Sunday, 10 May 2015

Death to the Daleks

Oh, for the love of Gond.

This was the last Dalek story I had never seen, and I'd actually been quite excited about it, though I never used to give two stuffs about the Daleks. As a kid I saw them as the monsters who had weathered the least well, the ones that creaked and doddered while others skulked. Watching 60's Doctor Who in sequence made me realise how special the Daleks actually are. That they are the only point of continuity for the Doctor for several years, and the ones who symbolically separate him from Susan, Ian and Barbara, and Bret Vyon, Sarah Kingdom and Katarina too.

Oh, and Brian Cant!

They rival us as the Doctor's biggest fans, watching him on space telly in The Chase – in fact every Dalek POV is like a little fan vid – and he in turn is the only one who really appreciates how human these tin pots can be. Where other Hartnell aliens are misunderstood or misled, and Troughton monsters are mindless drones or insatiable animals, the Daleks are a bit like Hartnell or Troughton themselves if they were half-robot and faintly insecure.

And for most of the 1960s they also had a whiff of movie magic about them. They were the only truly special effect in the show, barring the Tardis console itself (sound effects included) - when either of those becomes the focus for the story, Doctor Who suddenly feels like  a weird space: like Radio Caroline  breaking in upon the Light Programme.

Well, if you didn't already know, Death to the Daleks doesn't really work this way.

I don't think there's anything really wrong with it being primarily a visual story. It can actually make it more potent than Pertwee's talkier tales. The first episode, the seeming death of the Tardis and the terrors of the Exxilon mists are gripping and disturbing, and a perfect counterpoint to a Doctor who is always in control, particularly when Sarah has just begun to trust him.

Writing an entire story around some mining (better to call it panhandling) on a desert world, and a deserted, fully automated city, really is a gamble with the money stacked against you, though. This is a dismal story in every sense: bleak and monotonous.

It's worth picturing it designed by someone who liked colour. Someone who could make it as lurid as Planet of the Daleks or, going back a bit, Claws of Axos. The interviews with designers on both Time Warrior and Dinosaur discs include the wistful memory, 'I was so excited to be assigned Doctor Who and so disappointed it wasn't set in space.' This one seems to feel the reverse, if his naff interiors are anything to go by.

You can't blame the director. He's doing everything he can. Some shots are quite thrilling – but a suite of studio footage on the DVD shows what an atmosphere of inertia the Daleks could conjure (never mind Terry Nation's lacklustre script). They lumber forward, they look the wrong way, their guns get jammed. You sense how difficult it was to get anything to ignite on set. You have to feel for Pertwee himself. It's like sparring with a filing cabinet.

(Although, memorably, a Dalek does burst into flames – when you hit it with a stick. Worth knowing. And in the best outtake I've seen in many a year, they whisper! The Daleks confer by squawking at each other sotto voce for the first, last and never time only: the scene was reshot with the usual shouting.)

I fell asleep around the end of episode three, and on rewinding to see what I'd missed, found that I hadn't. I can't help but be reminded of Patrick Troughton's final season. Not a bad season, all told, but a confused and aimless one. Say what you like about the Doctor's lack of mystery after his trial, and the cosy UNIT family (including Master) but at least it gave the show and its heroes a solid identity. Now these narratives are ended, those gains are slipping away. Death to the Daleks is a dangerous example of people treating Doctor Who as a given, without knowing the characters and without having the enthusiasm to do something new with them.

It's about time for a new broom.

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