You know how it is. You wake up one day, and you just have an overwhelming need to spend some time with the most stylish of Doctors? Pertwee was my first Doctor (back when the BBC was showing choice extracts from the series on BBC2) and I’ve always had a soft spot for his series, and I hadn’t seen Day of the Daleks for at least 10 years.
I came back to Day of the Daleks vaguely remembering that it wasn’t supposed to be very good: that it was supposed to feel like an awkward mash up of a solid political thriller and a Dalek story. And I’m not overly keen on Daleks for the sake of Daleks…. so I expected to be frustrated, bored and disappointed.
Spoiler: I was not.
Let’s start with the Doctor. Pertwee here is at is most arrogant and elitist…, and I know many people have a problem with him for that reason. But I cannot help but love it. This Doctor enjoys the finer things in life: good food, good wine and company, and he’s not afraid to say that. He also luxuriates in the company he keeps or as kept, in the knowledge he has (always superior to yours) and his own moral standpoint which has the benefit of ultimate hindsight. This is a Doctor who oozes extreme privilege – the embodiment of the British upper classes, but more so – because he’s a Time Lord so, as far as he’s concerned, he outranks everyone.
And this forms part of the what the story explores: rank and privilege. In that these episode, the Doctor helps himself to all the luxuries Sir Reginald Styles has at his disposal, and has a fine evening tasting cheese and wine. Meanwhile, poor Sergeant Benton is on night patrol, without a bite to eat. And then, when Jo takes pity on him and grabs him some food, Captain Mike Yates pulls rank and steals his food.
But the reading goes further, because as the Brigadier very forcibly tells the Doctor right at the start of the episode, most of the inhabitants of the Earth don’t have the luxury of ignoring the major political events taking place – whilst the Doctor happily tinkers away in his laboratory, the world is moving closer to the next World War.
Later, both the rebels and the human coordinator pull that same card: you can’t sit there and judge us for our actions, for our desperate need to survive no matter what – you didn’t live through it: the hundred years of war, the famine, the impossibility of fending off the Daleks. Your moral compass is a product of your privileged position.
And yet, of course, the Doctor, with all that privileged objectivity, is proved right…. And I am not entirely sure what that says.
The other thing that really plays very strongly with this story is the tension and sense of urgency: its very clear there in the war room whilst the Brig juggles several phones and really has no time for the further revelation that the Doctor and Jo have gone missing. And this story uses one of the those techniques that is used so often in the modern series – the TV broadcast, which brings it all so close to home.
Of course, one of the key parts of the tension of this story is it non-specific ‘near future’ setting. That feeling that the Cold War really could escalate given just a few more years and that things really could seriously reach disaster feels so very real, and I don’t really feel loses any of its poignancy in its 21st century viewing (after all, it is clearly established in the story that this is the history in which things go wrong). But, equally, in that very urgency is that delightful sense of hope and possibility – that things may well work out through human ingenuity and diplomacy. It ends well and without the Doctor’s help (he merely stops the Daleks from messing it up).
The future we see in this story is bleak, but feels possible. Work camps, and a ruthless dictatorship, and for all the Doctor praises the work of the guerrilla fighters, they are a desperate bunch with little chance of succeeding against the soulless might of the Empire. The Controller in many ways is a cliche – a heartless bureaucrat ‘just doing orders’ to keep his own people in check. But that, as the Doctor later states, is precisely the point – faced with the awesome power of the dictatorship, there will always be people like the Controller willing to sacrifice their integrity under the entirely pragmatic justification of survival. I like the fact that the story makes it clear that, unlike the Controller, he is not ‘evil’, and gives him a chance to redeem himself.
One thing that I found really interesting here is the violence (and some of the violence is made even more horrific by some of the new effects put on the story in the remastered version). The third Doctor has always been capable of defending himself – he is the ‘action Doctor’ – but I was still taken aback when he not only picks up a gun, but actually kills an Ogron with it. Although, the fact that killing the Ogron didn’t seem to break any moral codes here does perhaps make an uncomfortable speciesist statement (he doesn’t class the Ogrons as any more than dogs either — after all, he was adamant that the rebels not kill the controller). But, that aside, there is still a fair amount of violence both on screen and off. There’s a beautiful scene with the Doctor under questioning, clearly having received some quite brutal physical torture, and Pertwee delivering a beautiful but of stoical hardiness. Okay, it was playing up the ‘stiff upper lip British’ thing a little, and it’s a little macho, but I think we can forgive that. Pertwee is very pretty when repressing pain.
All in all, I think this is a very solid story and it sets up season 9 with skill. The time travel/changing history element both creates a nice way to extend the Dalek’s power and machinations, and provides a useful way to extend the storytelling without giving up on the ‘exile’ storyline. Excellent stuff!