The Dalek War box set

DVDFrom DWM #415, then, and, like my review of The Keys of Marinus, here’s a longer draft than the one I ultimately submitted to the magazine. I think it’s the last instance when I kept an older version of a piece before hacking it back to meet the word-count. After this one, I grew less precious about striking through my own work. Which is a good thing. 

DWM #415“The whole secret of telling stories – the whole secret of practically anything in art and entertainment – is variety.” That’s what the late Barry Letts says on the commentary track of this DVD. It’s bad form to jump straight to the extras, but the recent sad news of his passing prompts one to adopt a different standpoint with this month’s release.

As for that maxim, both Frontier in Space by Malcolm Hulke and Planet of the Daleks by Terry Nation – two conjoined six-parters – conform and confound in equal measure. There’s variety, yes, but a heck of a lot of repetition. In the former, the Doctor and Jo revolve through a carousel of plot points, infamously finding themselves imprisoned and then liberated a dozen times while also repeating the same conversation that Earth and Draconia really shouldn’t go to war.

Meanwhile, on the planet Spiridon, favourite Dalek routines from past adventures are set up like a line of dead parrots – the end of episode one reveal; the Doctor’s friend wandering off to make her own allies in a petrifying forest; the epic journey into the Dalek base… When the Thals fling a boulder down a ventilation shaft and are rewarded with a satisfying cloud of bonded polycarbide and Skarosian blubber, indoctrinated viewers can nod in recognition at, once more, that beautiful plume(age).

And yet, despite the circular and self referential (reverential, even, in Nation’s case) plotting there is also variety. It’s up there where it counts for a weekly drama, which can assume viewers will dip during episodes four and five. It’s on screen.

Across its six weeks, Frontier is both a galaxy-trotting gadabout and a flick through the Doctor Who bestiary: Draconians! Ogrons! The Master! Erm… the Ogron Eater. It’s the bonkers would-be season finale even Russell T Davies dare not bring us, and on paper alone seems a baffling omission for the prize of best Doctor Who story ever. It’s not of course, but it’s still pretty damn entertaining.

Similarly Planet may revisit familiar landmarks, but it also scours the eponymous orb for other local delights, bringing us a jungle full of spitting, yoghurt pot-y fauna determined to müller all and sundry. Then there’s the Plain of Stones and its bright-eyed predators, the caverns under threat of flood by molten ice, the invisible locals and their penchant for animal skin and – as if it wasn’t already getting a little heady – apropos of nothing, the Dalek Supreme, who rocks up in episode six. Seemingly a foot taller than his brethren, this gold-plated beauty is augmented with jam jar headlights and a battery-powered torch in his ever ready eyestalk. Gaudily bejewelled, he’s the Ken Masters of all he surveys.

It’s clear, then, both stories are spectacles. They’re epics! Thanks to a shipment of ex-Gerry Anderson props, Frontier was consciously commissioned as a ‘hardware show’. Spaceships continually dock with planets or each other, and for the first time in Doctor Who’s history, the programme boldly goes into Star Trek’s flight path, presenting a cosmopolitan universe not just replete with vessels, but busy with ‘people monsters’ who look different from each other and speak from varying viewpoints. There’s also a pleasing sense of joined-up thinking, as the Doctor points out to Jo where this time period fits in with the future history she’s already witnessed: “[Of Solos, featured in The Mutants] Those were the declining years of the Earth’s planetary empire.”

Planet, meanwhile, calls back to the first Dalek story, while also presenting us with their biggest army ever, kept on ice like fine seafood. That’s a conceptual assiette for any story, although its realisation as an assembly of a dozen or so Louis Marx Daleks is a rare production low point here. Still, better that than Louis Marks Daleks – there’d only be three twitching away in that cavern.

This is, of course, a pivotal moment in episode three, and one that can be enjoyed in colour for the first time. Thanks to a form of scientific alchemy seemingly dreamt up in a David Whitaker script, the surviving black and white print of this instalment has finally ceded the red, green and blue info it had squirreled away (more of which, below). And the result? Well, there’s almost nothing to say. It just looks utterly right. A complete triumph.

Of course, it’s highly appropriate this, the ‘Hai!’ karate era of Doctor Who, is benefiting from a glam makeover. This was a time when the series was big on visuals, and low on introspection. In Barry Letts, it probably had its most visual producer ever – personally championing CSO and presiding over an aesthetic coalescence between his show and Top of the Pops – but let’s not undersell his other contributions.

Throughout these 12 episodes, there are threads of morality winding around the metaphorical stack boots, many spun by Letts himself. Both Frontier and Planet examine the sacrifices demanded by leadership. General Williams ruefully says to the President. “We used to be friends, once”, while Taron feels compromised by the arrival of Rebec on Spiridon: “Because I love you, I can’t convert you into a cipher. Your being here might be the very reason the Daleks win.”

The most overt example is the Doctor’s counsel at the close of Planet, inserted into the script at Letts’ insistence: “Don’t make war sound like an exciting and thrilling game”. However, it’s proceeded by a subtler, equally winning moment, when reluctant Thal freedom fighter Codal gently says: “You’ve done a lot for me Doctor. Thank you. Thank you.” This Doctor, more than his predecessors, betters people.

That’s because, again under Letts, the Time Lord has become a nourishing presence. Jo Grant is a great example of that. Because of him, not only does she now have the wherewithal to send a distress signal from the Ogron planet, she’s also got the chutzpah to leave the Time Lord recuperating in the TARDIS’s MFI concession while she strikes out in an alien jungle, looking for help. Get this: she even confounds the Master’s attempts at hypnosis (“Congratulations my dear,” he purrs, impressed, “I seem to have failed again!”).

Ah, the Master. It’s said Jon Pertwee insisted upon ‘moments of charm’ in scripts, lest his Doctor appear insufferable. Roger Delgado never needed such a clause. A one-man charm offensive, he oozes through Frontier in Space, ad-libbing gloriously with odd colloquialisms (“Do you really wish to vegetate in this hold for the rest of yer natural?”) and homilies (“As the old song says, be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.”). It’s off-pace for a galactic super-baddy… and all the more brilliant for it. Both Frontier and Planet are, at heart, solid, po-faced stories. But you only truly notice it in the latter, where there’s no Delgado to buoy things up from episode three. You can understand why the production team felt inclined to include him in every adventure. He’s an easy win.

Frontier is infamous for being Delgado’s Doctor Who curtain-call. Although his final scene was, controversially, fumbled, earlier in the tale you’ll find – by this reviewer’s reckoning anyway – his finest ever moment. It’s in episode four when, en route supposedly to Sirius 4, he kicks back and relaxes with a copy of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Okay, it’s a sight gag, commenting on the story as whole, but there’s a greater implication here. The Master takes along reading material to get him through the longueurs of intergalactic villainy. It’s a tiny, but vital detail. He loves his job, but the celestial commute’s a proper bitch. “Thanks to passenger action, there will be delays to your service and the chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one.” Oh well, out with the book…

Thanks purely to timing, for now this release is also Barry Letts’ curtain call – his closing statement on Doctor Who (as DWM goes to press, his autobiography, due to be published posthumously, is still some weeks away). Happily, these 12 episodes present a fine refrain to bow out on. They’re workmanlike in the best possible way, speaking of an artisan producer who really knows his business – and loves it.

DVD extras

Fantasy and reality merge in the box set’s most enjoyable extra – a 12-minute sequence taken from two episodes of Blue Peter. Appealing for the recovery of two Daleks stolen outside TVC’s Studio 8, Peter Purves, John Noakes and Lesley Judd gravely advise us – should we need guidance recognising the errant ETs – they stand 5ft 6inches tall.

Fade-up on the following episode, and there’s good news – both Daleks have been recovered. Pete’s relishing the chance to show-off his journalist chops, so it’s off to East Dulwich to interview an array of 1973 societal archetypes: investigating plod PC Forward, nouveau riche Mr Harding who returned from business overseas to find a metal meany stashed under his car’s tarpaulin, and then on to Ealing and three uniformed nurses who found the second escapee. Finally there’s policeman’s son, plucky Matthew Pinchbeck who reveals how he spotted a long-haired man bundling that Dalek out of the back of a blue transit van.

Back in the studio, both Dalek day-trippers join the team to be heaved into a truck and returned to BBC props. Bashed-up Ealing Dalek whimpers: “Forward to the recovery van!.. I am damaged!”. But the BP trio aren’t listening. What’s happening on Thursday? “I’ll be taking a day out to the countryside with Robert Dougall the newsreader!” says Peter.

Notional main event – the two-part The Perfect Scenario produced and directed by Steve Broster – can’t match that for infotainment. Cloaked as a sci-fi docu-drama, it’s a muddle.

On a future oxygen-depleted world, Zed keeps the populace sedated by spinning stories. He turns to 1973 Doctor Who for inspiration, cuing up reams of contrived chat about the politics behind both tales on this release. Of Frontier he ponders flatly: “Six episodes of interplanetary diplomacy and imprisonment? What’s that all about?” The mind fails to boggle.

A GSCE social science discourse on Doctor Who has validity, but it’s not an easy sell. If you are going to do it the viewer must be assured of the credentials of all involved. A cut’n’shut of genuine proponents with fictitious talking heads, though, just won’t do. It’s not helped the mouthpieces for David Harley’s script are completely unbelievable. Surely the phrase “pinko liberal lefties” (bandied here by ‘Martin Banderblit, MP’) hasn’t seen the light of day since Fairly Secret Army? Worse still, this slack attitude to fact and fiction results in the uncomfortable sight of a visibly ill Barry Letts notionally talking to us from the year 2016.

Broster’s other efforts, The Space War and The Rumble in the Jungle, are much better, though probably not as much fun to make. No heroics, it’s straightforward interviewing as cast and crew share their memories about both tales. Katy Manning enthuses about her karate outfit in Frontier with its platform baseball boots and the “wrap-over doofer-doofer”, while Bernard Horsfall (Taron in Planet) is beautifully succinct in describing how quality TV tackles weighty themes: “You send very brief telegrams, that’s the essence of good writing”.

The Stripped For Action series continues, considering both the Third Doctor’s stint in the funny pages, and the Daleks’ conquest of 1960s comics. Of the latter, former DWM editor Clayton Hickman boldly opines: “Probably the most beautiful piece of Doctor Who-related ephemera there’s ever been”.

The big news about this DVD, of course, is the colourisation of Planet, episode three. The short documentary detailing the process is wonderful, finding reason to throw in a homoerotic UK Gold ident from the mid 1990s, and a snatch of Tomorrow’s World. Better yet, your reviewer came away with some semblance of understanding how the hugely complicated process of teasing colour signals out of black and white images works.

The final feature of note are the DVD commentaries. For Planet, this is marshalled by Hickman, who prompts Terrance Dicks to roar, “I’m astonished that you are asking these questions, I really am!” when asked if he ever made it onto the studio floor during recording. It’s great stuff, and prompts a lively discussion about the mechanics of putting Who together (Dicks again: “I always felt that was vaguely sissy – rehearse-record.”).

Of course, the contributions of Barry Letts – who features on both, and chairs the Planet session – now feel unbelievably poignant. He comes across as a principled man, of great humanity. His anger at mistakes made by Paul Bernard in Frontier are undimmed by the passing of time, but he’s careful not to rubbish the director, giving him credit for his huge artistic input into the serial. He takes a similar approach to that risible Dalek army shot, explaining how it could have been bettered – but then concluding, kindly, “You can’t win ‘em all.”

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