Doctor Who complete reviews: Planet Of The Daleks
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Dalek creator Terry Nation ironically provides a weak entry for Britain's favourite boogeymen....
Don’t you hate it when TV programmes have no opening credits? Sad case that I am, I caught a quick glimpse of Home And Away the other day, and noticed that they just launched into the “action” (well, if you can call Alf Stewart braying “Flamin’ galaaahhh!” action) without any opening titles or music. Logic apparently dictates that no titles leaves more time for the episode, but in reality, it makes the programme look cheap and nasty.
Plus, you don’t get to see who wrote the episode. Suppose they did this in Doctor Who? Imagine that you had to guess who wrote the episode from just following the story? Witty double-acts and gratuitous violence? That’s Robert Holmes. Moral issues and three-dimensional characters? Malcolm Hulke, then. The most obvious writer, though, undoubtedly has to be Terry Nation, whose scripts, while normally very good, contain an army of clichés that can be spotted a mile off. One of the most notable examples is of course Planet Of The Daleks, the story that supposedly ties up the 12-part saga in Season 10.
"Every single Terry Nation cliché you could want turns up in Planet Of The Daleks"
Planet Of The Daleks is the 70s successor to The Keys Of Marinus in that it’s essentially another Greatest Hits Of Terry Nation, except with Daleks in. You know how artists always release compilation albums, release more singles and then release an updated version of the original compilation but with a couple of extra songs on? Yeah, that’s Planet Of The Daleks. Every single Nation cliché you could want turns up in Planet. Let’s see. Daleks, of course. Doctor and Companion get split up and deal with perilous hazard (in this case, it’s a lack of oxygen and a few dubious looking plants that spray yellow paint on their victims). Cardboard cut-out stock characters - oh, yes, there’s an army of them here. Someone called Tarrant or at least someone who sounds like they should be called Tarrant. Heavy-handed moral speeches. Invisible monsters. And some mundane object or concept that’s meant to become important because it has the word “space” before it. In this case, it’s “Space” Medicine - apparently different to your average medicine simply because you practice in outer space in a groovy spaceman uniform. So I guess “Space Rubbish” is more impressive than the rubbish bins on Earth (the bins presumably glide along on their own accord and talk in a beeping voice); “Space Pork Pies” taste infinitely better than their Earth counterparts; and “Space Spaceman” by Babylon Zoo may even actually sound quite good. Whatever.
So if Planet Of The Daleks just faded in on Jo ushering an injured Doctor into the TARDIS, you’d still be able to fathom out that Nation wrote the story before the end of the first episode. The plethora of Nation clichés is such that you could probably put them on a “Space Conveyor Belt” on “Space Forsyth’s Generation Game” while throwing in a cuddly toy and a fondue set in for good measure. Only problem is, is it any good?
Well, yes and no. If you’re expecting Frontier In Space Part Two, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Adult storytelling has walked out of the room to be replaced by a straight-ahead plot with little in the way of surprises and plenty in the way of pompous monologues on bravery and war. It’s a pity - Frontier In Space managed to convey the moral messages of racism and the futility of war perfectly well without resorting to crass speech making. Planet Of The Daleks’ moral definitions, by contrast, are so clunky and ill-conceived, you could almost think that they were put together by a toddler on a Spirograph etch-a-set toy.
Poor old Jon Pertwee gets the raw deal here, so you can understand why he said that Planet was near the bottom of his favourite Doctor Who stories list. Let’s take, for example, the scene in the Dalek cell when The Doctor and Mr Serious, Codal, have a chinwag about bravery. Not only does the speech seem to go on forever, it’s so heavy-handed and obvious that even Jeremy Kyle would dismiss it. You can tell that Pertwee’s having a rotten time here - look at his body language when he later says: “Well, after that little tutorial on bravery…” It’s like a 10-ton weight has been lifted from his shoulders, and you get the sense that that quote was a sly ad-lib on Pertwee’s part. At least Pertwee brings his usual dignity and gravitas to the role of The Doctor, making these scenes tolerable at least.
So with moral speech writing akin to the red-top newspapers’ Comments Of The Day, Planet Of The Daleks looks to Nation’s other pet favourite for inspiration: The Quest. Basically, The Doctor, Jo and a group of motley-looking Thals have to make their way to the Dalek army and prevent the horde of pepperpots from wreaking havoc across the galaxy. It’s not as simple as that though, as they have to overcome a rather routine set of challenges in order to achieve this. They have to make their way past Dalek guards, Spiridon slaves, through tunnels of molten ice and up lift shafts, not to mention doing battle against a backdrop of flashing lights - sorry, the Spiridon nightlife. It’s all enjoyable enough, but all rather routine.
"Planet Of The Daleks is very much a remake, with the same basic plot and even the same sort of character"
The problem is, Nation had tried this sort of tack with his original Daleks story in 1963, which also featured The Doctor and the Thals braving run-of-the-mill hazards to achieve their goal. David Maloney does do his best to bring out the tension in the episode though. The scene in the lift shaft is well shot (at Ealing studios), and the molten ice shenanigans are also memorable (the Thals look like they’re crawling around in melted vanilla ice cream).
Talking of the 1963 great grandaddy of Dalek stories, Planet Of The Daleks is very much a remake, with the same basic plot and even the same sort of characters. Even The Doctor refers to the events of The Daleks by mentioning his companions in a bid to prove that he is the legend that the Thals speak of.
Too bad though that the Thals are a somewhat undistinguished bunch. They’re just stock figures: Taron is the tough, stoic leader; Rebec is the token love interest; Vaber is the hothead; Codal is the serious young man; Latep is the inexperienced boy; Marat is the - uh, who is Marat? The Ringo? Marat actually serves no function in the story whatsoever. He’s only in episode three, but to be honest, you could have put a dishmop on a stick and no one would notice the difference. He’s reduced to crawling like a Michelin baby in molten ice and then bizarrely thinks he can buy the others time by “sacrificing” himself to the Daleks. Who then proceed to find his map, the great clot. Resembling Michael Buerk in a Beatles wig, Marat must surely function as one of the most pointless incidental characters in Doctor Who.
Mind you, apart from Taron, none of the others make much impression. And even then that’s down to Bernard Horsfall’s excellent performance rather than the undistinguished lines that he gets to say. Vaber, his second banana, isn’t much good, stomping around with his face in a permanent scowl, and sadly, Prentis Hancock’s acting is a bit on the wooden side. Tim Preece does his best as Codal, but the character’s so serious and fun-free, you begin to wonder whether he’s ever experienced a day of joy in his whole life. Still, at least Latep gets to follow Jo around like a love-struck puppy. With his Partridge Family haircut and glazed expression, Latep is the warm-up man for Clifford Jones, who’s getting his test tubes in a tizzy at the prospect of meeting Miss Grant for the first time. Poor old Latep doesn’t stand a chance though. No sooner has Jo shaken his hand, he mistakes this for deep and meaningful luuurrve. Along the way, he drops hints the size of Zeppelins about how he’s found a reason to live again and how he wants to be with Jo. Clingy, eh? No wonder Jo rebuffs his inevitable advances at the end - although his last salute to The Doctor and Jo looks more like Thal for “Piss off”.
"The Daleks are more effective this time around than in Day Of The Daleks. They’re back to their fire-spitting best, paralysing The Doctor, and opening fire on spaceships and useless Thals when the fancy takes them"
The alien races at least are quite good. The Spiridons follow tried-and-tested lines, but Wester is quite an effective character, voiced well by Roy Skelton. At least he gets to don robes later rather than being reduced to a floating bowl or a floating twig and a disembodied voice. The Daleks too are more effective this time around than in Day Of The Daleks. They’re back to their fire-spitting best, paralysing The Doctor, and opening fire on spaceships and useless Thals when the fancy takes them. It helps that they’re voiced by Michael Wisher, whose clipped, waspish tones make him the perfect choice.
Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning also make the most of what they’ve got, and turn in their usual winning performances. Pertwee, despite enduring execrable speeches on bravery, is still brilliant in the role - the scene in which he’s paralysed and forced to witness what he thinks is Jo’s death is one such example of Pertwee greatness. His protests at the Daleks to stop firing are very convincing, as is the expression on his face as he looks back at the burning spacecraft. Sadly, Katy’s time on the show is nearly up, but at least she gets plenty to do in Planet - indeed, she carries the first half of the episode all by herself and rises to the challenge perfectly. Not only does this demonstrate how far Jo has come since her dippy blundering in Terror Of The Autons, she is also prepared to muck in and help with the campaign against the Daleks with no questions asked. This sets things up for the “flying of the coop” in The Green Death. As does her last rather weary request to be taken home at the end of the story. Aaaahhhh, it’s all starting to fall apart between Jo and The Doctor.
"No matter what, a close up of Taron’s blank face and Vaber being captured by an overgrown fur coat are not exactly the stuff of nightmares"
Despite its many problems, at least Planet Of The Daleks is fun. There’s no way that you could class it as serious drama in a heartbeat, but at least it’s entertaining and easy to follow. David Maloney does a great job as usual, and his ominous, moody direction in the first episode is a good dummy run for his stellar work on future classics such as Genesis Of The Daleks or The Deadly Assassin. Just a shame he’s got so many lousy cliffhangers to try to bring to life. No matter what, a close up of Taron’s blank face and Vaber being captured by an overgrown fur coat are not exactly the stuff of nightmares. Still, Maloney is very good at shooting the set pieces such as the molten ice struggle and also the boggy battle with a Dalek in episode five. And the designs by John Hurst are very good too, the jungle sets are particularly worthy of note. Less said about the toy Daleks though, the better.
At the end of the day, Planet Of The Daleks fits in perfectly with the tenth season’s celebratory theme. If The Three Doctors was the party for The Doctors, Planet is the party for the tinpot meanies. It’s not wholly convincing by a long chalk, but there’s enough here to satisfy both the casual viewer and the dedicated fan.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.