Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Daleks / The Dead Planet

[1963-1964, Season 1, Serial 2]

This is where Doctor Who truly begins.  Partly, of course, because of the Daleks, the iconic villains who became the Doctor's greatest enemies, and who catapulted Doctor Who into pop culture; partly because it's this story that truly makes the show an adventure that never needs to end, that can go anywhere and be anything.

In its three hours of grim but enthralling and imaginative adventure, it's missing only one element of the show: the Doctor himself, or at least, the Doctor as we have come to know him.  But this is where he begins to become a hero - to become himself.

There are two things that make Doctor Who so special, so long-lasting, so difficult to kill: the first is the total flexibility of its format.  The second is its central character.  The Doctor is a unique creation in fiction, as fascinating and unforgettable as Sherlock Holmes, Hamlet, or Odysseus.  It takes a long time for him to reach this point; here, he's an intelligent, charismatic manipulator who does heroic things without ever quite being a hero.  He's still utterly self-centered, still has a dark edge (which never entirely leaves).  But he begins to become more than a cruel, eccentric old man who would bash a caveman's skull in simply because it's convenient.  Through the influence of two humans, a species he considers entirely inferior, he begins to see through their flawed but compelling example more than himself.  The compassion he learns from the creatures of earth that softens his darkness and ultimately comes to define him begins to take root.

Further, although his betrayal of his companions in the first episode is certainly selfish, it comes from curiosity and adventurous spirit, something that will always remain, though it will be tempered by goodness.  But already, there is clearly that passion for exploring the unknown.  This is a man who loves learning and exploring.  He also takes tremendous joy in mischievous decisions that he knows will get him in trouble.  Most of his Doctorly traits are here, without the heroism.  He does show some care for Susan, though he also unintentionally puts her in tremendous danger.

It isn't until he faces the Daleks a second time a year later, that his transformation into the fun-loving, blustering, swaggering hero, and later still, in The Power of the Daleks, that the Doctor's journey to literary eternity takes its last crucial step, when he becomes a new man and yet the same one.  But it's here that it starts.  Here, the mysterious elderly time traveler starts to become The Doctor.

And thankfully, this character development happens through the course of a damn good adventure that, for the most part, still holds up incredibly well, especially given that it's from an early '60s TV show with a budget of pocket lint.

It opens with an episode titled The Dead Planet, and like The Cave of Skulls, it's a better title than the one it's most known as.  It's a terrific, crackling 25 minutes often imitated in the show but seldom equaled.  It's almost an episode to itself; the actual plot of the serial is slowly introduced over the next two episodes.  In the meantime, the crew wander alone on what appears to be a lifeless, empty world.  Fortunately, Terry Nation fills it to the brim with fantastic concepts and ideas, and weaves in several carefully-built suspense threads that gradually but steadily escalate until the gripping final moment.  He (or, likely, script editor David Whitaker, who was always much more concerned about character than Nation) also fills it with generally strong character work for the regulars.  It's a brilliant bit of television that stands high quite apart from the exciting story it introduces.

The setting is awesome.

The Petrified Forest -- the trees are turned to stone; the "soil" is burned to sand and ashes in which no trees could have grown; there are beautiful alien flowers also turned to stone.  They come across a creature, the first monster in Doctor Who.  It's dead, but even in death, it's a fantastic creature.  In life, it was made of pliable metal, and held together with a self-made magnetic field - and, the Doctor speculates, may have pulled in its victims magnetically.

And there's also, of course, that mysterious city in the background.

Meanwhile, our heroes are slowly and unknowingly dying of radiation poisoning.  Someone unseen touches Susan on the arm; later, there are loud scraping noises, and the scraper leaves a box outside the TARDIS.  Nation, along with the production pouring its heart and soul into pulling off his concepts, creates a story that wants to engage our imaginations and really excite us.

Ian, Barbara, and Susan all want to leave before something bad happens, but the ever-curious Doctor wants nothing more than to explore that abandoned city, so he sabotages the TARDIS and insists that they have to go down to the city to get more mercury.

The empty city itself is incredibly eerie.  The distant model shot is obviously a model, but it's a beautifully-designed model.  Really good work for the time and budget.

And when they get in, the background sound is incredibly creepy. (I believe composer Tristram Cary is responsible, though I'm not certain) And then Barbara is herded away by unseen forces.  The claustrophic corridors and closing doors build the suspense until, of course, that final shot, which isn't scary because of what we see; it's scary because what on earth could be on the other side of that thing that would scare Barbara that much...

The next episode, wisely, keeps us from seeing them for several more minutes as the characters get weaker and weaker, and learn that they are dying of radiation, so the alien threat is that much more menacing.  The design of the Daleks is wonderfully alien: not a "bug-eyed monster" or any kind of monster you ever really get a good look at.  Instead, they're this one-of-a-kind metal casing with a plunger for one arm and a very high-powered gun in the other.  Terry Nation ended up with full credit for the Daleks, but it's designer Raymond Cusick who created the elements that made them so iconic and unforgettable.  Not to take away from Nation's achievement - he creates effectively frightening villains.  But Cusick deserves just as much credit. 

Their electronic voices simply add another element to that fact that there is nothing remotely human about them.

But they're also intriguing.  They're scared.  Even when they drag out the Doctor to interrogate him, and he's not the Doctor we know but just a weak old man barely clinging to life, they still act like he could somehow attack them at any moment.  Still, what really brings them to vivid life is the stunning design work, the creepy voices, and the performers inside the Daleks, who do a great job of convincing us that there really is something alive in there, and give a lot of energy to scenes that could have been deadly dull.

They tell their prisoners a story about the war that ravaged their planet, ending in an exchange the Doctor assumes to have been from a neutron bomb.  The Daleks, then known as the Kaleds, had fought a people called the Thals, who apparently are still alive.  In fact, the Daleks assume the travelers to be Thals because they can't conceive of any life outside their own planet.

The prisoners realize that the mysterious box left to them must have been anti-radiation drugs left by the Thals; the Daleks let Susan run to the TARDIS to get them.  This leads to the second cliffhanger, which is an incredibly effective low-key piece leaving us in genuine suspense.

Then the Thals show up, and they turn out to be the main element that doesn't work.  The Daleks are horribly mutated inside their shells; the Thals turn out to look like humans.

The first distant planet they go to, and the creatures look like humans.  Not only that, but in a story where the villains are essentially space Nazis, the regular people are blond haired blue-eyed hunks.  And then Susan goes and says, "You're perfect!" in regards to their appearance.  Compared to our complex protagonists and the fascinating Daleks, the Thals just aren't that interesting except for just how off it feels for the Space Nazi's nemeses to be Aryan Adonises.  The actors do what they can, but they're pretty dull.

But the actors are good enough and they're generally used well enough that even though none of them have a whole lot of individuality, they work well enough.  Susan returns, and while the Daleks send a message to the Thals that they want peace, the protagonists prepare their daring escape.  This extended segment, comprising second half of episode three and much of episode four, is excellent; the meticulous details of the escape make it much more thrilling when they do get out.  And further, although they do some fooling of the Daleks, the Daleks aren't made to be stupid; I love that when our heroes come up with an elaborate plan to make their destruction of the camera in their cell appear to be an accident, the Daleks immediately decide it was intentional.  It's an exciting, well-constructed scene that builds to the meeting between the Thals and the Daleks.

Of course, the Daleks turn out to have only one true motive: survival at the cost of every other species in existence.  The peace treaty is an an ambush; Ian tries desperately to warn them, to no avail.  After all the build-up, the Daleks' actual use of their weapons is really shocking.  They fire, the screen turns to a negative, and their targets fall over dead.

There's also this awesome shot of their guns boiling the walls when they miss.  Why didn't the series ever use that again?

After that, our heroes return to the TARDIS.  The Thals talk about trying to make peace anyway or just run because pacifism is all they know.  Ian tries to convince them that in this case, against these enemies bent on nothing less than extermination, fighting is the only way to survive, the only thing to do.  The Thals graciously thank him for trying to help, but decide to keep to their ways.  The travelers sadly turn to their ship, deciding to go on and leave this hopeless situation alone.

... and then they realize the Daleks took the fluid link the Doctor pretended was empty back in the city.  Meaning that now, it really is keeping them from leaving the planet.  What follows is really interesting: Barbara tells Ian that the only way for them to get home is to convince the Thals to fight.  Ian protests that he won't ask them to fight for them.  It's an interesting reversal of expectations - Barbara is generally the heart of the group, the kindest one, but here, she's pragmatic and selfish.  Of course, this early Doctor is much worse, telling Susan that this is no time for morals.  The following debate is really interesting:

Ian: I will not have anyone's death on my conscience!

Barabara: Except mine, and Susan's, and the Doctor's?

It's interesting that Ian, the most heroic and physical of the group (albeit reluctantly) is the advocate for peace.  Susan argues that they should convince the Thals to help themselves by fighting the Daleks, which Ian starts to agree to, which Barbara follows with a cold, "You're just playing with words."  At any rate, the travelers decide that they should get the Thals to attack the city.  This is an interesting moral quandary, and the protagonists arguably make the wrong choice, but both sides are really weighed.  It's very interesting and unusual for what is, plotwise, a fairly straightforward action piece, to really take the time with this sort of thing, and then send the heroes down what may be the wrong path.  And except for the Doctor, they sort of suspect that it's the wrong path, but convince themselves otherwise very credibly.  Ian finally makes his decision by seeing if the Thals truly are completely against fighting in principle, or if there is some level of fear and cowardice.  Very interesting, very unusual.

The rest of the story concerns the strategy of attack, the journey to the Dalek city, and finally, the climactic battle between Thal and Dalek.

The plot isn't the most original, nor does it seem on the surface that it could fill seven 25-minute episode, but it works because Nation fills it with details.  He spends five minutes on the characters finding they need to cross a gap, and figuring out how to get across.  Of course, it could have been done with a quick rope thrown across and a bit of swinging, but Nation instead delves into exactly how they get across, and because he does it so convincingly, the danger is much more real.  He also makes it into a good cliffhanger sequence, ending episode six on this bit, with one of the Thals dangling over the cliff - and then, in a genuine surprise, having him drop to his death at the beginning of the next episode.

The adventure to the city goes on a bit, but when they get there, it is a satisfying climax, with moments of action, suspense, horror, heroism, and sacrifice.

The character work of the four regulars is strong throughout the story.  They begin to settle into their roles -- Ian, the reluctant action hero; the Doctor, the clever manipulator; Barbara, the kind heart of the show; and Susan, the... well, by the end, she's pretty much just the person to get captured and need rescuing, which, unfortunately, is pretty much the sum total of her characterization for the rest of her time (with a couple notable exceptions).  But Carole Ann Ford does a terrific job with what she's given.  The other three are just as exemplary. 

But she really deserved better material.  That's great physical acting there.

All in all, The Daleks gets the series off to a strong start with a compelling adventure, well written and well detailed, and introduces a fantastic set of villains who, thankfully, will return...


* * * ½ 

  • I love the scene where the Daleks cold-heartedly test whether or not they can survive without radiation by subjecting one of their own to the treatment.  It really drives home their madness, of course, but it also has the Dalek yelling for help, making it just a little more three-dimensional and compelling.  I have to say, though, it's also incredibly satisfying to see the Daleks suffering.  And the concept of creatures who have evolved to depend on the very radiation that kills other species is a fascinating one.

  • But more than that, I love the Dalek begging the Doctor to let them live, and not commit genocide against the genociders.  The Doctor stands by and lets them die, but Hartnell's delivery of the line, "Even if I wanted to, I don't know how," lends a lot of extra depth.  It's a powerful sequence.
  • One character moment I really like: Susan finds a petrified flower she finds quite beautiful.  Ian kindly helps her to very carefully pull it out, being very gentle.  Then Barbara calls for help, and without realizing what he's doing, he crushes the flower in Susan's hand and runs off, leaving Susan alone with the debris.

  • One thing that all Doctor Who productions should have learned from this is that the Daleks should never have lengthy dialogue scenes, and definitely should not monologue.  Those voices are creepy, yes, but too much talking and they just get really, really annoying.  Unfortunately, it not only continued through the 60s, but bled into the 70s.  And showing up in Victory of the Daleks last year, which was pretty much just one long Dalek monologue after a good first third, is just unforgivable.

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