Saturday, December 19, 2015

Doctor Who: in defense of "Death to the Daleks"

The fourth of five maligned Classic Who serials that I consider worth revisiting. The first, "Terminus," can be found here; the second, "The Ark," here; and the third, "Delta and the Bannermen," here.


"Death to the Daleks" is the Dalek story for those who hate the Daleks. It's the Pertwee serial for those who hate the Pertwee era. It's the Terry Nation script for those who hate Terry Nation. By my rough calculations, that's approximately one in every seven billion people, which I guess would be me. For the other folks on the planet, most of whom love the Daleks, many of whom like the Pertwee era, and from what I can gather, at least six of whom think Terry Nation was a great writer, "Death to the Daleks" is one of the nadirs of the entire Doctor Who run.

I kind of like it.

First, a couple of clarifications. I don't hate the Daleks. I suspect my opinion of the them is influenced by the fact that I didn't start watching Doctor Who until Season 2 of the new series, which meant my first exposure to them was in "Army of Ghosts"/"Doomsday" and, more disastrously, "Daleks in Manhattan"/"Evolution of the Daleks." It was not an auspicious introduction. There are certainly Dalek stories I like: "Evil of the Daleks" is one of my favorite Who stories ever, "Genesis of the Daleks" is up there in the top 30, and I'm also fond of "Power of the Daleks," "Resurrection of the Daleks," "Dalek," "Into the Dalek," "Stolen Earth" and at least half of "The Chase" and "Remembrance of the Daleks." (Ironically, in 1963, I was probably the perfect age to be properly engaged and terrified by the little pepperpots, but I didn't get around to them for nearly a half-century.) That said, my favorite Dalek stories are not Nation's, but Whitaker's, where they're master manipulators, tacticians with such a keen understanding of human behavior, and how to exploit it, that you really do believe they're the most deadly killing machine in the universe. In the Nation scripts, they tend to shout single phrases a lot. Here is a sample line from "Death to the Daleks," uttered by a Dalek: "You will obey! You will obey! You will obey! You will obey! You will obey!" (Well, I guess we'll obey...)

Second clarification: I don't hate the Pertwee era. Far from it. But a lot of people like it far more than I do; I see why they do (and respect it), and I know why I don't. For me, the "Doctor stranded on Earth" premise, no matter how engaging the supporting cast, no matter how well-crafted the stories, simply isn't the Who that I most love. But I readily concede that given the choice between Troughton's last season and Pertwee's first, I'd pick the latter in a heartbeat, so while I'm, to this day, unconvinced that the "Earthbound Doctor" scenario was necessary, I fully believe it was handled flawlessly. And I certainly don't hate Pertwee at all; I simply find myself drawn to the less imposing Doctors, and Pertwee's particular brand of withering authority isn't my favorite characterization. When I take to Pertwee (and I do, often), it's mostly the glints of warmth and affection, or the times when he's thrown off his guard, alarmed at his own miscalculations or lack of information, and thinking madly on his feet -- I like the cracks in the armor, and I like the softer edges. What I find trickiest about Pertwee is that since, by his own admission, he based his Doctor on his own character, when he's not enjoying a story, or he's tired, or fed up, or baffled (as the first five Doctors all were, at one point or another), there's no place to run, no character behind which to hide. You see his unhappiness on the screen. Not willfully, not as Tom Baker would let you know, deliberately and almost boastfully, just how much he disliked his co-star, or the supporting cast, or the scripts; with Pertwee, he simply had no easy way to disguise it. The Doctor was Pertwee; if Pertwee was unhappy, inevitably so was the Doctor.

Third clarification: my feelings about Terry Nation. It's not that I dislike him -- it's, um, well -- oh screw it, I think I do. I find him a painfully limited talent, reusing the same situations, settings and characters until his work devolves into self-parody. It's not only in the Dalek stories that the lack of imagination chains him; the Dalek-free "Keys of Marinus" has the same journey to a city, complete with traps along the way and dull, indistinguishable supporting players. There always seems to be a jungle, pages of pedantic moralizing, and some moronic use of "Space" as an adjective to make the pedestrian sound exotic. For me, the Nation scripts hit rock-bottom in "Planet of the Daleks," the Dalek story right before "Death to the Daleks," a painfully slow, portentous remake of their very first adventure. (It's the one in which Jo tells an astronaut that her friend is sick, and he assures her, "I'm qualified in Space Medicine" -- in what? It's also the one where poor Pertwee has to intone so many uplifting speeches along the way that he actually ad-libs an apology.)

So all that said, why do I find "Death to the Daleks" a superior serial? Let's start with Terry Nation's script. There's less of it than usual; that's a good thing. It's not just that he'd written 6- and 7-parters before, and this one's only 4; there's simply less dialogue -- more silent action -- than in perhaps any other Classic Who script. (I suspect it has about as many lines as the typical Hartnell or Davison two-parter.) "Death to the Daleks" is, for much of its length, the closest to a mood piece that Doctor Who had attempted since "The Abominable Snowmen" a good six years earlier. And it's hard to judge the cause. We know Nation wanted to set the serial in one of his standard jungles, and producer Barry Letts nixed the idea with a "you just did that" dictum. Perhaps Letts wielded the scalpel so firmly that Nation, at a loss for fresh ideas, simply underwrote. Or perhaps Michael E. Briant, who could be a powerful director and has admitted not caring for the script, simply excised all the bits he thought were awful, replacing words with stage directions. But regardless of the cause, less Terry Nation is better Terry Nation: there's no moralizing, there's no extraneous love story. There are the standard "traps," but they're over swiftly. And having a smaller cast means it's one of the few Nation scripts where the guest stars make a solid, favorable impression. When I finished "Planet of the Daleks," I couldn't remember one featured player; here I remembered them all.

And the fact that Nation actually takes a little more time with his guest cast means he can relegate his Daleks to more of a supporting role, and that's not a bad thing either. Nation opts for the approach he'd tried before in "The Chase" -- lightly sending up the Daleks: playing on the fun, not the fearsomeness, of the creatures -- in effect, a wink to the audience acknowledging that their popularity had grown way beyond anything rational. "Death to the Daleks" is an appropriate title, as they suffer one ignominy after another. They're treated as creatures worthy of gentle mockery, whose defeats are cause for celebration. They make their first appearance (as always) at the end of Part 1, rolling out of their spaceship; they take aim at the Doctor and his human colleagues -- and fire blanks. (The planet, as it turns out, is draining energy: from the TARDIS, from the Earth ship collecting chemicals to cure a galactic plague, and from the Daleks themselves.) It's a comic cliffhanger. In Part 2, one of the Dalek burns: a fiery little death. In Part 3, another burns, then --- adding insult to injury -- falls over a cliff and drowns. (It's similar in tone to the Dalek going off the edge of the Mary Celeste in "The Chase.") In Part 4, one of them has a mental breakdown and winds down like a broken gramophone. Nation plays them as stock villains, the kind whose death you cheer, and you can practically hear the kiddies in their living rooms yipping it up at each Dalek demise.

And because the Daleks aren't so relentlessly present or oppressive in "Death to the Daleks," the leads get more of a chance to shine, and Pertwee and Lis Sladen are extraordinarily good. First off, it's one of my favorite kinds of Pertwees, one where the bellowing is kept to a minimum. Part of the danger of the Pertwee era is because his character was so strong, and so assured, everyone had to pitch themselves to Pertwee's playing. (Pertwee would get stronger to make a point, and everyone had to match him; Baker would get terrifyingly quiet, and the others would bring it down as well.) "Death to the Daleks' has to be the quietest Pertwee serial; there are whole scenes between Pertwee and Sladen where they're whispering -- not because they're in danger of being overheard, but simply because the terror of their situation (being stranded, powerless, on a treacherous terrain) inspires a certain intimacy. It's only their third serial together, but it's remarkable how attuned each is to the nuances of the other's performance. Sladen will say a line in terror, then let out an awkward laugh that signifies her attempts to be brave, as well as her acknowledgment that she hates feeling terrified -- plus her utter trust in the Doctor. She packs so much into her lines, and Pertwee understands, brilliantly and intuitively, just how long to give her -- and then how to offer a response that addresses everything spoken and unspoken. Sladen shows a range of colors and emotions in "Death to the Daleks" that she simply hadn't been allowed yet. She comes on very strong in her first two serials; here she has to fight to stay strong. But that tremulousness doesn't make the character weak; it humanizes her -- and I think it's Sladen's best performance until "Seeds of Doom."

It's no secret that Pertwee hated the Daleks, and in "Planet of the Daleks," that displeasure bled through occasionally onto the screen. In "Death to the Daleks," perhaps because of the trivialization and compartmentalization of the Daleks (he barely shares any screen-time with them), he seems invigorated: fresh and in-the-moment and spontaneous, quite remarkable for a man who was, by his own admission, tiring of Doctor Who. (For me, it's his best Season 11 showing aside from "Planet of the Spiders.") The Third Doctor is quite dear in "Death to the Daleks," not the first adjective you'd think of to describe him. At one point when he and Sarah Jane are separating to carry out individual missions, he cups her face in his palm. It's the gentlest of gestures. Later on, he actually takes the hand of the woman from the Earth expedition, to comfort her, and they saunter together across the bleak terrain. And then there's his bromance with Belal.

Belal is the secret weapon of "Death to the Daleks." If the limited use of the Daleks, and the very real warmth between the Doctor and Sarah Jane, serves to humanize the serial, in a way few Nation scripts manage, then Belal takes it three steps further. This native of the planet, a miniature man seemingly covered in grey, clay papier mâché, is utterly charming: it's a triumph of conception and casting. At a mere 5'3", actor Arnold Yarrow was nearly a foot shorter than Jon Pertwee, and his features are pretty much obscured head to toe, with only the slightest crack between his lips (presumably so the actor could breathe) -- yet he manipulates his voice and gesticulates so convincingly that it more than makes up for the lack of facial features. He's a delightfully meek foil for Pertwee -- they get a real hero-sidekick rhythm going; at one point, Pertwee places his arm around his shoulder to console and embolden his new little buddy. They're the Skipper and Gilligan; it's a particularly protective and endearing side of both Pertwee and the Third Doctor.

There'd be plenty to like about "Death to the Daleks" if its sole accomplishments were the deconstruction of the Daleks, and the intimacy and generosity of the performances. But you can't discuss "Death to the Daleks" without talking about the direction and design. In my review of "The Ark," I argued that director Michael Imison wins top prize for upgrading a potentially mediocre serial into something memorable, but that if there were runners-up, one would surely be Michael E. Briant on "Death to the Daleks." Briant was a hit-or-miss director, but on a good day, he was the best Who had to offer, and perhaps as a result of his disliking the script so much, he was struck with the kind of inspiration that made for not just a good day, but a very good one. And he's aided immeasurably by production designer Colin Green, whose only other Who contribution was "Enlightenment," which, being one of the most sumptuous designs in all of Who history, is reason enough to take him seriously. Briant was always at his best working with a strong art director (hence, "Robots of Death," with Kenneth Sharp), and these two have a field day taking an underwritten story and making it visually entrancing.

The opening: a long shot of a man climbing, then stumbling his way across a bleak, barren, foggy landscape. He comes to rest for a moment, when suddenly an arrow pierces his gut; we cut to a close-up of his pained face, then to his hands clutching the arrow, then back to his face again -- all quick cuts, before the man staggers and falls into a ravine. And in a neat bit of cruel irony, over the lingering image of the man lying dead in the water, we hear the familiar voice of Jon Pertwee, singing, "Oh, I do love to be beside the seaside" -- and we cut to the TARDIS interior, a close-up of a multi-colored umbrella that the Doctor twirls, then closes. The Doctor and Sarah Jane are taking a holiday. But not for long, of course: the two do that typical "is that red light supposed to be flashing?" bit, before the TARDIS console explodes (and quite a nice explosion it is, too), and the two of them are plunged into darkness. The TARDIS is so dark that at times the actors seem lit only by the reflection of the flotation rafts they'd brought aboard for their day by the sea. And as they explore the planet's terrain (at the start of a near-silent sequence lasting almost 12 minutes), sometimes they're just silhouettes against a sea of green fog: it's Doctor Who told with a nod to German expressionism.

The Doctor dispatches Sarah Jane back to the TARDIS for her own safely, and promptly gets attacked by one of the natives, the Exxilons, who eerily and effectively blend into the planet's terrain. Their skirmish is conducted without dialogue, with a limited color palette -- it's a bit like watching a late silent film in two-strip Technicolor. And then the Earth party arrives, and the color scheme expands to what we expect of a Pertwee serial. Throughout, the color choices are brilliantly considered. The split-pea-soup fog of the planet sits in contrast to the costumes and shelter of the Earth expedition, which are in pale and powder blues, and rust reds. (The rust red matches the Doctor's vest, as well as the Exxilon sacrificial ritual that comes to a boil in Part 2; the pale blues match Sarah Jane's scarf, and the Daleks' casings.) The use of color harkens back to some early milestones in film history, like Rouben Mamoulian's Becky Sharp, which utilized color not just decoratively, but emotionally and dramatically. One of the most-slagged cliffhangers in all of Who history comes at the end of Part 3, when the Doctor and Belal, making their way deeper into the heart of the city through a series of traps, come across -- a red-and-white checkerboard floor. The Doctor calls out, "Stop! Don't move!", and we cut to the credits -- because, well, who wouldn't be terrified by a checkerboard floor? But it's actually an arresting image, because we've only seen bright red once before in three episodes, and that was Sarah Jane touching a pool of blood on the ground, then rushing away in panic. The presence of a bright red checkerboard, after an hour of pastel blues and greens, is using the color itself -- the contrast and the connotations -- to suggest danger. As a narrative, it makes no sense; as film-making, it's marvelous.

And no critique of "Death to the Daleks" would be complete without a discussion of Carey Blyton's score, because it's like nothing heard on Who before or since, and it's one of the serial's most controversial elements. Blyton upends all expectations of what a Who score should sound like; he orchestrates "Death to the Daleks" for a saxophone quartet, in a style that could be described as Claude Debussy meets Bernard Herrmann. (At its lightest, it's sort of "Golliwog's Cakewalk" crossed with the shower scene from Psycho; Herrmann's screeching strings have their counterpoint in a recurring percussive effect that's half ratchet, half razor strop.) Each time the Daleks appear, Blyton plays them on not with foreboding music, but with a series of staccato minor triads that sounds a lot like that old standard of melodramas, which schoolchildren remember as "Got to catch the villain." There are folks who hate that Blyton's odd musical stings take the piss out of the Daleks, but that's right in line with Nation's plan, and it's part-and-parcel with what Briant and Green are doing with the visual design. This is Doctor Who as theme-and-variations: the pleasures not to be found in simple scares, but in the interplay, manipulation and subversion of color, camerawork and composition.

In a particularly stunning sequence, the Earthlings are telling the Doctor of the planet's forbidden city; they bring out photographs to illustrate, and as we stare at the photos, Briant overlays a shot of Sarah Jane getting her first glimpse of the city. And as the photographs fade, and we focus in on Sarah Jane, the rich chromaticism of the scoring gives way to pentatonic chords, and the dark green fog opens up to reveal a paler green palace. She touches a slab of the building, and it lights up in fluorescent white, as the chordal harmonies dissolve into something that sounds like a giant heartbeat (which we'll later learn is, in fact, exactly what it is). It's all in pantomime; it's Nation suggesting a scene, and Briant, Green and Blyton going to town, with a confidence that transcends the familiar tropes of the story-telling.

A lot of "Death to the Daleks" is silent exploration, but done with a gentle hand and a cheekiness that's rare for the era. It's a Pertwee playing out like a Hartnell, with the tone of a Troughton. It's no masterpiece, not by a long shot, but it's Nation working with a tighter focus, and Briant, Green and Blyton searching for new ways of story-telling, often by evoking some of the oldest. It's a trio of talented people very mindful that the last Nation-Dalek serial, filmed "traditionally," had stumped the combined, formidable talents of David Maloney, John Hurst (best remembered for "The Caves of Androzani") and Dudley Simpson -- so they throw out the rule book, and create their own. Some of it works wonderfully; some of it is just odd. But it's never boring. In my 56 years, I have rarely seen an experimental work -- on TV, film or in the theatre -- that didn't have its flaws; it's hard to do something novel and get all the details right the first time. But experimentation of this caliber -- by some daunting talents -- is something to be prized, and the impressionistic "Death to the Daleks" very much worth a revisit.


Next up: "The Wheel in Space".

4 comments:

  1. Once again, a compelling case for the defence! Alas, I'm struggling to find the love for Death. I agree that Pertwee is good here but I like him generally (apart from in classic The Daemons, ironically) and Lis enlivens any serial she's in. When I first watched this one (on VHS back in the 1980s) the main thing that struck me was the awful model city with the lamp and the hideous music! Haven't watched it in eons and your review suggests it might be worth putting it on the player again!

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    1. As noted, I don't pretend "Death" is a classic, but it is a story I truly admire for how -- a decade into the Daleks -- it tries to do something different. And for me, the attempts at novelty and creativity don't distract or annoy; they truly fascinate me. I understand why some like yourself (and obviously I respect your thoughts and opinions) find the music "hideous" -- I love the effort to say and try something different: something that lets us examine the myth of the Daleks with fresh eyes and ears.

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  2. I do wonder if part of the reason Death is not too highly rated is because, as you note, it doesn't take the Daleks too seriously. Destiny got into trouble for similar reasons. Cf. the praise showered on Remembrance, which allows every fanboy to hold up his head unafraid of ridicule, because the Daleks CAN climb stairs...

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    1. And perhaps that's one of the reasons I like it so much: it doesn't take the Daleks too seriously, and neither do I! But beyond that, I'm struck that folks don't always see how different it is from previous Dalek adventures, and at least appreciate the experimentation that went into the direction, design and musical composition -- particularly at a time when experimentation, working without a net, was not the order of the day. When I first started to read about the Pertwee era, I saw "Planet of the Daleks" and "Death to the Daleks" lumped together as low points of the era. "Planet," a straightforward retelling of "The Daleks" (albeit done by some formidable creative talents), I find a bore. But "Death," for trying something new, I find fascinating.

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