Thursday, February 28, 2013


Doctor Who 50 Great Scenes – 42: Day of the Daleks

Counting down towards the fiftieth birthday of Doctor Who with Fifty great scenes… Today’s is Doctor Who’s first major use of the “timey-wimey” – back in 1972, as a one-off key dramatic turning point with consequences. It’s also the first scene in my Fifty to be a really massive spoiler, so I’m warning you before this gripping revelation. In a dystopian future Earth controlled by the Daleks, human freedom-fighters are desperate to change time with an assassination… And, in addition to all the avenues that sends me down, I have a small tribute to Ray Cusick, creator of the Daleks.
“You went back to change history – but you didn’t change anything. You became a part of it.
“…You’re trapped in a temporal paradox! Styles didn’t cause that explosion and start the wars. You did it yourselves.”

Doctor Who 50 – Day of the Daleks

Mysterious figures have been appearing out of nowhere to try and kill top diplomat Sir Reginald Styles before a crucial peace conference. The Doctor (Jon Pertwee), still exiled to Twentieth Century Earth and working with UNIT, is called in to investigate – who are the real villains? The combat-clothed would-be assassins? The brutal Ogrons pursuing them? Or, perhaps, in a story called “…of the Daleks”, could there be some other force behind it all…? Well, no, the involvement of the Daleks isn’t the big spoiler. The Doctor and his companion Jo are both drawn forward in time to a ruined 22nd Century Earth that’s little more than a giant Dalek slave-camp. The human resistance have utterly failed in taking the fight to the Daleks on an already shattered Earth… But their history tells them that Sir Reginald was a murderer who destroyed his own peace conference and triggered the world wars that left Earth easy pickings for the Dalek invasion. Using stolen Dalek time-travel technology, they’ve been travelling back to kill him first. Before you ask, this was a decade before The Terminator (and Harlan Ellison wrote an introduction to the US edition of the Doctor Who and the Day of the Daleks novel rather than an instruction to his lawyers, so clearly it was differently creative to the way The Terminator arrived at its plot). Though I do wonder if its starting point might not have been 1984 – that to control the past is to control the future, and not just by altering the textbooks?

It’s a story of contrasts: exciting and flat; intelligent and flawed. The final episode deploys the most of both, its first half largely made up of brilliantly escalating, compelling dialogue scenes that bring out the best in the actors, its second half the big action finish that director and budget fail to deliver perhaps most conspicuously out of all Who stories (something which the Special Edition tries hard to overcome, with limited success). I was first gripped by the novelisation Doctor Who and the Day of the Daleks some years later, which avoids some of the flaws of the television version and carefully walks the line between the human assassins being ‘terrorists’ or ‘freedom-fighters’ by generally terming them “guerrillas”. And while it’s easy to think of them as ‘freedom-fighters’ once their initial ambiguity is resolved into the knowledge that they’re fighting against the Daleks, at the story’s finest moment – a scene running from about seven minutes into Episode Four to a climax about five minutes later (or at the end of Chapter 12), in effect a perfect mid-episode cliffhanger – we come to question their fight all over again. They’re careless of human life and have little objection to killing or abandoning the Doctor – until learning that the Daleks fear him makes him in their eyes a weapon to be utilised. It’s the Controller of this sector of Earth, a Dalek-appointed bureaucrat, who shows the most humanity in his haunted tale of the wars that ruined Earth, and the brutalised fighters who’ve only ever known a Dalek Earth who show mercy only at the Doctor’s urging when they burst in to rescue our hero from Dalek suckers. Jon Pertwee’s Doctor and the Controller (Aubrey Woods (the Controller)) are both grandstanding performances at their best when suddenly focused down into quiet, intense dialogue scenes, and it’s the Controller’s despair more than the guerrillas’ determination that moves the Doctor, setting him on a vital train of thought once taken to the guerrillas’ base.

Once held by the human suckers, the Doctor’s given a simple proposition: they’ll send him back to the Twentieth Century, and he can kill Sir Reginald for them. But a lot of this makes the Doctor uneasy, and it’s not just the implicit feeling that murdering people in cold blood is the sort of thing the Daleks do and not him. Impatiently, the guerrilla leader tells him that, improbably, people still wrote history books through the wars, pinning all the blame on a power-hungry Sir Reginald, and that, improbably, they’d managed to find out that the Daleks had time travel and steal some of their devices, both a portable time machine and a large bomb. How convenient. Having met Sir Reginald and formed the impression that, while a dick, he’s no dictator, Jo and the Doctor each put their fingers on potential problems with this. He breaks it gently:
“But your history [No good for me – na, na, na na] could be wrong, you know?”
She’s more blunt:
“But if this is true, Sir Reginald Styles must be completely round the bend!”
It is notable that no-one seemed ever to have found any cells of fanatical Stylesists around the world ready to seize power as the bombs fell – in fact, the only cells of fanatics who might in some way be being manipulated by fascist dictators are the ones the Doctor is sitting in, and he’s already observed that
“Changing history is a very fanatical idea”.
So, which fascistic fanatics who want to rule the world and have the power to change history do we know of, readers? Fortunately the dialogue is better-written than that and builds the drama to a peak rather than dropping quite such explicit hints, but Doctor Who’s deep-grained suspicion of ‘The ends justify the means’ (paraphrased in this scene by the Doctor) gives a very satisfying philosophical steer to the direction of the dramatic revelations. As the Doctor slowly brings out the truth with his questions, we’re reminded that one of the assassination cell was wounded and left for dead in the last attempt on Sir Reginald – both in dialogue, and in cross-cut images of him slipping into the cellar of the government mansion where the peace conference is due to take place… Complete with the bomb, taken along as a last resort.

If there’s no reason to think that Sir Reginald got his hands on some terrible new explosive and used it to blow up the peace conference – incompetently killing himself in the process – then somebody else must have done it. And, though it’s never made explicit, isn’t history always written by the winning side? While some of the story disappoints in the TV version, for me both on the page and on screen it’s one of Jon Pertwee’s finest moments as he pushes the logic of the guerrillas’ plans to its remorseless conclusion – a last suicidal attempt to carry out orders that doesn’t defeat the Daleks, but creates their future for them.

Always a favourite scene of mine, it’s relatively recently that it’s come to redeem what was one of those slight disappointments for me about the story: that it sets up what could be an intriguing mystery of motives as well as of time travel, but blows it too early. Presented with two apparently violent, villainous groups, camouflaged assassins taking orders from the moustached leader of their terror cell vs brutal ape-like aliens taking orders from an icy Controller (known only as the Controller), it not only offers a visual pun – guerrillas vs gorillas – but, in their mutual antagonism, a puzzle of which are the real ‘baddies’. Almost immediately, though, it’s revealed which side is working for the Daleks, and with that the mystery collapses into obviously evil Ogrons and quisling Controller vs misunderstood or misguided freedom fighters, making Jo seem dumb for clinging throughout to the opposite interpretation. And yet, the last time we watched the story, Richard wisely observed that this climactic scene and the ones following (which you’ll have to watch yourself) not only reverse everything the guerrillas know, but everything the audience knows about who’s really doing the Daleks’ evil work:
“All through this, Jo thinks that the Controller is the goodie, and the guerrillas are the baddies. And it turns out she was right all along.”
It’s not without some controversy. This whole scene’s a major point of disagreement in the principal DVD documentary (of several). Lead writer of the time Terrance Dicks is quite right to say that the story needed it – arguing that if strange things happen, the viewers are unsatisfied if they don’t get an explanation. Barry Letts, often spot-on with his instincts as producer, here gets it entirely wrong, claiming that it shouldn’t happen in the last episode – the last episode should be action. So Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy should start by saying who the mole is, then just make time until an extended shootout? Particularly when the ‘action’ climax of this story is so infamously thin, it’s great to have such a memorable a mid-episode climax that depends on concept and actors rather than budget. As Ben Aaronovitch says, otherwise there’d be nothing of substance in Episode Four, though even he seems to wish there was somewhere else to put it. Not at all. I didn’t come to the story as a middle-aged, thoughtful Liberal, but a boy who drew ray-blasts all over my books because there were never enough in the illustrations (and it was one of Doctor Who and the Day of the Daleks’ pictures that taught me how to draw explosions). And even then, I was gripped by the big twist even more than by the fabulous Dalek battle in my head.

Day of the Daleks – Alister Pearson (after Achilleos, Skilleter and Pearson)

Day of the Daleks and the Time Paradox

This was really the first time that Doctor Who had brought together the philosophical and practical sides of time travel into what would now be called a “timey-wimey” story – previously, the Doctor had talked about the impossibility or undesirability of changing time, rather than us being shown its effects, while stories featuring more time travel than just ‘TARDIS arrives at beginning, TARDIS leaves at end’ had effectively made time a different form of space to chase about in. This moment of this story was the first time that time was really used as intelligent drama – as well as providing in itself a warning that getting stuck in timey-wiminess is bad, and that trying to resolve it by getting deeper into timey-wiminess is worse, and that you’ll have a miserable life in which everything becomes meaningless. I always took this as proof that, while if you came up with a really good one-off story in which it had consequences that would work as drama, you couldn’t possibly do it every week. Some might argue that Doctor Who later doing it every week disproves that rule – but probably not if they’ve watched it. Notably, the next time that the Doctor is pitched against the Daleks in a story about changing history, the Time Lords position him on the wrong side, leading to deeper philosophical argument, the Doctor no longer having a get out of jail free card for a moral dilemma, and arguably the start of the Time War which consumes both Time Lords and Daleks. Again, drama means consequences.

There have been many heated debates across the years about exactly how the ‘Dalek future’ that the Doctor averts comes about (not least round at a couple of leading fan-writers’ place one Christmas, when Richard and one of them debated it to the death while I and the other partner kept our heads down in the kitchen). I won’t go into it in metaphysical or philosophical depth, nor detailed temporal physics, but here are a few thoughts. When I was a boy, reading the story, it always made sense to me, possibly because my religious upbringing prepared me for the conceptual leap of some exterior cause with different, Creator’s rules. A lot of essays I’ve read seem to assume that the Daleks do the hard work of invading, then the guerrillas accidentally use Dalek time travel to create a paradox which spares them the trouble, after which the Daleks retrospectively doss about just protecting the new timeline; or that it’s a parallel universe, which nobody ever mentions (this is, instead, explicitly the time-travel version of the sort of story Inferno was, with Pertwee again at his best up against it); or that the Daleks just ‘found’ the wrecked Earth or that in some other way the paradox just started by itself and the Daleks found themselves a part of it.

The forty-one-year-old me has much the same reaction, albeit with longer words and paragraphs, to what I’m confident the seven-or-so-year-old me who first read the book would: that’s silly, far too complicated, and missing the point. Obviously, the Daleks are the baddies, and are almost as good at time travel as the Time Lords, and as the Doctor can’t change history then obviously this isn’t how history is supposed to go (unlike the Daleks’ first invasion, in about the same spot, but that’s another story). So the reason the Doctor can put a spoke in this particular timeline must be that the Daleks intervened to set it up in the first place.
“We have changed the pattern of history.”
The time paradox is a closed system which goes round and round perfectly, once the Daleks somehow from outside the closed system just gave it a little starting push. As a boy, I pictured (perhaps in a mixture of science fiction, perpetual motion and theology) the Daleks lifting out a section of history as a bubble, intricately joining bits of it together and then setting it back in place to spin round and round. I can’t to this day explain the mechanics of that, but the conceptual image still makes perfect sense to me: the Daleks used their extremely clever time-travel engineering to bootstrap it and can then stand back while it circles for ever. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know exactly how it works, because the logic of the story and everything we know about the Daleks is that they’re behind it all, and unlike all those other ‘explanations’ that require there to be all those extra and often contradictory elements added to the story, my instinctive understanding has an Occam’s Razor about it and credits the Daleks with being clever. As well as appropriately making them the authors of their own destruction, as it’s only when they fearfully identify the Doctor as their enemy that makes the humans pay attention to him.

Richard wrote a more detailed and carefully considered analysis of what he sees as time paradoxes when considering What Does Timey-Wimey mean? in reviewing 2011’s Doctor Who – The Girl Who Waited on Millennium’s Fluffy Diary, as well as revealing that while a timey-wimey story may have been conceptually exciting to me as a one-off, when given nothing but so that no event means anything any more and Doctor Who disappears up its own timeline, my response is… Well, I may have given a hint there. But my Fifty aims to be positive, so I’ll stick to pointing you in Richard’s direction where, fascinatingly, despite having more of a head for high-level temporal physics than I do, he sees Day of the Daleks as philosophical rather than temporal engineering, driven by a plot in which the Daleks symbolise determinism and the Doctor free will. Rather brilliantly, this makes Day of the Daleks a battle between The Dalek Factor and The Human Factor, and a thematic sequel to The Evil of the Daleks after all. So the Doctor’s paradox trumps the Daleks’ not just dramatically but allegorically, when both quisling and terrorists – each thinking the other the enemy, but each raised with a Dalek mind-set – believe the ends justify the means and are equally surprised when the Doctor has compassion for the individual instead, in different ways the salvation of each of them (and of the world). Have a read.

Radio Times – Day of the Daleks

Ray Cusick and the Daleks

Writing about any Dalek story this week is going to have a touch of melancholy, following the death of Raymond P Cusick. Doctor Who has been so extraordinarily lucky in so many of the people who’ve worked on it over the last half-century – actors, writers, designers of sound and landscape, and more – that even a shortlist of ‘If it weren’t for these people, the series wouldn’t be around today’ couldn’t be very short. But Ray Cusick would always be in the top tier: the man who designed the Daleks. There were others who were vital to them, too, including Terry Nation, Peter Hawkins and Brian Hodgson, but Mr Cusick created that iconic look and propelled the series to its first great success. He was an immensely talented designer, whether working on planets, historical periods or giant suburbia (and that’s just his Doctor Who work), yet he’ll always be remembered for creating the series’ first and still one of its most visually striking and coherently imagined alien worlds and Doctor Who’s first big monster.

There’s a touch of guilt for fans, too, in that the other thing he’s remembered for is as ‘Laughing Ray Cusick’, a way to cope with the reason that his interviews about the series were always unsmiling and with unhappy undertones, what became almost the series’ original sin – that while other people and the BBC itself made an awful lot of money out of the Daleks, the person who most deserved to didn’t. I hope he still found some pride in them. And it’s notable that in all the minor redesigns of the Daleks that have followed, to take them too far from the logic of Mr Cusick’s originals is to invite disaster. Bringing them into colour for the first time in the TV series, Day of the Daleks at least makes the right choice in making some of its Daleks gun-metal grey for a lasting suggestion of one-being tanks, yet it not only robs them of much effect by directing them very feebly but ignores the work of the original actors and sound engineers, as a result proving that messing up the vocal design can be almost as big a mistake as throwing out Mr Cusick’s shape. Notably, it’s the only DVD for which an alternative Special Edition completely redubs every Dalek line rather than just changing the special effects…

Bonus Great Doctor Who Quotation – The Trial of a Time Lord: The Mysterious Planet

I’ve always been curiously fond of the opening for the prosecution in the Doctor’s big Trial, and gave The Trial of a Time Lord: The Mysterious Planet as near to a rave review as it’s likely to get for the DVD, there choosing a Golden Moment of existential crisis. And there’s more to come in the Fifty, too. But one of the things I particularly like about it is that it lets Colin Baker really blossom as the Doctor, not just through him finding interesting things to do to distract you from the script, as in too many, but simply writing well for him – giving him good speeches and a good relationship with Peri. It was the last full script from Robert Holmes, master of the speech, the scary bit and the one-liner and probably the greatest Doctor Who writer of them all, here in the first of what will be quite a few of his lines featuring in my countdown.

It’s half-way into Part One, and the Doctor (Colin Baker) and Peri have discovered that the mysterious planet is, inevitably, a familiar one: ours, and two million years in the future, it’s gone down the Tubes. So, it’s another dystopian future Earth, but at least this one wasn’t created by the intervention of a bunch of Time-Warring superbeings with a magnetron. Er… Anyway, confronted with the ruins of Marble Arch Station, Peri is distraught; the Doctor, sympathetic but worldly (it’s not that long since he was faced with his own gravestone). It’s a beautifully elegiac scene for both of them, her reacting at the human level to the loss of her world, him taking the long view.
“Planets come and go. Stars perish. Matter disperses, coalesces, reforms into – other patterns. Other worlds. Nothing can be eternal.”

Extra Bonus Great Doctor Who Quotation – Father’s Day

The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) has wise words about putting things in perspective.
“The past is another country. 1987’s just the Isle of Wight.”

Next Time… Duelling futures (it’s more timey-wimey, I’m afraid).

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