Friday, January 21, 2011

Grab Bag Reviews: "The Daleks"

Ah-ha! Here we go then... the first appearance of the monsters which would come to define and symbolize Doctor Who. There is not a single incarnation of the Doctor who has not faced the Daleks at least once with the exception of the Eighth Doctor... unless you count the audio stories... but that's another story. Anyway... DALEKS!!!

It was still only 1963 and at the time of filming the first episode of the series hadn't even aired yet. Doctor Who, however, was already suffering from some of the problems with late scripts which would plague the show intermittently for years. As such, a script from a relative newcomer to writing for science fiction TV was pushed up to be the second serial of the series. The writer was Terry Nation.

Producer Verity Lambert was also taking a chance on Nation's script. The department head, and her boss, Sydney Newman, had made it clear from the start that he wanted "no bug-eyed monsters" on Doctor Who. Newman was well aware of the show's science fiction elements but he felt it would be detrimental to the program to include alien monsters. Lambert, however, was in need of a finished script to shoot and she also believed very strongly in Nation's story.

For his part, in later interviews Nation claimed that he wrote the script intending for it to educate children on the dangers of fascism. Nation had lived through WW II and was aware that the generation of children who would be watching the show would grow up only knowing the war though history books. As such he wanted an allegory to teach them the dangers of extreme viewpoints and to stand up against those views when they found them. Because of this, over the years, even more would be made of the ties between Nazism and the Daleks in later stories... particularly "Genesis of the Daleks".

Set designers, prop makers, and costumers also got their first crash course in Doctor Who sci-fi as they created the planet Skaro, the costumes for the humanoid Thals, the city of the Daleks and, of course, the Daleks themselves. It is a testament to their skill that, other than a little tweaking, the design has remained largely the same for over 47 years. And it should be noted that, although Nation gave some basic descriptions of the Daleks in his script it was the prop designer who truly designed the look of the Daleks.

When the first episode of the serial aired Sydney Newman was quite angry to find that his rule against "bug-eyed monsters" seemed to have been ignored. A few weeks later, however, when the audience figures came in and it was apparent that Daleks were the talk of the town he issued a written apology to Lambert and promised to allow her to make the decisions on what was best for the show.

The Daleks were a hit and they would go on to menace time and time again.

But is that first episode all it's cracked up to be? Or is it merely enshrined in viewer's hearts because it was the first?

The Plot: The Doctor, his granddaughter Susan and his still recently kidnapped Ian and Barbara land on a strange, alien planet. Disappointed at not being returned to Earth, Ian and Barbara still join in the exploration... for a time. When the Doctor wants to investigate a strange city, however, the others refuse and insist they leave the planet. The Doctor sabotages the TARDIS in order to get his way but upon arriving in the city the explorers are taken prisoner by the Daleks! The group also realizes that they are suffering from radiation poisoning but that there is another race of beings on the planet -- the Thals -- and that the Thals left them drugs to cure them back at the ship!

Susan retrieves the drugs and meets one of the Thals, who informs her that the Thals wish to make peace with the Daleks. Susan delivers this message back to the Daleks and the Daleks agree to peace... or so it seems. The time and space travelers soon learn it is all a trap for the Thals and they helped lure the Thals into it!

Upon escaping the Daleks the Doctor soon learns that a part vital to the TARDIS was left behind in the Dalek city. They must stage a raid to get it back but can they count on the help of the pacifistic Thals? Even if they get the help can the now primitive Thals stand a chance against the technically superior Daleks? And meanwhile, what plans are the Daleks hatching to remove the Thals from the face of the planet forever?

My Take: With this being a very early story in the series there is still a sense of the writers and actors getting their legs under them a bit. There are also some striking characterizations which would change over time and so viewers might find these interesting precursors for what would come.

"The Daleks" features a very different Doctor than the one we would become used to. Here the Doctor is a conniving [insert somewhat impolite term for a person born outside the bounds of marriage] as well as somewhat cold and uncaring towards his unwilling companions -- for example, at one point the Doctor is quite ready to go off and leave the missing Barbara without a single concern for her welfare. This aspect of the Doctor's personality would be changed with the very next story ("Edge of Destruction") but for "The Daleks" it is still in place. Of course it is interesting in that the Doctor's selfish actions put himself and Susan in danger and he is forced to admit to Ian and Barbara that he is at fault here and has no one to blame but himself -- a nice little moment of thaw for the cantankerous old coot and a hint of the changes to come.

Taking the first several serials as a whole -- from "An Unearthly Child" to "Marco Polo" viewers actually see a character arc for the Doctor. Not only is he self-centered, egotistical, and lacking empathy, he also lacks the impulse to help and interfere. Last year fans were treated to an all-new Doctor who proclaimed that bringing down the government was what he did but here we have a Doctor who declares that that the Thal's predicament isn't any of their affair and they're all just better off leaving. Of course, by the end, we see him actually kind of revelling in what he has done -- encouraging the Thals and promising to stop by and visit them at some point in the future to see how they are getting along. He warms considerably to the point where he becomes more recognizable as the Doctor.

Ian and Barbara also get the meatier character parts with this story. They are disheartened at not being brought back home immediately, they are fearful that they might not get back home at all, and they are increasingly adrift with nothing familiar to cling to except each other. Those scenes between the two actors have a ring of truth and a feeling of real emotion to them. Sadly, they are all too short and never really come up again. Jacqueline Hill's Barbara, however, gets a hinted romance with one of the Thals that is also tentative and rather sweet. The fact that the writers had to downplay the plot element because of the child target audience of the show actually works in its favor -- making it light instead of heavy-handed as most other emotional beats are here.

And therein lies one of the problems with the script -- Terry Nation goes rather heavy-handed on most of the elements. For example, it takes the "outsiders" of Ian, Barbara, Susan and the Doctor to teach the Thals to stand up for themselves -- gotta love that whiff of old-fashioned colonial attitude there. And when the Thals state that they would simply retreat if the Daleks attacked Ian and Barbara are rather horrified by the idea... this of course being a clumsy and thinly veiled attack on former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who went down in infamy for taking an appeasement approach to Nazi Germany. Viewers are also hammered with the idea that the Daleks hate the Thals for no good reason -- merely a dislike of "the Other" -- which is, again, an overly simplistic view of the practices of Nazi Germany. Although Nation was trying to put forth the dangers of radical fascism and the need to oppose them to children the message is sent home with rather more force than is required even for kids to get the idea.

There is one scene which, despite being as heavy handed as the rest, which still manages to soar with some lovely moral ambiguity and that is the scene in which the time travelers discuss getting the Thals to help them. Ian and Susan take the ground that it isn't right to ask the Thals to die for them and the Doctor and (surprisingly) Barbara take a more practical view that if they don't ask the Thals for help them they are condemning themselves to die or at the very least to being stranded on the planet for the rest of their lives. There is actually a good moral discussion here as it is pointed out that Ian and the Doctor have a moral duty to those in their charge but at the same time they also have a moral duty to not try to coerce the Thals into giving up their lives for something that will not benefit them.

For their part, the actors playing the Thals also get their meatiest moments around this discussion. There is something that actually feels rather right in their clinging to pacifism and even when they decide to go to war they do so with caution and deliberation rather than anger or vengeance.

It really is a bit of a shame, though, that almost all of the really interesting stuff -- the characterizations, fascinating dialogue, and moral discussions all come right smack in the middle of the serial... and most of the rest of the serial is like watching someone play a video game.

No, seriously, I realized it as I was watching the last two parts of the serial -- the whole thing seems like the levels of a video game... only with some really boring dialogue. And therein lies the second and third problems with this story -- it's formulaic and padded. Even with only one serial in existence before this one a pattern is starting to emerge -- our heroes get captured, our heroes escape, our heroes have to return to their captors, our heroes have to solve a problem or put a wrong right then they can leave. The trek to the Dalek city that Ian, Barbara and the Thals have to make leading up to the climax of this story really adds nothing to the overall tale. It provides some action/adventure bits but aside from that it doesn't really give us anything new about the Thals or about Ian and Barbara or even the Doctor and Susan. "The Daleks" ended up stretching for seven episodes and the padding quite frankly shows. Entire episodes where our heroes are stuck in a Dalek cell doing little but rehashing the stuff we already know or have already been shown (usually the rule is "show don't tell" or "tell don't show" the rule is never "tell and show"), entire episodes that don't really add anything to the overall story, etc. "The Daleks" probably could have been a really excellent four part story, maybe five parts but at seven parts it overstays it's welcome by far.

There are some other things which help offset the plotting problems. For one, while some of the special effects are not the best in the world the set designers really did a good job with the Dalek city. The low, asymmetrical doorways tell viewers immediately that the inhabitants of this city are not human in shape. They also lead to a palpable feeling of claustrophobia -- a sense that our heroes are trapped even before they really end up trapped. There is also some nice model work and the costumes for the Thals seem nicely alien. And the Daleks. Ah yes, the Daleks. Now, after the passage of all this time, it's rather impossible to imagine them looking or sounding any other way, really. For the time period, however, the design was quite revolutionary and looked like nothing else out there... and probably inspired many a mock Dalek battle at the dinner table using salt and pepper shakers.

Overall, while "The Daleks" definitely holds a place in Who history it suffers from the passage of time and too much padding. Still, there are some really great moments here and it is interesting to see the origins of the show's most iconic monsters. I'd say definitely give this one a watch... but keep the remote control handy to fast forward through the boring parts.

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