Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Day of the Daleks

Previous viewings - none

Talk about starting the new season with a bang! The universe's most fearsome pepperpots are back after an astonishing five-year absence to scare a new generation of kids with their deadly sink plungers - okay, so they're probably the same kids as before, but it's certainly a new generation of Doctor Who, one that has successfully broken away from the past such that, coupled with the lengthy absence of the Daleks, makes it quite seem quite groundbreaking seeing the Pertwee Doctor and UNIT facing the show's biggest icon of the 60s.

Which makes Day of the Daleks quite an oddity. You'd think that with the Daleks being gone so long the producers would aim for a "typical" Dalek story, one that shows them in all their glory as people remember them at their peak. A consequence of Louis Marks's story originally being written without the Daleks in mind is that they're shoehorned into a rigid plot which doesn't leave much room for the Daleks to make much impact. Dalek stories have always been special - longer than four episodes, containing a big confrontation with the Doctor and usually being a turning point in the tenure of a companion or two. As a Dalek story, it feels lacking because they feel like guests in their own story, half-heartedly integrated into a story that worked perfectly without them. And indeed, the Daleks are probably the story's weakest aspect.

Fortunately, the rest of the story is very strong. We finally leave the Master behind as UNIT investigates a diplomat who has seen a ghost - though he later denies it. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Jo see future versions of themselves in the TARDIS, indicating a stitch in time. He and Jo stay at Sir Reginald's house while he is away at a conference, and soldiers from the future arrive to kill the diplomat, as they believe his death will prevent the disastrous future they come from. Yep, Doctor Who predicts The Terminator.

I do love time paradox plots, because they nearly always have twists. They're sci-fi's answer to murder mysteries - the universe is the victim, and the hapless protagonists are the killers. The Doctor is dropped into a situation to break the cycle of destruction. We're drip-fed revelations here, with the true nature of the plot saved until near the climax, but the surprise appearance of the Daleks (well, they're in the title, but you know what I mean) and plenty of action keeps things zipping along until the Doctor realises that by killing Sir Reginald the soldiers will be responsible for the very war they are trying to prevent. Perhaps because of the faster-than-usual pace of the story, I was caught up in the action and didn't see this coming, even though in retrospect it's totally obvious.

The future we see here brings back memories of The Dalek Invasion of Earth - desolation, Daleks and survivors trying to fight back. It's an atmospheric setting for what little we see of it, and in a way it's a shame that the story gives so much time over to the scenes in the present day because we sacrifice something different for something familiar. Further, the majority of the future scenes are set in the control centre, where the Daleks discuss their plans to recapture the soldiers. The Daleks have... odd.... voices - calm, almost polite! It feels like after getting the voices pitch-perfect in the Troughton Dalek stories, we're back at square one and it's jarring. To an extent it makes them not even seem like proper Daleks. They certainly don't act like them - working with the Ogrons and allowing future humans to live if they are useful. They don't even rant about their superiority and the plot isn't about exterminating or destroying, it's about preserving and saving, which is just so un-Dalek. To have a story with the most unique and distinct alien creature ever created for Doctor Who and make them seem so bland is quite a feat.

The conclusion sees the the Ogrons and a few Daleks travel to the past to kill the soldiers, and thus protect their own history. In the open air, away from claustrophobic sets the fact that there are only three Daleks is difficult to hide, and they're anything but scary. The Ogrons are cool though - convincing looking, and believable and simplistic brutes, which is all that's required of them. Certainly a step up from the Robomen. As UNIT holds them off, the Doctor evacuates the house of a Chinese delegation and one of the soldiers blows it up with the Daleks inside.

Day of the Daleks is a story that's better than I give it credit for. The Daleks are undeniably a let down, but putting them aside, there's little to complain about. The pacing is quite unusual for the series, and for once the story doesn't linger in one place or plot point for long, and there aren't many Pertwee stories you can say that for. It would make a nice new series two-parter with very few changes.

The other good thing about it is the characters. For once, Pertwee is at the top of his game - whether that's because he is having a good time making it, or because the Doctor has finally grown out of Season 8 grouchiness, I'm not sure, but it allows his Doctor to be more playful, which is fun. Jo gets lots to do, both opposite the Doctor and the Controller, the main guest of the story, who bonds with Jo to trick her into revealing the location of the soldiers, but who later betrays the Daleks who had kept him alive because he was one of the privileged few. As dim as Jo is sometimes (okay, a lot), most of her idiotic moments come about from her trying to help the Doctor, so if nothing else her heart is in the right place, plus Katy Manning is likeable in the role. UNIT seems quite out of place in this story, as their only job is to set up the conference part of the plot. It's almost a shame that present day has to mean UNIT in this era as this is a story that could have done without them and devoted more time to exploring the future setting.

All in all, jolly good show.

Horror quotient - The Daleks are probably at their least scary here. A story should be created around the Daleks, but here they're bolted onto a time travel story that doesn't leave much room for Nazi allegories and moody lighting.
Comedy quotient - Hmmm.... can't think of much. Though I liked the bit where the Doctor knocks out the soldier then sips his wine. Very James Bond.
Drama quotient - Bits and bobs. For the most part the story moves too fast to savour the drama and horror of the Dalek-run future, as The Dalek Invasion of Earth does. Then again, we've been there and done that, so maybe it's not such a bad thing.

It's probably the only time I'll say this, but here we have a classic story.... but then the Daleks show up. I love the Daleks, but some stories are better without them, and this is one of them. They could at least have got the voices right!


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