Planet of the Daleks

Written by:
Terry Nation
Directed by: David Baloney
Starring: Jon Pertwee
Year: 1973
Video Availability (NTSC Version): Try Amazon

"I'm liable to sleep for quite some time. Now if anything happens, anything at all..."

After seeing Planet of the Daleks again I now realise that my negative reaction against the story was completely misinformed, and it is actually one of the most entertaining in the Who pantheon.

Yeah, right! When it comes to the worst Dalek story ever made, then there's a chance that the messy, plasticcy, continuity-crammed shoot-'em-up that poor old Peter had to make the best of gets the honours. Yet Planet of the Daleks easily contests the title.

The story takes up where Frontier In Space left off, with Jon superbly playing an exhausted, wearied Doctor on the verge of a coma. Unfortunately, this "in a coma" acting is the same acting Jon uses for all six episodes. This is the nadir of the representation of the Third Doctor, both in performance and characterisation. Not only is Jon clearly not interested but the Doctor is suddenly a preaching old granny, eager for his next soap box sermon. People - Pertwee fans, mainly - forgive this lapse in his "acting", yet why should we forgive it? Okay, I was a little tired this Monday and didn't give 100% at work - but I work in an office, and there's not 9 - 10 million people watching me go about my job. Never mind that Jon wasn't interested in the story or the Daleks - it was his JOB. It's what he was PAID to do, by our license money.

What do I hate so much about Planet of the Daleks? Um, well, pretty much everything. One thing that Doctor Who has always had trouble with is creating a convincing alien jungle on screen. Despite fans who see even his farts as a paean to high literary culture, Philip Hinchcliffe DIDN'T succeed with that rubbery monstrosity in Planet of Evil. Ironically, it's one of the producers most slated for his production values - Graham Williams with the Elstree film shoots in Creature From The Pit - that made it work. But it's not just the fact that it's bits of cardboard and polystyrene in a BBC studio next door to the place where they empty the bins that bothers me. What really irritates me is the stock "jungle noises" (TM) soundtrack. I've already moaned about this on my Meglos review, but I honestly believe that if many Doctor Who fans actually went to the tropical rain forests of Borneo they wouldn't believe it was a real jungle. Then - suddenly! - they'd hear a noise. "Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr" And then they'd hear it again. Every three bloody minutes, cos it's on a mind-numbing loop tape, repetitively playing out.

We're less than 90 seconds in and already the Tardis comes fully fitted with the stock of an MFI furniture warehouse sale. Next, the Tardis has an "automatic oxygen supply" which can run out (!) and Jo is relating the plot to viewers on an old cassette tape. Oh, and I said Pertwee's coma acting was superb earlier just to set up my feeble gag. In reality, of course, it's complete shit. Yet the Doctor is ill - seriously ill. So ill in fact that they've started to put him in a packing crate by putting polystyrene on his face. The observant might note that that's the second time I've mentioned "polystyrene" in this review. Is that my fault, or that of the story? Anyway, Jo's so concerned over the Doctor the silly cow even has time to change her outfit.

Interesting bits? Well, there is a vague psychosexual subtext to proceedings, with those plants thinking they're Hannibal Lector's next door neighbour. And there's also an extremely gratuitous shot of what we can only politely call Jo's "private area". I won't go into details, but let's just say that this was shot before David Beckham was famous. Unfortunately, Terry Nation's writing hasn't progressed at all. I don't mean it hasn't progressed since he last wrote for the series - I mean it hasn't progressed from the 1920s. Get this, thirteen years before someone would claim being pulverised into fragments was murder in their book: "I'm qualified in space medicine." Now, apart from the aforementioned fragmentation, is that the stupidest line in Who history or what? "I'm qualified in space medicine." Terry Nation was a hack writer, who clearly didn't feel comfortable with the science fiction medium. Yes, okay, Blake's 7 could be brilliant, but that's largely due to the script editing of Chris Boucher and the playing of the leads. Even in that series we got a "space drill". Because SF, to Terry, means putting the word "space" in front of everything to make it seem authentic. Can you imagine Terry Nation if he ever went to space? "Quick, I've got toothache - send for someone who's qualified in space dentistry. I'll sit in his space waiting room until he arrives." Presumably when Terry needs to relieve himself, he has a space poo on his space toilet*. Which, by a curious twist of circular logic, brings us right back to his script again - it's utter shite.
* Okay, I borrowed the gag from my review of Countdown on my Blake site. If Uncle Tel can recycle, then so can I.

This is only the first episode, and already there's plenty to slag off. Did I mention the invisible aliens, always a stock staple of SF crappery? Or Jon changing his costume, despite being critically ill and in grave danger? Many fans also like to moan about the "cliffhanger", given that A. Jon knew the Daleks were on the planet, as he'd gone there specifically to look for them, and B. The title is something of a giveaway. Yet to me this is excusable - after all, he knew the Daleks would be there, but he didn't know they'd be invisible now, did he? That said, this is still a criminally flat sequence. One of my ten favourite bits of Doctor Who has to be when The Mighty Trout first meets the Dalek in episode two of Evil. Just look at his face! Better than the ending of The Long Good Friday, TMT allows a myriad of emotions to play over his visage, taking his acting into thespic hyperdrive, warp factor ten! Compare and contrast this with Pertwee, who looks on flatulently, and boredly mutters "Daleksssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss!" Please don't tell me you need me to explain the difference.

One of the nastiest pieces of space garbage in the ninth system!

The Doctor finishes off his spray job, with not an inch of the Dalek remaining invisible. Though as he also seems to have forgotten he was out of breath the last time then maybe some hours have elapsed.

Doctor Who just doesn't have the resources for this sort of space epic guff. Jo's supposed to be in an alien spacecraft, but it's just a cardboard portacabin. Yet what really grates is Terry Nation's awful, awful dialogue, coupled with David Maloney's lifeless direction. Each confrontation between the Thals is stagily set up, with one to the side like a theatre production, delivering the latest bout of exposition with pained disinterest.

One plus about this story is that the Daleks do at least look and sound like Daleks again. Well, sort of. You might remember that the last time they actually sounded right was 1967. Since then the modulation hasn't been set right, sounding far too human (Day of the Daleks/Frontier In Space). Yet here they do at least come over as Daleks, albeit ones with high voices - a development that was then copied for all Dalek stories after this date. I dunno why, but I prefer the deeper ones myself. Though as the invisible Spirodons talk like Zippy from Rainbow then they're the least of our worries.

I know I've already said it, but the jungle on this one is so uniformly poor, and never convinces, not even for a second. The amount of acting the story requires of its performers is also remarkable. Like a improv session, they have to pretend to be assaulted by invisible assailants, and wrestle on the floor with a bit of old pipe, imagining it's a flesh-eating tentacle. Meanwhile, Jon thinks Jo has been extermined by the Daleks and mourns "Jo!" with all the pain and anguish of a man who's been told his milk bill is overdue. Adding to this misery is a Dalek that can't even look in the right direction and smashes its head into a lift wall.

There's an excruciating speech on bravery from Jon in this episode, which, to his credit, he (allegedly) ad-libbed an apologetic "Well, after that little tutorial on courage..." line. I really can't understand David Maloney though. Sometimes he's capable of brilliant direction (The Mind Robber, The War Games, The Deadly Assassin) yet here he's so poor you could call him Morris Barry and no one'd bat an eyelid.

A camera shakes while leaves are blown across the screen to indicate a ship landing. Jo has a conversation with a CSOed bowl, during which she cues the exposition with such subtleties as "tell me more about your planet". Jon plans to pervert the lexography. And he would be "better off dead". Worst of all, not only is this story crap, but it's boring crap too.

The final minute introduces Rebec, a character Nation named after his daughter Rebecca. You can just see her disappointment, can't you? "Daddy, couldn't you have named a better character after me? Robert Holmes's daughter had a better character written for her." I wonder if all the writers's kids went to the same school? Jenny Lucarotti, the schoolyard bully? "Look out, here comes Sally Boucher, she's a psycho!" Whatever would have happened, one thing's for certain - Terry Nation's the one getting his head flushed down the toilet, or getting his tie "sprogged". "Somewhere on this planet there are ten thousand Daleks." Yeah, right.

The one that the BBC burnt. Fortunately (?) they had a black and white copy, and it probably looks better, even if it loses a dimension somehow. This is because the Pertwee era truly embraced the concept of "colour", and maybe none more so than this. Why have a jungle when you can have a bright purple jungle?

Here we learn a new wonder of the universe - molten ice! Presumably this is right up there with hot snow, dry rain and dark sunlight. "Yes, but why's it important to us?" That's right, love, you keep the plot points coming. What makes Planet of the Daleks the worst Pertwee Dalek tale is that not only is it insufferable crap but it's also boring insufferable crap. Day and Death To often don't seem as bad simply by virtue of the fact that they're two episodes shorter. Though having said that, Day, as tepid as it is, is leagues ahead of this rot.

The Thals never have characters that rise above stock formula, and they're never more than one-dimensional plot fillers. Consequently, you never care what happens to them, you never care what the relationship between Rebec and Horsfall is... you just never care. It's no big secret that Planet of the Daleks is Nation's first script for the series mildly rewritten, of course. Some suggest that it's not important, but to me representing a story that was (apparently) state-of-the-art in 1964 nearly a decade later is an extremely notable point. The basic concept, the "perils of Pauline" narrative construction, the corridors and jungle chases... they're all stuff that was hugely outdated, even then.

The Doctor claims that he abhors violence in this one, which is an outrageously hypocritical thing to say, particularly from the third Doctor. Not only that, but, beginning mid-story as it were, there's no sign of the charm that we associate with the series. It all feels strangely hollow, like you're watching another programme, though again Jon's patent lack of involvement does distance you considerably. He and Jo remain separated at this point, both having to perform opposite acting zeroes in order to engender any form of interest. They don't succeed.

"I wish you'd tell us what the point of all this is, Doctor." If you actually pay close attention to this episode you'll realise that, in terms of genuine plot advancement, this is precisely what happens: bugger all.

It's ironic that, with the possible exception of Ben Aaronovitch, the worst writer of the Daleks was their creator. Erased from the series are the Whittaker tacticians, and in their place are catchphrase-spouting mock Nazis. "I obey!" "They are to be exterminated!" "The Daleks are never defeated!" What tedious, uninspired dialogue they have. Plus, it's pretty hard to take them seriously when their heads are wobbling all over the place every time they move.

Anyway, we continue with Uncle Tel's Wacky World of Science, where Jon and the Thals rise up to the surface using hot air! What an amazing life Terry Nation must have led, eh? Every time he had a bath and pulled the plug out, the water would have ran out upwards, and boiling water would have seen his kettle float in the air.

Meanwhile, before you can say "this is the biggest pile of anal pig slop I've ever had the misfortune to witness" Jo's hit on the back of the head with a (polystyrene) rock about the same size as her head. Now, okay, you can make jokes about "she had no brain to damage", etc., etc., but when it comes down to it it's really quite ludicrous to assume she could wake up less than two minutes later with not so much as a headache. Did I say ludicrous? I meant pathetic.

Jon teases the viewers by nearly putting his head in a noose, while a Dalek on a hoverboard tails it after him. Did I say hoverboard? I meant to say you can clearly see the rope on its head yanking it up. Actually, to be fair once the Dalek is in the shaft the effect is actually quite decent, so fair credit there.

Over halfway into the story and the Doctor and Jo are reunited, Jo wittering on senselessly in a way that's supposed to be as cute and endearing as a kitten. Yeah, right - a kitten you want to tie in a sack and sling in the canal. It's this patronising, cod-charming cobblers that made up much of Pertwee's Who, and should have alienated the patronised audience - why weren't TV sets being kicked in as a matter of course in the early 70s? Meanwhile, Bernard Horsall tells Rebec he loves her with all the passion of a bag of sugar.

Some say that Tel was so embittered over the fact that David Whittaker whupped his ass in no uncertain terms that he tried for total one-upmanship. So we get "the mightiest army of Daleks there's ever been" and a Supreme Council of Daleks instead of an Emperor. Fair play to him, though - it must have been hard to bury his pride after America had told him to piss off.

Jon gives a morale-boosting lecture to Bernard Horsfall. Things must be bad if you need a pep talk from Jon. Can you imagine if he did it professionally? "This is the Sssssssamaritansssssssssss, you're better than a macccccccchine, you know." I've slated so much, yet I haven't even got the bit where Jo tells Latep of "an old Earth custom" known as a handshake, and Tel thinks "If you don't, I won't hesitate to kill you" is a new and exciting line. Have I even begun to mention that the "monsters in the distance" are just a bunch of indicator lights? Risible pap.

What really galls about Planet of the Daleks is not just the way it's so fake-looking it borders on surrealism and insults the viewers, but the way in which its target age has been lowered. None of season ten, Jon's shallowest season, is exactly mature, but The Green Death offers at least something for an adult demographic. This is pure kindergarten cack all the way through, a playground plop-plop of all that is impure and unholy.

We learn at the start of this one, in very subtle exposition (I'm being sarcastic, do you see?) that the Daleks have their own low-temperature storage system. This is strange, because later in the same episode we're told that "the Daleks are vulnerable to extremely low temperatures". Oh well, I'm sure Tel must have known what he was doing - he was the creator of the Daleks after all, the man who wrote that seminal tome "The Doctor Who and the Daleks Book". Almost as annoying as the jungle sound effects are the "Dalek machine hum" clack of the Dalek city. Though why Prentis Hancock didn't get a special Academy Award for his work here is beyond me.

One thing I find hard to do in stories like this (largely because I'm asleep when watching them) is seeing the whole narrative. Terry effectively blinds you with (crap) science, because I strongly suspect that the entire story is made up of escape and capture, and is hugely padded. That's a plus, actually, because it never comes over as a padding, it comes over as a cavalcade of ineptitude. There's a difference. Also a plus is the location filming, which suddenly makes it all so much more realistic - why didn't they just shoot the whole thing there? If they'd done that and got a more interested script editor then this could have been almost average. Oh, and a more interested director, a better cast, a bigger effects budget, a...
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One thing that really disappoints with the Daleks from the 70s onwards is the abandoning of their flexible iris. A small point, but one that added so, so much. Yet here we are again, with the Doctor sneaking back into the very same city he's just spent a good two episodes trying to escape from.

Again the production of Barry Letts has to be taken to task. Doctor Who has never - or rarely - looked like it had the budget it actually required, and so this is largely an academic point. Yet Frontier In Space containing two sequences of horrendous wire work is unforgivable, even in Doctor Who. And, so, we come to the Chief Dalek. There's no subtle way to put this - he's got a torch for a frickin' eye! I mean, is that the stupidest thing in the whole series or what??? It even flashes on and off when he speaks!!! You can just picture it, can't you? "What are your next orders, leader?" "Oooh, hang on a minute, lads, I've been talking too much and I've given myself a migraine with all the flashing lights." The guy's got his own roller disco going on in there. Almost a forerunner to the Special Weapons Dalek, he was brought to life when the other Daleks went down into a really dark cellar and couldn't see anything. "Quick, send for the Chief Dalek - he's got a torch for a frickin' eye!" Presumably, other monster creations were planned along similar lines - a Yeti with a concertino for a mouth, so that it could play a tune whenever it spoke. Or a Sea Devil with an egg whisk for a leg, so that it could whip up an omelette between takes. I mean - a torch for a frickin' eye! What happened when its batteries ran out?

We see the 10,000 strong army of Daleks and, surprisingly, they're a bunch of Rolykins models. For some odd reason when Jon goes in with them we only see six of them. Jo has a brief flirtation with Latep because Nation thinks that a love interest is a standard requirement in his check-list formula. When he tells the Doctor he's asked her to come back to Skaro with him he can't even remember the name of his planet. Chemistry between them? Zero. It's so easy just to read off the names of the Thals - Horsfall, How, Preece, Tucker, Hancock - and say they're all utter crap. Great fun, too. But surely the fact that not one of them gives a decent performance must be the fault of the director? And I won't include a PMS rating for this story, because amazingly Jon only does it once here. Though that's because his performance has sunk to such great depths that he can't even be bothered to do that, Planet being the ultimate phone-in.

I've gone six episodes and I've not even found time to slag off Dudley Simpson's music. Judging by the Pertwee years, I'd suggest his miss to hit ratio is something like 9 to 1. "The Daleks are never defeated." "Home it isss, Missssss Grant." "Don't make war sound like an exciting and thrilling game." Just f*** off!

I'm uncertain as to which is the worst Pertwee story - this or The Three Doctors. Even though Planet consistently scores lower on an episode-by-episode basis, I think it manages to scrape above last place by virtue of the fact that it doesn't disappoint. Only the most blinkered would expect something special from a Dalek story written by Terry Nation and not heavily script-edited - whereas the sight of all three original Doctors together should have led to an instant classic. Planet is garbage, but not unexpectedly so. One of the real low points in the first twenty years of Who's history.
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