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Doctor Who: Day of the Daleks – Special Edition (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Day of the Daleks originally aired in 1972.

Day of the Daleks is a rather wonderful little story that’s been tucked away and forgotten about due its fairly lousy execution. After all, it’s hard to take a story particularly seriously when it suggests that the fate of the world will be decided by an assault on an old country house by three Daleks and a handful of extras. The wonderful people on the Doctor Who Restoration Team have done a wonderful job putting together a special edition of the adventure, using enhanced CGI effects and new footage to give the story the scale that it really deserves. After all, Day of the Daleksrepresents a bold attempt to do something new with the time travel at the very heart of the series.

Dawn of the Daleks...

I think Pertwee-era Doctor Who really had a stronger social consciousness than any other era of the show. A lot of people have written a lot of very credible and worthy examinations of the politics of the first year of Pertwee’s run, with the plastic duplicates from Spearhead from Space, the misunderstood monsters from Ambassadors of Death, the genocide of Doctor Who and the Silurians and the fascist alternate Britain of Inferno. There’s a consensus that, after a fairly heavy season, the show settled down again, offering less complex political and social ideas with the introduction of a more “comic book” style.

I’m not convinced that this is really the case. While there’s definitely an attempt to increase the sense of science-fiction adventure in stories like Terror of the Autons, I believe that the rest of Pertwee’s era was just as provocative. After all, it was that second Auton serial that gave us mannequins disguised as police officers firing on civilians. Outside of that, Curse of Peladon was a commentary of Britain’s place in Europe, The Mutants was a criticism of South African apartheid and The Green Death spoke to environmental concerns. While there have been various socially-conscious stories told since, I don’t think any era of the show has had its finger on the political pulse in the same way that the serials of the early seventies did.

Double trouble...

There’s even a rich political subtext to be found in Day of the Daleks of all places. I think the greatest strength of Day of the Daleks is the fact that the story wasn’t written for everyone’s favourite psychotic pepper pots. Instead, it was its own idea that was developed and grown, with the Daleks then grafted on after another story that year fell apart. The Daleks are a core part of the show’s mythos and are iconic, but they’ve faced their foe so often that you really need a new angle in order to make it work. The reason that Day of the Daleks works better than the other Pertwee Dalek stories – Planet of the Daleks and Death to the Daleks – is because there’s a compelling story underneath, and one that suits the genocidal aliens perfectly.

The Daleks were created by Terry Nation to serve as analogues to the Nazis, as a depiction of racist and xenophobic warmongers. So they fit quite well with an underlying pacifist message, and Nation himself seemed fond of pointing out “war is hell” when writing for his own creations. However, the whole philosophy of Day of the Daleks is one built around pacifism, so it doesn’t feel nearly as awkward as the pacifist moral Nation tried to shoehorn into Planet of the Daleks, for example. Here the monsters stand as a warning, a representation of a terrible future that our own desire for conflict may see us realise.

Fine and dandy...

It’s a wonderfully self-aware and relatively clever idea for the story to position the risk of global armageddon at the heart of a Sino-Soviet conflict, rather than the traditional Cold War dynamic. It’s smart, not just because it allows the British setting to move out of the shadow of its American cousin, but also because it demonstrates a relatively global perspective, rather than one confined to the ideological conflicts that focus solely on the West. As the backdrop of the story, this rising tension is more than effective. “The international situation is growing steadily worse. War now seems inevitable.”

It’s telling that the story actually seems quite keen on its moral message about the importance of peaceful resolution. While it doesn’t stop a massive fire-fight from resolving the climax of the story (this is tea-time telly, after all!), it’s nice that the script rejects the idea that violence can be effectively used as a counter-measure to violence. The attempt by the rebels to travel back in time and use assassination to prevent their future from coming to pass only ends up in ensuring that it does. Pertwee’s Doctor, ever sensitive to potential tragedy, declares, “You’re trapped in a temporal paradox! Styles didn’t cause that explosion and start the wars. You did it yourselves.”It might be a temporal paradox, but it’s really just a clever way of giving form to the cycle of violence. Violence begets violence.

The Doctor's a tough fellow to pin down...

Although, to be honest, Day of the Daleks deserves credit for being one of the first serials in the history of the show to really explore the potential of time travel. The Time Meddler might have been the first pseudo-historical, but Day of the Daleks is one of the first to explore the ramifications of time travel, something hinted at in the scene where Jo and the Doctor encounter… Jo and the Doctor. It might be a bit much to link the serial to the “timey wimey” temporal mechanics of the Moffat era, but I’d argue that this is the very first hint of those elements to be found in the show.

Not only do we get the first real idea that “history can be rewritten” – with the actions in the present changing the future of the planet – but we also get some mechanics. The serial is responsible for coining “the Blinovitch Limitation Effect” to explain why time travelers can’t just “try, try again” (something that implicitly affects the Doctor). It also suggests a distorted causation at play, with actors from the future affecting the past, creating a stable time loop. “You went back to change history,” the Doctor states, “but you didn’t change anything. You became a part of it.”

Quintessential Pertwee...

It’s a clever use of the serial’s Earthbound setting, which seems to be growing on the Doctor. Indeed, Pertwee’s on fine form here, offering us his dandy man of action at his peak. I especially like the way he makes himself at home in Styles’ house. “You know,” he tells Jo, “one thing you can be certain of with politicians, is that whatever their political ideas, they always keep a well-stocked larder. Not to mention the cellar.” Later on, he advises her, “I say, you really ought to try this gorgonzola cheese. It’s absolutely delicious.” Indeed, the character’s turned into quite the connoisseur as he samples a wine, offering his commentary. “Yes. Yes, that’s a most good humoured wine. A touch sardonic perhaps, but not cynical. Yes, a most civilised wine. One after my own heart.”

This is, after all, an adventure where the Doctor single-handedly takes on a guerrila at karate using just one hand while casually sipping an evening brandy. That, right there, is quintessential Pertwee. In fact, I think that sequence might be my absolute favourite Pertwee moment. It just captures his take on the character so perfectly: “interstellar man of mystery.” And taste, apparently.

Man of action!

The restoration team have done a wonderful job with the serial. Okay, some of the backdrops for the future scenes look a little crap with their clunky skyscrapers and obviously fake saucers, but most of the enhancements are quite good. Lasers fire and characters explode, with the Daleks use their death rays from Remembrance of the Daleks. The use of Nicholas Briggs to voice the monsters is an inspired choice, as the original voices were hardly up to scratch. Even the final assault on the mansion looks much better for the enhancement. Though it should be noted that the Brigadier’s security leaves a lot to be required, as a terrorist with a bomb seemed to be hiding right in the middle of the cellar, without anybody noticing.

Aubrey Woods is great as the Controller in the fascist future ruled by the Daleks – a man who is “no more than a superior slave.” Woods’ performance walks that fine line between “just hammy enough” and “too hammy.” In particular, Woods does an excellent job with the collaborator’s attempts at self-justification, insisting, “We have helped make things better for the others. We have gained concessions. I have saved lives!”

Everything's under Controller...

Which brings us to the Daleks. They weren’t originally intended to appear in the serial, but they fit it perfectly, as the directors of a fascist global government. There’s something very Dalek about their response to the Controller’s assertion that many will die, insisting, “Only the weak will die!” While the enhanced scenes create the impression of at least a dozen Daleks assaulting the mansion, it still seems like Earth is being directed by three Daleks alone in a room. I know that this is a result of the fact that the team only had three working models, but I like the impression it creates, of three Daleks effectively ruling the planet by reputation alone.

After all, this was the stage in their existence where the monsters would seem increasingly impotent. Man fans point to the introduction of Davros as weakening the villains, but they seemed increasingly ineffective during the Pertwee years. They fare a little better here than they do in Planet of the Daleks and Death to the Daleks, if only because they have the common sense to hire muscle to help them control the Earth rather than trying and failing on their own terms. I don’t think that it’s a bad thing – I think that the Daleks can work quite well as relatively pitiable creatures, shown to be coasting on a reputation rather than on ability.

On yer bike!

There’s really no other way to look at the third episode’s cliffhanger, with the Doctor tied down as the Daleks rock back and forth madly chanting, “You will be exterminated!” Yet none of them fire, instead screaming like impotent and highly frustrated tin pot dictators confronted with their own inadequacies. It’s a wonderful little sequence that’s probably a result of bad writing (just shoot him!), but instead becomes rather iconic of Pertwee’s Daleks in a sort of ironic way. You almost feel bad for them as they are humiliated time-and-time-again, unable to actually do anything about it.

There are other nice touches to the episode as well. I like that the Brigadier seems to have worked out his own particular chemistry to the Doctor, the pair seeming well and truly relaxed around one another. “Still can’t get it to work, eh?” the Brigadier asks of the TARDIS, a smile on his face. When the Doctor mocks the Brigadier’s close-mindedness, there’s no sense of the Time Lord’s hidden frustrations, and even the Brigadier smiles and shakes his head knowingly as his scientific advisor doesn’t yield to the order, “Doctor come back at once!” These are the same philosophical disagreements that the pair have always had, but they both seem to have come to terms with them at this point in their relationship.

Day of the Daleks is the best Pertwee Dalek story, but it’s also a nice little story in its own right. I just can’t believe it took a show about time travel nine years to play with the idea of temporal paradoxes.

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