|“No, really, the fish was this big.”|
It’s January 1st, 1972. Little Jimmy Osmond is at number one with “Long Haired Lover From Liverpool,” for which the UK continues to seek a formal apology. Alarmingly The Osmonds at large and Donny Osmond are also in the top ten. We regret to inform you that the number one does not change over the time this story is running. Also in the charts, however, are David Bowie, Slade, Elton John, The Sweet and T. Rex, along with Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.”
Since The Daemons, the UK has begun negotiations to join the EEC now that Charles de Gaulle isn’t there to block them, continuing a process you may remember from way back here. Jim Morrison has died. The UK abandons its Black Arrow space program, formally consigning The Ambassadors of Death to a future that never happened. Tensions in Northern Ireland ratchet up, with the UK sending more troops and with UK security forces beginning Operation Demetrius, i.e. the long-term internment without trial of suspected paramilitary rebels. To say that this went over poorly with large numbers of people would be an understatement. Richard Nixon formally takes the Bretton-Woods economic system out back and shoots it by decoupling the dollar from the gold standard. The result, termed Nixon Shock, is a great way to make obsessive Tea Party/Ayn Rand devotees rant for a long time. The UN swaps the People’s Republic of China in for Taiwan, which we’ll unpack a little in the paragraph after next, Ian Paisley founds the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, India and Pakistan have another quick spot of war, and both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are formed.
While during this story, Kurt Waldheim becomes Secretary General of the UN, while Nixon begins development on the Space Shuttle, a decision that will turn out to be a death blow to the space age. The planned Libertarian utopia Minerva declares independence before being annexed and successfully invaded by Tonga, which has to go down as one of Libertarianism’s more hilariously ignoble defeats.
Right, so China. So, back in 1949 Mao Zedong and his forces successfully took over China. This was followed by some awkward moments like the Great Leap Forward, which proved fatal to 45 million people, and the Cultural Revolution, which went even worse on the whole. Initially, the USSR was more or less in favor of China, although each country viewed the other with some suspicion due as much to the fact that each of them was very big as to the fact that they had markedly different takes on Marxism. The US, meanwhile, was none too pleased with these developments, fighting the Korean War as a proxy war against Sino-Soviet influence. Then came the Cultural Revolution, and China and the USSR definitively split and discarded almost any pretext of getting along. In fact, they kinda started shooting each other, resulting in a situation where the US was stuck in a proxy war with China and the USSR in Vietnam while China and the USSR were themselves having a bit of a war. The result is an utter mess, and you can see why everyone went just a little post-apocalyptic and eschatological here. (Which also helps explain the running in droves to the New Age movement. The show is actually doing very well at engaging with the world here.) But in 1971, following Nixon’s winning election in the US on a platform that included “maybe we should chat up China,” and, in August of 1971, sending Henry Kissinger with a secret delegation to China to try to negotiate, things began to calm. Following a failed coup in China in September of 1971, in February of 1972 Nixon himself went to China, effectively normalizing relations there and defusing the colossal global instability that had previously looked to be headed to World War III. All of which is valuable context for Day of the Daleks, which features as its central plot point yet another peace conference in which the Chinese are the sticky wicket.
The most obvious thing to say about Day of the Daleks might be that we were able to go 600 words without mentioning it. This has never been true about past Dalek stories, where we have usually just dived in and dealt with the epic connotations of the Daleks. But there’s something… odd about this round of Daleks.
Behind the scenes, the reasons are clear enough. Louis Marks, who wrote the script, had an idea for a story about time travelers trying to change the past. In parallel, Robert Sloman was working on a Dalek story as the season finale. But Barry Letts decided he needed something bigger for the season launch, and decided to take the Daleks from Sloman (offering him the Master in compensation, which we’ll talk about at the other end of season nine) and tell Marks to use them. The result is that the Daleks got shoehorned into this script where they didn’t really belong, leading to a Dalek story that isn’t quite a Dalek story.
But on the other hand, this is the return of the Daleks for the first time in over four years. the Daleks haven’t appeared in a longer amount of time than stretched from their first appearance to the end of Evil of the Daleks. There’s no way to escape the gravity of this as an event story. But with the Daleks appearing in an average of two and a half minutes per episode and the Doctor never actually getting a confrontation scene with them, as an event the story is, frankly, frustrating. Not that the show needs to be about Daleks instead of time travel intrigue, but if you’re going to bring the Daleks back, there’s some sense that you might want to use them.
The first episode on the one hand behaves like a normal first episode of a Dalek story, which is to say that it builds relentlessly towards a cliffhanger that reveals the presence of the Daleks in a story we know is about the Daleks from the opening credits. As cynical as this sounds, we should probably admit that it is not an entirely unreasonable use of audience time. The use of the end-of-first-episode reveal is still a major part of the show’s DNA, and holding off on the Daleks until then makes sense. Except that about halfway through the episode, the camera zooms back and reveals, for a half second, a Dalek shouting “REPORT!”
It’s difficult to understand how and why this happened. For ll the sloppiness in the series to date, it has never really made a mistake like this one. The closest equivalent is probably the odd reveal of the Master in The Claws of Axos, and I persist in thinking that was a deliberate moment of playing with the expected Master reveal. But the Master, by that time, was already defined as a transgressive trickster figure who could do things like that. The Daleks don’t have that kind of definition, and the unimpressive half shot of a Dalek seems odd. Perhaps the idea was supposed to be that an extremely quick cut of a Dalek would build anticipation for the proper reveal later in the story? If so, someone probably should have put some effort into the proper reveal, which features the most lackluster Daleks ever, talking in a flat monotone. When it comes time for their big chorus of “Exterminate” at the end they sound almost bored, as if they’re tired of chanting about extermination.
In fact, all three of the cliffhangers are oddly lacking. The second two are at least played well, but are classic cases of cliffhangers of future potential – that is, a cliffhanger where the point is not the danger one of the regulars is in but rather the establishment of a situation that is going to change how the plot proceeds. For instance, the episode two cliffhanger is a Dalek materializing in some tunnels to chase the Doctor. As I discussed some time ago, the point of a cliffhanger like this is not that the Doctor is in immediate danger of extermination. It’s that the episode stops before we see what we want to see – a confrontation between the Doctor and a Dalek.
So when episode three starts up and within a minute the Doctor has escaped by getting dragged into the future by the guerrillas he’s with, it’s lackluster. Likewise, when the Doctor is strapped to a table and the Daleks confirm that he really is the Doctor, it appears to be leading towards the same thing – a scene where the Doctor faces down some Daleks. Instead, after a brief exchange, they release him to let a human interrogate him, and we actually never get a proper Pertwee/Dalek scene.
This is less of a problem than it might be by virtue of the fact that the plot the story spends time on instead of the Daleks is actually very good. The story Marks is actually telling, about time travelers from the future trying to change the present, is great. It moves beautifully from seeming like a ghost story in the first episode to being about soldiers from another time to being about the Doctor trying to bring down a corrupt society in the future, with each stage of the operation being a distinct and interesting type of story. When bits don’t work, it’s mostly down to the fact that pretending to be a ghost story when the audience knows full well there are Daleks to be had doesn’t work as well as what one assumes was Marks’s original plan of simply pretending to be a ghost story.
That said, Marks does do something very interesting with the structure here. Doris Egan, one of the writers on Torchwood this season, made a blog post a few weeks ago about the use of open or closed structures to tell stories. Basically, in an open structure the audience gets to see everything, and in a closed structure their knowledge is made to stay equivalent to the main characters’ knowledge. Marks pulls off an interesting trick with this, though. For most of the first two episodes, we have a closed structure. The audience knows considerably more about what is going on than the Doctor does, and we watch the Doctor catching up with us. And the main figure who knows stuff is the Daleks’ main human lackey, the Controller. All of this is a very normal setup for Doctor Who – we frequently get to know more about the villain’s plans than the Doctor does.
But Marks does something clever. He slowly stops giving the audience new information while he has the Controller begin to play both sides of the Doctor/Daleks conflict, and keeps from telling the audience what his real plan is. And eventually, in episode three, the Doctor meets the Controller. But by that point, the narrative has switched to a closed one – now we know what the Doctor is doing and don’t know what the Controller is doing. The effect is to make the controller a considerably more effective villain. He started in a position where we knew what to expect of him and where he appeared to be like a normal Doctor Who villain, and suddenly occupies a different role in the narrative.
Equally interesting is the decision to have the Doctor object to the state of the world primarily because of its labor conditions. Look at this bit of dialogue:
DOCTOR: Well, better than jumping from the crack of a whip from some security guard. Do you run all your factories like that, Controller?
CONTROLLER: That was not a factory, Doctor. ?
DOCTOR: Oh? Then what was it? ?
CONTROLLER: A rehabilitation centre. A rehabilitation centre for hardened criminals.
?DOCTOR: Including old men and women, even children?
CONTROLLER: There will always be people who need discipline, Doctor.
DOCTOR: Now that’s an old fashioned point of view, even from my standards.
CONTROLLER: I can assure you that this planet has never been more efficiently, more economically run. People have never been happier or more prosperous.
DOCTOR: Then why do you need so many people to keep them under control? Don’t they like being happy and prosperous?
And shortly thereafter
DOCTOR: When I meet a regime that needs to import savage alien life forms as security guards, I begin to wonder who the real criminals are.
JO: Those creatures aren’t really savage.
CONTROLLER: Exactly. They are simply guard dogs. They just do what I tell them.
DOCTOR: You mean there aren’t enough humans around that will follow your orders so blindly?
CONTROLLER: That is not what I was saying.
DOCTOR: Isn’t it? Then what you’re saying is that the entire human population of this planet, apart from a few remarkable exceptions like yourself, are really only fit to lead the life of a dog. Why?
What’s interesting about this is that the Doctor is objecting primarily to the way in which the masses are treated. He repeatedly phrases his objection in the general case. In fact, we never even meet any of the oppressed workers. The Doctor objects to the general condition of cruelty – the way in which the workers are treated as a class. He even, in the final line quoted, phrases it in an almost overtly Marxist way, dividing the population of the planet into the few who get a good life and the massive working class that gets abused.
But this is very different from the Doctor’s usual views, which are at once more philosophical and more personal. In Colony in Space – the other story thus far where Pertwee has taken a view like this – he may talk about how people need a world where they’re not treated like battery hens, but this has impact largely because we are by that point familiar with the people he is defending as characters. Here we see him make a purely class-based argument, and it’s refreshing – another step towards addressing the challenge laid down by The War Games.
Pertwee, for his part, is on fire here. Outside his comfort zone in the same ways he was in Inferno and The Mind of Evil, he’s sublimely good at playing anger and fear. And having those scenes nearby adds interesting nuances to his performance elsewhere. In particular, when faced with that most Doctor Who of circumstances – sitting around discussing philosophy with the human villain instead of doing anything that costs money – he comes out swinging.
But what’s interesting is how he plays the scene, reclining on one elbow while dining on good food and throwing out bon mots about social justice. It’s exactly the sort of scene that has been frustrating about Pertwee in the past, and yet here, couched among scenes where we see him in real danger and peril, it works, coming off in a beautiful space between the Doctor putting on an unflappable front to put the Controller off his game and the Doctor genuinely enjoying himself in the moment. It invokes an earlier moment in the story, in which the Doctor Hai!s his way through a few people without spilling his glass of wine, then calmly sips from it. When that moment happens, it falls right on the edge of being a genuinely fun, clever bit and being another example of Pertwee’s vanity. But by establishing that aspect of the Doctor so memorably when he’s in genuine control of the situation, the later scenes where he isn’t in control seem all the better.
Also great in this story is Katy Manning, who finally has a script that treats her with some respect. She does delightfully in her scenes with the Controller as she tries and fails to work out what’s going on, and her scene with Pertwee in which they’re both tied up in Sir Reginald’s basement is a thing of real beauty, their easy familiarity and sense of fun working in a delightful contrast to the danger of their circumstances. After five stories worth of promise, this is the story where it becomes clear that we have a classic companion on our hands.
But all of this seems beside the point, which inevitably has to be the Daleks and their strange non-return to the series. In the past, the Doctor’s confrontations with the Daleks have seemed definitive, asking questions with deep ramifications about who the Doctor is and who the Daleks are. Only one scene of this story seems to deal with that, namely the cliffhanger/resolution forming the end of episode three/start of episode four. In it, the Daleks (not the mind) probe the Doctor to see if he really is the Doctor. The most obvious thing to say about this is that it compares strangely to Power of the Daleks, where the Daleks recognition of the Doctor is one of the absolute key scenes of the whole thing.
Here, however, the Daleks clearly do not recognize the Doctor without considerable effort – so much so that the Controller comments that it has nearly killed the Doctor. Never before or since have the Daleks shown this kind of failure to recognize the Doctor. What, then, are we to make of this? The most obvious answer would seem to be that the Doctor is in some sense unrecognizable in this form.
I actually don’t mean this as an attack on Pertwee or the Pertwee era in general. Remember that the means by which the Time Lords restricted the Doctor to Earth is in part by damaging his TARDIS and in part by altering his knowledge of time travel. These are both key parts of who he is, though. A madman without a box is just a madman. A Time Lord without knowledge of time is just someone calling themselves Lord. The Doctor’s punishment was, in one sense, the stripping away of who he is. Until he reaches the point where the Time Lords deem him worthy of being the Doctor again, why should the Daleks recognize him?
To be fair, the general progress of the Pertwee era has been towards that point. All parts of the era are working more and more like Doctor Who. Letts and Dicks, starting with The Silurians, gave us the Doctor with every part of what had defined the character in the past taken away, and slowly have allowed him to reclaim pieces of who he was by adjusting them to fit his new circumstances. The show that is emerging is certainly not the show that existed in the 1960s, but in a way that couldn’t be said of season seven, it’s at least becoming an heir to that show in more than just name and some continuity points. But it’s not there yet. And in many ways, Day of the Daleks serves as a preview of what will come when it is there.
Another way to look at this story, then, is as the intersection of two familiar but not-yet-reconciliable worlds. The first is the world of UNIT, and the second is the world of the Daleks. Note that both worlds are, on their own merits, well established. The Daleks are particularly interesting in this regard. We’re told they have a massive empire that Earth is only a part of. But the stakes of this story are limited purely to Earth. There’s not the sense that changing history and stopping the Daleks from taking over Earth will disrupt their larger empire. One small part of the Daleks’ vast empire and one small part of our world briefly touch.
It’s notable, then, that the Doctor’s end solution is not to defeat the Daleks, but essentially to separate the two worlds again. He gets the Daleks to go into the house, gets UNIT to run out of it, blows up the house, and calls it a day. There are a few action scenes between UNIT and the Daleks, but nothing too climactic. The end point is that these worlds need to, for a little while longer, remain separate.
But not for much longer.