Bit of a low day around the old pad. It was nice to escape into Davros’s escape-proof bunker for a half-hour. You’d think that this wasn’t a particularly thrilling segment for kids, but our son was pretty riveted, wondering what would happen next. At the end, when the Doctor’s being throttled by one of the organic Dalek mutants, he was reminded of the brief animated appearance of the Dalek creatures in “The Power of the Daleks.” Glad to see his memory banks are working at capacity.
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Some things our son pays good attention, surprisingly good attention, to… and some things he doesn’t. Tonight, as the first squad of Daleks enters the Thals’ city to avenge the mass murder of the Kaled people, our son wondered whether they would recognize the Doctor. We had to remind him that these are the very first Daleks. They haven’t met any of the Doctors yet. “Oh, yeah…” he said.
But on the other hand, regular readers know that I playfully feign despair over our son’s inability to recognize even the most distinctive actors. Tonight, though, he recognized a voice! When Davros started ranting right before sending this death squad into action, our son said “He sounds like that gold Dalek… the one… their leader.” And later, when Davros has our heroes captured, demanding the Doctor tell him all about the Daleks’ future defeats and failures, he repeated “That is exactly like that gold Dalek!”
He’s referring to the Dalek Supreme, from “Planet of the Daleks,” and he’s right. Michael Wisher, the actor who plays Davros here, did the voice of the Dalek Supreme. Good for him! He was so happy to hear that he was correct that he clapped hands and high-fived his mom. Now let’s see what happens the next time Burgess Meredith turns up somewhere.
Last time, I talked about how much I enjoyed “Genesis of the Daleks” when I first saw it. I was twice our son’s age, though. This is a pretty complex story for a six year-old, and part three is quite talky and political. There’s a brief flurry of gunfire at the beginning, and then Harry and the Doctor bump into that giant clam we talked about last time, and it tries to eat Harry’s leg. This was certainly our son’s favorite part of the story so far!
The Daleks’ creator, Davros, is played by Michael Wisher and it’s a terrific performance. We saw him last night alternately clinical and ranting, but this time out he has to be subtle and calculating. He’s accompanied by the wonderful Peter Miles as Nyder, who is willing to act as the devil’s advocate and ask Davros whether he’s absolutely sure about his actions. Nyder isn’t a simple toadie; when we met him in part one, it was obvious that he’d be an extremely dangerous opponent even if he weren’t loyal to Davros.
But as for the political edge, the villain here is working to his own agenda and it’s not communicated in a simple enough way for our kid to understand his machinations. This is a case where us grownups definitely have to step in and underline the ramifications. Davros is so obsessed with the goal of developing the Daleks that he’s willing to switch sides and help the Thals murder everybody in his city before the city councilors can interfere with his experiments. This is the sort of thing that when you’re watching with a six year-old, you learn pretty instantly you’re going to have to explain in more detail.
My first experience with Doctor Who came when I was in the fifth grade. One of our local channels, 36, had a Sunday morning monster movie – Godzilla, Gamera, Gorgo – and one week they played what I later learned was the second of the Peter Cushing Dalek films. I gave it twenty minutes and switched off when it became apparent there wouldn’t be any giant monsters in it.
A year later, I checked out a book from the Griffin Middle School library. It was probably Daniel Cohen’s Science Fiction’s Greatest Monsters. I speed-read part of it, badly, and didn’t pay attention, but concluded that apparently Doctor Who was the British equivalent of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, somehow, and that Daleks were regularly-appearing monsters in the stories, kind of like if the Zanti Misfits popped up in lots of Limits episodes or something.
About a year after that, WGTV showed “The Five Doctors” on its American premiere, about five weeks in advance of starting the Tom Baker years in January 1984. I kept either missing it or being told to go to bed – the show started at 10 pm Saturday nights – but I really wanted to see this “British Outer Limits.” On the fourth week of its run, around the same time that viewers in the UK were enjoying the latest serial, “Frontios,” I got permission to stay up, and long, long before a Dalek showed up, twenty-odd minutes into this two-and-a-half-hour TV movie, I was completely hooked for life. Of course, when the Dalek showed up, I said something like “Hey, it’s one of those robots from that monster movie that didn’t have any monsters in it.”
I loved everything about “Genesis of the Daleks.” I loved the videotaped studio footage and I loved the bleak atmosphere. I loved the unbelievable body count and I loved how amazingly ruthless and nasty Davros and the Daleks were. I loved the heroes: the Doctor was interesting, but Harry and Sarah were the best sidekicks I’d ever seen. I did not mind the low-tech laser effects; everything else was amazing. I loved the killer clams, which show up in the next part. British fans who write books inevitably bring up the clams, with a disappointed sigh. British fans were evidently never twelve years old. I loved the acting and the incredibly weird ending. So these three travel in space… how? It was just me and the TV from 10 until 12:30 the next morning, figuring this out as I went. No Wikipedia, no forums, no books, and nobody, for many, many months, who knew one minute more about this incredible show than I did.
I couldn’t convince anybody, for ages, to try it. (That’s the story of my life, actually.) I’m not kidding: many of my pals refused to try it because it was on the same channel as Sesame Street, and consequently it must also be for babies. Seventh graders, we must remember, are horribly desperate to be grown up and cannot bear to be reminded of anything they enjoyed when they were children, which is why I sadly anticipate this blog concluding around the time our son turns twelve, if not before. See also this earlier entry of an occasion when Middle School Me went apoplectic about an early Batman episode.
My best mate at age 12 was a neighborhood kid called Blake, who did trust my judgement and wanted to see the show. Unfortunately, they went to church Sunday mornings and his mother wouldn’t let him stay up to watch it. Sometime in April 1984, she finally relented, and let Blake stay up while she watched to “approve” of the show. The title of that week’s story was “The Robots of Death.” She saw that name, turned off the TV, and ordered him to bed.
(I shouldn’t mock; she very kindly came to pay respects when my dad died, but that woman drove poor Blake batty. Remind me to tell you the story of the Root Beer Incident one day.)
Anyway: “Genesis of the Daleks.” It’s written by Terry Nation and directed by David Maloney, it has Michael Wisher and Peter Miles in critical guest star roles, and I’m utterly incapable of being objective about it.
“The Sontaran Experiment” is an oddball little curiosity in all of seventies Doctor Who, the only two-part serial of the decade. And it’s exactly what I’ve been talking about all through the Pertwee years: almost all of those six-part stories are too long, and would have been improved by paring them down and using the remaining episodes to do something else. That’s what they did here: it and “The Ark in Space” is a single production block. They videotaped this story as the location shoot, and then taped “Ark” in the studio.
Our son really enjoyed this, once he learned who the villain was. I set up the TV with him out of the room so he’d be surprised by the cliffhanger. Before that, he seemed a little bothered by the claims that there’s an alien in the rocks torturing people. It builds to a climactic fight between the Doctor and the Sontaran, Styre – and he’s a really nasty and sadistic piece of work – and the fight probably doesn’t look like all that much, but he just loved it. He was all wide-eyed and feet kicking as the two throw each other around.
There’s a fun little bit of backstory about the fight. The character of Harry Sullivan had been introduced because the producers were considering a much older actor for the Doctor, and so Harry was created specifically for fights like this. But Tom Baker was young enough to do the rough stuff, leaving Harry with a lot less to do in some of these stories. He’s really surplus to requirements in this one, actually.
But then Tom Baker had a nasty accident on location and broke his collar bone. That’s why there’s an obvious double for Baker in the fight scenes and a lot of the long shots, and why you frequently see Baker very still, with his hand wrapped up in his scarf. He had a big cast on his shoulder under his overcoat. But they didn’t do a quick rewrite and send Harry Sullivan into single combat with the Sontaran while the Doctor rewired and removed the critical macguffin in his ship. That’s what poor Harry was originally created to do!
I’m glad to report that our son mostly came around in the end. He gave this one what you might call a “nearly thumbs up.” It might have helped that the Wirrn are stomping around in their full wasp form in this episode instead of being either a blobby, single-eyed horror behind glass or a big carpet roll of bubble wrap. Not that the full insect form is all that impressive a costume – are they supposed to be sliding along on their stingers or something? – but it looks like a proper monster and it sounds like a proper monster instead of the actor slowly being transformed, horrifically, into a hideous green thing. The almost existential, “creepy” terror of the previous episodes gives way to more conventional heroes versus monsters in the final part, which is better for a six year-old to understand.
Interestingly, this is one of the few Doctor Who adventures to unfold in nearly real time. It all takes place over about a couple of hours, with only a few narrative jumps to cover walking down corridors. It also leads directly into the next adventure, with the Doctor, Harry, and Sarah taking a transmat down to Earth to make sure the connection will work for all the planet’s sleepers on the Ark. I really like the way the first six of this Doctor’s adventures all lead directly into each other.
Our son is at the perfect age for most classic Doctor Who. As we noted just a couple of months ago, he’s not too old to see the sorry little puppets in “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” as anything other than gigantic and terrifying reptiles. But the transmutation of Noah, criticized by absolutely everybody as an actor struggling against a hopelessly dopey visual effect, failed with even this six year-old critic. “That actually looks like green bubble wrap,” he pronounced.
But his disbelief was not completely shattered. Even though he, like everybody on Earth older than six, saw right through Noah’s glove, the incredibly bleak and doom-laden tone of this story weighed very heavily on him. After a run of Who adventures that he has really enjoyed, this one is “too creepy and too scary.” That doesn’t really bode well for some of what’s to come, does it?
An interesting tidbit about “The Ark in Space” is that the tone is so incredibly different to what we saw over the last five years that something curious happened after part one was shown. The first episode got a little over nine million viewers, which was about what the show had been getting for several years. Apparently they all told their friends that Who was doing something very strange and different in this story. The ratings shot up for part two to almost 14 million, dropping back down to just below 12 for the next two parts. I’m no ratings expert, but a jump of nearly 50% in one week sounds pretty unique to me.
I’ve met a good few Doctor Who fans over the years whose favorite era starts with this story. It’s the sixteen stories, over three seasons, produced by Philip Hinchcliffe and script edited by Robert Holmes. These first four all have their earliest germination in the previous team’s days, but it’s still a pretty compelling argument. Even the weakest Hinchcliffe-Holmes story is more entertaining than many, many others.
“The Ark in Space” starts off magnificently. It’s a slow exploration of an unknown environment, with no guest actors. They’re all still in suspended animation. This is set thousands of years in the future, after some disaster has befallen the planet Earth. Our son was intrigued if not thrilled, and that’s fine. This isn’t meant to be a thriller yet. It’s a detective story at this point.
The story was originally commissioned from a veteran TV writer, John Lucarotti, who had written three serials for William Hartnell’s Doctor, as well as six episodes of The Avengers: five from the videotape era and one, “Castle De’ath,” for the Mrs. Peel years. Lucarotti got back in contact with the Doctor Who team when Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks hired him to write two of the six episodes of their ill-fated series Moonbase 3. Unfortunately, Robert Holmes was not satisfied with the way this story was going, so he stepped in and rewrote the adventure from the ground up. This features the fabulous scene where the Doctor, alien but admiring, steps away from the ears of his companions and enjoys a nice monologue praising the human race.