Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Serial 72: Death to the Daleks

Doctor: Jon Pertwee (3rd Doctor)
Companions: Sarah Jane

Written by: Terry Nation
Directed by: Michael Briant

Background & Significance: My question? What's up with the title?

Pertwee's final season is something of an odd bird. For one thing, we're long past the point where The Doctor is having proper UNIT adventures, so he's s free to swan off to wherever and whenever he wants, and he does. Which is good and he earned it and I'm happy for him... But it feels...

This story sees the return of the Daleks for the third season in a row. It's weird how The Daleks always move in waves. They appear like crazy in the Dalekmania of the first four seasons of Doctor Who and then just kinda... disappear for the rest of Troughton's run and then for the first two years of Pertwee and then appear like clockwork for four years. Although it's interesting to see how much the Daleks just become your standard, rote villains after a so many rote and unimportant or uninteresting appearances. They've just shown up too much and they've become stagnant (after just three Pertwee appearances), so it was time for The Daleks to get a massive, game-changing reboot in "Genesis of the Daleks", but I suppose that's another discussion.

It also sees the return of Terry Nation for Doctor Who. Nation, of course, gets first crack at writing any Dalek story because... god knows creative rights (which I'm all for, I just wish Nation was a better writer), but... man. Terry Nation. But I'll save the rest of that thought for commentary.

As a final point before we dive head long into the bulk of the discussion, it was around this time that Pertwee was starting to really become disillusioned with the programme, bored and ready to move on and all that. Of course this disillusionment/boredom happens with a Dalek story. I mean, Pertwee never exactly kept it secret that he totally never ever did have a thing for the fan-favourite pepper potts.

But with the slow weaning off of Pertwee we get the prominence of Robert Holmes, who you can almost feel conducting the background of the first episode at the very least. And... well... you know me. I loves me some Robert Holmes.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

Woof. What a part one.

I think one of the things that grabs me about this part one is the total grizzly factor of it. I recently heard an interpretation of this story that basically broke it down into as a proto-Hinchcliffe/Holmes Gothic Horror story, and while I think that breakdown falls apart more and more as the story goes on (to the point where the last two episodes feel like completely standard Terry Nation Doctor Who), I totally see it in this first episode. In spades.

For one thing, the drain on The TARDIS is awesome and freaky. It’s not unusual to see something draining the life/power out of the TARDIS (but it was done better in "Enlightenment" and “The Doctor’s Wife”, but hey. Everything’s done better in "Enlightenment" and “The Doctor’s Wife”), but what helps with that is the Terry Nation effect of having a pre-planned endgame for this particular power drain idea, which is awesome when it comes back around at the end with the Daleks opening fire on our fellows in that cliffhanger that’s… well… solid, but not perfect.

But I’m getting away from my thoughts. This power drain, yes.

This power drain leads to various Gothic tropes, perhaps the most obvious of which is (not Sarah Jane’s outfit, no. Although that is a pretty sweet, badass outfit) the oil lamp The Doctor uses to help light the TARDIS and the world beyond once the power goes out. And honestly? Great touch. It’s always awesome to see anachronistic or less-than-often-seen props. It’s cool and totally feels very Holmesian in the way it’s created. Now, maybe it’s not, but a lot of this episode feels like it’s got some Robert Holmes so it’s probably not a coincidence. I mean, we know that Holmes was shadowing Terrence Dicks at this point because of his imminent replacement in the role of script editor.

Ack! Sidetracked!

Anyways, this is a strong first episode, thanks in large part to director Michael Briant, who… man. He shot the ever loving crap out of this first part. For one thing, this quarry doesn’t look like a quarry at all. It really does have the feel of an intricate planet complete with paths and trails. He also shoots most of the story in dark locales and twilight location shoots. It was rare for Doctor Who to shoot at night or what not (because it was ridiculously expensive) so seeing it here is jarring and… honestly totally awesome for tonal reasons. Normally Doctor Who is just a daytime show, but to see it at the magic hour just totally gives it an awesome feel that I really appreciate.

…. You can tell how much I love this episode by how much I’m going on tangents.

We also have Terry Nation not being a total mad man. Which is awesome. But it’s weird because he’s definitely all over this episode. He doesn’t even try to shield the fact that he is.

Look at all the Terry Nation staples. Big ol’ sci-fi ideas (big giant magic city!), companion and Doctor separated early on and forced to deal with their own storylines (nevermind that The Doctor PROMISED Sarah Jane he wouldn’t leave and then he does ten seconds (no joke) later), random TARDIS tricks that are NEVER mentioned before or after (the door opens by hand-crank? I mean, I suppose that’s clever and neat but wtf?).

Oh. And the opening minute totally doesn’t feel like the opening to “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”. Totally not at all.

But taken separately, this is just a fantastic episode. There’s a real sense of horror and mystery and excitement going on. I mean the bits with the Exxilons (as we’d come to call them later) is totally excellent, especially the part where there’s one in the TARDIS while Sarah Jane races to get back inside. That whole sequence is just total 70s horror movie and just… fantastic. I really just… yes to that. Yes yes to that.

Also to Pertwee hand-fighting Exxilons. In the dark. Awesome.

Oh and we meet some hapless Earth scientist expedition people. Which is alright, I guess. Honestly, that’s where this story really kinda feels a little flat for me. Nevermind that they have bows and arrows (which, admittedly is cool), but what kind of expedition KNOWS about the imminent threat of the Exxilons out in the nearby wilderness and then has the whole party leave the base camp because they think the rescue ship is there? How many people does it take to greet a rescue ship? At least leave someone behind?

Fine, maybe you don’t really care about your camp because the rescue ship has arrived. (Setting aside the fact that it’s not the right ship and that it’s, in fact, carrying Daleks) and you so don’t need those meager supplies or that entire base camp of yours.

But seriously? One of your men is wounded. And badly. And you leave him completely undefended and at the mercy of the hostile aliens that you know are both there and hostile? Seriously? What kind of a party are you? The kind that strings out your own men simply because of the promise of fresh water? What happened to all those team-building exercises and trust falls? We’re going to have to go back to the drawing board if that’s the case. And that’s sad. Guy gets killed cuz of that.

Ah well. Daleks showed up. Now we’re in for some fun. Or not.

Part 2:

And then for some reason Terry Nation showed up.

It’s totally jarring to suddenly go from the gothic horror of the previous episode to suddenly find ourselves in uninspired, boring, Terry Nation land.

Not that this episode isn’t good in its own ways. Most episodes are, but man oh man does Terry Nation not inspire confidence in much of anything. And part of this is down to Michael Briant (whom I think is a very good director), but the action sequences he’s set to direct are just so boring that he milks the best he can out of them, but at the end of the day the Exxilons shooting the science team is just kinda boring.

And that’s not even just the action sequences. Suddenly the story comes to a grinding halt as we spend the whole entire story just waiting for something, anything to happen.

I mean, what happens with Sarah Jane? Not a damn thing. What happens with The Doctor? Not really even a damn thing (he’s captured, I suppose). Even the Exxilons are left just standing around and chanting and singing and not being terribly inventive and it really almost feels like we’re back to square one with the whole story, which is nothing but completely totally mad disappointing because the first episode was so action packed and cool and intriguing, but I guess maintaining that is too hard for Mad Man Terry Nation.

Granted, the end of this episode definitely has some more intrigue and excitement, especially the chaos of The Daleks bursting in and busting skulls, but that leads to a slightly different place.

No, what I’m talking about is the intrigue and excitement of exploring these underground caves and seeing where it takes Sarah Jane and The Doctor. Nevermind that Sarah Jane is completely and utterly wasted and useless here (such a shame) because…well… like I said earlier, she was stuck behind, waiting for The Doctor to rescue her from being a sacrifice for the Exxilons. But even later in the story The Doctor and her split up so The Doctor can go gallivanting around and exploring on his own.

Which brings me to Terry Nation’s Daleks.

Good god. I know Terry Nation gave us The Daleks and glory be to he who did that, but Jesus Christ can I never stand his own interpretation of his creations. Or I mean I can, but Terry Nation just never DOES anything original with them, or at least anything that makes me say “this is the sort of story that you can only do with Daleks.” It’s like “Tomb of the Cybermen”. Imagine that story with anything but Cybermen and it’s instantly not as cool or compelling. I suppose you could argue that here. Daleks being here makes the story cooler, I suppose, but I can’t say that they’re contributing anything to the story.

What we get instead are Daleks who spend their time being pushed around. Literally. These Daleks are scheming, yes, but at no point do I buy them as the evil menace to the universe. They’re here to be funny and silly. They’re screaming about getting pushed away by savage Exxilons and then to explode after getting beaten a few times. Perhaps Nation threw this in as a way of saying that the Exxilons mean business and they will mess you up, but really all it makes me think about is how utterly lame and useless this Dalek was. And when the Daleks are useless…

Sigh. It’s just not a good Daleks story. Sure, there are cool things like the projectile Dalek guns, but do they really make up for the fact that Terry Nation is not supporting the Daleks the way he should be?

Look back at the other Terry Nation Dalek stories. There’s his first one, which is the “last” Dalek story or whatever. And then the Daleks invade earth, which is big and exciting and epic and meaningful and all that. And then the Daleks chase The Doctor and his companions across time and space, and while it turned out bad in the final product, at least it’s a somewhat decent idea. And then there’s the big space epic "The Daleks’ Master Plan", which is giant and sweeping in scope. Hell, even Terry Nation’s last Dalek story was totally Dalek-based and at least marginally interesting.

But seriously. Why are the Daleks here? What are they contributing? What is the main thrust of The Daleks in this story? The answer is not much. They’re here for comedy and to heighten the stakes. But what stakes? I watched this whole episode and The Daleks did absolutely nothing except shoot and blow up a little mini TARDIS model. Granted, that’s cool, but that’s not a reason to tell a Dalek story. And what does Terry Nation’s vision of the Daleks bring up here? What does he do with his creations that’s new and interesting and exciting? Hell, I’ll even take a generic mission statement.

No, Terry Nation is playing his creations for laughs and jokes and to make them silly and useless. Which is totally pointless.

I mean, look at the two other major Dalek interpretations before and after Terry Nation. They at least attempted to do something cool with our Skaro friends. David Whitaker’s interpretation was about the Daleks' place in the universe as they relate to humans and what separates men from Daleks (something echoed decades later by Robert Shearman). His Daleks were scheming and plotting and always steps ahead of the humans. They were menacing and evil and all that…

And now I’m going to do something I never thought I’d ever do. I’m going to defend Eric Saward.

Because look. For all of his faults on writing the show (and I’m first in line to tell you every last bloody one of them), he did get the feel of The Daleks right. The Daleks are mean and evil. They’re ruthless and relentless and they’re tyrants. If some Exxilons came up and starting pushing a Sawardian Dalek around, that Dalek would jack him up, regardless of whether or not its gun was working or not. That, at least, is a clear, specific vision for The Daleks and in line with what we know from Terry Nation’s first show of them.

But now what are they? They’re reduced to nothing. The Doctor and the scientists outnumber the Daleks five to four. And that leaves the Daleks on the defensive? Are you kidding me? One Dalek is enough to wipe out an entire colony. And now the Daleks (FOUR OF THEM) are outnumbered by ONE and they’re suddenly forced into an alliance? I’m sorry but this is just stagnant and not good Daleks, and from their creator, too. That’s pathetic and it shows you the sheer apathy and lack of creativity he has when it comes to them.

That’s a real shame, because he’s literally diminishing the power of the creatures that literally made Doctor Who.

Part 3:

For all of Terry Nation’s faults, I inevitably feel that he hits on the childlike wonder I always find myself drawn to. He captures that sorta feel of adventure and excitement regardless of his stories.

When I say that childlike wonder, I’m talking specifically about logic puzzles that exist purely as a test to see if you can make it to the end of the thing. It’s completely ludicrous and insane if you start to put any thought or contemplation into it, but it’s kinda fun and exciting and totally… I dunno. You don’t see that sorta thing anymore, and it’s kind of sad, if you ask me. It has a pulp feel and it feels good. And I really like it because it forces our main characters to start thinking for themselves in order to save the day.

That said, this story has a weird feeling that this is the second episode of the story rather than the third. I feel like we should know more for being three episodes in. We’re only just now learning vital statistics about the giant mystery city that’s a big deal.

That feels wrong to me. It feels like we should be farther along than we are. Why are we only now learning about the roots (that never appear after this episode) and the benevolent Exxilons who live beneath the service? Shouldn’t we have learned this last episode? I mean, it’s not like we have too much more story left to go through.

There’s also things that are happening in this episode if only for the sake of them happening. Like the root attack on the mining camp. I don’t understand what purpose that served. Is it supposed to make us fear the root? Are they scaring people away?

It’s because of stuff like this that I come down on Terry Nation as a writer. He’s got the good ideas, but he doesn’t ever do anything with them. He just kinda throws them out there and sees what happens, which doesn’t really work at all. The idea of roots and such is really interesting, but it doesn’t feel like they’re used very much at all. Which is stupid. Why have it in an episode if you’re not going to utilize it?

And it’s because of that that I find this story boring. It’s so bland and unexciting. There’s nothing propelling me forward, nothing I care about. And that’s all unfortunate and stuff. I wish… I just really wish it weren’t.

Also, Sarah Jane is totally wasted in this. Again. Can you believe that? What a huge waste of time for her.

Part 4:

And then we come to the end. And the story ends.

The majority of this episode revolves around The Doctor hanging out with his rogue little buddy Exxilon as they continue to navigate the perils of the eternal city in an attempt to shut it down and bring the power/energy back to their ships and to end its tyranny, I guess. And it’s all well and fun and exciting. There’s a cool game of what The Doctor calls “Venusian hopscotch” (which is really just hopscotch but with a touch of duck footing at times) and a crazy light that makes the little Exxilon go mad and crazy and want to shoot The Doctor and some insanity driving forces or whatever. I dunno. It happens.

But really, my prevailing questions in this story come down to the choices Terry Nation chooses to make when it comes to the execution of the story. The biggest of them (besides maybe the all-important “Why are the Daleks even in this story” question) is “Why isn’t this little Exxilon just Sarah Jane?"

I mentioned it briefly at the end of the last part, but it’s even more true here. The Doctor and his little Exxilon friend are making their way through the citadel and why? No reason. Terry Nation just created this cute little friend to be The Doctor’s sidekick/companion for this part of the adventure. And that’s… that’s just a weird choice.

To add insult to injury, it’s not like what Sarah Jane is doing is that much more important or influential for the storyline. She’s only in one other scene while apart from The Doctor and that scene is just to tell another person to go grab some bags.

That’s a shame. I’d be much more interested/excited in the citadel sequence if it was just Sarah Jane and The Doctor and it was her ass on the line rather than some random non-important’s. I’d be more invested in her turning a gun against The Doctor or her getting attacked by anti-bodies. And it’s just… it’s such an odd choice. It’s almost like Terry Nation doesn’t have a frakkin clue to do with this companion or asset to his storytelling, so what he does instead is shunt them to the side and give their job to someone else.

It’s baffling.

Oh and far be it for me to absolutely forget this, but man. What the hell is this music? I mean, it’s a saxophone quartet, but it just further undermines the effectiveness of The Daleks here. The Daleks are not a smooth jazz quartet sound. They’re not the sort of things you have playing over Scooby and Shaggy wandering around a haunted house, sneaking and looking for clues. Because that’s what it sounds like here. That’s not Daleks. Please. And I hate saying “that’s not” because it sounds so pretentious like I’m some sort of decider person (which I’m clearly not), but it definitely puts me in the Terry Nation mentality and all that. The music matches these Daleks. And that’s a frakkin crime.

Wait, it’s the same music as from the guy who did the music to “The Silurians”? That actually makes a LOT of sense.

Anyways. Like I was saying, the Daleks in this are frakking pathetic. I mean sure, Terry Nation, you gave The Daleks cool projectile machine guns or whatever, but that doesn’t make them menacing. The Daleks in this have been kicked around and beaten up and blown up. They whine and complain and moan and are fearful and weak. I’m sorry, Mr. Nation, but The Daleks don’t fear things. They don’t go down because an citadel-generated antibody starts punching them. Daleks don’t get scared. This is just pathetic. Is this what you want of your creations? For them to be walking jokes?

But it’s not even that. What happens when The Daleks have finished with someone? What happens when someone outlives their usefulness?

That’s right. The Daleks exterminate their ass. They go in and they kill the person and they don’t look back. But here, The Daleks have “won” (but won what?) and they have The Doctor and the scientist crew (what’s left of them) sitting around, pinned. And what does The Dalek do? It just lets them live, saying “Well we’re going to bomb the planet anyways. No use wasting ammo on you guys. You’ll be dead soon enough.”

And I’m sorry, but screw that. Screw. That. The Dalek wastes SO much time explaining things to The Doctor and the people around him when really it could have just shot the lot of them and been done with it. Or better yet? Not even talked about it anymore.

First thing a Dalek does when it gets through using The Doctor? Kills him. EVERYONE knows that. And sure, fine. You can’t kill the 3rd Doctor (not yet, anyways), but you could at least do something interesting with it. But no. Terry Nation just has NO idea what to do with his creatures so he plays them for slapstick comedy and totally wastes them. What a waste.

If there is a good thing I like about the story, it’s that the one guy sacrifices himself to destroy the Dalek ship.

But really, I think that’s only cool because it happens, not because it’s paid off. Very little attention is paid to the commanding officer dude, the guy who carries it out. It just kinda happens and doesn’t really satisfy any emotional craving or whatever. And that’s sad because it really should be the tragic OH NO and NOT HIM! But it doesn’t even serve that. There was something a while back, but his story has been so completely backgrounded that I wonder why they even bothered.

Which is really a great way to describe this story.

Final Thoughts?: So I can't really say this is a quality story.  

Don't get me wrong, there's some cool stuff in here. Terry Nation (as always) comes up with some cool and clever ideas. The idea of a giant living breathing city that's indestructible is totally clever and cool, especially when you start introducing things like demon roots and all that. 

But it's when you get past the ideas that Terry Nation's stories inevitably always fall apart, and it's why I can't really be a fan of his work over all. Anyone can have an imagination. Absolutely anyone can. But it's bringing that imagination to a full and cohesive and exciting story that makes something good. Set pieces alone do not make for good storytelling. Anyone can do the scene in which the root lifts from the lake and starts blowing things up. But I honestly don't care about anything in that scene, so why am I caring about the set piece? 

It's also something else to use that imagination and harness it and milk it for all its worth. There's so much in this story that feels completely dismissed and disregarded after just a few seconds. The roots are only a menace in two or three scenes and only in the third episode. The city itself doesn't even make a real solid appearance until halfway through episode three. I mean, it's there for a nice little cameo with Sarah Jane towards the end of episode one, but then it's gone. Completely wasted too, are the Exxilons. At no point do I get any sense of society or anything. We're told very little and it's not interesting enough to keep me invested, and by the time we're told that they're already reduced to hard mining for little to no reason whatsoever, which completely writes them out of the story to the point where by the final part they're completely backgrounded and do literally not a damn thing. 

So I can't really say I'm a huge fan of Terry Nation stories. What I do love about them is how mad they are and how they're completely insane for the sake of being insane, with weird choices (they really left that dying guy alone to be stolen and beaten by Exxilons!) and big ideas, but very rarely a cohesive whole. 

The saddest casualty of this is The Daleks themselves. Terry Nation wrote the majority of the Dalek stories in the Classic series (8 of the 14, if you must know), and it's sad that most of Terry Nation's own stories with his own most famous creations are.... well they're not very good, are they? He literally runs out of uses for them after "Master Plan" (and "The Chase" is perfect Terry Nation, if you ask me) so that by the time he's out of the Dalekmania era (or even writing non-Hartnell Dalek stories), they just feel stagnant and boring. 

The only exception to this rule is "Genesis of the Daleks", but Terry Nation wasn't even happy with that at all. And it probably was mostly page-one rewritten and polished by script editor Robert Holmes. Put Terry Nation back on the Daleks for his final story (and with Davros no less) and we get "Destiny of the Daleks", which is... well... it's horrendous, isn't it? 

So here was have "Death to the Daleks", a story which doesn't really benefit from a Dalek presence and which doesn't really have anything special to it. The ideas that are here are not fully developed, and you can tell that Terry Nation has literally run out of things to do with his creations. What cool happens in here with the Daleks besides giving them new guns (which are just okay when you get right down to it) and blowing up a bunch of casings? Not much, really?

Which brings me full circle: Just what is that title is all about? 

The rumour is that the title was Robert Holmes's idea. Holmes himself made it no secret that he was bored by the Daleks and didn't find them particularly interesting and he made this title as a huge dig at The Daleks and what he wanted to have happen to them. And the weird thing is that he wasn't really that wrong. If anything, it is the final Daleks story and the Death to them as they were originally conceived. After this we see the rise of Davros and the appearance of him in every single subsequent Classic Dalek story and history changes once The Doctor goes back and unintentionally convinces Davros to make plans to survive his creations. Suddenly Davros is a factor and a threat and Dalek history becomes completely different. 

So with that, we see The "Death to the Daleks", but also see a possible death, a story of what happens when they're completely useless and poorly used. Why bother having them at all in this story? It wouldn't make a difference. And that's really where Daleks head, if that's the case. Stagnation means they'll have to go back in the toy box for a while until someone can come up with something clever or neat to do with them. No point having them be totally useless. I mean, sure, they're a ratings bump. But at what point do people get tired of seeing them and they suddenly make people want to stay away? 

If it's a story like this? Well... it'd make them stay away and lead to a Death of a sort indeed.

Next Time!: 2nd Doctor! Jamie and Zoe! Six parts that should be four! Drawn out stories! Early Robert Holmes! And of course, endless discussions on reconstructions! "The Space Pirates!" Coming Next Tuesday!

1 comment:

  1. Definitely one of my least favorite stories. I don't have much time for season 11, except for Time Warrior.