Thursday, August 18, 2011

Planet of the Daleks

Seven thousand one, seven thousand two, seven thousand three...

Generally, when Whovians complain about Planet of the Daleks, it revolves around Terry Nation's liberal plundering of his first Dalek story, The Dead Planet.  It's certainly structured similarly, with one episode mostly of the heroes wandering alone through a strange planet, after which our heroes are trapped deep underground by the Daleks until about halfway through the story, when they escape and prepare their daring final assault, which takes place in the final episode.  Additionally, the Thals turn up again and explicitely reference the events of Dead Planet.  The Daleks plan to release a virus, just as they planned to release radiation in the original.  Our heroes hide inside a Dalek casing to infiltrate the base.  And so forth.

And while we're at it, the invisible creatures in the dangerous jungle are a direct lift from The Daleks' Master Plan.

There are a couple of notes to this problem.  The first is that, when this was first broadcast, there hadn't been a traditional Dalek story since 1967; their brief appearances tacked onto Day of the Daleks certainly weren't a satisfying return for them.  So for viewers of the time, it was the first real Dalek story in six years, and returning to the familiar elements would be refreshing.  It's only now, when you can chose to watch them side-by-side that it's really an issue.

The second is that even with his self-plundering, Nation still creates a highly entertaining, action-packed yarn.  It's not perfect, and doesn't hold up to his '60s Dalek scripts, but that doesn't mean it isn't a lot of fun.

The first episode, with the Doctor seemingly dying from his wounds from the end of Frontier, and Jo's search for help ending in her catching a deadly disease, opens the story with a vivid sense of danger.  As usual, Nation waits until the final moments of the opening episode to reveal the Daleks, and finds a creative and unusual way to reveal them - the Thals hand the Doctor a can of spray-paint, and spray into the air... revealing a formerly-invisible Dalek!  Knowing that the Daleks are working on invisibility, even if it is fortunately not perfected yet, increases the danger rights from the start.

Soon after, the Daleks arrive in force to destroy the Thal ship the Doctor believes Jo is in.  And, knowing full well that he has no chance of stopping them, he still runs out in front of the Daleks, who are preparing to fire to save Jo.  They paralyze him, saying they'll "save him for interrogation", then destroy the ship, anyway.

Even though we know soon after Jo is safe, the Doctor doesn't learn until the fourth episode; another clever way Nation increases the tension.  And so the Doctor is taken to the Dalek base to be interrogated.  Along with one already-captured Thal, he attempts to escape, but is driven down to the very bottom of the base, miles underground.

Meanwhile, the other Thals crawl through Ice Caves to try to sneak inside the same base... and Jo sneaks in of her own accord. 

The Doctor and his ally meet with the rest of the Thals, but they're trapped in the very bottom of the base, with no apparent route of escape and the Daleks right outside the door.  And it's there, when, after meeting with the group of Thals, that the Doctor discovers the army of 10,000 Daleks.


All these stories result in an incredibly intense third episode, a rousing half hour of action and suspense sustained by Nation and director David Maloney well into the fourth episode, as the Doctor comes up with a thrilling escape.  For that extended period, Planet matches its '60s predecessors in pulpy excitement.

Oddly enough, this isn't an episode cliffhanger.

Unfortunately, after they escape, Nation starts to run out of ideas.  Of course, he loves killing off as many of his guest characters as possible (and the regulars when he can get away with it, as in Master Plan), but in this case, his original notion of killing off all the Thals was vetoed by Letts and Dicks, and he struggles to ramp up the intensity again without his favorite method.  The last two-and-a-half episodes are still fun, but they never reach the intensity of those middle passages.

Which, unfortunately, tends to expose the holes in the story.  Such as the Thals.  Nations overarching idea about their race desperately inventing space travel and defying their peace-loving ways to fight the Daleks works nicely.  Unfortunately, when it comes to individual characters, he's not so successful.  The Thals are all stock characters - Stoic Leader, Serious Scientist, Token Love Interest, etc.  Bernard Horsfall and Tim Preece bring the Leader and Scientist to life with excellent performances, but the others fall completely flat.  I mean, they're stock characters done competently, but you won't remember them once the episodes end.  Or when they're not in the scene.  Or when the camera cuts away from them.  Or when they're in the shot, but someone interesting is also in the shot, even if they're in the distant background.
Who are all those people on the left, again?

But points to Breece for playing the scientist with conviction...

... and Horsfall for playing the stoic leader with a superb balance of stoic leaderiness, humor, and buried emotion.  The character works entirely through his acting, no help from the script. 

I especially love his dark smile when the Doctor tells him they can kill the Daleks with the abundance of Molten Ice on the planet.

... speaking of which, MOLTEN ICE! 

What a fantastic concept!  I'm not entirely convinced Nation's explanation of the vastly subzero yet semi-liquid water as an allotrope is scientifically plausible (I'll defer to an actual scientist here), but when the idea is that cool, I'll roll with it.  Maloney does his most atmospheric work of the serial when Nation sends the story out to a molten ice lake.

Maloney seems uncharacteristically uncertain on occasion in this story.  He does a great job overall, and he's on fire in the Dalek base, but it takes him a little while to figure out how to shoot the studio-bound jungle set, and some of the action is a tad clumsier than he usually lets it get.  That said, I imagine his experience here helped him make the jungle set in Planet of Evil so convincing... and Genesis so all-around brilliant.  Maloney is one of my three favorite Classic Who directors, and I'll give him a little leeway here on only doing a really good job rather than a great one, given how superb his work usually is.

Thals and Daleks aside, the only other supporting character is Wester, an invisible Spiridon who saves Jo from her fatal jungle disease with tabasco sauce.

Wester is actually likable, and again, it's nice to see the mysterious monsters being sympathetic, something that happened in the early Hartnell seasons but seemed to disappear pretty quickly.  He's not a great or memorable character, but he basically works, and his visual realization by CSO and vocal one by Roy Skelton are solid.  It was an unfortunate mistake, however, to have him appear visibly in his last scene; it was a nice idea on paper, I suppose, but on screen, his appearance makes him less cool.

As for the main characters, Nation does give Jo plenty of pluck and independence, although I suspect most of her good lines were improvised by Manning.  His work for the Doctor is perfectly fine, but there aren't any especially memorable Doctorish moments outside of one great line after he kills one of the Daleks with a tape recorder (!): "You know, for a man who abhors violence, I took great satisfaction in doing that."  And, to be fair, the story is pretty much worth watching for that one scene.

Nation also doesn't have much of a point.  There's some speechifying about bravery here and there.  The Doctor's conversation with Thal about the nature of bravery is lovely.  I mean, the words themselves are hamfisted and go on too long, but Pertwee delivers them with such grace and sincerity that they actually work quite nicely.  But none of it really comes across as anything really meaningful; in the end, the story remains nothing more than a diversion, which wouldn't seem so strange if it didn't follow two thematically rich tales.  Even then, just going for pure entertainment would be fine, but the story itself doesn't have the sweep or power of his three more succesesful '60s Dalek stories, The Dead Planet, Invasion of Earth, and Master Plan.  All three of those stories had a real punch to them; this one just feels a bit more ordinary.  And it doesn't have the creative insanity of The Chase to carry its empty silliness.

To be honest, it might still have pulled it off if Episode 6 was stronger, but it's actually the weakest episode of the bunch.  It's perfectly okay, but it has none of the intensity or desperation it needs to give the story a punch.  It's as though Nation can't be bothered to ramp up the suspense if he can't end things with a giant pile of bodies.

All that doesn't mean Planet isn't good.  It is.  There's a lot of fun to be had here.  It may not be a classic like its '60s predecessors, or like the two preceeding serials of the season, but it's highly enjoyable, and at least in its middle passages, terrific entertainment.


* * *


  • For years, episode three only existed in black and white rather than the original color before the restoration team came up with a bunch of Doctorish ingenuity to restore it.  Having seen the black-and-white version, I kinda think it actually improves the episode.  Partly because I just love black-and-white anyway, but the jungle sets, and the sets in general, look fantastic in monochrome.
  • The Dalek Operators are a lot less comfortable with the casings than they were in the '60s.  Back then, they would routinely go through doors with less than an inch of room on either side.  Here, they can't stop bumping into things.  Oddly enough, though, Maloney manages to make it not diminish them; it's easy to brush it off here.
  • Okay, one specific problem with the Thals.  At one point, Stoic Leader tells off Token Female, er, "Rebec", for insisting on coming on the mission.  It's a fairly standard scene, but still a nice one at first.  I love strong females, so it was nice to see it emphasized in a fairly credible way... right up until the soldier who insisted on going on a suicide mission apologizes.  And he goes, "Your coming here might be the very reason the Daleks win!"  And she looks all guilty and the whole strong female thing fizzles.  The creator of Sara Kingdom should know better.  Heck, he even gives Jo good material in the same story.  Seriously, Terry, what gives with Rebec?
  • My favorite Dalek moments are always when they're scared.  There's a wonderful one of those here, when the virus is released with two Daleks in the room.  They're both immunized, but they're the only ones immunized and with the immunization, meaning if they open the door, the entire army of Daleks will be killed.  And one of them, appropriately, freaks.  "We can never leave here!  Never!  Never!"  Dalek fear is just delicious.

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