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Friday, November 26, 2010

Dr. Who and the Daleks

The "small screen"' once again provided material for the "big screen". Dr. Who and the Daleks (DWD) was a feature film recreation of a series of Dr. Who episodes airing in late 1963 and early 1964. The film brought the British Dr. Who phenomenon to America, though without the pre-existing viewer fan base. Peter Cushing has marquee power.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. Who and his two granddaughters, Susan (10) and Barbara (20-something), are visited by Barbara's boyfriend Ian. While the Doctor is showing Ian his time travel device, Tardis, Ian accidentally pushes the lever. They arrive on a dark and desolate planet with a petrified forest and ashy soil. They see a distant city and are startled a few times and find a box of drugs outside the Tardis. Everyone wants to leave, but the Doctor. The Tardis fails to leave because, the Doctor says, it's "fluid link" has leaked. They need more mercury. So, they go to explore the city in search of mercury. The city (a maze of corridors and small rooms with sliding doors) is the home of the Daleks -- small mutants who must live inside their tank-like robo-suits because of the radiation on the planet. Dr. Who and the others are getting weak from radiation poisoning. The Daleks agree to let young Susan fetch some drugs from the Tardis, thinking the drugs will help them be free of the robo-suits. While out, Susan meets Alydon, one of the Thal -- humanoid inhabitants of the planet. He gives her more drug, knowing the Daleks will take the first box for themselves. She returns. The drugs make everyone feel better. The drug has no such effect on Daleks. So, they plan to exterminate the Thal by luring them into the city with a promise of food. The Doctor and others, escape from their cell by capturing a Dalek. They thwart the Dalek trap just in time and flee with the Thal. The Daleks then plan to kill all the Thal by exploding a neutronic bomb, adding to the planet's radiation levels. The Thals are encouraged to fight and mount a two-pronged attack on the city. The frontal assault only gets the Doctor and Susan captured. The infiltration by a couple Thal, Ian and Barbara succeeds. They manage to get to the control room just in time. They start a melee in which the Daleks mostly blast each other in "friendly fire", but also blast their control panel. Power cut, the Daleks all go dark and the countdown stops at 3 seconds. The Thal are happy and wave goodbye. The Tardis does not go back to London as planned, but lands amid a Roman infantry charge. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
As an introduction to Dr. Who, DWD gets a couple of major tropes in play fairly quickly. Cushing is good. The Daleks are amusing as mechanical baddies.

Cold War Angle
There are several of these. First, is the customary prophetic warning. There was a massive war on the planet which rendered it nearly lifeless. Second was the caricature of earthly "hawks" in the Dalek's obsession with wiping out their enemies with yet larger bombs. Third, is the more subtle thread of the Thal as caricature of earthly "peaceniks" and pacifists who, ironically, are goaded into becoming fighters. A subtle message there. The Cold War world was no place for flaccid pacifism.

As Seen on TV -- The plot line of DWD follows fairly closely the collective plot of the seven television episodes of Dr. Who aired on the BBC between December 21, 1963 and February 1, 1964. In many cases, the movie matches the teleplay scene for scene. Susan finds the flower. Barbara smears food glop on the Dalek's "eye", leaping the chasm, etc. etc. Fans who had watch the TV show two years earlier would recognize DWD as a bigger-budget remake. It was not a new story.

Deviations -- For Dr. Who purists, some of the deviations in DWD might make it hard to warm up to. For one, Peter Cushion plays the Doctor as a sort of genial absent-minded professor. Television's William Hartnell played the Doctor as more gruff and devious. The Doctor in the TV series was understood to be a time traveler from somewhere else. In DWD, Cushion's Dr. Who is implied to be an earthling inventor. In the television series, Ian Chesteron is the brave hero type, often saving someone. In DWD, Roy Castle's Ian is spun as more of a comic relief bumbler. Barbara in DWD has less depth, serving more as the damsel in distress (with very tall 60s hair). Susan is played by a much younger actress (10 instead of 18), but this actually works better in DWD than in the series. A huge difference, too, is that DWD is shot in widescreen Technicolor. The series was shot in black and white.

Daleks as NeoNazis -- The Daleks proved to be very popular with British audiences. They made many appearances in the run of the television series and were even good for another feature film. Why so popular? In the British cultural pantheon of archetypes, the Daleks play out as classic Nazis in robotic form. They hate anything that isn't their kind. They obsess over "exterminating" anyone that's not one of them. They are cold, remorseless and bent on world domination. If, instead of robotic pepper shaker outfits, the Daleks were shown as people costumed in black uniforms with swastika arm bands, and wearing tall boots, but acted exactly the same fway, viewers would easily accept them as "typical" Nazis. In this, the Daleks make "good" archetypal ├╝ber villains. Cultural pantheons need classic villains.

Bottom line? DWD will have more appeal to Dr. Who fans than to someone who had never seen the series. The story is complete enough in itself, but can drag at times. DWD may be worth watching for the Daleks alone. They have a sequel coming, after all. (Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150)

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