Written by Louis Marks
Directed by Paul Bernard
Despite the brilliant turn by Roger Delgado as the Master, the eighth season was something of a step backwards, in my opinion. The stories were less substantial overall, with far too many instances of scattershot twists and turns that made little sense in retrospect. I also found it difficult to warm up to Jo Grant, who is certainly pretty enough, but somewhat vapid as a character. Perhaps ironically, many consider the eighth season to be classic Jon Pertree material, which just goes to show that my contrary nature remains intact.
Delving into the beginning of the midpoint of the Third Doctor era, I had heard the ominous warnings: it doesn’t get better. So I was a bit surprised to find that “Day of the Daleks” was actually not that bad. Much of this education into the early days of Who has revealed some of the inspiration for iconic films of my childhood, and this is no exception. It’s impossible to watch this and not think of “The Terminator”.
The reason is obvious: this short but sweet story is centered on a time paradox. About 200 years in the future, the rising Dalek Empire has used the chaotic aftermath of a post-WW3 period as a convenient time to invade Earth, this time to strip it of resources. The majority of the human population is forced into manual labor, while a select few live as servants to the Daleks’ will. Knowing that the Daleks have constructed a time machine, a handful of desperate freedom fighters steal it and travel back in time to kill the man apparently responsible for sparking WW3 in the first place.
Two things came to mind while watching this serial. First, that modern audiences have seen enough time travel paradox films that the idea is far more mundane than it would have been in the early 1970s. Second, this story aired during the heyday of the Cold War, when the idea of a peace conference going wrong and setting off WW3 was more than an intellectual exercise; it was a stark possibility. Both of these factors play to the story’s favor, because it explains why it would have been seen as a novel commentary on contemporary events.
Critics are quick to say that the Daleks, having been out of the picture for years at that point, were unnecessary to the story. In a sense, this is true. But I think that it raises the stakes, and much of the complaint is the poor manner in which they were used in the climax. It also shows a change in their tactics. The Daleks employ a species of thugs, the Ogrons, as minions to enforce their control. It provides a layer between them and those they enslave, which is historically a common tactic for population control.
Some of my favorite scenes come in the middle of this story, when the Controller manipulates Jo. Other stories highlight her naivety in a way that patronizes her, but in this situation, it is used more effectively. Jo has no reason to question what the Controller tells her, and it sets up a nice bit of conflict with the Doctor, whose attitude (while justified) seems out of place. What I got from those scenes is something quite unexpected: in a way, the Controller here is more effective as a manipulative villain than the Master was in half the serials in season eight.
All that said, there are some obvious flaws. At one point, the Doctor shoots one of the Ogrons with a raygun, despite having no way of knowing if it’s remotely justified. Needless to say, it’s jarring and out of character. Also, the chase and combat sequences are very poorly directed and staged. At one point, the actors playing the Ogrons are all but running in place to make sure they don’t catch up with the Doctor, who is driving the slowest ATV in history.
This is one of those occasions where I find that the merits of the story far outweigh any issues with production. In fact, if it wasn’t for the poor direction in the action sequences, this would have rated higher. It’s another Third Doctor serial that I think, with a bit of updating, would have left “Victory of the Daleks” in the dust as a solid entry in the NuWho era. All in all, a fine start to the ninth season!
Final Rating: 7/10