Saturday, 5 July 2014

Saturday Teatime 1.3: The Daleks

Once you read a few of these projects you start to see some patterns emerging. For instance, just about everyone falls in love with Jacqueline Hill; everyone concludes that Susan was a flawed idea; and everyone ends up a bit down on Terry Nation.

This last one isn't entirely unfair. Nation's writing (and occasionally his work ethic) had some severe problems but he also had a writing career on Doctor Who extending from 1963 to 1979. Yes, this is mainly due to the fact he held the copyright on the Daleks and had first refusal on writing the script whenever the BBC wanted to use them but there are other factors. He was commissioned to write a second script for the series before anyone decided the Daleks needed to return.

And you know what? I don't want to be down on Terry Nation. The first Doctor Who story I ever saw was Planet Of The Daleks and that story made me fall in love with the series. So here as we meet him and his most famous creations for the first time (sorry if you're the world's only massive Kraal fan) let's forget about the future and just enjoy ourselves. And that isn't difficult, there's a lot to like here and much of the Terry Nation Cliché Bingo Card fails to make an appearance (if nothing else it would be hard to self-plagiarise on your first script).
So let's give Nation some props because one thing he is absolutely fantastic at is set pieces. This is because his approach to science-fiction is very much the 1950s Flash Gordon movie serial form. Luckily, Nation's script is paired with a designer who realises this and turns in a bunch of sets and monsters that were a bit retro even in 1963 and so aged oddly well. Lucky for Nation, for us fans and for the survival of the series but considerably less so for designer Ray Cusick. Cusick was a fantastic designer who did a lot of work in the early years of the series, not least of which were the TARDIS console room and the Dalek casing. Everyone counts him as one of the series' most important visionaries. Everyone, that is, except Terry Nation, Terry Nation's lawyers and the BBC Royalties Payments Department.

Yes, it was a work-for-hire job and so he got a small bonus (£50, I believe) because it was great work and received not a penny or even an on-screen credit since.

So the production is on the same page as the writer and in some cases several pages ahead. We're doing movie serial sci-fi from ten years ago here, which is probably a good thing to be doing on TV when no one had really done ongoing science-fiction before. On this note its probably time to note that my theme of “early Doctor Who was more modern than I thought” pretty much curls up and dies here because no modern series would have Ian suggesting they all split up to search the seemingly deserted city without a post-modern joke asking if he'd ever seen a horror movie.

Good set pieces are a very important part of adventure serials, arguably the most important part. You get the set piece then a pause when some talky stuff happens that sets up the next big set piece and after that cycle repeats a couple of times you get the cliffhanger. Nation turns in some very pacey numbers here: escaping the Dalek cell, the lift scene, and the expedition party leaping across a very modestly proportioned chasm. Another very movie serial element of the plot if that there are basically two stories here. The first four episodes are about the four regulars exploring Skaro, encountering and being captured by the Daleks and then escaping whilst quickly helping out some more photogenic locals. It could have ended right there at the end of episode four but then Ian reveals that the Daleks took the fluid link from him when he was captured and now they can't leave. Thus begins adventure two: an arduous journey through the wilderness of Skaro so they can enter the city from an unexpected angle, beat the baddies and go home. Well, try to get home.

The reason I link this to the Flash Gordon movie serial format is because those serials tended to reuse sets, either by using them for different places or by setting a couple of stories in the same place. Don't get me wrong: this works, especially at this stage where individual episode titles mean we're dealing with a continuous series rather than separate stories.

It works because a lot of effort is made to build the world of Skaro before our eyes. As previously noted this world-building is enhanced by the set design and the fantastic, dry ice shrouded model of the Dalek city but it all extends from the decision to start with an episode featuring only the four regulars with nary a Dalek, Thal or ostentatiously camp schoolboy to distract us from the exploration of Skaro. Other characters are introduced slowly: first a Dalek sucker menacing Barbara (there will never be a better Doctor Who scream), then the Daleks themselves followed by Susan meeting the Thal Alydon...
Actually, best to stop there a mo. More Thals turn up later but the scene between Susan and Alydon requires some short examination because it contains the very first racefail in Doctor Who. I'd completely forgotten the scene and expected to start talking about racism two essays from now in Marco Polo but there it is: a Jewish girl kneeling on the floor, staring fascinated at a towering Aryan man and declaring him “perfect”. An Aryan whose people will later be involved in an act of genocide. This is especially problematic as one of the qualities that got Carole Ann Ford the job was her “Unearthly” elfin appearance or, to put it another way, her non-standard beauty.

Oh, there's far, far worse to come but monsters are born in this scene when we find out that the mechanical Daleks share their planet with pretty people and guess who ends the story annihilated and who gets to rebuild civilisation?

Not that even the Daleks are monsters yet. I mean, they clearly eat. This might seem like an insignificant detail but at this stage we're still looking even at the bad aliens as creatures who have civilisation and needs such as food and shelter. The whole plotline with the Thals is about them suffering a bad harvest and striking out in search of new food supplies. There's a sense of history to the two societies and not just in the scene where the Doctor is treated to a short history and astronomy lesson from Diony (Terry Nation Bingo Card: cross out Sole Female Guest Character). There's also the nature of the Thal's pacifism.

The story requires that the Thals end up fighting the Daleks so, obviously, they're going to come around but the story allows that pacifism might not be a mistake here. Ian and Barbara argue the point with Barbara pragmatically pointing out that if the Thals don't fight she and Ian can never leave Skaro whilst Ian is more sympathetic to their beliefs. It all comes down, in the end, to whether or not the Thals really believe in pacifism or if its a fear of conflict brought on by the consequences of the last war. This is a world where food is hard to grow because most of the planet has been devastated by neutron bombs so its not difficult to understand the perspective. Ian proves to Alydon there are things he'll fight for when Ian threatens to take Diony to the Dalek city as a prisoner, whereupon Alydon proves that even in pacifist societies they have action movies as he delivers a leading man uppercut to Ian's chin. It's that realisation that spurs Alydon to action and to recruit volunteers to aid him in storming the city (Terry Nation Bingo Card: cross out Prosaic Speech About Bravery).

I'm not going to argue that this story is entirely respectful to pacifism, it does largely reject the philosophy, but it at least phrases it as a debate and floats the idea that there are circumstances where pacifism is a reasonable response. There are worse ways to treat pacifism, we'll be dealing with some of them later in the '60s.

And then there are the Daleks, did I mention them? One of the things about Nation's 1960s scripts are that the Daleks are very much a work in progress and will vary quite a bit between stories. It won't be until The Daleks' Master Plan that Nation will settle on the default characterisation the Daleks become known for and even then the last few steps will be taken by David Whitaker in Season Four. That's the future, though, and we'll never see these Daleks again: Daleks who refer to themselves as “I” an awful lot, who grow vegetables for food and have large stores of toilet paper (bit weird, that one). The static electricity thing gets a token mention in their next story but pretty much disappears from there, mainly because it is very, very limiting.

The Daleks are almost people here, very alien and well on their way to being monsters but essentially still people. Doctor Who doesn't do monsters just yet. Even when monsters start to be a thing, when the series resurrects the Daleks for a rematch, they're very much a unique case for the rest of the Hartnell era. That's one of Nation's enduring legacies in the series: he created the first monsters and when he took his ball and swanned off to America the series began to generate more and more monsters in an attempt to capture the magic again.

Like most of Nation's legacies, it's a mixed one. 

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