in the warehouse are the best part of the story (with one probably obvious exception). They're mysterious and tense, and the plot is engaging as it unfolds. When the post-2164 date is revealed, it is quite a shock, not just because it's unexpectedly futuristic, but because this is something Doctor Who hasn't done before. After this, the atmosphere of the story efficiently builds up with David leading Susan and Barbara to an underground station, with us getting more glimpses of a post-apocalyptic London in the process. I like that instead of explanations we're getting out expectations subverted, leaving us unsure what to expect. However, Ian and the Doctor start the story proper when the Robomen descend on them and a Dalek rises from the river!

Ah, the Robomen. I wanted to like them, I wanted them to be convincing (scary was too much to expect, probably), but the more times I see this story the less I do, and it's a pity as they're sort a precursor to the Cybermen - humans the Daleks are using to do their bidding via brainwashing. Not quite as horrific as the original concept behind the Cybermen, but pretty gruesome all the same. But where the Cybermen went right these went wrong. Instead of th feeling that these are people who have lost their minds to the Dlakes, they just seem rubbish. Their headgear looks like Poundshop space helmets, and they speak like they're just a bit retarded. The design work is ineffective enough, but they are also too easily overpowered and the headgear is quite fragile and seems to fall off when they're pushed. Part of what made the Cybermen good was that we would get glimpses of the humanity they'd lost, with the Robomen we get so much that they just seem like humans who are sleepwalking. They drag down every scene they're in, and kill any hint of atmopshere of tension dead.

There are many good elements in this story, but they're fighting against insurmountable odds to break through the story's failings and really shine. The resistance group introduces us to Dortmun, Tyler, David and Jenny, all interesting enough characters, and well portrayed by their actors, but try as I might, I can't imagine people being so scared of wobbling 1960s Daleks. The voice actors haven't yet settled on the iconic Dalek sound so they sound a bit off, which is hard to get used to. These problems didn't seem so obvious in The Daleks, for whatever reason. I'm no director, bt I think Daleks are probably a struggle to direct effectively because they are really just boxes with people inside. With good direction they rise above that, but somehow here they just seem like... boxes with people inside. It's a combination of factors that make this outing a failure for them - their dialogue is either to OTT evil ("we are the masters of Earth" is given a suitably bwahaha evil delivery) or too human. I think people sometimes forget that the Daleks were only designed to work in one story, their first one, and their city was designed to complement them.

The best scene in Episode 2 is the Doctor's escape from the cell, as it showcases the First Doctor at his best - he's clever and likes people to know that, and he's dismissive of the guy who gives up without a fight.

The next big setpiece is the attack on the Dalek saucer using Dortmun's dud bombs. There is a question about whether the regulars will reunite and find a way to escape, but the attack itself is a confusing mess of smoke and Dalek guns firing. I'm starting to think the problem might be with Richard Martin's direction, the sequence - given the Daleks almost massacre the humans - should be where the Daleks assert their supremacy. This doesn't happen, as when anything is visible through the smoke, we just see humans running and throwing bombs they already know don't work, and trying to knock over a Dalek, which is a definite no-no as far as making them convincing goes as an overturned Dalek just looks like a prop.

However, despite all this negativity, the Dalek stuff has been entertaining so far, in a crappy sort of way. Viewers soon have to contend with the absence of the Doctor. I've really come to appreciate Willliam Hartnell's portrayal of the Doctor in the last few stories and to be without him for a long stretch in a pivotal Dalek story really makes the story suffer.

The story sags as it goes in some odd directions. Barbara, Jenny and Dortmun dash through London, for seemingly no reason other than to pad out the episode and get some cool location work on-screen with a chance to see Daleks at familiar landmarks. Actually, that's really cool, but it is allowed to drag on for too long. Dortmun's death is easily the highlight of Episode 3, and again makes me hope that the story is turning itself around. Ian is trapped in the Dalek saucer as it travels to Bedfordshire, and Susan goes through the sewers with David. Susan, I'm sorry to say, disappoints in her last story, mainly because Terry Nation just does not know how to write for her. In his scripts, she regresses to a hysterical screaming little girl. It doesn't ring true that she and David would fall in love with each other unless spending time with only each other for company is all it takes for two people, however dissimilar, to fall in love. Hints are dropped that Susan would want to stay, with her musing about building a new society, but at this point her character arc is plausible only in that the prospect of Susan leaving is appealing.

The second half of the story starts with typical Terry Nation padding: laboured journeys, with every step presenting some kind of obstacle, as everyone heads to Bedfordshire to the heart of the Dalek mining operation. Despite the awesomeness of Barbara running over some Daleks in a fire engine, and the Doctor refusing to kill as his life is not immediately threatened (and correcting someone who calls him "Doc" instead of the preferred "Doctor"), Episodes 4 and 5 are a sea of mediocrity. Ian and Larry encounter the "terrifying" Slyther, which fortunately is kept off-screen as much as possible, and stumble across Dalek mines, and Barbara and Jenny are turned in to the Daleks by a nasty woman who takes their food. These things take an awful long time to happen and it seems as though Nation is prolonging the inevitable by adding a series of unnecessary steps the travellers have to go through before they reach the Daleks. The Doctor is on form, fortunately, as he works out why the Daleks are on Earth, and insists they dare to stop them.

The finale, dear oh dear. One thing has struck me about the Daleks so far, and it's that they've not been very clever in this story. They're manipulated by Barbara into letting her into the Dalek control room, and she works with the Doctor, who has now reached the same place with Susan and David, to turn the Robomen against the Daleks using a microphone they find there. It leads to a nice montage of Robomen smashing up the Daleks, a moment it would be hard not to love, but it's far too easy, and makes the Daleks look ridiculously stupid.

With all of this wrapped up quite early in Episode 6, the rest of the episode focuses on Susan's departure, and as the first companion to leave, and the Doctor's granddaughter at that, it deserves such a large chunk of the episode. William Hartnell plays the scene best, as the Doctor slowly realises that Susan is on the verge of growing away from him, and he decides to give her the push she needs to overcome her guilt at leaving him. However I feel about the credibility of Susan and David's relationship being built up over the story, and Susan as a character in general, it's hard not to be sad as the Doctor tells Susan he's locked the TARDIS doors and refuses to let her in. His speech is good enough to clear the Doctor of seeming like he's abandoning his own granddaughter and is actually acting in her interests. And the saddest moment of all comes, the TARDIS vanishes, with Susan standing next to it. She hardly looks thrilled, but as she walks away with David, there is sense that the series will never be the same again.

Drama quotient - Some effective horror, the sewer scenes especially, with the threat of human attackers seeming weirdly scarier than Robomen or Daleks. For the most part, however, any attempt at horror is laughable.
Comedy quotient - This does quite nicely set us up for the Dalek comedy in The Chase. Perhaps the producer realised the Daleks weren't being used effectively as in their first story?
Drama quotient - Plenty. Dortmun's death is very well done and is the Daleks' shining moment in the story. They're totally threatening here in a way they just aren't in the rest of the story. However, they're mostly singular moments like this, rather than sustained or part of an action setpiece. For the first time (and certainly not the last), the story relies on viewers' fond memories of the Daleks from a previous story to carry this one.

The beginning and the end are good, the rest has a few shining moments, but it's otherwise padded and very dated.


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