Saturday, 29 April 2017

Death to the Daleks

Chapter The 51st, in which the Doctor faces gun-totin' Daleks and a psychotic hose beast.

The TARDIS is forced to land on a seemingly dead planet, where the Doctor and Sarah are confronted by a petrified creature immediately on leaving the ship, and shortly after are stalked by mysterious cloaked locals, one of which manages to get inside the TARDIS. A lot of this is familiar if you’ve ever watched a Terry Nation Dalek story, but the TARDIS team haven’t had that pleasure, so they act surprised. They meet a military team, who have similarly suffered a power drain in their space ship, and become trapped there. They are looking for a rare element to help cure a space plague. Daleks arrive, just in time for the end of episode 1, claiming to be on a similar mission. A member of the military team is called Tarrant. (Regular Terry Nation Dalek story watchers are shouting “Bingo!” at this point.)

The twist is that with no power for their energy guns the Daleks have to enter an uneasy alliance with the humans. But then they work out they can fit themselves instead with bullet guns, and the twist is forgotten about. The Doctor and Sarah Jane defeat the Daleks, destroy the source of the power drain and everybody leaves. There’s also some Von Daniken-esque stuff, and a trek through a set of booby traps (including a floor… of Death!).

Watched on DVD, an episode a time spread over several evenings, with all the kids (boys of 10 and 7, girl of 4) interested, but the Better Half, not so much. A lot of criticisms of the music from eldest boy, but he kept watching. I expected mockery of the lame cliffhanger at the end of episode 3 where, because of the episode under-running, the show ends at an arbitrary point when the Doctor spots a pattern on the floor of the Exxilon city; but, at least in my younger son's case, it unexpectedly created some tension as he chanted "Don't step on the floor, it's a trap, it's a trap" and then satisfaction as he exclaimed "Told ya!" when the credits rolled.

First-time round:
The blog’s random travels are slowly picking off the stories that formed the milestones on mine and the BBC’s gradual path towards a Doctor Who VHS collection. Before my family owned a VCR, the original few Doctor Who videos had been released, each with a wince-inducing price tag; but later, once we had the necessary machinery, they began to be re-released within my budget. The first to be re-released in this way was Revenge of the Cybermen, then a couple more including Pyramids of Mars. The fourth release at the affordable price of £9.99, the first to debut at that price, and the fourth one I ever purchased, was Death to the Daleks. It's release was felt important enough for a launch event at the Virgin Megastore in August 1987 where Jon Pertwee was pictured surrounded by some frightening Doctor Who fans who had made themselves look less frightening by dressing up as fun Doctor Who monsters.

This story has a bad reputation, but you don't need to even know that for your judgement to be coloured: if the leading man acts though he's irritated by proceedings, as Pertwee mostly does here, then it's hard not to be affected as a viewer. But it's really not fair, as the story isn't half bad. Pertwee is well known to have disliked doing Dalek stories, and he's not gelling that well with new girl Liz Sladen as companion Sarah Jane, who is sidelined through most of the action and replaced by a one-off supporting character, a little grey fellah (with whom Pertwee has much better chemistry); plus, the writer Terry Nation was famously frugal with story elements, reusing the same tropes over and over again, as if they were rationed; nonetheless, some interesting ideas and visuals do slip through.

Some judicious decisions made by the director Michael Briant lift the location from being just another quarry: the day-for-night beginning sequence where a spaceman has an 'arrowing experience, the Exxilons' outfits being colour-matched to the terrain, allowing for some nice moments where they pop up unexpectedly from a camouflaged niche. The modelwork of the city isn't too shabby either, particularly with the ever present throbbing radiophonia of the pulsing beacon. Even though it's barmy, the scene with the claustrophobic Dalek that when crowded by a few extras self destructs (!) is worth it for the following scene where the natives dance round the burning prop like it's the Wicker Man. There's one tiny moment too when Pertwee forgets he's having a terrible time: his face lights up with joy as he watches the Dalek and Root battle, as if it's the Wimbledon Men's final or Act V scene II of Hamlet.

Another divisive element that I love, is the music. I love it: both the saxophone quartet stuff and the chanting, it's all great. Carey Blyton was an eccentric genius, and every one of his three scores for Doctor Who is a favourite. If only the characters were as excitingly different. But no, they are straight out of stock,and it's knock-down stock at that. The MSC team are the most effete bunch of marines you're likely to meet, and their personalities range all the way from A to A flat: the solid dependable old one, the solid dependable young one, the solid dependable older one, the woman. And Galloway. Clearly, the script, actor and director are trying to make something interesting out of the untrustworthy character of Galloway, but his behaviour is too inconsistent, and the subplot is never given sufficient room to explore what makes him tick.

The biggest narrative question that occurs is: why don't the Daleks kill the humans once they have guns again? They tried to shoot them on sight when they first landed, and there's no sneaky deal they do thereafter that requires their grumbling bipedal partners. At a push, being generous, I suppose that the Exxilons are too primitive to set the bombs that the Daleks need to blow up the beacon and restore power, and these Daleks can't fly up and do it themselves: it truly is a lot less bother when they can hover.

Both contain metal foes, at least one soldier, a grey haired Doctor with one female companion, and… that’s about it.

Deeper Thoughts:
Malfunctioning tech as metaphor for the Arab Spring or something. Even though it was a stretch to think of any connections between it and The Caretaker, the last story covered by the blog, Death to the Daleks has some remarkable similarities to the latest (at the time of writing) TV offering, Smile. Both focus on a futuristic and possibly sentient city, built for inhabitants that it has out-evolved, which becomes self-sustaining, employing defence mechanisms that turn on those intended inhabitants. The main difference was stark, though, and that was how each city was treated by our hero: Capaldi's all for accepting this colony of bots both nano- and emoji- as a new species, and encourages the humans to negotiate a peace with them as equals; Pertwee says "I think the time has come to do something about this city", rolls up his sleeves, and kills it.

Does this difference reflect changing feelings about the threats posed by technology? I don't think so. In the nearly 40 years between the two shows, it's become more possible that something akin to the events depicted could come true. Automation has already turned my regular bank clerk or supermarket checkout cashier into a robot, and the Internet of Things has made anything from one's fridge to one's lightbulbs hackable. It's not too far-fetched to conceive that right now a Silicon Valley billionaire is somewhere building a self-protecting robot-maintained mansion that will one day eat him. If we don't anticipate nervously a future coexistence with some Artificial Intelligence, perhaps already in development, then we probably should. Or our children should.

The robots won't necessarily want to kill us; closer to the mark is the threat connoted by that emoji-bot's pixelated eyes cha-chinging into dollar signs. How's the economy going to have to be shaped to sustain billions of unproductive humans while the machines do all the work? Maybe we ought to start prepping the Space Arks after all, but to escape our tech competition, not to take it with us. [Death to the Daleks scores better re: plot holes, though, with it's typical 1973 obsession with power cuts helpfully explaining where the self-sustaining technology gets its energy supply, drained from passing spaceships; no such explanation is forthcoming for the 2017 bots - who was paying their lecky bill?]

So, if it's not any dent in the technical feasibility, what is it that's changed? The Doctor of Death to the Daleks is very sure that the city is a drag factor. He's certain that humanity will flourish without its malign influence (alright, not humanity, but a close enough analogue); he doesn't stop to think that the city might flourish without people's malign influence, wandering round it, swapping circuits and making it go all nail varnish on expanded polystyrene. Faith in humankind to be the good guys has become much less the default since Death to the Daleks. It was already far from absolute in 1973, and most of the regular writers in Pertwee's time (Robert Holmes, Barry Letts, Robert Sloman and particularity Malcolm Hulke) were much more questioning of man's primacy than Terry Nation, for all the hard-boiled cynicism to which he seems to aspire. In 2017, it would be impossible to be so idealistic. Neither story, though, can take the final imaginative step - the malfunctioning tech in both stories is codependent: obsessed with our happiness, or grooming us to take over as its ultimate control node. I fear it's too much to hope in real life that the machines will care about us that much, when they eventually rise up and take over. 

In Summary:
More fun than a power cut.

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