Changing history is a very fanatical idea, you know.
For a show ostensibly about time travel, Doctor Who features very few stories actually about time travel. Louis Marks’ Season Nine opener, “Day of the Daleks” (Series Production Code KKK), tries to explore the paradoxical intricacies of altering history but, oddly, is kept from doing so by the lead villains, who make a rather flat return after nearly five years’ absence from the screen. For this story, about a ragtag band of guerrilla fighters in 22nd Century Earth travelling back in time to stop World War III from breaking out in the 20th Century, would have worked better without the Daleks at all.
UNIT summons the Doctor and Jo to investigate the strange appearance (and disappearance) of an armed intruder in the home of Sir Reginald Styles, a British diplomat attempting to broker a peace between China, the UK, and the rest of a world on the brink of all-out war. When the would-be assassin is later found injured in a nearby tunnel, the Doctor surmises that he’s from Earth’s future, armed as he is with a disintegrator gun, made with Welsh-mined metals, and a crude form of time machine. This conjecture is confirmed when the assailant’s accomplices show up and capture the Doctor and Jo, who have lain in wait for them in Style’s study (after helping themselves to the diplomat’s well-stocked larder and wine cellar).
Through a series of misadventures—and Jo’s on-again, off-again skill with “escapology”—both the Doctor and Jo separately wind up in the 22nd Century, Jo in the custody of the Dalek-led human government and the Doctor with the guerrillas who are, it turns out, fighting against the Dalek regime. And what horrible fate awaits Jo at the hands of her captors? She’s offered grapes and wine and the promise of a feast. The Daleks have really lost their touch…
The human Controller responsible for, apparently, the entire human population of Earth, takes Jo in and tries to use her to gain information about the guerrillas who are the last vestige of resistance against Dalek rule. These rebels have stolen time travel technology from the Daleks and are attempting to go back in time to kill Styles, whom their history book suggest was responsible for the wars that ravaged Earth for hundreds of years, killing seven-eighths of the human population and allowing the Daleks to waltz in and invade unopposed.
For conquerors with title billing, though, the Daleks hide behind the scenes in this story (almost literally, given that they issue orders from the other side of a wall separating them from their human collaborators), and while they eventually sally forth onto the field (again, literally), for the most part they simply play the role of evil overlords. They don’t need have a master plan because they’re already in control of Earth, draining its mineral riches to fuel the expansion of the Dalek Empire; they use humans and lower caste Ogrons (from one of the “outer planets” and looking for all the world like Star Trek‘s Klingons combined with the simians from Planet of the Apes) to do their bidding. Every so often they issue menacing orders to the Controller and roll back and forth chanting, “Exterminate! Exterminate!” as Daleks are wont to do.
Twenty-three stories and four and a half years have passed since a story has last featured the Daleks (in, fittingly, “The Evil of the Daleks“) and in that time they’ve turned into nothing so much as a simple cipher, the pure embodiment of evil. Everyone knows they are evil, not least the humans who willingly serve them. When the Controller attempts to justify his subservience to the Doctor on the grounds that he’s saved lives by intervening with the Daleks, the Doctor calls him a Quisling, insisting that there can be no parley with the parlous pepperpots.
Any other foe would have allowed this story more room to breathe, more space for nuance, but because of the Daleks, there’s zero ability to explore the costs of collaboration or the ramifications of trying to change history to prevent a horrific future. Even the story’s core conceit—that the guerrillas, by travelling through time to prevent the explosion a bomb that kills the peace conference delegates, are actually responsible for the explosion that causes the future they want to change—is introduced in the last ten minutes of the last of four episodes, by which point there’s no time to elaborate on the temporal paradox. Once UNIT breaks out the mortars to attack the Daleks who have travelled to the 20th Century to ensure that the conference is destroyed, all exposition goes out the window.
Having previously prevented the guerrillas from killing the Controller, the Doctor and Jo are able to return to the 20th Century thanks to his intervention. The Controller calls off the Ogron guards who have captured our heroes when they are about to return to stop a time-stranded guerrilla from blowing up Styles and the assembled delegates. The suggestion seems to be that the Doctor rekindled some sense of human decency in the Controller, but it also points to the Controller’s genuine desire to save human lives from the Daleks. He sacrifices his life on the chance that the Doctor can stop the Daleks, who kill him upon learning of his treachery.
Curiously, the Daleks to that point had trusted the Controller to an incredible degree, even going so far as to release the Doctor from their clutches just because the Controller asks them to. They have their most dangerous foe, the only person they fear, strapped down to the “mind analysis machine,” and they release him to the Controller’s care on the off chance the Doctor will be of use in eliminating the guerrillas. It’s an odd decision, fearing a minor nuisance more than their sole existential threat.
The Daleks also proclaim to the Doctor that they can travel through time, as though it will come as a shock to him:
The Daleks have discovered the secret of time travel. We have invaded Earth again. We have changed the pattern of history.
The Dalek timeline is, if anything, more convoluted than that of the Cybermen, but they have already chased the Doctor (the one on the screen right up there, in fact) through time in their own version of a TARDIS in “The Chase,” and they were using a different type of time travel device in “The Evil of the Daleks.” Both of those events came after the referenced invasion, almost certainly the one where they wanted to turn Earth into a spaceship, from “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” given the reference to Dalekanium. So when they refer to changing history, are they suggesting that the initial unsuccessful invasion (also roughly dated to the 22nd Century) did not happen? Are humans currently being forced to dig and mine to carve out space for an engine in the Earth’s core as a sort of do-over invasion? It’s a strange, unexplored sequence of sentences there, with much fodder for those who enjoy parsing such canonical strands.
Perhaps more puzzling, and troubling, still, the Doctor violates one of his core tenets in this story. Not only does he wield a deadly weapon, but he uses it offensively, disintegrating an advancing Ogron who was still quite a distance from him. He wasn’t in imminent danger of being captured by the lumbering creature—he stopped, aimed, and fired, knowing full well the power of the gun. One might postulate that the presence of the Daleks in the story trigger his absolute insistence that the Daleks and their allies be destroyed, but at this point he didn’t know that the Daleks were involved. The Doctor’s departure from strict non-lethal violence comes as a shock, one that is not remarked upon at all in the story.
UNIT remains, as ever, woefully incompetent when required for plot purposes, failing to investigate the cellar of Styles’ house when the Doctor and Jo go missing and then again later when all the peace delegates are about to arrive. The Brigadier, at least, has faith in the Doctor at this point, being willing to accept his recommendations as valid without hemming and hawing too much. Even at the height of the battle between UNIT forces and the Daleks and Ogrons, Lethbridge-Stewart immediately follows along with the Doctor’s request that they abandon Styles house, so that the guerrilla in the unsearched cellar can blow up the invaders instead of the peace conference.
Jo does scream and get captured in this story, but she also escapes and helps the Doctor do so as well. Her character still gets stuck in the know-nothing role, allowing the Doctor to deliver exposition for the viewer, such as the Blinovich Limitation Effect that prevents the guerrillas from returning to the same day over and over again to attempt to assassinate Styles. She even gets the Doctor as a companion, after a fashion:
Controller: The girl referred to a companion in her own time zone. She called him, “The Doctor.”
Gold Dalek: Doctor? Did you say “Doctor?”
In the end, the Daleks in the 20th Century are destroyed, the peace conference is saved, and apparently the temporal paradox is resolved without much explanation. Everything is wrapped up with in a neat bow that the story doesn’t quite deserve.
But it’s the Daleks, and now they’re in color! And really, that’s the point of the story, narrative quibbles be damned. The decision to turn them into essentially bit players in their long-awaited return remains, however, a strange one.
(Previous Story: The Daemons)
(Next Story: The Curse of Peladon)
Post 62 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project