Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Planet of the Daleks

Chapter The 79th, which is all purple fur coat but no visibility.

After something happens at the end of their previous adventure - which I don't remember being all that big a deal, but hey-ho - the Doctor collapses into a coma, but not before getting a message off to the Time Lords on how the Daleks are planning to invade the galaxy (aren't they always?). The TARDIS lands, remote-controlled by the aforementioned Gallifreyans, and Jo has to go off on her own to find help. The Doctor wakes up, somehow perfectly fine again, and goes after her. They are on a jungle planet with hostile plant life and invisible natives, and there's a broken down spaceship and some Thals there too. In other words, it's planet 'Terry Nation's Greatest Hits'. After six episodes of getting split up, coming back together again, cat and mouse, escape and recapture, the good guys defeat the Daleks. Terry sneaks in a plague subplot too towards the end, just for good measure. There's no character called Tarrant, but there is a Taron, it's only one consonant sound different.

Watched with the kids from the DVD over a few days, one or two episodes at a time, with the Better Half joining us for the final two episodes. All loved it, though the eldest (boy of 11) is getting more and more cynical. Throughout episode 1, he was being a clever-clogs about how we wouldn't see a single Dalek until the cliffhanger (and he was right, of course). Then, when Rebec is at the Plain of Stones looking out at the rather basic representation of multiple sets of beastie peepers looking back at her, and asks "What sort of creatures are they?", he replied to the screen "Fairy lights". Lights caused confusion elsewhere also, as nobody watching could understand why the Dalek Supreme had a torch taped to his "nose". They love to scrutinise and pick holes, but the DVD, of course, has episode 3 miraculously colourised (see the Deeper Thoughts section of The Mind of Evil's post for more details on that) and not one person noticed any join there. 

First-time round:
Despite not being a going concern for a huge chunk of the years in question, Doctor Who has nonetheless had an anniversary celebration of some kind broadcast on BBC1 every decade since its inception. The 40th was the most meagre offering, comprising but one documentary; this was more than made up for, however, by the contemporaneous announcement that the show was returning as a full series in 18 months time. The other anniversary falling in the 'wilderness years' after the original run was cancelled was the 30th in 1993. This was accompanied by much more of a circus, with the Beeb celebrating over a six week period with old episodes plus new documentary programmes and short films. This was somewhat surprising given that it was not long since the same Beeb had taken the show off the air, but we fans at the time were not complaining.

The old episodes in question were the six parts of Planet of the Daleks, shown in a Friday night slot on BBC1 weekly, even the one that only existed at the time in black-and-white. I honestly do not know what they were thinking: old Who on primetime TV in a similar slot to where newly made Who had supposedly failed only four years previously? And they didn't care if it was all in colour?! For the first few episodes, I watched in my third-year student house, taping each precious one onto a carefully labelled VHS tape; the latter two or three would have fallen during the Christmas hols, so I'd have been poised at a different record button on a different VCR, but with the same carefully labelled tape and furrowed brow of concentration.

I still wonder why it was Planet of the Daleks chosen for that 30th anniversary BBC1 repeat. They must have wanted something in colour, six episodes long, with Daleks, but there's one other much more obvious contender: Tom Baker's Genesis of the Daleks, the go-to classic era story for a terrestrial TV rerun. Maybe they wanted to do something different - Genesis already had a reputation for over-exposure (though it was still repeated once more before the end of the 1990s), it had been shown on BBC2 recently, and was already out on video, unlike Planet. I'm glad they went this way: Planet is the more underrated of the two, and it was genuinely enjoyable to share weekly with my cynical student mates then, and daily with my cynical family now. Both events ably prove that it is a story immune to cynicism, so wholeheartedly does it go about its business, never once being tempted to wink at its audience.

In many an interview later, Jon Pertwee would report on his distaste for performing with Skaro's own pepperpots, but he manages to hide that here (whereas it's all too sadly obvious in another of their Derby matches, Death to the Daleks) and like the rest of the cast commits absolutely. It doesn't matter that the plot is uniformly linear, or that all the conflict is on a level, only operating in the external / environmental sphere of narrow scrapes with death or capture. There's lip service paid to depth at an interpersonal level - one character doesn't feel so very bally brave when it comes to it, another worries about his girlfriend - but it's only to give a breathing space before the next set piece. And there's absolutely no higher moral or intellectual themes at all. Maybe this was refreshing, as for the majority of stories during Jon Pertwee's incumbency there was an (over-?) reliance on (heavy-handed?) thematic resonance. This isn't the story of colonists and down-trodden masses, nor really of Nazis and resistance, it's just Daleks versus Thals: what you see is what you get.

What's more, it works. I was watching with my brood, who represent the key part of Doctor Who's audience, and they were loving it. They were excited by the right bits, and the younger two (boy of 8, girl of 5) were even a bit scared of some of the jungle stuff. The action is Jules Verne-tastic, with a journey to the centre of the planet, and even a trip in a hot air balloon. Daleks who can become invisible is a fun new idea (although the script forgets about it immediately after the first cliffhanger - a scene later where someone suddenly gets zapped by an invisible Dalek might have been worth adding, surely?), and the ice volcano is similarly good pulpy nonsense. The start of the story is effective too, showcasing the now self-reliant Jo, foreshadowing her going it alone in her final story which followed on after this one.

The production caters well for those who want to pick holes too. Prentis Hancock gets a real hand-cock of a character to play. The jungle is horribly lethal to traverse for an episode or two, and thereafter characters wander back and forth with ease. The Doctor doesn't let anyone disturb the Dalek casing in episode 2, as it would set off an alert, but he and the script have forgotten about this by episode 5, when they open a Dalek casing and it does not set off an alert. The Daleks don't bother to guard their spaceship, and are very remiss in keeping the immunisation machine in the same room as the biological weapon from which it protects them. Also, is it plausible that a race of invisible people could be so comprehensively enslaved as the Spiridons, no matter what the Daleks have done to them? Just throw off your fur coats and run away, fellahs, they can't see you!

Both Planet of the Daleks and An Unearthly Child have had episodes repeated on BBC1 (not as common as you'd think). Both feature a longer than normal sequence set in the TARDIS control room in episode 1, and in both stories the Doctor's companions are seen in a hostile outdoor environment where their clothes get a bit mucky. Both stories are also very influenced by the episodic Saturday morning movie serials of the early 20th century.

Deeper Thoughts:
The State of the Nation. Terry Nation, creator of the Daleks, is fairly unique as a Doctor Who writer in that fandom is split over whether he's a genius or a terrible hack. In fact, scratch that, that's how fandom is split over every writer, but with Terry Nation it's more so. He clearly was more industrious than any other Doctor Who writer of the 20th Century, he's the only one I can think of that created multiple other successful series, huge hits like Blake's 7 and Survivors. He wrote every one of the first series of Blake's 7 - thirteen episodes of 50 minutes duration apiece - an achievement of sustained effort then and now. But the tales of his 'this'll-do' attitude are rife too: Doctor Who script editors over the years from The Chase in 1965 to Destiny of the Daleks in 1979 (Nation's last credit on the show) bemoaned their having to pad out and beef up the almost treatments / semi-scripts they'd managed to get out of Terry. In the latter case, that script editor was Douglas Adams; if that self-confessed arch-procrastinator thinks you're not pulling your weight, that's something.

When a script was provided, there was a tendency for it to be - how to put this politely? - the same script that had been delivered many times previously. Nation was in love with a few ideas that he used over and over, both in Who and other works: plants that attack humans, radiation sickness, a countdown to a bomb going off, plague infections, a group of spacemen including one hothead that may or may not be called Tarrant. Barry Letts, when he was outgoing producer of Doctor Who, challenged Nation to do better than this, and the result was Genesis of the Daleks, the best and most original Dalek story for many a year, with some fantastic writing. So much better is it than the preceding stories Nation wrote in the 1970s, that many unkind people have assumed that huge swathes must have been written by someone else, but there's no evidence for this and a lot of evidence against it. The simple explanation is: he could do it if he wanted to, but most of the time it seems he didn't make the effort.

It started that way, really. With no offence meant to him or anyone else, as his own comments as part of the historical record back this up: Terry Nation felt like he was slumming it doing Doctor Who from day one. He was a very successful comedy writer and wouldn't have written for a show that was an unknown quantity, and a kids' teatime thing at that, had he not been between jobs and in need of the money. He likely never imagined that he'd make so much money, but he lucked out, creating something memorable and marketable in the Daleks. This definitely caused some fan resentment, colouring people's judgements of him since, I think. It was luck rather than graft that gifted him his best ever creation, but luck is a part of life, and it wasn't as if he hadn't put in a lot of graft before and since. If the BBC wanted a Dalek story they had to come to him first, and what they wanted was what he delivered: Daleks first and foremost; the plot they featured in was never the primary concern.

The other reason Nation is resented by some is the unfair seeming situation that the designer of the Daleks, who arguably contributed as much or more to their longevity as did the scriptwriter (the description in the screenplay is sketchy at best), was a member of BBC staff and made no money at all from them beyond his salary and an Ex Gratia payment. It's just one of those things that Doctor Who fans argue about, back and forth; as both the gentlemen in question have sadly passed on now, there's not much more to say about it. I could probably spin it off into a discussion about the dangers of public / private financial partnerships, but I'll restrain myself. One thing to note, though: if the Daleks are so successful in and of themselves that the author didn't feel the need to try so hard with the stories featuring them, maybe the strength was always in their look rather than the writing?

In Summary:
Straightforward nuts and bolts (and torch and sticky tape) adventure.

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