Monthly Archives: June 2011

Who Verdict on “The Daleks”: Acquittal!

Lime, J, delivers the opinion; Mithradates, J., concurs only in the result: I take issue with my colleague’s apparent willingness to overlook the massive plot holes that rip Titanic-sized logic holes in the serial for me. I also take issue with his implicit conclusion that there is a resolution to these plot holes (“We don’t know how, or whether, these things interrelate, nor their true significance. [But t]he rest of the series is dedicates to tracing the web of clues…”).

However, despite the fact the episode makes absolutely no sense to me, I’m compelled to acquit by my esteemed colleague’s powerful eighth point, that among the “amazing number of plot twists” we find “A new and powerful enemy–the Daleks.”. My colleague has convinced me with this irrefutable logic, and with him, we have both agreed to Acquit! Don’t miss this one!

[Additional comments by Mithradates: I think the plot hangs together a bit better than Lime implies. My understanding of the major plot point is as follows: The Thals believe the Dalek city to be dead and lifeless. And it is, to the casual visitor. The Daleks believe the surface to be lifeless. The Daleks would like to return to the surface, but they reason the radiation levels are too high to survive. So they seize upon the anti-radiation drug as an avenue to restoring their rule over all of Skaro. Unbeknownst to them, however, the radiation is something they need to survive. Now, the hole in this is that the Daleks should know their subterranean city is irradiated. After all, the Doctor finds the geiger counter that informs him that radiation levels are high within the Dalek city itself. I can only surmise that radiation levels are lower underground than at the surface; the Daleks may have reasoned that they could survive the lower levels of radiation underground (if barely -- if they started out looking like the Thals they have suffered greatly), but the higher levels on the surface would be too much. That's reading a lot into the dialogue, granted, but I think much of it is implied, at least on my viewing.]

Who Verdict on “The Daleks”: Full Acquittal!

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Prosecution: “The Daleks” Daleks are kinder, gentler, dumber.

“Warning shot” Daleks

Yes, the first foray to Skaro for the Doctor was where he met a kinder, gentler Dalek race. The cliffhanger scene of Episode 1 is the world’s first glimpse of a Dalek: we see only an arm-stalk and sucker point-of-view shot, closing in on a terrified Barbara, spreadeagled on a metal wall. For those of us from Who‘s future, it’s a thrilling piece of history. And, it’s precious imagining what must have run through the minds of those children who’d never seen a Dalek before–what could be threatening Barbara?!
Our second glimpse is in Episode 2. We hear the first Dalek words ever, the unimpressive: “You will move ahead of us and follow my directions. This way.” The Dalek’s eye stalk swivels a full 180 degrees to face the TARDIS crew: “Immediately!” it commands. Man, these toilet plunger dudes are bossy. It’s this scene, the command and eye-swivel, that evoked the first frisson of excitement in me, reminding me of “my” Daleks. Authoritarian, abrupt, Dalek-like is this–to me, this scene is really where the Daleks are born.

Strangely, the rules of engagement of The Daleks Daleks are even more restrictive than those of five hundred years earlier in Genesis of the Daleks. In this second-ever scene featuring Daleks, Ian doesn’t take kindly to being bossed around, and he runs. This is somewhat counter-intuitive given Ian’s character: he and Barbara are the level-headed ones. And in my experience, when being bossed around by an entirely new race, without more information, running just doesn’t seem called for. But apparently Ian’s had it with being kidnapped by the difficult Doctor, and the bossy tin pots have pushed Ian over the edge–and he runs.

Happily for Ian, these Daleks are nice: refusal to cooperate apparently requires only a temporary paralysis ray to the offender’s legs. Unlike the Daleks we know from Genesis and every other story, these Rules of Engagement require warning/nonlethal shots first. Lucky Ian.

And if Ian repeatedly disobeys the Daleks? Even luckier Ian! The Daleks warn that a second instance of disobedience will result in… Nope, you guessed wrong, not extermination–instead, permanent paralysis of the legs! Man, these Daleks are nice! But as you’ll see, kindness doesn’t survive their first serial, though after reflecting on the seven episodes I can’t quite figure out why the Daleks’ rules of engagement and strategic outlook suddenly changed. Needless to say, it works out in the end: regardless whether it makes any sense, the reflexively nasty Daleks that emerge by the end are much, much better villains.

It’s not until Episode 4, the third time the Daleks engage, that the Daleks finally progress to their storied “examination.” It’s in the run-up to the ambush of the Thals that we discover the Daleks’ intent in inviting the Thals to partake of a sample of the promised “unlimited supplies” of “fresh vegetables” and food bounty carefully laid-out in the entrance building to the Dalek city: “make no attempt to capture them–they are to be exterminated.” But this still isn’t “our” Daleks: this slaughter is entirely premeditated, well thought-out beforehand, carefully planned. So really, nowhere in The Daleks are the Daleks the knee-jerk bloodthirsty, exterminate-for-any-obstreperousness foes that we love to hate.

What exactly indicated a need to convert the Daleks we first encounter into all-death all-the-time is probably the writer’s realization that any metal-enclosed faceless race that plots the wholesale destruction of another species by pouring radiation into the atmosphere probably shouldn’t have any redeeming qualities. The writers probably realized that temporary paralysis of foes is an unrealistic (and not a tension-building) M.O. for what turned out to be, ultimately, a conscience-less species.

Slowly the Dalek history emerges. We’re on Skaro, the 12th planet in the solar system. 500 years ago a neutron war rendered the planet nearly inhabitable. Two races fought in the war, each believing the other totally annihilated: the Thals and the Dals (five centuries before, in Genesis of the Daleks, these Dals called themselves the “Kaleds”). The atmosphere now registers radiation at dangerous levels.

The Thals apparently are the least curious race in the universe, never having thought to descend down to the Dalek’s city for five centuries to discover if their adversaries were totally destroyed by the neutron war. (But they are curious enough to stalk strangers in the forest and leave nondescript and unlabeled vials of anti-radiation medicine in the off chance the strangers can figure out what the vials are for!) Susan isn’t bothered by this, gushing on about how the Thals are “perfect” and “magnificent people.”

The Thals believe themselves to be the only survivors of the neutron war, and they port around their entire history inside a small metal box. Their history appears to be stored on 16mm film reels and on artistic representations of the Thals and Daleks painted on hexagonal black slates. We’re treated to the art of what the Thals looked like pre-neutron war: basically blonde pseudo-Norse warriors. The Doctor sees, but the viewer does not, the hex art depicting what the Daleks used to look like.

Not only do the Daleks lose any chance at a conscience by the end of The Daleks, but several other tropes are set so firmly after this serial’s critical success with its 60s’ audience that The Daleks never escape them to this day: (a) the odd, misshapen archways of Dalek corridors; (b) the lovely dual-pulse throb of the Dalek control room introduced in Episode 2 is almost exactly the same as the one we hear in RTD episodes; (c) the Dalek’s penchant for circular dials and circular view screens; (d) the spastic sucker-stick movements. Yes, today’s Daleks are the epitome of throwback sci-fi.

Dangerous Doctor/Ian Ascendant

Right from the beginning, as in Unearthly Child (my review of Ep 1 here) the Doctor continues to confront Ian and Barbara. Ian blames the Doctor for “uprooting” them, and the Doctor counters, justifying his kidnapping of the two teachers, that they “barged in” to his TARDIS. And after seeing the magnificent and gleaming buildings of the city in the valley, the Doctor sabotages the TARDIS by removing the mercury from the “fluid link,” schemingly devising a plan to visit the city to find replacement mercury. Luckily, he quickly admits in the beginning of Episode 2 that he sabotaged the TARDIS so that he could investigate the fascinating gleaming city.

What’s beautiful and a great piece of acting is Ian’s reaction to this admission: “you fool you old fool,” Ian storms, “it’s time you faced up to your responsibilities. You got us here, now I’m going to make sure you get us back.” This is prelude to Edge of Destruction, where the Doctor, as I’ve discussed, turns the corner and makes Who what it is today. And it’s also a demonstration yet again that Ian and Barbara are us–the Companion as viewer.

This is becoming Ian’s hallmark: confronting the Doctor’s constantly putting the crew and others in danger without consideration of the risks. In Episode 5, Barbara realizes the crew will never be able to leave Skaro until they can recover the fluid link, which Ian accidentally left behind in the escape from the Dalek city. The Doctor hatches a plan to have the Thals attack the Daleks as a diversion so the crew can slip in and recover the fluid link. But again it’s Ian that opposes the Doctor, rejecting that a fluid link is sufficient spoils for a Thal war party that has no weapons. He explicitly tells the Doctor that he’s challenging the Doctor’s leadership of the TARDIS crew.

It’s a nuanced series of scenes, and Ian eventually adopts the Doctor’s plan, admitting to Barbara that without the fluid link, the crew will die on Skaro. Ian takes a further step and adopts the Doctor’s manipulative tactics, searching desperately for what will make the Thals fight. First, he callously threatens to destroy the entire remaining history of the Thal race–the film reels and hexagonal art pieces. But the Thals don’t bite. Second, Ian threatens to kidnap and deliver to the Daleks the pretty blonde Thal Dyoni, the prominent Thal Alydon’s love interest.

This works, and Alydon launches himself at Ian, slugging him. Alydon then gives a Henry V at Agincourt-worthy speech, calling the Thals to fight with the crew: either we die here for lack of food, or we wait for the Daleks to kill us, or we go now to the city, where there is ample food. Alydon points out that the Thals’ and crew’s interests are the same. It’s a good speech, well delivered–in fact, of the six episodes of overacted and hammy Thal characterizations, this speech is a standout. One great line: “There is no indignity in being afraid to die. There is a terrible shame in being afraid to live.”

But Ian’s turnaround rings untrue: it’s unusual and out of character that Ian’s solid moral compass would swing from principled to manipulative, a la the Doctor’s reviled tactics, so quickly. Moreover, proving pacifism wrong by threatening Alydon’s love interest smacks of simplistic plot development by the Who writers. And finally, that threatening Alydon’s love interest would not only turn around his pacifism, but make an inspiring military leader able to belt out an inspiring “join me to the death” speech, is just unbelievable. Still–the speech is great, no matter how Ian got Alydon there.

The continuity concept

On display again is the show’s early years’ serial-to-serial “continuity” concept, where each story flows seamlessly into the next. Not only does the TARDIS lurch at the end of The Daleks into the very crash that begins the next serial, Edge of Destruction, but one of the primary themes of Edge is seeded in The Daleks. Right at the beginning of Episode 1, Barbara asks Susan if there isn’t some device in the TARDIS that records their journeys. Yes, Susan says: “there’s a meter affixed to a great big bank of computers. If you feed it with the right sort of information it can take over the controls of the ship and deliver you to anyplace you want to go.” Hence as much as Barbara wants the Doctor to take them back, Susan says, the Doctor’s forgetfulness prevents him from being able to enter the “right sort” of information! Too bad Susan is always screaming, because one would think, as brilliant as she is–she reads books in Unearthly Child at inhuman speeds–that she’d be able to enter the “right sort” of data. (As I sit in the car on vacation with my kids writing this and listening to The Sensorites, I know that Susan will be taking a lead, non-screamer role in future episodes, so her early brilliance in Unearthly Child seems set to return.)

Bottom line: Ponderous, and Muddled

Overall, The Daleks is a piece of Who history that shouldn’t be missed. But it suffers a few critical flaws.

First, it’s slow moving. Whole episodes are Web Planet-painful in their long, slow, sequences in which little is said and little happens. Episode 1 is solid. Episodes 2, 3, and 4–over an hour–are just painful, and witness endless scenes of Ian rubbing his legs, the captive crew languishing in the Dalek city, and Susan’s annoying fawning over the “perfect” Aryan Thals (compare and contrast with the “master race” spouting Daleks… Is this meant to point to a flaw in Susan, or is it simply a bias in the writers? Most latter day “classic,” RTD, and Moffat Who sport a Doctor in a virtual love affair with alien life of all levels of “prettiness.”)

Episode 5 is a return to form, with the inspiring (but plotwise problematic) Alydon speech calling the Thals to war. Episode 6 is back to painful pacing with long slow scenes in the caves leading to the Dalek city and painful acting by the doughy and cowardly Thal Antodus who persistently whines, eating up way too much screen time, that he wants to return home, and eventually, and literally, drags down the expedition. Episode 7 is another mixed bag, graced by the thrilling and well paced (but idiotic and humongous plot hole) mass-test of the unknown Thal drug and later scheming to irradiate all of Skaro’s atmosphere.

Second, it makes no sense that 500 years would pass, but neither the Thals nor the Daleks have any idea that each other exist. After all, the Thals have been encamped, of all the possible places on Skaro, on the plateau directly overlooking the Dalek city.

Third, the Daleks progress from bossy and utilitarian tin pots–they explicitly reason that they will preserve the TARDIS crew because they may have some use in the future–to bloodthirsty and irrational: “the only interest we have in the Thals is their total extermination” and “tomorrow we will be the master race of Skaro!”. But this progression is on a dime, and it doesn’t survive the common sense test, if applicable to tin pots from Skaro.

They turn this corner only after inexplicably mass administering the Thal’s anti-radiation drug to Sections 2 and 3 of the Dalek City. Why the Daleks would, after 500 contented years within their sealed city, run a mass trial of an unknown drug, is mystifying. Or at least, there’s no given motive. We know the atmosphere still registers radiation at dangerous levels, and started to kill the TARDIS crew. Also: why the Daleks would want to leave their city, since to move they need the static electricity delivered through their city’s generator and metal floors, equally is a motive that escapes me. I suppose they could be fickle in their philosophy, as Alydon of the Thals turns out to be, but I don’t get it. I’d think since they appeared at first to be utilitarian and somewhat logical, the solution to stopping Dalek deaths from anti-radiation drug overdoses would be to kick the habit of mass-administering unknown drugs. But that’s just me.

Some closing trivia

The first Daleks story is rife with interesting trivia. Here’s a few: (1) Ridley Scott, famed director of Blade Runner and Gladiator among others, was assigned to design the Daleks–their shape, look, and feel–but a twist of fate interfered with Scott’s schedule, leaving Raymond Cusick to take the job. How the Daleks might have looked different had that not happened! (2) The Daleks almost wasn’t produced, since, according to the first script editor David Whitaker, the Daleks themselves were seen by some in the BBC as “too childlike” and inpinging on the goal to make Who an educational show. (3) the Who writers intended the Daleks to be retired after The Daleks–only because they took England by storm did they return. As it is, the Daleks have appeared in 102 Who episodes since 1963–more than any other enemy, according to this super-handy data sheet released by xxnapoleonsolo in June 2011 (4). As Episode 3 ends we see the first ever glimpse, and the only one on screen in this serial, of what’s inside the shell: in the closing shot we see a clawed hand creep out of under the cloak the Doctor and Ian wrapped the mutant in. Funny trivia: evocative as it is, it’s just a joke shop gorilla hand smeared in grease!

Lime’s advice: The Daleks is historic, but plotwise it barely holds water. Four episodes are painfully slow, and the Ziggy Stardust Thals are burdened by some of the worst acting this side of daytime soaps. Convict!

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Peanuts + Dr. Who = Awesome

The work of Wild Guru Larry.

Found via Bad Astronomy.

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Prosecution: Marco Polo

Many of the early Dr. Who episodes were lost when the tapes containing them were wiped by the BBC (talk about your idiotic decisions!) Marco Polo is the first episode for which we have no video. This is actually rather surprising, as it was a “showcase” episode that aired in some 72 countries. That at least presents some hope of an old tape being found in Portugal or somewhere one of these days. Fortunately, an audio recording survives, as well as many period stills, meaning we can get a good idea of what the episode was like.

It is clear from the number of sets and the sumptuousness of the costumes that Verity Lambert opened the bank account to produce the episode, no doubt buoyed by the decision by the BBC to keep Dr. Who on the air. Perhaps too enthusiastic, as lack of funds was to seriously affect the quality of the sets and costumes for the next episode, Keys of Marinus, as we will see.

The episode begins among the snowy peaks of the Himalayas, where the TARDIS arrives, damaged. Hartnell’s pessimism and irritability is again strange to those of us raised on the latter Doctors. (“We’re all going to starve to death!” he shouts, at one point).

Good luck getting delivery up here

Here they are discovered by none other than Marco Polo, who inexplicably is traveling through the Himalayas on a journey from Samarkand to Peking. This is akin to passing through New Orleans on a trip from Denver to Albany. At any rate, Marco Polo is escorting two travelers: Tegana, who is a peace envoy from Nogai Khan to Kublai Khan, and Ping-Cho, a well-bred young woman from Samarkand who is to be married to an elderly Mongol noble. Marco Polo agrees to take the Doctor and his companions along with him, along with the Doctor’s caravan, the TARDIS, which they admit can move from place to place. A flying conveyance being of great value, Marco Polo denies them access to it, and decides to offer it to Kublai Khan in exchange for permission to return to Venice.

This is a major plot point, although it is also a major plot hole. The main tension throughout the episode is between Marco Polo and the travelers. Both have a legitimate desire to go home. Both need it to effect their passage. So why, then, does it not occur to anyone to offer to take Marco Polo back to Venice in the TARDIS??? Now, there might be a reason why the Doctor or Susan do not make this offer. Perhaps they feel that giving Marco Polo a glimpse of advanced technology will alter the timeline. Maybe they know that the Doctor cannot actually control where the TARDIS goes (this has been strongly implied, although never explicitly stated, in the series so far). That doesn’t explain why it never occurs, say, to Ian, Barbara, or Marco Polo himself. This also reminds us it’s about time for Ian and Barbara to start getting a little miffed at the amount of time it is taking them to get home. If the Doctor can’t get Marco Polo to Venice, then he can hardly get Ian and Barbara back to 20th-century England. Yet they have never expressed frustration, resignation, or acceptance of this state of affairs. In this episode, they spend weeks traveling under primitive conditions, by our standards. Yet their reactions are entirely based on the short-term situation, not the long-term fact of their indefinite exile from their own time.

Oh, the indignity!

One point of interest: Up until I saw the above still, I had no inkling that the TARDIS was moveable by conventional means. I always felt that part and parcel of its large interior space and impenetrable doors was immovability. Who knew the TARDIS could be rendered completely harmless by the simple expedient of tipping it over so that the doors face down?

The middle parts of the episode are devoted to the long, arduous journey to Peking and the plotting of Tegana, who wishes to finish off the expedition. Why exactly he wishes to do this is unclear. He mentions Nogai is planning a sneak attack on Kublai Khan under cover of peace negotiations, but surely his safe arrival in Peking would be useful in maintaining the fiction of those negotiations?

Follow me all ye who call yourselves Gourdenes!

At any rate, Tegana fails twice to kill the party — an attempt to poison their water supply is foiled by a sudden sandstorm, and the subsequent attempt to kill them in the Gobi by slitting their water gourds does not succeed when the Doctor discovers condensation on the walls of the TARDIS. I am not sure how the latter is physically possible, but no matter. Barbara and Susan become suspicious of Tegana, and Barbara follows him to the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes. There she is captured, and there is much inintentional humor as she is pursued by a series of searchers, in defiance of Marco Polo’s orders not to go looking for her.

Marco! Polo! Marco! Polo! Oh, come on, don't tell me that joke didn't occur to you, too.

In all of this mess, Marco Polo doesn’t come off very well, and I think the writers do a great disservice. Not to the historical figure, but to the character. We come to know the inner thoughts of Marco Polo via the narration of his periodic journal entries. Never mind that this behavior is anachronistic, it gives us a window into the character that we never get from the Doctor or his companions. Marco Polo comes across as a strong leader, honest and forthright. He pursues his own interests, sure, but he is not heedless of the needs of others. However, the development of the plot makes him seem like a complete dolt. He regularly loses control of the expedition, with various members wandering off at regular intervals without permission. His belief in Tegana over the testimony of Barbara and others is believable given the class-oriented nature of that society, but it does him no favors. He nearly leads the party to disaster in the Gobi desert, and is only saved by serendipity. He confiscates the key to the TARDIS, but manages to lose it twice. Most damning, his mission at the start of the episode is to bring Tegana and Ping-Cho to Kublai Khan. He manages to lose both of them along the way, coming before the Khan empty-handed. He does redeem himself by defeating Tegana in a duel when Tegana tries to kill the Khan, but the character, played with great dignity by Mark Eden, deserved better.

But even worse is the behavior of the Doctor. In this episode he is almost completely worthless. That he spends much of the episode sulking in his tent is bad enough (yes, Hartnell couldn’t be present to film the whole episode, but couldn’t they come up with a better explanation?) But what does he do? His discovery of condensation inside the TARDIS is pure luck. He fails to get the key to the TARDIS back from Marco Polo. When they do encounter Kublai Khan, the Doctor befriends him and wins great wealth playing backgammon with him, but fails to persuade him to give up the TARDIS. They only get away when Marco Polo decides to be Mr. Nice Guy and give them the key to the TARDIS at the end.

Way to make yourself useful, Doctor

The one member of the expedition who does something useful is Ian. He manages to get the key to the TARDIS away from Marco Polo the first time, though their escape attempt is foiled. Ping-Cho risks her life to give them the key for the second escape, which is discovered when Susan, who I am disliking more and more, just has to say goodbye to Ping-Cho before they leave.

Although there is much to recommend Marco Polo — not least the setting, the epic sweep of the episode, and the lavish production qualities — the plot holes and the poor performance of the Doctor and friends leads me to suggest a verdict of Guilty. Need I add that Tegana, being a main character, has to be played by an Englishman, unlike most of the extras? And the cringingly offensive portrayal of the way-station keeper, Wang Lo, also played by a non-Asian, of course. Even Kublai Khan, I see, was played by a Westerner. God, the Sixties were backward.

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Prosecution: Edge of Destruction

My colleague has already penned his defense of Edge of Destruction, so I felt it incumbent upon me to take up the solemn duty of the prosecution. While he mentions several notable qualities of the episode, I feel there are several flaws that did not receive sufficient attention in his review.

The first consists of the episode’s existence in the first place. When one has a new series, it is inopportune to have a “filler” episode as your third installment. The commentary to the episode describes the circumstances: It was normal practice to make the decision whether or not to continue a series after the thirteenth show of the first season. The producers of Dr. Who felt that their product was of sufficient quality that this review was merely pro forma and that they could expect a continuance even before the thirteenth show. Thus, they planned to have the first two episodes stretch over 11 parts, and the third episode would extend past show #13. Well, that plan turned out to be based on false hopes, so the third episode had to be written in only two parts, and with almost no budget (apparently the money had been blown on The Daleks — this inability to manage the show’s finances will continue to plague the first season).

The knife is a metaphor! For stabbing!

The second flaw is the way the episode is structured. While watching, the various strange happenings work successfully to create an impression of confusion and inculcate the idea that the world inside the spaceship is off-kilter. However, in hindsight there are a number of significant inconsistencies. Why does Susan go crazy inside her bedroom? Why does she brandish a pair of scissors, and later rip up her bed with them? Why does she threaten Barbara?

The TARDIS is making me overreact to this melting clock!

Later, the TARDIS apparently melts a large ornamental clock inside the control room, and damages the watches of the crew. How does it do this? Are there microwave emitters throughout the ship, in case the Doctor happens to desire a hot cup of tea and doesn’t wish to walk to the food console? (My colleage also points out that the water dispenser lights work inconsistently in this episode).

Finally, Ian is possessed by the TARDIS, by means unknown, and he attacks the Doctor at the control panel. In order, apparently, to warn the Doctor that the Fast Return switch is stuck. A switch which is on the control panel. Where the Doctor was just looking. The control panel which sent out an electric shock whenever somebody approached it. You’re kind of sending mixed messages, aren’t you, TARDIS old pal?

I wonder how much the magic marker label guy in the TARDIS factory gets paid.

Nevertheless, the character development in the episode and the fact that this is one of the first true sci-fi mindfuck episodes in television history (if you omit the Twilight Zone) spare this episode from the hoosegow. Verdict: Acquittal (just barely).

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