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Posts Tagged ‘Day of the Daleks’

One of the things you become aware of as a long-term Doctor Who fan (and by long term, I mean over a period of decades) is the way that certain stories and periods from the series’ past tend to drift in and out of fashion. You can even see it, I suppose, in the way that the once-beloved Tennant-Davies stories now don’t seem to be quite as adulated as they once were, although this could be because the series currently has a lot of very noisy new followers who tend to dismiss everything they weren’t around for first time.

Nearly everything written by Eric Saward was raved about on first broadcast but is now praised with rather more qualification, while Kinda, which was pasted back in 1982, has been recognised as a rather good story for quite a long time now. The Enemy of the World turned out to be a very pleasant surprise for many people when it turned up a few years ago. The list goes on. (Of course, there are also some stories the reputation of which never seems to significantly alter: Pyramids of Mars has – duh! – never gone out of fashion, The Twin Dilemma has never come into it.)

But if you really want to talk about about the bubble reputation with respect to Doctor Who, you have to start thinking in terms of Jon Pertwee: for much of the 80s the Third Doctor seemed universally beloved, with The Daemons being voted the best story of all time at one point. Then there was a notorious reappraisal of the whole era in the early 90s, with Pertwee’s characterisation criticised as that of a hypocritical, patronising egotist. These days, the pendulum seems to have swung back the other way, with the era as a whole scoring very solidly in the last major poll, and most sensible commentators (i.e., ones who agree with me) recognising the huge debt the modern series owes to the architects of the Pertwee stories.

One beneficiary of the passage of time seems to be Day of the Daleks, a 1972 story which at one point was routinely dismissed as being not quite up to scratch, but these days seems to have been rehabilitated to the point where it’s now considered a rather impressive piece of scripting let down by a few duff creative choices. Certainly, viewed objectively, there is more good than bad going on here.

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Another of those iconic publicity photos depicting a scene that never actually appears in the story itself…

Earth in the 1970s (or possibly 1980s), and the spectre of an apocalyptic world war looms large – which, given this is early 70s Doctor Who, basically means we hear about it over the UNIT HQ intercom a few times. Devastation on an unimaginable scale seems inevitable, unless diplomat Sir Reginald Styles can bring the different parties to the negotiating table. Unfortunately, the stress seems to be getting to Styles, as he seems to be seeing ghosts in his country residence…

UNIT are called in, bringing the Doctor with them, and he rapidly concludes that the ghosts are indeed phantoms – not of the past, but the future. But the time travellers coming back are ruthless, heavily-armed guerilla soldiers, seemingly intent on murdering Styles, and in pursuit of them are the brutal, simian Ogrons. Forces in the future are determined to stop the guerillas’ mission – and at the head of those forces are the Daleks…

Day of the Daleks was, as is well-known, a Dalek-free zone in its first draft, and there were various ructions when the production team put them in without clearing it with Terry Nation first. It is true to say that the Daleks are not exactly centre-stage in Day of the Daleks, and when they are on-screen their realisation leaves quite a lot to be desired – the Dalek voices sound peculiar, and the BBC’s shortage of Dalek props becomes painfully obvious when the Daleks invade the 20th century in force during the climax and a grand total of three of them turn up. If you are a Dalek fan, this story is probably going to be a big disappointment to you (I suggest you soften the blow by watching the DVD special edition, which fixes some of the worst problems).

My suspicion is that the story’s worst failings in this respect are down to a combination of the usual production exigencies (no time, no money) and a director – Paul Bernard – who didn’t really have a handle on the material. Bernard lets some of his supporting cast get away with some extremely eccentric performances – the ‘no complications’ Ogron being only the most obvious – he obviously doesn’t quite know what a Dalek actually sounds like, his handling of some of the CSO is almost painful, and he manages to fluff the editing of more than one of the cliffhangers.

For a long time the fan consensus on Day of the Daleks was that it is a sub-par story because the Daleks aren’t in it much and the climactic battle is rather underwhelming. The latter is largely a production/budgetary issue, and the former is probably a result of the fact that the Daleks themselves were parachuted into the script to give the story another hook and a bit more punch. If you were minded to, I suppose you could blame Louis Marks for not totally reworking the story to put the Daleks at the heart of the story, but this would mean a radical change to what’s already a very solid script.

I hate to be bashing Terry Nation again, but if you compare Day of the Daleks with the two other Nation-scripted Pertwees, it’s a considerably more sophisticated piece of work – the pointless end-of-episode-one Dalek reveal is dispensed with, there are subtleties of characterisation and presentation, and underpinning it all is Doctor Who’s first and most elegant time paradox storyline. It’s not exactly an original concept, but then the programme’s always been more about repackaging literary SF ideas for a mass audience than originating its own.

I think I would rather see the Daleks taking a more peripheral – but still very significant – role in a story as interesting as this one, than being the sole raison d’etre of a tired cosmic ramble like Planet of the Daleks. Looking beyond the Daleks to the story itself reveals something which isn’t perfect, but has a lot going for it.

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