Sometimes when you’re writing about an episode of long-running TV show, there’s a lot to include: maybe it’s a particularly excellent example of the show in question, or perhaps it does something new and original. Or possibly it’s a particularly poor example of the series in question which gets the blood boiling. But by and large, and almost by definition, most instalments of a show are actually bound to be more or less average: solid, predictable, quite entertaining but nothing to get all that excited about.
When it comes to Doctor Who, the 1973 story “Planet of the Daleks” is one of those that is largely and literally unremarkable – and therefore hard to say all that much about. In fact if you look in Doctor Who Magazine’s 2013 reader poll of the first 50 years of stories, then you’ll find it almost precisely at the midway point of the 241 entries included in the survey.In all its day-glo purple and green gaudiness, it is a perfect example of what the show was like in the early- to mid-70s. In fact, ironically many elements of the story are also a throwback to the series’ early black and white days under William Hartnell. That’s because the writer of this serial, famed Dalek creator Terry Nation, hadn’t worked on the show since the mid-60s and consequently came up with a script that was written for the show as he remembered it back then rather than what it had become in the meantime.
Nation is well known as one of the ‘greenest’ writers ever to work on the show; which is to say he recycled his own scripts, plot ideas and even character names almost obsessively. You could describe “Planet of the Daleks” as Nation’s highlights show-reel as it recaps all his past Dalek stories for the show; he’ll do it all over again in “Death to the Daleks” the following year. So here you have a world which is all jungle, complete with the ruins of a strange alien civilisation; vegetation which is more animal than plant; invisible creatures; and a group of plucky Thals who have arrived to sabotage the Daleks’ latest plan to invade the universe. To do this they have to undertake a perilous infiltration route through a network of ice caves to gain access to the Daleks’ base, before the Daleks can set off a doomsday device that will release a deadly plague and kill off every living thing on the planet. Stop me if you’ve heard any of this before!
All of Nation’s scripts for Doctor Who take the basic approach of a Boy’s Own adventure with a strong seasoning of the sort of World War 2 stories you used to find in children’s books and comics like Commando right up to the 70s. It’s Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Bulldog Drummond and Sexton Blake rolled in with pulp SciFi magazine stories and wartime films such as Where Eagles Dare and The Guns of Navarone. The dialogue is stiff-upper-lip wooden and the characters similarly generic. And despite being one of the leading figures in the early years of British television SciFi it’s amazing how Nation never did get the hang of basic science – he’s unable to tell the difference between solar system, galaxy and universe; and he seems to believe that you can easily take over any of the above with a force of 10,000 Daleks. This is a particularly odd view given that Nation grew up during WW2 when armies of millions were mobilised.
Nation also has a strange idea of spaceships, or at least of the Tardis, which here gets coated with gloop by some of the more animated plants. You’d think that being airtight shouldn’t be a problem for a spaceship, but almost at once the Tardis runs out of air – and the Doctor hasn’t refilled the emergency oxygen cylinders from the last time, either! Silly boy. Plus the Tardis’ motorised doors can’t overcome all the Vegemite sticky stuff to effect an escape. The Tardis has been reduced from being an acknowledged scientific wonder of the universe to something that has been outsmarted by some weeds; it’s not a good day for Time Lord engineering.
But snarkiness to one side, the serial moves briskly on – the never-look-back forward momentum is very much its strength as ever more dangers and threats await the Doctor (Jon Pertwee, looking particularly dashing in purple smoking jacket, which he finds time to change into while suffering from hypoxia) and his companion Jo Grant (Katy Manning). The story opens directly after the previous story’s climax (“Frontier in Space”) with the Doctor having been shot; while he’s recovering, Jo sets off to explore Spiridon and get help, only to stumble across the Thals led by Taron (the ever-reliable Bernard Horsfall) as well as a friendly invisible native called Wester who helps her recover from a nasty attack of the fungoids.
Back on his feet, the Doctor promptly gets captured by the Daleks and held in a cell, from which he naturally escapes. Once out of the Dalek base he teams up with the Thals to get back into the base to blow it up, just as the Dalek Supreme arrives to take personal charge of the invasion force. The Doctor uses a hot air vent, a nylon ‘animal skin’ rug and a molten ice volcano to achieve his ends by the time the six 25-minute episodes have played out allowing Nation to submit his invoice for time and services.
“Planet of the Daleks” was meant to the the second half of an epic-length adventure for the Doctor, but it’s so disconnected in style from the story that preceded it that it never really manages to feel successfully joined up. It’s also quite a ‘small’ story despite the presence of the Daleks, back for the just the second time in six years after they had been ‘killed off’ by the show in 1967. Their initial revival had been in the previous season’s “Day of the Daleks”, but that had presented them in an unusual fashion as behind-the-scenes puppet masters; in “Planet of the Daleks” they’re back to their former strutting selves – in large part thanks to Nation’s backwards-looking old-style script – and it’s the way they would stay for the rest of their time on the classic show and into the 21st century reboot.
Once you get over Nation’s weak points on science (including the gubbins about molten ice allotropes) and the adventure serial plot kicks in, this is actually perfectly enjoyable. It’s not going to stress your brain one bit, but it’s also never boring. Director David Maloney makes the studio forest set work surprisingly well, and everyone runs around and rough houses with as much vim and vigour as it’s possible to pull off in cramped conditions. Pertwee is in his dashing prime in the role, and Manning had likewise reached her peak as plucky but adorable Jo (the following story, “The Green Death”, would be her last.) While it may be largely padding to fill out the runtime, Nation includes welcome scenes among the Thals which add hints of character and motivation. To top things off the Doctor gets to dispense earnest little pearls of wisdom about courage and heroism, and about not glorifying war to the people back home.
I came away from rewatching “Planet of the Daleks” filled with a curious warmth, because they don’t make TV shows like this – and to be honest, I miss it. It’s so redolent of its time that the nostalgia alone is almost overpowering – indeed, the recycling of so many classic story elements is a key part of invoking that sense of golden memories. It makes it all deeply soothing and enjoyable regardless of its faults, and it does more things right than it gets wrong in any case. It’s exactly the sort of fare that I wanted to watch at teatime on Saturday evening when I was a kid; in many ways, I still do.
Postscript: To contradict my opening remarks to a degree, it’s worth adding that there is one truly surprising and noteworthy aspect of “Planet of the Daleks”. The master copy of the third episode was among many lost from the BBC Archives, leaving only a black and white ‘safety’ copy in its place. As a result, that’s the way the series was seen for years after – with five episodes in full colour, and a monochrome episode 3. But for this 2009 DVD release, the episode was colourised using a combination of techniques, including one that recovered original colour information from small dots contained in the black and white copy. It does the job well enough that when I watched the serial this week, it never occurred to me that the episode wasn’t the two-inch quad tape master. For sure, it nagged at the back of my mind that there was something different about this episode compared with the others – the colours were slightly more subdued, the studio footage lacked that unmistakable video sharpness – but nothing that I didn’t feel comfortable putting down to the age of the materials. It’s a tremendous technical achievement, and the story of how the colour version was recreated is told in a wonderful featurette on the second disc and is well worth seeking out.
Rating: ★ ★ ★
Planet of the Daleks is available on DVD as part of the Doctor Who: Dalek War boxset.