Saturday, 6 June 2009

Doctor Who: The Daleks' Master Plan

The Nightmare Begins

"Well now! It's brain or brawn, or rather versus brain..."

It's great to see and hear the familiar Kembel sights and soundtrack, but even more great to see Nick Courtney. He's great, they should certainly think of using him again.

The scenes on Earth with the couple discussing the television news, sort of like a Greek chorus, are extraordinarily self-referential for Doctor Who at this time.

The short piece of footage we see, of Kert Gantry being exterminated by a Dalek, is quite magnificently directed. The camera angle, the "sting" in the soundtrack- have the Daleks ever seemed so scary?

It's a fascinating and new situation for Bret Vyon to get himself aboard the TARDIS with the Doctor apparently locked outside- it gives the sense of an unspoken rule of the narrative having been broken. If some recent stories may have seemed safe and cosy, it's clear this one won't.

Mavic Chen's speech comes across as very Blairesque to my modern eyes. He's slippery from the start, so although his treachery would no doubt have surprised the unspoiled viewer, it should not be shocking. Bret, on the other hand, may be a bit terse and ruthless but basically a decent chap, as he shows by giving Katarina tablets for Steven. Katarina's reactions to what she sees are fascinating.

Day of Armageddon

"Traitor? An archaic word for so advanced a... man as yourself."

Footage! Hooray! Doesn't this look great? Lots of nice touches abound, such as Mavic Chen's very odd way of holding his pen. Kevin Stoney is great, although the make-up used to alter his ethnic appearance certainly raises an eyebrow.

Naturally, the Daleks are eventually planning to kill all the delegates. Who, incidentally, look nothing like they did in Mission to the Unknown. And there are more than six of them to boot.

I lover the scene where Bret Vyon and the Doctor tell each other to shut up, well played by both Hartnell and Courtney. You can see the growing respect between the two of them though; Vyon says to Hartnell as he goes in disguise to the conference that he's "a very brave man". And he is. The ambiguity stops here: the Doctor is behaving heroically and altruistically for entirely selfless reasons, showing little concern even for staying within reach of the TARDIS while the Daleks' plans are afoot. long may this sort of thing continue!

So, the Dalek invasion of Earth started in 2157, seven years before the TARDISeers arrived?

This story is really quite superbly directed. In fact the entire production is slick and glossy looking with apparently high production values. Never before has a sci-fi story, if not any story, looked so great. The Daleks are beautifully shot here; they're so much more effective than ever before.

The plot thickens with the Doctor, in the action hero role for perhaps the first time, exploits the chaos caused by Bret and Steven to steal the Taranium Core before it can be placed into the Time Destructor. And once more Katarina shows a seemingly religious understanding of the Doctor. Nice cliffhanger, too. So far, this is great. Could we at last have a sci-fi story that can stand toe to toe with the historicals?

Devil Planet

"We have the Taranium so for the moment we do nothing. And by doing nothing we do everything. Do I make myself clear?"

It's a predicable resolution to the cliffhanger, but there's no let up in the pace as our heroes take off from Kembel. I'm really getting intrigued by Katarina (can't you just smell that dramatic irony?) and how much she understands of her surroundings. Of course, her reactions are far from realistic; you can't realistically portray the reactions of an ancient Trojan woman to all this space opera without constantly and tediously interrupting the narrative. But within the conventions of the genre her reactions are well thought through. Naturally, she assumes Kembel was Earth. Conveniently, she doesn't ask questions.

It's most amusing to see magnetic tape in use in the year 4000.

We're introduced to a planet called Desperus (!), a penal policy which is... interesting, some actual footage, and most notably the Doctor continuing to be heroic in a way he's never quite been before. This is another watershed story for the Hartnell Doctor's characterisation.

The Traitors

"I hope she's reached her Place of Perfection."

"Yes, but... not that way."

Katarina's death is utterly shocking, and fittingly followed by a long silence. Both the Doctor and Steven are shocked and upset; the scene is extremely effective, and with hindsight long foreshadowed.

The Daleks continue to impress; the Dalek Supreme's voice is among the finest I've ever heard and perhaps the ultimate Dalek voice, full of character, actually interesting to listen to, but unmistakably a Dalek. This Dalek Supreme is no fool, understanding Mavic Chen's motives perfectly. Never before have the Daleks seemed so manipulative and in control.

There are lots of nice little bits of world building in the scenes on Earth, dull though the actual sets undoubtedly would have been. Earth, it seems, abounds with traitors, even Bret's mate Daxtar. It's a nice juxtaposition of events where Bret, to the Doctor's outrage, shoots Daxtar, only to be himself shot soon afterwards by Sara Kingdom. The Doctor and Steven are in real trouble; stuck on a hostile Earth light years from the TARDIS.

Counter Plot

"An alien device. There are small white creatures inside. They may be hostile."

Some footage, and although unfortunately given that footage is so rationed this episode is not all that visual we get some groovy special effects at the start. So good in fact that they went some way to distracting me from the sheer convenience of our heroes being somehow teleported halfway across the galaxy by means unknown last episode. The ultimate cliffhanger cop-out, but as it's all rather fun so far I'll overlook that.

Kevin Stoney is great, and so much is added by actually seeing his performance. It's eye-opening seeing how Karlton behaves towards Chen though- he's clearly a powerful chap, and very well played by Maurice Browning. There's a great sequence where Chen begins to rant like a madman, Karlton subtly shows signs of noticing, and Chen suddenly becomes self-conscious and changes tack. How many other such visual moments are we missing?

Coolness abounds: invisible creatures (These beings appear to be invisible!"),Chen playing with his pen again, that Dalek with the compass thingy again (yay!) and, best of all, the epic battle between the Daleks and the mice. And lots of nice directorial touches- the studio floor is cunningly hidden in the jungle scenes.

The scenes where Sara Kingdom is finally convinced to trust the Doctor and Steven is well done, and well played by Jean Marsh.

Coronas of the Sun

"You make your incompetence sound like an achievement!"

Our first episode written by Dennis Spooner!

The scene between Chen and the Daleks in which they debate who is to blame for the failure to capture the TARDISeers is nicely handled; Chen starts out on the back foot, in seeming danger of being exterminated for his incompetence, only for the scene to end with an embarrassed Dalek Supreme blustering that "It is not an emergency". The voice artist for the Dalek Supreme is doing a superlative job.

So Steven's from "hundreds of years" before 4000, which would place him in the 4th millennium?

There's a rather interesting row between the Doctor and Steven at the end about Steven's antigrav experiment. They've never seemed that close compared to the Doctor's other companions- I suspect we'll be seeing more of this sort of thing.

All good stuff so far.

The Feast of Steven

"Well, I suppose you might say I'm a citizen of the universe. And a gentleman to boot."

Well, that was... different.

The scenes in the Liverpool police stations are good fun, although the Scouse accents are variable, to say the least. Some interesting dialogue: Aye, I think you know all of the queer people!"

The Hollywood section is... bewildering, especially without footage! Within two minutes I'd given up all pretence of understanding what was happening in favour of just going with the flow. Even the excellent Loose Cannon recon doesn't clarify things too much here. Great line from Sara: "I don't know, but a strange man kept telling me to take my clothes off".

Oh, and there's also that line!

This is all very silly, but it's harmless fun, and I won't be so churlish as to pay this any attention when reviewing the story as a whole.


"Their greed for power is so great that they can be trusted."

Back to the story, and the tone's still a bit light-hearted, a bit The Chase even. It's good to see Daleks again, finally realising the Taranium Core they have is a fake. Things are so serious a time machine has to be summoned from Skaro- time machines are clearly rare.

Surely Trantis' shocking death would cause the other delegates to have second thoughts, but apparently not...

It's the Monk! Yay! And he's still in his robes for some reason. It's great to see him again, not least because Steven gets the chance to say "I'll explain later" to Sara.

The Doctor's ring gets curiouser and curiouser. Apparently "it has, er, certain properties", my precious.

Golden Death

"Dalek extermination will not be questioned!"

Egypt! More pseudo-historical goodness from Dennis Spooner! Things are getting good again, in spite of the frog in the Doctor's throat at the start. There are lots of cool things her; the Doctor's hat, the Monk's shades, and best of all an epic battle between Daleks and Ancient Egyptians. The tone's a bit odd, what with the Doctor and the Monk playing their practical jokes on each other amongst the real menace of the Daleks, but somehow it works.

It's nice to "see" Walter Randall again too.

Escape Switch

"I also include that Monk fellow, although I don't know why I should bother with him."

At last, some more footage! The Monk as a mummy is very cool indeed. As is Chen's shoving the Dalek's eyestalk aside. Once again I'm led to wonder how much of this sort of clever visual storytelling we're missing out on most of the time.

At last the plot is moving full throttle though, with the Daleks finally seizing the Taranium Core.

The Abandoned Planet

"Do we deal with Mavic Chen now?"

"No. His arrogance and greed have a further use for us."

There's a delicious irony to Chen's coup on his fellow delegates, given his own inevitable betrayal by the Daleks. Chen seems to cross a line in his desperation; he's no longer acting rationally. Of course, the other delegates are all surprised by their own blatantly obvious betrayal by the Daleks.

I love the way this episode gives us a "greatest hits" of the Dalek sound effects and music, some of which I don't remember hearing since the first Dalek story.

The Destruction of Time

"Such a waste. A terrible cost."

At last Chen is showing himself to be openly insane. This may not give him a motivation or make him any more than a cipher, but given his role in the story this doesn't really matter. Kevin Stoney has been brilliant since the start, and he's particularly good here as an increasingly desperate and deluded Chen gradually unravels. The scene of his extermination, with the long, ominous silences from the Daleks, is very effective.

This is an appropriately tense and gripping conclusion to the epic- the constant ticking of the Time Destructor is very effective in showing the relentlessness of the horror. Sara's fate is horrifying, and the ending is very bleak indeed.

Overall, utterly superb. Of course, it never pretended to be anything more than an epic adventure story and there was never any subtext to speak of, but there's certainly nothing wrong with that. This is the first science fiction story that I'd rank up with the best historicals. Aside from a slight dip in the middle it was constantly gripping. 5/5.

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