|The Doctor is totally Banksy.|
It’s April 7, 1973. Gilbert O’Sullivan is at number one with “Get Down,” with David Cassidy, Donny Osmond, and Little Jimmy Osmond all also in the top ten. A situation along these lines persists for three weeks before Dawn reach number one with “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree,” which ends up being the number one song for the year. David Bowie, Sweet, and Gary Glitter also chart in other three weeks of this story.
In real news, the Labour Party takes over the Greater London Council, prefiguring their general election win ten months later. Also, the House of Commons declines to reinstitute the death penalty, and a one day strike in opposition to government policy on inflation takes place amount 1,600,000 workers. Elsewhere in Europe, the GSG 9, Germany’s counter-terrorism force, is formed in response to the Munich killings. In the US, a large swath of Nixon aides resign in an attempt to draw a line under the Watergate scandal, which I’m sure is going to work. A 71-day standoff with the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee ends with the surrender of the Native Americans. Also the Sears Tower is built, and screw you if you call it Willis Tower.
While on television, it’s pretty much 1965/66. No. Wait. That’s The Daleks’ Masterplan, which, while the stretch of twelve episodes we’re tying up here was an explicit attempt to redo, isn’t at all what this story is like. On television, it’s pretty much 1963/64, as Terry Nation suddenly reappears and writes a story that is basically just The Daleks only an episode shorter. Note that I say he writes a story that is just a remake of his old work, though. That doesn’t mean that’s what we get on screen.
But before we go there, it’s worth taking a step back, looking at these twelve episodes, and asking how we got here. There are a lot of reasons. First and foremost, Letts, having gotten the Daleks back in his toolbox, was understandably eager to use them. A feature of the deal to bring them back, however, was that Terry Nation got first refusal on the right to write a Dalek story. He’d been too busy to exercise it in 1972, but was now keen to. So that meant that they had to use a Nation script if they were to do Daleks.
But also attached with all of this was a more curious motivation. It was the tenth anniversary, and before The Three Doctors had even been planned out there was a desire to do something nostalgic for it. Accordingly, the production team leafed through past events and said “Ooh, twelve week Dalek epic, that sounds fun.” So they called Douglas Camfield, who had directed The Daleks’ Master Plan, and asked him for advice. His advice was “don’t do that.” So they dropped to plan B – let Nation write six weeks of Dalek thrills, then have a different six-parter that dovetails into it. Given that Nation was expected to write a very retro story, they went with Hulke for the other half, he being both a reliably mature writer and not yet doing anything for Season Ten.
That said, given that I don’t even think Daleks’ Master Plan is one story, I’m certainly not inclined to treat all twelve weeks of this as one story. The fact of the matter is, Frontier in Space ends decisively with the Master’s defeat. In the course of his defeat, however, a new threat appears: Daleks. The two stories are certainly related, but so are The Crusade and The Space Museum, and nobody seriously claims those are one story. The one place where the connection between the two stories does matter, however, is in what we talked about last time in terms of the narrative demanding the Doctor cement the idea of his return to traveling by demonstrating that he can handle something like a Dalek story.
Because effectively, everything that goes on in this story that is particularly interesting (and if we’re being honest, there’s a whole lot going on in this story that is not very interesting at all) comes down to the question of how Doctor Who in 1973 relates to Doctor Who in 1963. Because from a script perspective, this really is 1963 Doctor Who with a leading man who can do running scenes better. Nation has made zero effort whatsoever to update the format of the series.
To be fair, this is not the disaster that some people act like it is. Terry Nation has a raft of foibles as a writer, but his basic sense is solid. It’s worth noting, since we haven’t gotten to talk about him since the Hartnell era, that he is, from a writing perspective, second only to David Whitaker in terms of the depth of his influence on the shape of the show from the start. After all, within Doctor Who it was Nation who really started the idea of jumping around among divergent settings, Nation who invented monsters, and Nation who invented invading Earth. Even beyond that, Nation was the first one to do space adventures, and remains enormously good at packing action into a story. The only problem with Nation is that there isn’t a damn thing he learned about writing science fiction from anything newer than Dan Dare. Which was already old school in 1963. In 1973, it’s, if we’re being charitable, retro. By 1979, when his association with the series ends, it becomes bewilderingly antiquated.
The practical effect of this is twofold. On the one hand, Planet of the Daleks is a well made action thriller in a sort of classic Dan Dare mould. On the other hand, that’s not necessarily a great thing to be as Doctor Who in 1973. After three successful stories in a row with interesting complexities to them and coming off a far longer run of stories with interesting goals, even if they aren’t always met, suddenly ending up in 1963 is jarring, and not in an entirely satisfying way. And among the people who appear jarred by and not entirely happy with it are Jon Pertwee, Katy Manning, and director David Maloney. But what this means is that Planet of the Daleks ends up being, in many ways, the most straight-up postmodern story of the Pertwee era thus far. (And we’re starting to get towards the end of it)
Remember that postmodernism is about separating symbols from their contexts while still relying on them to function. To some extent, of course, that means Doctor Who has been postmodern since it shoved a Victorian inventor, a star child, and two school teachers in the same frame as a bunch of cavemen. But this is more thorough, in that you have two distinct elements that are each extremely well developed – the logic of a classic Dalek story (of which, even if Nation only really did about three, there are so many in the comics as to be a very well-established genre) and the logic of the Pertwee era. These logics are not quite allied, nor are they quite opposed, and so when different parts of the stories are going in different directions, they interact visibly.
Pertwee ends up doing the bulk of this interaction. Tat Wood observes that Nation really doesn’t quite get Pertwee’s Doctor, writing him primarily as a sage lawgiver in a way that he’s really not usually. So Pertwee, instead of running around being imperious like he prefers, and instead of running around getting ignored and mildly tortured as works best, is stuck giving speeches about the meaning of courage. He’s not bad at this, thankfully, but it’s not his wheelhouse either.
The solution he settles on, however, is perfect – he plays the story with a sort of cool detachment. The result is a perfect and postmodern commentary on the episode – as if the Doctor recognizes that he’s in an unusually easy adventure of far less complexity than he deals with routinely, and that it doesn’t actually require his full attention. The tendency to make speeches about fear instead of doing what are now the core elements of “Doctory” behavior becomes not a mischaracterization but a case of the Doctor taking it easy and figuring he doesn’t have to work, he can just sit back and be encouraging.
The result ends up answering the basic question of the story – how does this Doctor deal with the types of adventures people remember him having now that he’s back to being able to have those adventures – very well and decisively. And the answer given – they’re a piece of cake to him and good for nothing so much as a nostalgia trip – is, for the show, an excellent one. The only downside is that the audience has to sit through six episodes of nostalgia trip, but for an audience with any fondness for the old Dalek stories – and presumably anyone watching Pertwee stories in 2011 is the sort of person who does have a fondness for the whole history of the show, since their diversion from modern taste is significant – two and a half hours of well-acted, well-directed classic Daleks is still, frankly, a bit of a treat. There are obvious problems with doing it for six weeks with an audience primarily comprised of people who are too young to remember Season One and entirely comprised of people who haven’t seen it in a decade, but this is a rare case where history is kind to the show – the story frankly works better in 2011 than it probably did in 1973.
As for Manning and Maloney, there’s a lot to say. Manning is brutally served by the script, including going fully 80% of an episode without getting a line of dialogue. But she does magnificently with what she gets. In particular, saddled with an absolutely wretchedly built romantic subplot, she manages to sell it by just completely refusing to play that plot line with any seriousness, letting it turn into “the Thal who inexplicably falls for Jo” instead of “the pointless love story.” It’s a great call on Manning’s part.
Maloney, on the other hand, shoots the hell out of this thing, using camera angles and editing to brilliant effect. In particular, he demonstrates an understanding of how Jo works as a character, using the camera to literalize what I’ve been saying for weeks now about Jo “transgressing” against the narrative. I’d explain in detail, but it’s so hard to capture directorial decisions just in prose. So I guess I have no choice but to finally and happily bring you a return of the TARDIS Eruditorum Video Blog, appended below. See you Monday.