Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Dr. Who and the Daleks (Flemyng 1965)

Is there such a thing as a “just war”? If so, who gets to decide what is or isn’t just? That is the central question at the heart of the original television serial “The Daleks”, the second ever story from the television series Doctor Who, back in 1963. Despite its original intended function to serve as both an adventure series and partial educational program, “The Daleks” radically altered the series by giving it not only its most famous foe in the Nazi inspired Daleks, which became an outright phenomenon, but also delved heavily into ethical debates and social commentary in a fairly mature and dark manner for what was intended as a children’s program. So naturally, in hopes of expanding the awareness of Doctor Who and the Daleks across outside of Britain, a film adaptation was done, in full colour and with a decent, though not large, budget. Thus, Dr. Who and the Daleks was born.

In the film, Dr. Who (Peter Cushing), a human inventor rather than alien Time Lord as in the series, is introduced by his eldest granddaughter Barbra (Jennie Lindin) to her boyfriend Ian (Roy Castle), a bumbling and accident prone young man. Dr. Who takes Ian and his granddaughters (including a young girl named Susan played by Roberta Tovey) to visit his latest invention, the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension Space), a space and time machine housed inside a British Police Box. Thanks to one of Ian’s accidents, the TARDIS lands on the planet Skaro, where a hateful species known as the Daleks have evolved into mutant creatures, housed in protective, tank-like armour, after the fallout of a massive nuclear war. Another group, known as the Thals, are committed pacifists and have found a drug to prevent the effects of the radiation poisoning. Running out of food, the Thals wish to make peaceful contact with the Daleks in hopes of helping one another. However, the Daleks seek not only the drug, but the extermination of the Thals entirely. Trapped on Skaro and in need of a vital component for the TARDIS, Dr. Who and his fellow travellers become involved in order to find a way to get home.

While the conflict that drives the story is one of war vs. pacifism, the main question raised and debated in the television version is if there ever is a right reason to go to war. The question comes to the forefront in the television version as the TARDIS crew debates asking the Thals to fight the Daleks: the Doctor (William Hartnell), seeking to recover a portion of his ship the Daleks have, believes they are fully within their right to ask the Thals to fight; Ian (William Russell), a school teacher and strong moralist, believes that they have no right to ask the Thals for help. Rather, the Thals have to come to fight for their own sake, rather than that of others. The debate is vital not only to the themes of the story, but crafts real characters out of the TARDIS crew as they face an ethical dilemma. Furthermore, when Ian puts a plan in action to try and convince the Thals to fight for their own good, the parallels in his plan to the Doctor’s own earlier manipulation of the TARDIS crew leave the viewer in conflict over whether Ian is right or not.

Such moral complexities and rich characterization are not to be found in Dr. Who and the Daleks, which simplifies the conflict down and transforms most of its characters into stock types. Rather, the film becomes an unquestioning salute to human (ie Western) values, as our characters sweep in and become a “guiding light” to the “poor Thals” who have taken pacifism too far. The film thus becomes oddly colonialist and paternalistic, reducing the Thals as a race and society while the film ironically tries to decry the Nazi-like racial hatred of the Daleks.

Central to this problem is the character of Dr. Who. While Cushing, ever the professional, delivers a solid performance and makes his character into a quirky and loveable grandfather figure, he cannot overcome the problem in the film handing over too much moral authority to the character. Not only does it dramatically hurt the film as there is no one for Dr. Who to talk to on the same level, but in transforming the character of the Doctor into a human rather than alien, he becomes an embodiment of Western values and ideals, a “proper” man to whose example should be followed. Ironically, this is the exact opposite problem the series tends to run into these days, where the Doctor is often transformed into some osrt of alien messiah.

The end result of these alterations makes Dr. Who and the Daleks a rather hollow experience, rather than the rich one the television version is. However, that isn’t to say that Dr. Who and the Daleks is entirely devoid of value. One of the flaws of the original story, the pacing, is dealt with, offering a far brisker telling of the tale that adds some life to the events. Furthermore, Dr. Who and the Daleks benefits from its larger budget. A colour production, the film gains a level of scope that was entirely unachievable on television, from the trek to the city through the wastelands of the planet, too even the Dalek’s city, which, while not the stuff of legends as far as production design goes, does manage to impress.

The film also does manage to have a few nice touches throughout, such as the opening scene of the film which introduces Dr. Who reading a comic book in contrast to the physics texts his granddaughters are reading. And while the score of the film will never be as iconic as the Doctor Who theme proper from the series, the music by Barry Gray and Malcolm Lockyer is a fun little jazz score which gives a little punch to the events of the film.

As it stands though, I have to make my recommendation the same as the last Doctor Who review I did, and state that the film will probably only be of interests to hardcore fans of the show as a historical oddity. Of course, the film was successful enough to spawn one sequel. Could it be any better? I wonder...

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