Doctor Who: End of the Daleks – “Ghosts from the future” (Whovember #3)

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Daleks, as they are prone to do, show up more often than not.  Before the great sea change of season 12, Jon Pertwee’s third Doctor faced the last of a timeline across three seasons.  On Skaro, that’s called the end of an era.

#3: Day of the Daleks, Planet of the Daleks and Death to the Daleks.

THEY’D BEEN AWAY A WHILE THOSE PEPPER POTS.  Last seen in 1967 when they’d opened and closed the fourth season, the Daleks return at the start of season 9 was a big event.  That first duel is an ambitious tale, one that proved a bit of a stretch in its production actually pushed the crazed mutants onto the back-burner in favour of that real old enemy: time itself.  Day of the Daleks at least attempted something new, but within a year it was outshone by the return of their creator.  No, not that chap.  It was Terry Nation who returned for the subsequent two seasons to provide a homely, intriguing throwback serial in each.  The Third Doctor may never have faced the Cybermen on screen, but he certainly got his fill of Daleks.  What’s more he finished them off.  As much as the latter two of the Pertwee Dalek stories pay tribute to the past, Day of the Daleks hints at a future that would be full of paradox and change…

Day of the Daleks (Season Nine, 1972)

What a great name, and apt – this is all about time.  And of course, as with modern Who – amid the era-typical UNIT posturing, uppity Knights of the Realm and Doctor’s wine theft – it can get a little confusing.  This is the serial where the Daleks have properly taken on the paradoxes of space-time, although they seem to wilfully ignore them.  Forget the time corridors and the like, this is the story that fits before the First Doctor story The Chase.  Set rather statically on Earth, it’s unlikely that it was their successful capture of Earth that prompted their temporal breakthrough.  But it is likely that their loss of that planet prompted their later pursuit of the First Doctor.  Having lost Earth twice was a step too far.  Later Who-lore introduced a Dalek Time Controller who can see beyond its current Timeline (similar to Time Lords, this must be more from technology than physiognomy) and would no doubt miserably impart that second defeat to fuel some hate.  It must be a patchy but clinical case of trial and error, Dalek temporal experimentation.  The fact that the Daleks don’t recognise the Third Doctor adds to this timeline, although could also fit in with the time-bothering Evil of the Daleks as well.

However, the real cameo in Louis Marks’ tale of time is the Blinovitch Limitation Effect.  A brilliant and inspired temporal block that… will forever remain vague and unexplained.  While earlier serials like The Space Museum had tackled the concept of time, this was the first one to properly take it on and all the inherent paradoxes therein.

The concept is sci-fi huge – terrorists travelling back in time to avert a conference that led to their timeline.  Unfortunately, as might be expected, the inherent paradoxical problems are also huge.  Of interest is the Earth of the future, with the silver blushed humans operating under a collaborating Controller who very possibly believes that he’s working for the survival of humanity.  It’s a fine twist on the classic Who trope ‘we can’t possibly fight the Daleks’.  Early on in the story, the concept of the ghosts of time are well explored (that is the real implication of the story after all) and there’s always room for a haunted house in Doctor Who.  The biggest bonus of the story though, has to be UNIT versus Daleks…  And of course, versus the Ogrons.  The Doctor infamously and mercilessly disintegrates one of them during the course of this tale – but then they are silly goits.  And that’s not to say that the Doctor is a darker, uncaring sort in this story – he shows massive concern for his cape at all junctures.  In fact, his first tussle with the Ogrons comes just because he’d left it in the study…

The oddest thing in a tightly coiled story that could never really overcome its central paradox?  The duplicate Jo and Doctor we see at the start.  How and why they appear is never revealed.  And odd side effect of episodic Who perhaps, but one that quite undermines a story based on cause and effect.  That meeting must have happened in temporal proximity as they are in the same clothes.  That we don’t see it is bizarre.  Ghosts of the future.

As the adventure unravels, the servant and Dalek factor shenanigans of the Second Doctor’s tenure is continued as the Daleks craftiness returns to time-space opera (away from the narrow confines of Troughton’s colonial/Victorian battles).  Or perhaps it’s simply the inevitable laziness that comes from Dalek hubris and one of their plans going right? Still, Marks sole stab at Dalek tales is a great success in terms of concept.  A proto-Terminator, it sits oddly in the Pertwee era.  Oh, there are crazier things in store, but the Dalek assault on a country house ticks boxes.

There’s an essential irony here, with the Dalekanium final, pivotal bomb an interesting if convenient creation.  That is not to say that the Daleks do much else.  It’s rather important that the Daleks main role is exploitation.  Their actions are mainly in defence of a timeline in which they have already won.  No doubt they hold that dear, which begs the question why they trust so much to humans until the last – at which point they send a rather insignificant extermination force back in time.  Still, having already exploited a hundred year war, they are minded to protect it against their own technology purloined by guerrilla humans, even if that timeline was created by their own technology.  They could have run a number of logical scenario projections, but for them and us it isn’t just timey-wimey…

Day of the Daleks has a powerful legacy, thanks to its ripping concept and timely VHS release.  The controller, his look and design would cast a long shadow over The Long Game and Bad Wolf of the revived series one.  But talking of exploitation…

Planet of the Daleks (Season Ten, 1973)

Planet of the Daleks may come at the end of an epic arc now known as Dalek War alongside previous adventure Frontier in Space, but it’s a simple sci-fi heavy take of Dalek exploitation once again.  You can always rely on Terry Nation to supply a rollickingly traditional tale.  Planet will always be a favourite of mine, this particular viewing coming on the 20th anniversary of the BBC repeat in 1993.  Of course, that anniversary means we are practically the same distance away from that repeat as it was from the original broadcast.

That’s not worth thinking about, and in any event, but tale isn’t about time.  It’s another chrono-easingly jam-packed space adventure full of solid sci-fi concepts and helpful aliens.  It’s rather loosely connected to Frontier, but several points add significant weight.  The return of the Thals for the first time since The Daleks is a joy.  Now an intergalactic combat force that regard the Doctor and Earth as equal legends, they are not simply a neat throwback but make for one of the better realised allies in Whodom.  It’s enough to take your mind away from questioning how Thals and Daleks timeshare Skaro, but presumably the Daleks are in one of their more galaxy focussed phases, leaving the planet to the Thals until they conquer it again.  These affable, reluctant but war-ready Thals are a nice development.  They’re different from human portrayals in the series, and there’s a nice continuity in their feeling of responsibility and how their millennia long war has spread to the stars.  The planet Spiridon is presumably near to Skaro in galactic terms.  It’s named as a planet in the ninth system by the Thals, adding nice speculation as to how this fits in with the seven galaxies we find out that Ancient Skaro residents (Kaleds anyway) were aware of (as we find out in two Dalek stories time).

So, here the Daleks are at their terra-exploitationary best.  The ice core is important, but the distinctive abilities of the planet’s inhabitants are a real bonus.  Dalek invisibility is a silly ploy, although it makes for a classic cliff-hanger at the end of the first part.  Terry Nation sure knows how to craft some cliff-hangers.  The real killer in Planet comes with the revelation that the planet Spiridon houses the largest Dalek attack force in history…  Cue some rather adorable miniature work that no man-child Dalek toy collector could ignore.  With the cryogenic suspension courtesy of the of the planet’s frozen core there’s a solid and brilliant centre to the plot.  Of course there has to be a refrigeration unit, and also a giant bloody ventilation shaft.  That cliff-hangers a favourite – all the better since part three was colour remastered…  Planet is a romp, and solid return by Terry Nation.  Yes, it depletes the Daleks a little, especially when Jo grant grapples one.  But being pushed into a (frozen) lake, having their vision by coats impaired and sluggishly waking from cryogenic suspension – that’s all part of the slightly silly appeal they’ve always had.  Same as it ever was – sometimes they are simply Dalek.  And a special word for the Daleks left at the whim of the Kamikaze tray spilling Spiridon:  Trapped for eternity, we hear panic and fear.  And that’s rather affecting.

Death to the Daleks (Season Eleven, 1974)

Death to the Daleks occupies a similarly warm place to Planet in my cold, mutated, green heart (of the future).  It’s just about the first Doctor Who VHS I owned, and probably one of my most watched – although not as much in recent years.  I remember having to repair the plastic sleeve cover, using a rather crude sticky back plastic solution when I first found it in a rather disreputable shop.  And that’s a pretty good analogy for what the Daleks have to do in a classic science fiction tale of an ‘EMP’ planet that necessitates that traditional Dalek guns are replaced by machine guns. Death gets a lot of stick, perceived as a further slide in Dalek dominance.  It’s a fair argument, although it’s unfortunate considering that some of the latter set pieces are well realised homages to the earlier monster led Dalek adventures, ideas that Terry Nation had those in spades.

Yes, I’m going to say it again, Nation brings some heavy sci-fi tropes to the planet Exillon.  There’s the stone age civilisation in awe of an ancient, technologically advanced, long abandoned city.  There’s the compelling concept of that city as sentient being– so good that the Doctor’s journey through its immune system would be picked up by the far better regarded Pyramids on Mars.  Nation pulls out that idea of an immune system, with its literal antibodies in the effective hermetically sealed control room at the end, replete with distracted Doctor and evaporating corpses (a neat play on the watching alien idea).  Most of all though, Death is Doctor Who’s version of Alien 3.  It’s a similar attempt to depower and even the odds a little between two opposing forces.  Unfortunately, that idea seldom works.

There’s a ruggedness about latter Pertwee that I can only put down to the Doctor’s flatter sense of velvet, the lack of Master and of course, the wonderful Sarah Jane Smith.  The opening scenes are brilliant, with the prolonged, physical escape from the depowered TARDIS and the long earth furrows of the alien world with its rising steam…

Once again, of course, the Doctor encounters a band of space explorers.  But here, the usual dissent in the ranks is a little more developed.  This time the resentful humans are forced to work with Daleks and we and they are well aware of their own flawed characters.  Despite that intrigue, they struggle to compete with the wonderfully realised Thals of Planet.  The most interesting arc is that of the unlikable Galloway (yes, bearded Scottish, alliance forming Galloway), especially the saddening and sickening way he takes control against the orders of the dying commander that only he heard.  Of course, there is redemption by the end…

“Living, bubbling lumps of hate” is how the Doctor describes the Dalek mutations here – charming.  It may be true, but sits a little uneasily with Daleks who are taken out one by one as if they are in an old Skaro slasher film, all while they confer about their own duplicity.  Maybe that’s Dalek morality for you.

You could put this down to their arrogance on a lesser world if it wasn’t for that darn catchy Dalek incidental music…  Still it’s not long before their exploitation grows from a chemical warfare to a  marriage of convenience with the humans and on to their comfortable enslavement of the stone age Exillons (later oil analogies add a nuance).  Unfortunately, those indigenous inhabitants are a little similar to the Spiridons with their big coats.  They may have a little more reason to have them on their inhospitable quarry planet, but it ruins their quite effective design.  Like large rock possums, it’s strange that everyone seems immune to the Exillons large eyes.  Not that most of them aren’t as homicidal as they are superstitious.

Still, it’s wise to consider Death as one of the middle tale in Dalek history, easy in a  long stretched campaign of empire building between their protracted origins and new time line.  If you do, Death offers a few odd moments of brilliance.  One is the Third Doctor’s commentary of the Dalek versus City root in the caverns.  Another is the quite striking, but epically long pagan sacrifice of Sarah 9made for 5.1) – that the Doctor rather recklessly, albeit rightly, physically attacks (not out of character for him in a Dalek tale).  The sight of the Daleks equipped with machine guns is striking and effective, in fact it’s one that stayed with me for years.  Machine guns suit them, even if their quick change is a bit of a stretch.

As defaulting to that the ‘EMP’ plot suggests, the Daleks were in need of some fresh blood by this point.  While Marks had created an interesting plot in Day of the Daleks, it didn’t need Daleks as much as it needed a time conceit.  Nation brought a very specific tone back to the two third Doctor Dalek tales that followed, and they are very much Dalek tales.  In both, world conquering Daleks use their general sneakiness to extend their universal war aims.  They’re exploitative in all three tales, and in all three bring does one of their unique characteristics come to the fore.  The Daleks may be logical, but they are by no means unemotional.  In turn, whether the Doctor teams up with Thals or humans to defeat them, the language and plans he hatches are the same.  By this point, they are locked in a fixed battle that would foreshadow the later ideology clash of the Time Lords and the Daleks.

Across three years and 14 episodes (not including Frontier), Pertwee’s dandy action Doctor provided a satisfactory end to the Daleks’ early 1970s stage.  However, the necessary change was imminent.  While the Doctor’s call for Time Lord help in Planet may show an skirmish in the later Time War, it would be with his next Dalek tale that Nation would sow their new future.  With first refusal on Dalek stories and a mythos that needed stemming, it’s not so surprising that Nation would mix things up, but that he would do it so soon and so effectively.  Not only would Season 12 reset the Dalek timeline, but arguably reduce the pepper pots to second string players until the 2005 revival.  After an interesting and reverential final trilogy, it would soon be time to meet their other father, a ghost from the past…

TIMEY-WIMEY:  Read on for the Fourth Doctor’s whole new scarf in Whovember #4!

6 thoughts on “Doctor Who: End of the Daleks – “Ghosts from the future” (Whovember #3)”

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