Planet of the Daleks
Tony Fyler goes Dalek-hunting.
There are writers who, when you turn to their Doctor Who work, have a series of ‘tells,’ marks that the work belongs to them. The six episodes before Planet of the Daleks, by Malcolm Hulke, had described the arc of a tense, slightly terse and sweaty political thriller, with a key theme that things that looked like monsters did not necessarily behave like monsters, and things that were human were not necessarily magnanimous good guys – a theme familiar from his script for The Silurians.
Planet of the Daleks, the second six episodes of what was at least in theory a continuing story, was put into the hands of Terry Nation, the Daleks’ storytelling Davros, and from the moment you understand that, you can pretty much play Nation Bingo with the story. You’re going to get a story with a good bit of faffing about in a jungle, some creepy plants, some equally creepy Somethings following the companion, who turn out not to be creepy after all, some Thal good guys, and the Daleks up to something horrible and nefarious. In essence, it’s the same plot as The Dead Planet. Change jungles to quarries and lose the Thals and you can pick up the idea in Death To The Daleks. Take it on a little further and it’s not a million miles from Genesis of the Daleks – Nation was something of what could be called a plot ecologist, in that he believed in recycling as much as possible.
What’s interesting is that if you ask most people who haven’t seen it recently, they’d naturally assume that Planet of the Daleks was a reasonably straightforward four-parter. It feels linear enough to be that short (short in Jon Pertwee terms, in any case), and the main highlights make for a great four-parter. The fact that it’s actually a six-parter means there’s plenty of time for faffing about in jungles, creepy plants, equally creepy Somethings following the companion, Thal good guys and the Daleks doing something horrible and nefarious. If that sounds flippant, it’s missed its mark – if you’re ever forced to wonder what it is about Jo Grant that makes her such a key companion, there are a number of stories and scenes out there to remind you. Take a chunk of The Daemons where she offers her life in place of the Doctor’s. Throw in a little Curse of Peladon where she talks to King Peladon and helps Alpha Centauri. Maybe, just maybe, a smidgen of The Three Doctors – ‘and we are all together, goo goo ca choo?’ – but for sustained, relatively grown-up Jo bravery and heroism, you’re looking at Episode 1 of Planet of the Daleks. Her Doctor in a kind of coma, she goes outside onto a strange planet in search of anyone that could help him, narrating into the log all the way, noting only helpful, effective things that might be of some use when the log is played back. Jo might have been originally forced on the Doctor as a kind of glorified tea-girl, but by the time she gets to Planet of the Daleks, she’s grown very much into her role as citizen of a wider universe, and a wider struggle of good versus evil, and she knows how to be useful and effective without losing her head.
The Thals too are pretty effective in this story – a long way on from the original bunch of pacifists the First Doctor met, they’re still good citizens of the universe, and this time out they’re played by a handful of actors that include some Who stalwarts, such as Bernard ‘I’m a Time Lord, ask me how’ Horsfall, and Prentis ‘Where’ve I seen him before’ Hancock, so they deliver the drama and the character conflict required to keep the story moving at a good pace, even when they’re actually delivering chunks of exposition or traipsing through the jungle (yes, there’s quite a lot of that).
Besides a powerhouse performance from Katy Manning in her penultimate story as Jo, and some solid ‘good Thal’ action to push the story along, Jon Pertwee is on better form here than in the previous story – he takes more active control of the situation as soon as he’s up and about, and he’s both interrogator and adventurer, trying to find out exactly what’s going on on Spiridon, the ‘nastiest pile of garbage in the ninth system.’
The Daleks in Planet of the Daleks are delivered in a classically escalating way – they’re first revealed by spray can (yes, really – you’ve kind of got to see that one to believe it), and there’s a moment when that happens where your heart sinks, and you think maybe this is going to actually be Embarrassment of the Daleks. But no. From that unpromising beginning, they quickly start trundling through the jungle, destroying the Thal spaceship, and generally behaving in their usual bully-boy way - but all that is a mere whetting of the appetite for later scenes in which whole armies of deep-frozen Daleks are seen on screen. Yyyyyes, technically in retrospect they look like toys shot from a distance, but in their day, those scenes would have been the stuff of playground games for weeks on end.
In fact, despite all the other great things in the story – Jo and the Third Doctor both on top form, the return of the Thals in a way we hadn’t really seen them since that first Dalek story, invisible creepy-things which turn out to be helpful local slaves, the Spiridons, a more-than-usually well-rendered indoor jungle, Dudley Simpson’s nerve-jangling music, and the Doctor’s brief tutorial on the nature of courage and his further warning about not glamourizing the business of war, this really is the Planet of the DALEKS – it’s their finest, fullest Pertwee hour – in Day, they’re all good and fine, but they’re used relatively sparingly because there weren’t that many of them about. In Death, while it was a fascinating concept to see them without firepower, and how they adapt to that situation, they look a bit silly being beaten to death by mud-coloured Exxilons.
But in Planet of the Daleks, they are everywhere when they get going – screens full of them, planning, gliding, doing complicated things, flying up shafts on anti-grav discs (take that, Remembrance of the Daleks!), and of course, filling the screen en masse in all their terrifying, army of ultimate destruction potential.
It’s weird to think of Frontier In Space and Planet of the Daleks as actually having anything to do with each other: the tone is so massively different, the Doctor’s energy level is different – restrained in Frontier, active in Planet – and perhaps most bizarrely of all, there’s little mention of the events of Frontier in Planet of the Daleks once the Doctor recovers from the head wound he got at the end of the previous story; it’s all about the here and the now. But that’s probably just as well because with armies of deep-frozen Daleks at the heart of Spiridon, it pretty much needs to be a self-contained story. The varieties of Dalek action here make it beyond all question the Dalekfest fans had been waiting for since Evil of the Daleks in the Troughton era, and despite the wonder that would be Genesis, it would be a long wait before the screen was ever quite so full of the pepperpots of doom again, and longer still – arguably until the end of 2005! - before there were so many of them being used to such good effect.
Jo Grant at her finest, a cast of Thals being brave and noble, creepy plants, invisible allies, a top-form Pertwee performance, barreling the action along and giving at least two of his Doctor’s best vignettes, plus more Daleks than your eyeballs know what to do with. That’s why Planet of the Daleks is a story to go back and revisit today.