Doctor Who Project: Planet of the Daleks

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We can never leave here. Never! Never!

Perhaps nothing sums up Terry Nation’s return to Doctor Who in “Planet of the Daleks” (Story Production Code SSS) better than the fact that said planet has a core of, um, molten ice, a geological anomaly that inevitably plays a prominent role in the story’s outcome. It’s a typically outré Nation conceit. Presumably this odd planetary structure would make hollowing the core out simpler than if it were molten lava, but unlike that plan of the Daleks, this one involves learning the secret of invisibility from the inhabitants of the planet, Spiridon, a jungle world whose savage lifeforms presumably drove the natives to evolve this ability as a protective measure. They also wear purple fur coats when it gets cold, slightly defeating the invisibility adaptation.

Purple is all the rage this season on Spiridon.

But rather than simply establishing a small research outpost to exploit the Spiridonian’s prestidigitous power, the Daleks also store tens of thousands of their brethren in suspended animation there—effectively, their entire military force—in order to retrofit them with the invisibility power for the forthcoming “invasion of all the solar planets” alluded to in the prior story, “Frontier in Space.” A fortuitous single point of potential failure, then, and one which a band of brave Thals (q.v. “The Daleks“) discover and trigger to thwart their eternal enemies.

The power of molten ice!

Though the Dalek War took place generations earlier, the Thals sent a mission from Skaro to hunt down the Daleks. Their two primitive spacecraft crash-land on Spiridon, killing several Thals instantly, but after much derring-do and many scenes of self-sacrifice, the dwindling band of tow-headed non-mutants manage to crack open the walls of the vast Dalek hibernation chamber, letting in torrents of molten, er, ice, freezing the regiments of pepperpots in place for centuries.

Oh, right, and the Doctor and Jo show up, but probably only because Terry Nation’s contract required him to write the Time Lord into the story.

Following on loosely from the prior story, the TARDIS lands on Spiridon after the Doctor sends a telepathic missive to the Time Lords, asking them to send the blue box after the Dalek spaceship that fled the Ogron homeworld; meanwhile, the Doctor recovers from a glancing blow to the head on a pull-out couch. His healing coma lasts long enough for Jo to leave the TARDIS, now on Spiridon, and get into trouble.

How does this log thing work?

In fairness, though, she is left with no instructions other than to talk into the ship’s log, a small recording device, enabling her to narrate events without looking like she’s talking to herself. Presuming the TARDIS landed somewhere she could get help for the Doctor, she stumbles about the thick vegetation and poisonous puffballs until she finds a crashed Thal spaceship, where the flaxen-haired fellows eventually agree to assist her, but only if she stays in the ship, since she’s a girl and would only slow them down. The Thals, you see, are manly men.

Don't worry, we're Thals!

Once the Thals find the TARDIS, they have to excavate it, as it is covered in a foamy, goo-like substance from nearby plants that has, somehow, shorted out the oxygen system (primary and backup!) in the time machine, nearly asphyxiating the now-healed Doctor. After being pulled from the TARDIS, the Doctor immediately recognizes his rescuers as Thals, as though any group of three frankly unremarkable, human-looking blonde males must be from Skaro.

Nation takes the opportunity here to revisit “The Daleks,” and one cannot blame him. The original story stands out, still, as one of the finest moments in the series, and here we see the impact the Doctor’s visit had on the Thals, as passed down through generations:

Taron: In our legend, there is a being, a figure from another planet who came to Skaro when the Thals were in their greatest peril, in something called—a TARDIS! He had three companions with him.

The Doctor: Yes. Barbara, Ian, and Susan.

Taron: And their leader was called?

The Doctor: The Doctor.

And there’s something of the First Doctor in this story, too, with Pertwee given several opportunities to declaim the virtues of quiet bravery; rail against foolhardy courage; and urge caution against sweetening the brutal realities of war. Much talking, in other words, but not much action. Indeed, Nation is not writing to Pertwee’s strengths or with any acknowledgement of the contemporary development of the Third Doctor in this story. Aside, perhaps, from a scene of Pertwee clambering over, around, and through several incapacitated Daleks, as though they were a monomaniacal jungle gym, to retrieve a misplaced bomb, there are few moments that would be out of place in a Hartnell story.

Up, around, over, and through.

Despite being a follow-on story from “Frontier in Space,” the events of that story, with the Doctor and Jo preventing the Master and the Daleks from pitting Earth and Draconia against one another, are referenced here only in passing, as a very small part of a much larger Dalek effort to conquer known space (again). Everything in “Planet of the Daleks” must be bigger, more substantial, more Dalek-y. To be sure, unlike many recent stories, the only direct reference to the Doctor’s past experiences (whether in stories that have aired or “off-screen” adventures) is to “The Daleks” (written, of course, by Nation) and his exploits on Skaro. This lack of canonical referencing also calls back to the Hartnell era, when there were no stories to refer back to.

Make no mistake. The real stars of this story—the veritable twinkle in creator Nation’s eyes—are the Daleks. In no prior story do Daleks have quite so many individual speaking roles. Aside from a few, expected, “Exterminate!” moments, these Daleks seem to exhibit something verging on personalities. They moan, cry out in panic, blame one another, beg for forgiveness, and make excuses.

They even experience existential moments of dread, in particular two Daleks who have become trapped in a room filled with a virulent biological agent (meant to kill the Doctor and the Thals) that is also deadly to Daleks. Though they’ve been immunized, they built the only immunization machine in the same room with the loosely covered (and visually poorly realized) virus. So there they are to stay, locked in the room, forever. It’s a brief moment of pathos, quickly glossed over by the script, that nevertheless gives some depth to these otherwise very flat characters.

The Supreme Dalek

Even at the end of the story, after the Thals (and, yes, the Doctor and Jo) have foiled yet another Dalek attempt at galactic domination, after the blonde bandits have escaped Spiridon in the Supreme Dalek’s personal spaceship and the TARDIS has whisked Jo and the Doctor away, the gold and black head honcho turns, as if to the viewer, and proclaims, eyestalk a-bobbing, “Preparations will begin at once to free our army from the ice. We have been delayed, not defeated. The Daleks are never defeated!” It’s not hard to see which team Terry Nation is rooting for.

Without this focus on the Daleks, the story would have been unable to sustain its six episodes; in the event, it flows fairly well after the first, establishing episode, which concludes with the obligatory closing shot of a Dalek. This one has been frozen by the long, frigid Spiridonian night (foreshadowing their susceptibility to cold) while using its invisibility power, so it must be made visible by spray paint. (And, of note, this is the only time a Dalek is ever encountered while invisible, despite that power being central to the plot.)

Dalek paint-by-numbers

Nation takes some pains to develop the Thals as well, showing conflict and relationships between the characters, all of whom have typically Nation-esque, two syllable names: Rebec, Vaber, Taron, Latep, Codal. Latep even develops a crush on Jo, causing a moment at the end where Jo must decide whether to stay with the plucky anti-Dalek rebel (shades of Susan staying with David in Nation’s “The Dalek Invasion of Earth“). In the event, she does not, having a world and a life of her own to which to return. Oddly, the Doctor does not comment on the similarity between that moment and Susan’s own reckoning—although, given that the First Doctor locked Susan out of the TARDIS to force her to live her own life and follow her heart, perhaps it’s not a moment about which he cares to reminisce.

With the Daleks and Thals occupying most of the narrative real estate in this story, Jo and the Doctor suffer somewhat in terms of character development. Katy Manning receives that thinly-drawn romantic arc, establishing further her independent spirit, and Jo gets the chance to break into and then out of the Dalek base looking for the Doctor with the help of a kindly Spiridonian resistance member. She neither finds the Doctor nor thwarts the Dalek plan in any way, but at least she gets some screen time and shows off her stealthy moves around and behind unwitting Daleks.

Secret Agent Grant

The Third Doctor gets a few decent moments as well, though not as many as one would hope in a six-episode story. Of note, Pertwee exhibits a decidedly hard mien when the Doctor believes Jo to have been killed after the Daleks destroy the Thal spaceship she had been hiding in. Once more, the Daleks get a pass when it comes to the Doctor’s pacifism, being the embodiments of pure evil for him. He glares at his pepperpot captors (who do not realize who he is, for some quite odd reason, until the final episode), almost daring them to give him a reason to act.

Go ahead, make my day.

While the Doctor has killed many a Dalek before—including, theoretically, all of them, in “The Daleks,” before Nation and the BBC realized they had a gold mine on their hands—here, when he accidentally fries the brain of one, he makes light of the situation: “You know, for a man who abhors violence, I took great satisfaction in doing that.” It’s an unaccustomed hardness in the Doctor, one that feels slightly off, if only because Pertwee actually pulls it off quite well. The Third Doctor could have been much different in Pertwee’s hands, one realizes in this story.

The boys are back in town.

Its faults aside, “Planet of the Daleks” nevertheless shows off the tyrannical tin tricycles to good effect, better by far than their initial showing the the Pertwee era, “Day of the Daleks,” where they sat behind a screen for most of the story. Most importantly, the prospect of their having even a glimmer of individuality makes them more interesting foes than they have been since their debut some ten years prior. The Daleks have their mojo back, at least for now.

(Previous Story: Frontier in Space)

(Next Story: The Green Death)

Post 70 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project

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