|It’s OK, Mr. Emperor. Even the biggest Daleks suffer from
droopy eyestalk sometimes. It’s perfectly natural, and
doesn’t mean you’re not a real Dalek at all.
It’s May 20, 1967. The Tremeloes, best known as the band Decca signed instead of The Beatles, are at number one. The Tremeloes, like The Beatles, came from the Merseybeat scene we’ve talked about some already (which is also why The Beatles are spelled the way they are), and unlike The Beatles of 1967, were still churning out generic doo-wop inflected rock numbers such as “Silence is Golden,” which held number one for three weeks before Procul Harum takes number one with a nice, sweeping prog/psychedelic rock epic “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” which holds the number one for the remaining four weeks of this story. But let’s face it, the real news is this: Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is released, and becomes the soundtrack to the so-called Summer of Love, about which more on Wednesday.
In news that anchors who don’t sing won’t take, Celtic beat Inter Milan to win the European Cup, making them the first British team to do so. On one level, this continues the brief and shining moment of British domination of the sport. On another level, you have to understand Glaswegian sports fandom, the Old Firm rivalry, and sectarian violence to even start to understand what the phrase “Celtic won” means, and since none of those things are remotely relevant to Evil of the Daleks, hey look, we’ve moved on. (Though I’m sure it made Frazer Hines, a complete football nut, followed it avidly.) The Soviet Union, the US, and the UK agree not to put nuclear weapons in space, which is very nice of them.
In other news, let’s take a deep breath: Israeli/Egyptian tensions flare up mightily, the Six Day War breaks out and ends (these things happen when you put a six-day war in the midst of a seven-week Dalek serial), Biafra begins its futile attempt at independence, a Marxist rebellion begins in India, Loving v. Virginia is decided in the US, legalizing interracial marriage, Thurgood Marshall is nominated to the Supreme Court, two American race riots happen in Tampa and Buffalo, The EEC is merged with the ECSC and EAC to form the European Communities, and, three days after this story finishes, homosexuality is finally decriminalized in the UK, a move that most immediately impacts the artistic community, where it had long been an open secret (Doctor Who having prominently employed at least two semi-out gay men in its first three years – Max Adrian and Waris Hussein).
While on television, we have Evil of the Daleks. Which is as hard a story to see straight as exists in Doctor Who, so let’s just dust off the old-fashioned tricks and go through the thing linearly to see how it works, then sort out the rest.
There’s a fine and at times difficult to pin down line between a methodical, suspenseful pace and a slow one, and this story walks it. Coming into it, the first and most important thing, then, is the title card. The Evil of the Daleks, by David Whitaker. By this point in the show’s run, those words mean things. We know that Dalek stories are the Event stories – and note that major cast changes happened in every return the Daleks have made. But, equally important, by this point anyone who watches the show closely knows what some names mean. David Whitaker has had credits on both Dalek movies, two novelizations (including Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks), the previous Dalek story, and three stories prior, plus he was the script editor for the first year and change. He is the most known quantity writer at this point – one who we, by this point, recognize as the writer of Important Stories.
I say all of this because it’s essential to understanding the first 25 minutes of this story. Whitaker starts with astonishing confidence – much as he did in Power of the Daleks. He clearly trusts that the word “Daleks” and, to a lesser extent, his credit buys him some patience. And so the most interesting thing about the first episode of Evil of the Daleks is that so little happens. The Doctor is stuck playing Sherlock Holmes doing a nice faffabout chasing the stolen TARDIS while the actual plot goes on with Waterfield in his antique shop. This requires some real faith – both in Troughton and Hines and their ability to vamp out a double act for their screentime and in the viewer for being able to accept that this story is going to take 25 minutes of screentime to get all the pieces on the board. And the pieces thus far are fascinating – 60s mod coffee bars, a Victorian man in 1966 (remember the most mental thing about this story and The Faceless Ones – they were set in the recent past), a stolen TARDIS, evil and mysterious overlords, etc. So when at the end a Dalek makes his obligatory end of episode one cliffhanger appearance, it’s become a juxtaposition. Ironically, by taking 25 minutes to set up the plot on the promise that there are Daleks coming and it’ll be worth it, Whitaker manages to make the appearance of the Daleks – the entire reason the audience doesn’t give up before the end, and thus the only thing we go into the 25 minutes actively expecting – into a genuine surprise again.
When this is, in episode two, followed fairly early on with the Doctor and Jamie being transported to Victorian England – where there are still Daleks – we get to a point where this story has gone, for lack of a better phrase, completely mental. To be clear, we have Victorian time travelers selling brand new antiques in 1966 and luring the Doctor into a trap so that he can be transported back to 1866 as part of a plot by the Daleks. In 2011, this sounds very much like Doctor Who. But other than The Chase and The Daleks’ Master Plan we’ve never even had a story that jumped between two timeframes, and there it was a matter of the TARDIS and a Dalek craft traveling in parallel. The idea of events in 1866 affecting those in 1966 directly, and of the Doctor traveling through time via something other than the TARDIS is wholly new.
And so the first thing Whitaker does is spend an episode playing with the tension of this, throwing two scenes that, in 1967, were totally mental. First, we get Victoria Waterfield (hereafter Victoria), Edward Waterfield’s (hereafter Waterfield) daughter, captured by the Daleks. The initial shot is practically fairytale – she feeds birds like she’s Snow White. Then a Dalek comes in and menaces her. And, crucially, it’s two things that absolutely do not belong in a shot together. Which is, as you may recall, the whole original purpose of this series.
The second scene is even stranger. Waterfield and Maxtible explain how they invented a time machine. Let’s take a quick look at the script here, because this is an incredibly weird section.
MAXTIBLE: I have always been fascinated by the concept of travelling through time. Waterfield here is an expert in certain technical matters and I have the money to indulge my whims. Everything you see about you here was constructed by us two.
DOCTOR: To try to find a way of exploring time?
MAXTIBLE: Yes, now this is my theory. A mirror reflects an image, does it not?
MAXTIBLE: So, you may be standing there, yet appear to be standing fifty feet away. Well, following the new investigations twelve years ago by J. Clark Maxwell into electromagnetism and the experiments by Faraday into static electricity…
DOCTOR: (suspicious) Static?
MAXTIBLE: Correct! Waterfield and I first attempted to refine the image in the mirror, and then to project it. In here, Doctor, are one hundred and forty-four separate mirrors.
(MAXTIBLE shows the DOCTOR a wood-panelled double door, which apparently leads into the heart of their time travel device.)
WATERFIELD: And each is of polished metal. Each is subjected to electric charges, all positive.
MAXTIBLE: Like repels like in electricity, Doctor, and so next, Waterfield and I attempted to repel the image in the mirror, wherever we directed.
So, first of all, this makes no sense whatsoever in any context that can be recognized as reality. Well. OK. In almost any context. There is one context where it makes perfect sense – alchemy. There are several clues here – the fact that a mirror’s reflection is treated as equivalent to the image itself (the image of a time traveller becomes a time traveller?), the fact that electricity is used because “like repels like,” and the fact that the number of mirrors is exactly 144, i.e. twelve squared. We’ll pick this point up later.
More significant is the fact that an alchemical Victorian time machine has apparently summoned the Daleks. Which, aside from being a bewildering juxtaposition, also means that Doctor Who quietly invented steampunk. In 1967. Which is significant, in no small part because it’s wholly true. If you take as a fair definition of steampunk “a subgenre of science fiction concerned with juxtaposing the structure and imagery of Victorian adventure stories from which science fiction developed with concepts from contemporary science fiction,” which is, I think reasonable, then Evil of the Daleks is steampunk through and through, ages before it was cool, or, for that matter, existent.
Having methodically laid out its basic premises, Evil of the Daleks goes into three episodes that are, by any standard, a bit rough. There are reasons for this – Troughton took a vacation for episode four and appeared in prefilmed inserts, and the story got an added episode that was used to pad out the middle section. So we get three episodes of Jamie running around in a Victorian mansion full of mashy spike plates with a black Turk whose “mind is undeveloped,” or so we are told (hurray for scientific racism! Which is to say, five points off for David Whitaker, although to be fair, his script says Turk, and the scientific racism about some races having inherently inferior intelligences was usually focused on Africans, so a lot of this came from whatever idiot decided that “black” and “Turkish” were synonyms).
But we do get some important theme set up over these which we should deal with. On the one hand, over these episodes Maxtible becomes steadily unhinged in his quest for the knowledge of how to transmute base metals into gold (a secret the Daleks apparently have). On the other hand, you get the Daleks’ primary concern – isolating and identifying “the human factor,” which is apparently both what makes humans the way they are and an injectable liquid. So that’s probably news to the Human Genome Project. On the third hand, because I apparently miscounted how many items there were when I started the paragraph, we get the Dalek mind control plates (making this now the fourth consecutive story with mind control).
What’s significant, and we see this over the course of the final two episodes, is that all three of these are paralleled. Maxtible’s quest for the philosopher’s stone is explicitly paralleled with the Daleks’ quest for the Human Factor (and by extension the Dalek Factor, which turns out to only be understandable in contrast to the Human Factor), and the fact that the Daleks can control people’s minds is paralleled with the fact that the Human factor can be synthesized and given to Daleks. In both cases, scenes dealing with the issues are presented one after another so that the viewer sees how these concepts are equivalent and related. So at some point we’re going to need to sit down and figure out what to make of these big symbols and their parallels.
But first we have to get to the end of the major concepts. So, after wasting three episodes by making Jamie compete in a Victorian version of a Japanese gameshow where he dodges mashy spike plates and has emotions that the Doctor can identify so they get included in the Human factor, Whitaker discovers that the weirdness dial has three settings. And so, in a glorious upgrading of his “I AM YOUR SERVANT” cliffhanger on Power of the Daleks, Whitaker gives us Daleks who have been given the Human Factor giving the Doctor rides around Maxtible’s study as he proudly shouts “They’re playing a game!”
(It is very easy, if you are only reading this description, to believe that this sounds like the stupidest thing ever. I know because I spent most of my life completely mystified as to how a story with game-playing Daleks and something as stupid as “the human factor” could possibly be a classic. Then I listened to the audio for the first time. No amount of explanation of this story prepares you for how completely and utterly bonkers the human Daleks sound. You really just have to, unless you’ve seen or heard the thing, take on faith that this scene is as completely and utterly mindblowing as it is. For a vague sense, imagine getting a Dalek drunk, feeding it helium, and getting it to shout “Dizzy Dalek” before giggling. Then play that scene completely straight with no laughs at all.)
From there it’s all over save the action sequences as the Doctor sparks a civil war among the Daleks by making more Human Factor Daleks, shortly after meeting the Dalek Emperor (who would have been familiar to viewers from the comics, but would have been something they simply assumed they’d never see on TV) and being told that the point of synthesizing the Human Factor was really to develop the Dalek Factor and use the TARDIS to spread it. At which point the Doctor mutters that this may be the final end of the Daleks, and then we see amidst the wreckage that one Dalek is still alive.
Actually, let’s start there, now that we’ve at least got a firm idea of what all the moving parts of this story are. Yes, this story is the farewell to the Daleks, who will now not appear for five years. It was intended to be their last Doctor Who story so that Terry Nation could launch a Dalek TV show in America. This plan eventually ran aground when Terry Nation ran into the fairly obvious problem that nobody in America had heard about the Daleks, and “So there are these really cool evil robotic saltshakers” is the worst start to a pitch ever.
Somehow, the fact that this story was meant to be the end of the Daleks in Doctor Who has, over the years, turned into the assumption that it’s meant to be the end of the Daleks. It’s obviously not. The final episode bookends the Doctor’s claim that it’s “the final end” with Maxtible talking about how the Daleks will never die and with a lone survivor. The Daleks obviously survive this story. Which makes sense, since killing them off is probably not the right thing to do before launching your spinoff.
I mention this mostly because John Peel has published entire books devoted to the sole task of re-establishing this story as the true end of the Daleks, and has opted to inanely retcon huge swaths of the television series in pursuit of this task. And that this would be stupid and unnecessary even if this were the final end of the Daleks, but given that it obviously isn’t and was never intended to be, manages the previously unimaginable feat of making War of the Daleks an even stupider book than everybody thought.
The second thing we should deal with is the obvious admissions. There are some real problems with this story. Not just the lengthy middle, which is a much larger problem than people give it credit for. The usual refrain is that the story is fine but has one extra episode in the middle. It’s not. The story depends, as I said earlier, on the fact that it moves methodically towards a known conclusion. Every step of the way we know we’re getting closer to a big Dalek epic, and we accept each step because it changes the game interestingly. But when this progression of interesting developments seizes up for three weeks, the whole story goes limp. Yes, the story is good enough in episodes 6 and 7 to win the audience back, but it has to start from near zero. Unnecessary padding in a story that has already opted for the “slow and deliberate” approach to its plotting is a genuine disaster.
But the real problem isn’t just that the plotting is slow. It’s that the fact that the Doctor and Jamie are really just on faffabout until they get to Skaro. They have no actual function to the plot, and are actually in the way. So for episodes 3-5, the real problem is that the Doctor does not seem to have a plan and is just doing what the Daleks say. For all the impact of Jamie blowing up at the Doctor for his manipulations, the larger problem here is that it’s not at all clear that the Doctor is doing anything other than making time. Arguably his insistence on stressing the positive parts of human behavior while deriving the human factor indicates some plan, but the fact of the matter is that even the Doctor spends three episodes seemingly twiddling his thumbs and waiting for the Daleks to begin with their real plan.
But more to the point, it’s very obvious that Whitaker is writing the same Doctor he was writing in Power of the Daleks. Which is only a problem when you consider that the character has developed considerably since then. So the characterization is continually… off. This too isn’t a crushing problem, because Troughton plays it well and the characterization Whitaker picks is a fascinating midpoint between Troughton and Hartnell that has the happy accident of coming off very close to, say, Sylvester McCoy or David Tennant. In particular, the scene where the Doctor bluntly informs his companions that he will let them die if it means stopping the Daleks is a tour de force that takes the sting out of every stupid scene where the Cybermen get the Doctor to back down by threatening his companion and then chortle about how his emotions make him weak. As is the case with bewildering frequency for Whitaker, he is astonishingly capable of screwing up in ways that end up being way ahead of their time. It’s like magic.
Also like magic is Whitaker’s entire sense of science, as mentioned. Much of why Evil of the Daleks manages to be steampunk seven years before punk was invented comes down to the fact that Whitaker is writing a science fiction story in which the Daleks work like alchemy does. We should start by nailing down some particulars. Miles and Wood, in About Time Volume 2 (Available from the spinny widget to the right of the site) have an essay in which they make a compelling argument for how alchemical themes run throughout Whitaker’s work… then kind of cop out and suggest that these ideas were common to children’s literature and Whitaker was likely just picking up on them and was not a wacky occultist.
I’m going to go ahead and say that, no, actually, probably David Whitaker was a wacky occultist, or at least that he was very much familiar with how occultism worked. First of all, let’s make it clear that the alchemical themes are not in the least bit accidental. That’s easy enough. Just scope out this interview in which he says that the “lure of alchemy” is one of his favorite themes to deal with. Clearly the presence of alchemical themes in Evil of the Daleks is not just a technobabbly piece of window dressing. No – it’s clearly the case that alchemy was intended as a major theme of the piece. So whatever we find by pulling on that thread is supposed to be there.
So the next obvious question is “what is alchemy anyway?” The answer would be massively long, so let’s instead offer three very important points about how alchemy works and leave it to the reader to explore the issue more and see if they can be as much of a weird occultist as one of the most important writers in Doctor Who history is! It’s like a rainy day activity book, only with more magick.
First of all, a basic definition. Alchemy is a mode of human inquiry in which symbols and objects are treated as interchangeable so that action on one affects the other (a viewpoint summarized by the maxim “as above, so below”). In other words, for instance, a reflected image of a person can be viewed as equivalent to the person itself. Similarly, because in electricity like repels like, electricity can be used to separate two images of a person (which are alike, and thus, with electricity, repel each other) and thus attain time travel by putting one person in a different place. See now how that’s supposed to work?
OK. So second, alchemy is primarily a spiritual pursuit. The major alchemist’s quest – the ability to turn lead into gold – is not about profit margins. Maxtible is already insanely wealthy, and his “sell antiques 100 years in the future” racket is as good as any metal transmutation racket he might be able to cook up. What Maxtible is insanely pursuing is rather a form of spiritual enlightenment. Lead, you see, is just gold that’s gone wrong. So transmuting it into gold means that you have the ability to purify and perfect base materials into holy ones. If you can turn lead into gold, you can also turn yourself into a holy and sacred being.
Third, there’s a bunch of astrological symbolism that’s really important to alchemy. We don’t care about most of it, although rest assured that if you know it and go through Whitaker’s stories it proves remarkably useful over and over again. Most interestingly, consider that Saturn is the planet most associated with time, but is a very stodgy, cold, obsessive force very much unlike the Doctor. In fact, it is almost as though the Doctor’s temperament might be fundamentally different from those of his people, who are probably a more conservative, hoarding, slightly power-mad sort who are, like, lords of time or something. The Doctor, on the other hand, is very clearly associated with Mercury. To ridiculously simplify thousands of years of occult traditions into a few sentences in a blog entry, Mercury is the planet (and element) associated with smart trickster figures who work as guides to humanity. Suddenly the fact that the Daleks were paralyzed by being shoved into a mercury swamp in Power of the Daleks makes sense – the Daleks are enemies of the (Mercurial) Doctor, and so Mercury is lethal to them. Mercury, in fact, is largely the most important and beloved element to alchemists and occultists, which is why the most important occult organization of the late 19th/early 20th century is the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
OK. So with all of that in mind, what do we have here? We have the Daleks’ quest for the Dalek Factor explicitly paralleled with Maxtible’s quest for the ability to transmute base metals into gold. So we have to understand what the Daleks are doing in this story as a form of alchemy. Which makes sense. The human factor is, in the end, a material symbol that represents humanity. Because humans and Daleks are diametrically opposed (hence Whitaker’s repeated look in both of his Dalek stories at the idea that the Daleks are our superior replacements – an alternative to humanity in the same sense that the Cybermen are), and so understanding one allows you to understand the other. (And the Daleks, being Daleks, cannot see themselves – they must understand themselves through the metaphor) So the factors are alchemical concepts – symbols that have real power.
Further nailing this down is the fact that the Daleks demonstrate the ability to transmute base metals into gold. In other words, they have alchemical spiritual enlightenment down, and what they’re doing is a “higher form” of it. Here, then, we can see that Whitaker is not overly fond of alchemy. So the whole thing is just a condemnation of it, right? Alchemy has rendered Maxtible irredeemable, and that’s why he becomes a mad servant of the Daleks at the end.
Except that we have to remember that the Doctor is every bit as alchemical as the rest of them. Consider his claim when he concludes that the Daleks have presented him with a fake copy of one of the Daleks he named – “You think I don’t recognize my own mark?” It is the fact that Troughton has named the Dalek – given it a symbolic mark (a Greek letter, tellingly) that identifies it. Troughton has engaged in an alchemical symbolic manipulation to create the human factored Daleks, and it is his magickal mark that he recognizes – not the Dalek itself.
Furthermore, the Doctor beats the Daleks by using their own alchemy against them. He submits to their efforts to infect him with the Dalek factor, but he is immune to it because he is more than human. Then (after a great sequence in which he plays the Doctor as a Dalek – a scene that Hartnell could frankly never have done) he turns the Dalek machinery around on them and applies his alchemy to infect the Daleks with the human factor.
In other words, the Doctor here is a sorcerer. One who can outdo the crass and false spirituality of human alchemy and replace it with his own higher magicks. He has, in other words, attained a true enlightenment – something very much different from the Daleks’ false enlightenment of transmuting lead to gold. What is this enlightenment?
The clue is in the Daleks’ plan. Even though they can synthesize the Dalek Factor, their plan requires the Doctor because the TARDIS is what they need to spread the Dalek Factor across the universe. So whatever level of (false) enlightenment the Daleks have, the TARDIS is above it. And as we know from The Daleks (script-edited by Whitaker), a vital component of the TARDIS is… mercury.
So there we have it. The Doctor can triumph over the Daleks because his enlightenment is the TARDIS. His magical box that wanted to see the universe, and so stole him so she could. Who took him where he needed to go, until finally she had made him into the hero he should be. Yes, it was Gaiman who codified all of this a few days ago. But it was Whitaker who edited the script that started us off with a long pan through a junkyard to a magical blue box. It was Whitaker who wrote The Edge of Destruction and turned the box from a mere spaceship to a thinking, conscious being. And it was Whitaker who wrote this story, where the thing that makes the Doctor better than the Daleks is his magical box.
Without David Whitaker, the Doctor would just have a time machine. Instead, he has a TARDIS. Whitaker is undoubtedly a strange man. A madman, really. You have to be to write alchemical science fiction in 1967. Which is, of course, why he’s the most important writer the show has seen to date.
Because David Whitaker is, without a doubt, a madman with a box.
Never seen the one surviving episode of Evil of the Daleks? As with most fragments of Patrick Troughton, it’s available on The Lost Years DVD set, which you can buy from that link and, in the process, give me a trivial but much appreciated bit of money.