Out this week on DVD is the 1972 classic Doctor Who episode “Day of the Daleks”. It’s a particular favourite of mine, and not just because it stars my favourite Doctor (Jon Pertwee) going head to head with my favourite monsters (the Daleks, obviously!) for the first time.
It’s been frustrating that it’s taken so very long for this one to come out on DVD, when you’d have thought that anything Dalek-related would have been high on the list of titles to issue. It’s a great story, too: a band of guerrillas time-travel back from the future where the world is enslaved by horrible machine monsters, in order to rewrite history to stop the takeover from ever happening. Honestly, you have to wonder whether James Cameron ever saw this story before writing The Terminator! (Oh, okay then, credit where it’s due: both Cameron and Who are actually ripping off La Jetée. Happy now?)
Actually the wait for it to be released has turned out to be a blessing, because with so few classic serials now remaining to be released, the production team behind the DVD releases is able to look at the ones left and go “How do we actually make this really stand out, sparkle and shine?” – even if it takes a bit of extra cash to do it in the process – whereas before it would just have been a case of cleaning it up, slapping on the usual (terrific) set of extras and getting it out the door so they can move on to the next one.
In the case of “Day of the Daleks” it’s meant the opportunity to go back and produce a ‘special edition’ to spruce up the original. Anyone fearing any George Lucas-style heresies can rest assured that the restored original is presented right alongside this special edition, so the digital makeover hasn’t muscled out the gloriously flawed 1972 version, warts and all. Some of those warts are bigger and more grotesque than others and sparked the retro-fitting, but once they started … Well, you know how it is. Once you start painting one wall in the house, everything else looks drab and you just have to keep on going.
The biggest complaint about the original was the Dalek voices which were startlingly poor (it had been five years since they last appeared on the show – it seems they couldn’t get any of the old voice actors who remembered how to do it properly.) The special edition brings in current Mr Voice of the Daleks from the TV show, Nicholas Briggs, to redub them – and ironically it’s the change you notice the least because they simply sound exactly right, how they should have been all along. It makes going back to the aired version even more excruciating.
The production also had a major problem with budget – and with available Daleks. Basically it had three viable units left, and with this the director was asked to mount a full scale Dalek assault on a country house. Erm – never going to happen, was it? The shortcomings are clear and it’s a damp squib of an ending to the original. But the special edition uses new footage of contemporary-built Daleks (even shot on the same model of camera used at the time) to add legions into the scene by CGI and editing, which enables faster paced cutting. Add some wonderful laser gun effects and you have a spectacular finish to the serial now.
One of the gun effects is a chillingly believable disintegrator effect that I genuinely found a little disturbing and wondered how the disc had kept its PG rating as a result; I’m not sure that’s a criticism so much as a high compliment! Added to this are some nice new digitally rendered computer screens which allow some of the original too-long turgid scenes to be broken up with pacier cutting and to clarify the transition from talking head to viewscreen image that was awkwardly presented in the original. There’s an enhanced interior explosion as the country house is attacked, and a CGI effect for the time-travel units which is nice when used as a restrained ‘accent’ in a scene but rather too much when it suddenly expands over the whole screen – although I suspect that’s done intentionally to hide some blatantly bad cross-fade alignment issues in the original footage. Ultimately only the attempt to do a CGI futuristic Dalek city really doesn’t come off, but high profile feature films with millions of dollars have failed far less honourably at such endeavours.
Added to the phenomenal restoration work (studio scenes have such impressive detail, depth and colour that they look like they were shot yesterday), there’s a huge bundle of extras which I’ve still to get through including one on the single biggest question vexing Classic Who fandom – the dating of the stories featuring the Doctor’s Earth-bound UNIT friends. You would not believe the time lost in heated discussion and academic research and dissembling that this one slip-up in series continuity has caused!
Sometimes the extras are the only reason for actually buying some of the worst, shoddiest, most execrable classic Who serials. Happily one doesn’t have to look to the extras to buy this one: the core story is fine as it is, and the rest is just gravy and trimmings. But what a glorious dish it makes of it all as a result.
[Postscript: this was always a day 1 must-buy for me. It came out the same day that HMV was decked out in posters for the release of the Star Wars saga on Blu-ray. When I went to pay at the counter, the member of staff looked at my selection and was clearly startled: “We’ve sold a lot of these today!” he said in wonder. And Amazon.co.uk and Play.com listed the title as “temporarily out of stock” the day after release. It seems that even on a day of Star Wars, the “Day of the Daleks” was more than holding its own.]