Wednesday, 13 April 2011

"Diz-zy Da-leks!"

Audio soundtrack of incomplete story, written by David Whitaker, directed by Derek Martinus, 1967

Like The Massacre, it’s a massive cliché that this is a ‘best story’ contender. Similarly – and perhaps even more evidently – Evil of the Daleks very obviously lives up to that reputation. Before listening to it, this story already particularly appealed to me, helped I suppose by its popular status, but mainly because of the quite delicious combination of sixties-style machiavellian Daleks with a rich Victorian setting.

It’s not a particularly original observation to say that I love this story’s tone, but its – for this period – rare combination of creepiness, intrigue, and complexity is a massively satisfying cocktail. We might not be able to watch it, but I still rate Evil as one of the best ever stories the series has produced. Contrary to a general viewer’s expectations, it also flatters the audience’s intelligence a lot more than its modern equivalent – although, in fairness, it does have the luxury of a slow buildup, over seven episodes, with enough event and ideas packed into Whitaker’s scripts to ensure this (unusual) length doesn’t become detrimental.     

In fact, let’s just say it: David Whitaker is a genius. Like Robert Holmes, he comes across as a writer capable of far ‘better’ than genre stuff of this nature, but who elevated the series with an intuitive grasp of its indefinable essence, a love for which is tangible here. Even his attention to detail is impossible to underestimate, and a major part of the reason why a story like this, junked though it is, remains so impressive. Elements like Waterfield’s struggles with twentieth century slang or the much-derided concept of time travelling with static electricity and mirrors (which I love for its blend of ‘science’ and magic, creating something far more evocative than pure, unintelligible technobabble), exhibit a resonance a more perfunctory jobbing writer would deem beyond the call of duty.

The combination of science and magic is quite an apparent component within this story, which is a rather less straightforward and nakedly pulpy concept than those exhibited in the preceding The Faceless Ones, The Macra Terror, The Moonbase, or The Underwater Menace. None of those stories feature an idea as brilliant – and effortless – as that of a Dalek suddenly barging out of Maxtible’s cabinet of mirrors; a particularly sparkling fusion of sci-fi and Narnia-reversal, also millions of mile from the guerrillas and space plagues and alien jungles of Terry Nation. Experiencing the sci-fi elements of the story from the perspective of the Victorian characters (eg, talk of “thought patterns on silver wire”) is also a smart way of avoiding tedious technobabble, and further adds a gratifying veneer of fairytale to the Daleks’ technology.

Fully in keeping with this tone is the mad scientist Maxtible, who does everything he does because of his blinkered desire for the alchemical secret of transmuting metals into gold (“The Daleks know many secrets”). Incidentally, the actor Marius Goring is actually quite a casting coup if you’re familiar with his roles in Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death or The Red Shoes.

Jamie and Victoria – steadfast Jacobite and willowy Victorian soon-to-be orphan – also illustrate a more storybook or fantasy approach to the series than predecessors like the Swinging Sixties Ben and Polly or the ‘futuristic’ Steven and Vicki. As in the most recent season, I enjoy this take on the material, which seems a more effortless fit for Doctor Who than (going out on a limb here) the militarised UNIT era or the self-consciously urban Davies years. There is perhaps a danger of tweeness in the series drawing on (the modern conception of) fairy stories, but Whitaker counters this by peppering his scripts with little twists of sharpness, Jamie’s startlingly unexpected run-in with the Doctor being the prime example (more on that later).

The incongruity of Daleks in a Victorian house – or even of Victorian inventors on Skaro – feels quite glorious, and draws on parallels and opposition in a way that creates a lot more depth and significance than the other previously mentioned stories of this season muster, regardless of their quality. Even the Daleks themselves (“mechanical beasties”) are presented in a more fantastical way than before or since - eg, in their ‘possession’ of Terrall - while the whole concept of a distillable human or Dalek ‘factor’ is brilliantly rich and fantastical too. There’s no comparative frisson to Cybermen invading the moon, for example. 

Even in encompassing all three of Doctor Who’s stomping grounds, in its past, present, and future locations, Evil of the Daleks sets itself apart as something broader and more significant than its season four bedfellows. (How many contemporaneous writers must’ve kicked themselves for not going through with such a deceptively simple idea?) And it doesn’t stop there! There’s even a return to Skaro, an unprecedented event during this period - and, relatively speaking, soon enough after The Daleks to feel authentic, in the way that Attack of the Cybermen’s belated return visit to Telos… doesn’t. This return trip might be the most fabulously aberrant and ‘knowing’ element of Doctor Who at this point (and compared to the majority of the subsequent run) – something that’s hard to fully appreciate in a period when the series refers back to earlier stories as a matter of course.

That Whitaker manages to top all this is no mean feat, but he does so, with the dazzling (dizzying?) conceit of the friendly Daleks which the Doctor creates with the introduction of ‘the human factor’. In lesser hands, childlike Daleks could be a disastrous concept of the proportions of The Chase’s ‘thick Dalek’. It’s almost as if Whitaker was attempting to show how easily Terry Nation’s treatment of his own creations could be bettered – that he succeeds must’ve been a bit of a slap in the face, because the friendly Daleks highlight the creatures’ deviousness, rather than diffusing it. (The slurred friendly Daleks’ voices are almost more unnerving than ever: “Frieeends, frieeends…”.) In fact, that all this was done forty-four years ago shows up even Big Finish (never a company to shy away from any possible way of wringing a new take out of old material) – but Daleks playing trains is more postmodern a variation than I think even they would attempt in their numerous Dalek revisitations.

There’s a lot that’s unexpectedly metatextual here, for such an early story – not least people walking around arms outstretched, essentially pretending to be Daleks – which goes a long way to demonstrating what a before-its-time story this is. It’s full of brave ideas and intelligent use of the series’ tropes, to an extent that’s arguably far more sophisticated than the vast majority of seasons that would follow. Given the Daleks’ previous ‘servants’ routine in Power, Whitaker obviously couldn’t help but use them more interestingly than almost anyone else. Even the idea of the Daleks making the Doctor help them is an original, lateral idea – again, making the ever-diminishing returns of Terry Nation’s space plagues and alien jungles even more pitiable. (You almost feel sorry for him, don’t you? Oh, wait: Planet of the Daleks is 150 minutes I’m never getting back, so, no, I don’t.)

Considering that (collect-’em-all colour schemes aside) the Daleks were essentially unchanged in their last on screen appearance, in 2010, it’s remarkable that anyone even felt it necessary to treat them so inventively only four years after their very first appearance. (And yet we still have to endure outings like Victory of the Daleks. Oh dear.)

Even the – seemingly obvious – idea of a Dalek Emperor, although already essayed in the TV21 Dalek Chronicles strip, is more of a departure than any seen in previous Dalek stories since their shock reappearance at the conclusion of The Dalek Invasion of Earth episode one. The Emperor’s voice may be changeable, but is quite brilliant, especially in episode seven, where its harsh booming fills me with fannish glee. Similarly, the Daleks are also at their sixties best, with a genuine deviousness which actually makes them a credibly unpleasant force to be reckoned with. Even in small moments like threatening Victoria with force-feeding they are especially malicious, and as well as being particularly scheming, they seem especially violent and aggressive.

The story’s above-par treatment of familiar elements extends to the Doctor himself; in the first two episodes, his increasing bafflement and eventual realisation of who is manipulating events is extremely persuasive, not least for the fear Troughton brings to the role. Though massively over-complicated, the set-up to the plot and the Doctor’s Holmesian deduction is very satisfying. The various red herrings of the plot also ensure it doesn’t become stretched thin. Also, its large cast of varied characters (Bob Hall, Kennedy, Arthur Terrall, Maxtible, Waterfield, Victoria, Molly, Kemel, etc) feels very ambitious and wide-ranging, or rather, by comparison makes a lot of contemporaneous stories seem quite lazy and lacking. Even that events are already underway prior to the Doctor and Jamie’s arrival on the scene marks it out as more ambitious and involved than the norm.

Similarly, Whitaker’s handling of Jamie’s relationship to the Doctor, their argument, and the Doctor’s manipulation of his friend into doing what he needs of him, is actually quite shocking. These characters usually have such rapport, and I tend to think of Jamie as quite a twee character; his anger and scorn toward the Doctor is very rare within the show (what, Ian, Barbara, Ace and Donna are the only ones to really row with him – maybe Steven?). “No, you’ll not get round me this time, Doctor! … You and me, we’re finished! You’re just too callous for me.” The most clownish and likeable of Doctors is notably sharper in this story; cooler, more collected and knowing than we’re used to, he feels very much like a precursor to the Seventh. Whitaker also has a handle on making the Doctor seem grand and mythic, which seems very before its time, even in small lines like his quiet comment of the Crimean War: “I watched the charge of the Light Brigade; magnificent folly.”

(Speaking of companions, Victoria interestingly doesn’t fall into the companion role in her first story, meaning the previously-unseen rockiness of the Doctor and Jamie’s friendship is allowed to play out against the backdrop of a rare all-male TARDIS crew.)

By comparison to the enigmatic, richly evocative beginning, the last episodes are almost disappointingly ‘sci-fi,’ but this is nevertheless an unprecedentedly complex and multi-layered story for the period. Having said that, the period/sci-fi contrast is most effectively mined by the music, specifically with a rather wonderful changeover from acoustic instruments to pulsing, sinister electronic music when Daleks are afoot. Though I imagine the Skaro sections were less visually interesting than the Maxtible mansion, I choose to imagine Raymond Cusick’s Skaro sets and the original Dalek city model from The Daleks, especially since Evil uses the same echoey sound effects from that story.

I don’t want to be too hagiographic, but there’s so much going for this story that it’s no wonder it’s been a favourite for so long – conceptually alone, it’s a keeper, with big, brilliant ideas like the Daleks’ manipulation of the Doctor, and his own corresponding deviousness; humanised Daleks; Dalekised humans; a Dalek civil war…

I’m a great believer in judging Doctor Who stories on relative terms, but, from an era when the format was being pared down, with the removal of straight historicals, and a move into the ‘base under seige’ format that the production team were perhaps inadvisably keen on, Evil of the Daleks comes across as something as an embarrassment of riches, a massively impressive story which remains unbeatable and relatively seldom challenged in terms of its wide-ranging, magical content.

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