Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Review: The Evil of the Daleks

Every month until December, Mars Hill will be doing a review of one story from Doctor Who from each of the Doctors' televised adventures. This month Tim Roll-Pickering picks The Evil of the Daleks from the Patrick Troughton era!

It all starts with a mystery involving a police box. Two familiar figures make their way through London until they come to a location dedicated to old items. There a mysterious man activates a time machine and they are all thrust back in time...

Whilst in the past our heroes struggle for freedom and there's a dramatic fight. Then they all travel again to the planet Skaro, home of the Daleks. There's a journey through caves, a location where an ally plummets to his death, and a dramatic showdown in the Dalek control room. As our heroes depart, it seems to be the final end of the Daleks. And throughout it all the Doctor's actions are repeatedly suspect, resulting in him being strongly confronted by a fellow traveller.

And in the original outline there was going to be a sequence involving a visit to prehistoric times where they would encounter a cave man...

The Evil of the Daleks is the first great homage in Doctor Who's history. Written by the show's original story editor David Whitaker (a man whose contribution to the show's development and success is all too often overlooked), it harks back to themes from the very first two stories, and also draws upon ideas from the Dalek comic strip Whitaker wrote for TV Century 21 (not only the idea of Daleks infected with human traits but also the Emperor, who was transferred to a large static casing in one of the various Dalek books). The timing for such a homage was also good.

A huge amount of attention and debate is focused on the Hiatuses/Cancellations of 1985 & 1989. Slightly less is given to the show's position in 1970 with a make-or-break last chance season (to the point it's sometimes mistakenly assumed the show nearly disappeared in 1969). Very little attention is given to the precarious position the show was in in 1966 when ratings plummeted and it briefly went out of production without the next season having been commissioned. Then the role of the Doctor was recast, with the character steadily refined in response to initial hostile public reaction, and the series revitalised into ever more sci-fi territory. Having weathered the storm, the summer of 1967 was the perfect time for the series to celebrate its roots and offer up a final dose of the Daleks before Terry Nation took them off in search of their own series.

Whitaker had not only been the story editor who oversaw both the launch of the series and the introduction of the Daleks, but had also handled much of the Dalek spin-off material of the mid 1960s, writing novelisations, comic strips, annuals and even a play. His understanding of the series's premier monsters was arguably even stronger than their own creator's, and he was perfectly placed to write a tale that literally delves into just what makes the Daleks operate the way they do. The actual science involved may be as fanciful as alchemy, but the result is amazing as the Doctor faces the prospect of the human race being transformed into humanoid Daleks. And then he succumbs himself...

Or not. For the Doctor is in fact operating with subterfuge and mystery, manipulating and tricking others. Nowadays this approach is associated with Sylvester McCoy's incarnation, but uncertainties about the Doctor go right back to the start. The Doctor may appear an annoying clown at times but behind the facade is a cunning mind working to outthink his foes. Patrick Trough had been playing the Doctor for less than a year at this stage but he had clearly nailed the part (once some of the excesses of the first few stories had been reign in) and successfully manages to portray the ever contradictory elements of this incarnation. Even Jamie is fooled at times, which allows him to be manipulated, and the result is a fierce confrontation between the two, made all the stronger for the hurt between friends and the usually good rapport between Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines. The Doctor doesn't get much time in the story with new companion Victoria - indeed they don't even meet until the final episode - but she and Jamie hit it off well and it points to a strong team for the coming season.

With the story set in three separate locations there's a lot of characters floating about, but wisely several are transported between locations providing continuity and characterisation. Easily the standouts are John Bailey as Edward Waterfield, a man betrayed by his friends and forced into a nightmare for the sake of his daughter, but he shows remorse and finds redemption first in confronting the human villain and later when he gives his life to save the Doctor. Marius Goring was a sign that the series could attract big name actors even in 1967, and brings the mad scientist Theodore Maxtible vividly to life as a man driven in the pursuit of his goals, with the revelation that they are not solely to expand knowledge. The other characters largely serve to witness and endure the mystery and horror around them. The settings also work well, with a return to Earth's own history for the middle part of the story as we arrive in a country house in Victorian times, a setting that may now seem obvious but one which the classic series rarely came to.

It's the concepts that make the story stand out the most, primarily the basic idea of the "Human Factor" and the "Dalek Factor". By exploring just what it is that makes the two races so different, and exploring the consequences when Daleks are humanised and humans are Dalekised, we get perhaps the most in-depth study of the nature of the Daleks and a tale that couldn't have had any other monster substituted. For a story that was intended to be the final Dalek tale in the series, it's fitting that we get a showdown on Skaro and get to see the Daleks' ultimate leader as civil war and destruction engulfs the Dalek race.

The Evil of the Daleks was the very first Doctor Who story to get a full repeat the following summer and it truly deserved this accolade. Even the 1970s wipings couldn't completely suppress the tale with the second episode having subsequently been found. In 1992 it was one of the first missing stories to be released on audio and I found that release a delight. It's since appeared again with new narration hence the two cover images. And elements of the story continue to recur in the new series, most obviously humanised Daleks with names and the towering Emperor. The story is truly one of the all time greats of Doctor Who.

No comments: