Monday, 2 April 2012

The Dalek Stories

I love the Daleks. Really, I do. I think they are one of the greatest inventions to spring from the original series and up there with the Doctor and the TARDIS. There is something wonderfully scary and yet totally absurd about them which extends to their appearance, their voices and their attitude. Outwardly they look like giant pepper pots with sink plunger and whisk attachments. They literally look like they have gotten dressed up out of the kitchen sink but that is joy of them; they are so different from us it makes their obvious silliness quite creepy. Especially when they go around slaughtering people en masse. I remember giving my toy Dalek to my goddaughter and she spent hours and hours playing with it... .she was fascinated with its shape and bumps and sticks, it was something totally alien to her. The Second World War parallels gives the Daleks that edge over the Cybermen that makes them truly work as they were clearly based on the Nazi's and their creed of extermination. We've all seen pictures of Nazi oppression during the World Wars and the idea of transplanting that hatred into the future and creating a race of evil robots that kill every other race to ensure they are the dominate species is inspired. It is what has made the Daleks an enduring force in the series because we can tap into their inception and the reminder of the Nazi creed. And their destructive force and awesome weaponry is why it is tough to get bored of them. Unless the story is totally inadequate the mere inclusion of the Daleks is a good enough reason to tune in because they are so brilliantly conceived and realised (unlike the Cybermen who were well conceived but poorly executed). It would take a really awful producer/writer/director to get the Daleks wrong because there is just too much going for them in the first place.

Watching The Daleks today is an interesting experience because it knocks spots off of the other SF-driven stories of the time being the only story of season one and two that even approaches the quality of the historicals. It is certainly the best script written solely by Terry Nation (please don’t mentioned Genesis at this point because there is no way Nation can claim sole credit of that one) for the series and a brilliant kick-start for the Daleks who are without a doubt the stars of the show. The story draws on some heavy themes for inspiration: nuclear holocausts, genocide, genetic mutations... With vivid ideas like these being thrown about it is easy to see how the Daleks were so popular. Encapsulated in their creepy city with its slanted corridors and an atmosphere of claustrophobia they glide about scheming and plotting to wipe out their peaceful co-inhabitants on Skaro. Deviousness abounds; they offer the Thals food to tempt them into the city and they use the time travellers to write to the Thals and tell them it is safe. In one of the best sequences they hide away in shadowy alcoves whilst the Thal leader gives a grand speech about their reconciliation before they leap out and fry him to death. The feeling of fear they generate, especially in the scenes where the time travellers are trapped beneath the city and desperate to get out is palpable and the cliffhanger to episode four where they have escaped the Daleks but realise they will have to return to the City for the fluid link is one of the best of the year.

It is a shame that the execution of The Dalek Invasion of Earth should be so poor because the idea at the heart of the story is fantastic and proves that the Daleks are here to stay. Their latest scheme to invade the Earth, subjugate the humans and get them mining so they can drive the planet through space is ingenious and ripe for excellent drama. Scenes such as the Daleks parading through Trafalgar Square and trundling past Westminster and their impressive mining operation might fool you into thinking the Daleks are at their peak but there are some really daft mistakes made here too. Their voices are shite, totally comical and unthreatening and they have daft-looking satellites strapped to their backs and they clank and wobble about ineffectively directed by Richard Martin. Whose confession that his studio work for this story was poor says it all really. The idea of humans being oppressed by the Daleks, abused and exhausted until their mining operation is complete is not exploited as well as it could have been and the whole story feels like something of a missed opportunity. Bizarrely Invasion Earth has dated terribly - the Robomen are something that could only have come out of the sixties and the whole production has a hurried, unfinished look about it and yet their original story remains quite timeless. Just goes to show how much a good director can bring to a script because under Dougie Camfield’s tender care this could have been outstanding. I would suggest you go and watch Daleks Invasion Earth 2150AD; it might be loud and brainless but it is much more exciting, has some lightning-fast and scary Daleks and looks genuinely epic. Everything the TV serial lacked.

There are certain cute Doctor Who stories that will you to hate them but somehow charm you in to the opposite reaction and The Chase fits that description very well. Somewhere out there there is a list of every inadequacy a television programme can achieve and The Chase would have a tick next to every box. It's not very good, is it? The story is a pointless chase around bizarre locations dressed up as drama but played for laughs more often than not. The dialogue is risible, the production atrocious, the continuity appalling, etc, etc... but there is something there that keeps it afloat where Warriors of the Deep and Underworld sink without trace. Charm. It certainly does the Daleks no favours with Terry Nation bored shitless at having to keep writing for the characterless automatons that made him famous and opting for a comedic approach that director Richard Martin amplifies with his static direction. It's silly moments ahoy as one Dalek rises out of sand for no reason but shock effect, one Dalek forgets his script and goes ‘um, er, um... ‘, one Dalek falls into a jumble sale trap that wouldn't fool a one year old and three Daleks sing a TARDIS song. The plot does them no favour either as we never learn why they are chasing the Doctor and co through time space... it appears to be a petty vendetta against them because they foiled their plans a couple of times. There is a certain warmth to the story as if nobody is taking it very seriously which gives the viewer a nostalgic buzz but on almost every professional level The Chase is a failure and the second Dalek story in a row that has failed to impress...

Which is why it is relief to report that their next appearance is one of their best in an epic thirteen-part tale (that's one cutaway episode which previews the main twelve part story) called The Daleks' Master Plan. The Daleks are at their all-time devious best manipulating all the super powers of the galaxy into aiding their conquest of all known space. Their plan to procure a terrarium powered time destructor and hold the galaxy to hostage in fear of its use is wonderfully evil and inhumane. You could call this story The Chase part two because of its random nature hopping from one time and space to another as the Daleks pursue the Doctor (who has nicked the time destructor) but the main difference is the quality of the direction by Douglas Camfield. He understands that the Daleks have to be a horrific menace and treats them with appropriate seriousness and we are never in any doubt that the characters in this story live in mortal dread of the creatures. Scenes such as Garvey's hunt through the forest polluted with Daleks and their flamethrower attack on the Varga plants are gripping television and bring back happy memories of their first story. The nail-bitingly tense final episode allows us to see another side to the Daleks: their fear, as the time destructor is activated and they wither away and die. There are some awkward moments here and there but overall The Daleks' Master Plan is a dramatic space opera of the highest order and a perfect example of the Daleks really did have people cowering behind sofas.

Breaking in a new Doctor is always tough but Power of the Daleks has the difficult job of being the first of its kind and it makes perfect sense for David Whitaker to use the Daleks to help smooth over the transition. After all, everybody knows that the Daleks are the Doctor's sworn enemy so who else could the scruffy hobo who dances from the TARDIS be? Whitaker proves to be an excellent choice to continue the Daleks' story as he allows the creatures much more depth and character than Terry Nation and David Spooner ever did. What he understands that their creator did not is that the metal meanies work much better as creatures of intelligence than muscle and their handling of the base staff in this story is a superb example. After the eerie discovery of two Daleks in a crashed shuttle they are activated by Lesterson who wants to use them as slaves for the colony needs. However things are not as orderly as they seem in the colony and security chief Bragg wants to use the Daleks as his army to frighten the people into obeying him. The Daleks prey on these roles and pretend to help both causes but secretly build their own army to take over and wipe out the colony. The scene where Lesterson discovers the Dalek production line and realises that the creatures are much more intelligent than they let on is one of the scariest featuring the Daleks. That numbing fear that the Daleks are evil and powerful and going to kill you is captured so beautifully in Lesterson's hysterical reaction.

It has been pointed out recently that The Evil of the Daleks is an extremely flawed story plot wise and indeed when the cards are laid on that table their plans do seem to have gotten a little too complicated for their own good. There are a number of blatant plot holes that are easy to mock but that would take away the gorgeous atmosphere and beautiful dialogue of the serial both of which are at the top of their game. The Daleks might be a little confused in the plot department but they are still an entertaining menace and never more incongruous than when they are gliding through the hallways of a Victorian house. The story has three equally good segments with the Daleks masterfully turning up in each: gliding quietly from their time machine into 1966, smashing through the hall of mirrors in 1867 and a return visit to Skaro in the future sees their army ready to be unleashed on the universe. The Daleks are attempting to discover how humans tick in order to brainwash them with Dalek personalities and make them brainless killers, an idea that sounds silly but is treated very seriously on screen with some marvellous scenes of the Doctor explaining Jamie's heroic and emotional behaviour. The Dalek Emperor is a vision of beauty, a giant Dalek hooked into the wall like a screaming brain and his presence adds a great deal to the Dalek mythos. This was an extremely worthy end for the Daleks; I cannot think of a better climax for the creatures than the Doctor causing a civil war between them by implanting three 'humanised' Daleks in their midst and asking questions rather than blindly obeying. It’s a conflict that would be brought up again (Revelation) and again (Remembrance) and again (Victory) it is so effective. Alas their popularity ensured their continued presence in the series...

After an absence of four seasons the Daleks are back and in another superior story that takes a clever look at the complexities of time travel. Time travelling guerrillas (from a future where the Daleks rule the Earth) travel back to the past at the point where things changed for the worst - a peace conference between the world's most powerful political parties. It's an extremely well plotted story that unfolds at good pace with an awesome twist in the last episode that the guerrillas have not changed the past for the better but they were the ones who created the Dalek dominated timeline. Unfortunately there are only three Dalek props available for this story so their depleted force is apparent but the electric oppressive atmosphere in the future where they rule the Earth almost makes up for that. It is annoying to have to keep popping back to the Daleks in their base bullying the Controller because what we want is some action; the gorgeous mist-swathed battle in episode four as they emerge over the lawn of Styles' house with their ape-like slaves the Ogrons gives the story the spectacular finish it deserved. Or at least it does on the Special Edition DVD which I suggest you watch instead of the original.

The Time Lords direct the Doctor to the planet of Spiridon in Planet of the Daleks where they have built a massive army of Daleks. A force that numbers in the thousands to unleash on the universe. Sounds exciting, doesn't it? Unfortunately Terry Nation has picked up his pen again and barely disguises the fact that this is a complete rehash of the original Dalek story with only half the atmosphere. It's overlong at six episodes and suffers from some stagey studio work but I could imagine a twelve-year-old finding this wonderfully exciting... Doctor Who destroying the Dalek army! After all the reason this sort of tale is called a cliché is because it is a formula that works. The Daleks are as horrible as ever, trying to drop poison bombs and with plans to invade the galaxy (yadda yadda yadda) and there is lots of action but ultimately this is a waste of their potential, particularly when you see what they achieve in the next two stories. The Thals are re-introduced here but their original strength of character is replaced by a new militaristic creed, warriors who carry bombs and guns and have actively waged war on the Daleks.

There are some Doctor Who stories that receive a lot of flak and I just cannot understand why and Death to the Daleks is one such story. Okay, it isn't perfect but it certainly shows more imagination than Nation's last attempt and rattles along at a far old pace and uses the Daleks brilliantly. For too long now the Daleks have felt like gliding blasters with little of the depth of their early stories so it is great fun to see them stripped of their firepower and forced to think their way out of the hostile situation on Exillon. Rather wonderfully they turn on their captors (and their word) as their firepower is restored gunning down a pair of Exxilons for fun and subjugating the entire race as they mining slaves. Admittedly Pertwee barely disguises his boredom with the creatures and the guest cast is rather wooden but the direction is imaginative and features one or two stunning set pieces (the fight in the quarry is rather good).

All change for Dalek history when Terry Nation goes back to their roots and explains the Genesis of the Daleks, exploiting the drama of putting the moral dilemma of whether to wipe them out or not in the Doctor’s hands. For a Dalek story it really doesn't feature them much at all, concentrating instead on their chilling Hitleresque creator Davros. Doctor Who scripting was rarely this powerful featuring some charged ethical discussion between the Doctor and Davros about the security of the future and the nature of power. The story lavishes time on the smaller characters too and each of them have their own small moment in a story packed full of wonderful moments. The deadline of the Daleks' mass production looms and gives the story a tense atmosphere which it needs in the later episodes stuck underground in the claustrophobic bunker and climaxes on a rousing Hitleresque speech from the Daleks threatening to break free and destroy everything in the universe! Effortlessly put together by David Maloney and offering Tom Baker some of his best ever material in his first season, this is one of the best Dalek stories and one of the best Doctor Who stories too.

So it comes to Destiny of the Daleks, which some fans will lead you to believe is the nadir of all Doctor Who stories. It's not, it's nowhere near and although the production does lack a certain finesse, it is still a perfectly serviceable action adventure. The central idea, that the Daleks have attracted the attention of an equally conquest-salivating race of robots is classic and they are trapped in a war of logic with two great battle fleets locked in deadlock neither willing to make a move because the other side can predict the move straight away and combat it. It's a perfect excuse to re-introduce Davros as the Daleks seek out their disabled creator in order to break the deadlock and beat their foe. There are some lovely effects here and the script rattles along but the story is let down severely by the performances and characterisation especially of Davros who was pure ice in Genesis but comes across as a ranting madman here with no motive whatsoever. Still with scenes such as the Daleks heading towards the Movellan ship with explosives strapped to their casings and Romana trapped in a plastic shell with a nuclear device about to go off who needs sophistication?

You go from the childish to the even more juvenile with Resurrection of the Daleks featuring an astonishing death count and playing out like a game in the playground where all of the kids battle each other to play dead. The Daleks are desperately in search of something to do here and have their fingers in every pie; they're attempting to conquer Gallifrey, putting duplicates in key places on Earth, trying to find a cure for a virus the Movellan have created (which has proven very efficient at wiping them out) kidnapping Davros from Earth custody and torturing the Doctor. It's non-stop! Whilst I think this is easily the sloppiest Dalek script there are a wealth of great set pieces throughout the book and the production is helped immeasurably by some stylish and dynamic direction from Matthew Robinson. Peter Davison gets one of his all-time best moments when he attempts to assassinate Davros but discovers he is trapped in the body of a moral coward and cannot go through with it. It's moments like this that raise Resurrection from its lousy plotting and make it something altogether more interesting.

From the ridiculous to the sublime, Revelation of the Daleks oxymoronically manages to be the best and the worst Dalek story rolled into one. It is a masterpiece of television featuring superb dialogue (that's Eric Saward?) imaginative direction with a lush production, exquisite performances and some really fascinating characters. It's just that the Daleks themselves hardly appear and the story instead preferring to have an intimate look inside the perverse and dangerous mind of their creator who is a far more interesting character than his creations these days. The story features some astonishing death scenes and some laugh-out-loud moments but the biggest surprise is left until the end where we discover Davros has been using the cryogenic remains of people to breed his new race of Daleks. It's a gleefully sick end to a gleefully sick story and for me one of the all-time classics in the Doctor Who canon. The ending sees Davros finally getting his comeuppance as the rival faction of Daleks swoop in an take him away to stand trial for his crimes.

Proving the Dalek stories are where it's at in the 1980's you have another classic in the shape of Remembrance of the Daleks. It's a story that wants to restore some of the Daleks' original menace and they are sporting some serious hardware here. The Special Weapons Dalek is a fine innovation and the Imperials look extremely (cough) sexy (for a Dalek) in their stylish white and gold casings. The story takes a close look at the original motivation of the Daleks which has been somewhat glossed over in recent times, their fascism and racism. You've got a double whammy of a climax with the Imperials finally wiping out the Renegades and the Doctor tricking Davros into wiping out their home planet of Skaro with a Stellar Manipulator. It's another production with some fine effects and direction and it has a better look than some movies of the time with some high-flying action set pieces.

Skipping ahead to the new series you have the re-introduction of the Daleks for the first time in 16 years and thanks to the talents of Rob Shearman and Joe Ahearne it is a total success, the Daleks once again proving the winning formula to make the show work. Whilst I have some issues with how sloppy this production gets at the end with the Dalek being contaminated by Rose and opening up its casing to feel the sunshine on itself before committing suicide I do have to admit it is the best characterised Dalek we have ever met and many scenes with the Doctor and Rose reach a level of psychological intensity we are not used to. Big things have been happening off screen: there has been a devastating Time War between the Daleks and the Time Lords, leaving Gallifrey in ruins and the Daleks wiped out. It is a shame that we will never see this massive shift in continuity on screen but certainly shows some a fascinating side of both the Doctor and the Dalek.

In a shock twist it turns out the Emperor of the Daleks has survived the time war and has been secretly using the population of the Earth to create a new race of Daleks. In the most spectacular production to feature the Daleks, we get to gawp in awe as an army of thousands of Daleks launches a devastating attack on the Earth. It is breathtaking, with the Daleks sporting some mean weaponry and scenes of them swarming in space like insects suggesting the overwhelming force they possess like no other. The Emperor is preaching some frightening religious dogma, proclaiming himself the God of all Daleks. Fortunately Rose absorbs the power of the Daleks and obliterates the entire army, finally wiping the Daleks out for good. Or has she...?

Well obviously not and the metal meanies are re-introduced as a trio of brain boxes in the series two finale spectacular Army of Ghosts/Doomsday. Its another great New Series moment for the Daleks because they show that even with an army of three they are more than a much for the rusty old Cybermen and the bitch fight that ensues should have been dreadful but somehow manages to be funny and tense at the same time. The twist that the Dalek army has been hidden away in a Time Lord prison ship (which is dimensionally transcendental of course) leads to an impressive climax where legions of the flying weapons pouring out of the vessel and invade the London skies. If the climax is a little to swift we can be thankful that a handful of the bastards beams away at the end and they will be back.

Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks is a big, bloated, imaginative and contrived mess which has many interesting things to say about the Daleks (it takes its inspiration from Evil of the Daleks) but ultimately fails to go through with any of its promises. The moment where a Dalek looks out across New York and compares it Skaro is astonishing and they look phenomenal gliding around the sewers and diving through the nights sky wiping New Yorkers out in some terrific action set pieces. On the other hand the Dalek/human hybrid looks embarrassing, the Dalek infected humans are a joke and the way that Dalek Sec beams away at the end just like the climax of Doomsday means they are becoming a bit like the Master these days… ‘I’m indestructible the whole universe knows that!’ Helen Raynor should be commended for writing a story for the Daleks that is about the Daleks but some of her excesses should have been reined in.

If you ever wanted to watch a contemporary Dalek movie then stick on The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End which has an extraordinary epic production that brings together Doctor and all of its spin off characters to defeat the Daleks in their big, bad attempt to follow up on the events of The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Its practically Dalek pornography in places with so many twisted versions of Daleks in evidence (the gurgling Sec mutant, Davros himself and many gorgeous shades of Dalek including the red Supreme) and Graeme Harper gets the maximum impact out of their appearance with an all out assault on the Earth that looks genuinely cinematic. If Journey’s End doesn’t quite live up to the build up (mostly to do with a duplicate Doctor and nothing at all to do with the Daleks) there are still a wealth of glorious scenes with Davros where he gets under the Doctor’s skin and a terrific chance to hear Daleks talking in a foreign accent! It’s a truly massive story and impressively mounted with many memorable sequences. For bringing together Sarah Jane and Davros again is a delight and Donna proves to be one of the best ever companions by completely stealing the limelight away from all of these elements in the poignant finale.

From the sublime to the ridiculous and reliving past glories seems to be the order of the day in Victory of the Daleks as we get a number of Daleks acting in a suspiciously helpful manner during the Second World War. The steals from Power of the Daleks are manifold but the saying ‘I am your soldier’ is what seals the deal but it does give Matt Smith a chance to really claim his role and have a go at the creatures in a pretty dramatic way. Unfortunately the gorgeous RTD Daleks are replaced with some really naff multi coloured version that nobody but a scant handful of people seemed to like. Having watched this story recently I threw my head in my hands when the bloated, lego set versions emerged from the smoke and proved that a Dalek design can genuinely have no menace. A feat I would have thought impossible.

To be frank the Daleks bring out the best in Doctor Who and I find the idea of these absurd-looking creatures plaguing the universe with their evil as wonderful and imaginative as a time travelling police box. You can’t have one without the other. It strikes me that whatever the production team they always raise their game when they are bringing the Daleks back. Certainly the original Dalek story, Evil, Day, Genesis, Revelation, The Parting of the Ways and The Stolen Earth represent the best of their respective eras and can be held up as prime examples of what Doctor Who can offer. Even in their cameos (The Five Doctors, Dimensions in Time, The Pandorica Opens) they manage to make me smile.

The delightful thing about the Daleks is how little they have changed over the years. Their creed, their appearance, their voices...all pretty much identical in 2005 as they were in 1963. It's that sort of timeless quality that has kept the show on the air for 40 odd years. They are a total success story too boosting the ratings whenever they appear.

So raise your glass and toast to the success of the Daleks the best monsters any series could hope for and the ultimate Doctor Who baddies. They are one of a few very monsters I find it a pleasure to re-visit again and again.

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