Written by Terry Nation.
Planet of the Daleks is Nation and Doctor Who collaborating their spirits to create exactly what they both want: a great adventure serial. Initially, the BBC wanted to repeat the previous success of twelve-part serial The Daleks’ Master Plan (also by Nation), but ultimately, it became the second half of two continuous serials, following Frontier in Space.
So strangely, for the Pertwee era – which recorded each serial as self-contained productions – Planet of the Daleks begins in a pre-set situation. Personally, this worked well for me because it was a nice change to the standard formula of the Doctor reacting to something else; this time, he had his own business to be getting on with.
In the aftermath of what came before, the TARDIS lands on Skaro. And for reason, companion Grant decides to go out. Despite the Doctor entering a coma on a console-side bed with a fever and the scanner screen showing the environment as clearly dangerous.
Nation has a very unique writing style. By far, his episodes have built more tension than any other writer’s, but that tension is only revealed through action figure plots, whereby characters are placed in situations for no real reason other than to show the audience what’s happening. And it’s not as if this is a single fourty-five minute episode of today – he had two-and-a-half hours to tell this story, but he still resorts to writing characters as props. They blunder into exposition opportunities due to their own stupidity, when Nation could quite easily give them a reason to do it. But instead, Grant decides to go into the clearly dangerous jungle for no other reason than to go into the clearly dangerous jungle.
Which is one of the problems in Planet of the Daleks. Every character is either passive – only taking action in response to something else – or stupid. And that’s a real shame, because some of the characters in this serial have moments where they really get a chance to exist independently of the narrative’s requirement of them to do so; Wester and Rebec’s complicated working relationship, Latep’s attitude toward Grant herself – even the Third Doctor’s written pretty consistently to his other episodes. These things all come up, but only in moments. A character will say something, and it will be to give them depth, but it will never be mentioned again, and have no impact on that character. Things are brought-up and then forgotten about. The characters work when they’re given space, but they’re being given space because for some reason, none of that happens as a result of the narrative itself.
But that narrative’s good, even if it is a recycling of other things from previous Dalek serials, all written by Nation. It’s almost a complete retelling of The Daleks, despite being a sequel. In that sense, it’s more of the same – or in this case, exactly the same.
And yet… I really like it.
Planet of the Daleks is the kind of serial that appeals for a reason that manages to disguise itself. Part of that’s because there are enough things carried over from the general period that work: Jon Pertwee, Katy Manning, the distracting-if-canonically-interesting presence of Bernard Horsfall and, of course, David Maloney’s directing. The cliffhangers are top class, as well, even if the solutions to most of them involve pretending they never happened.
The Daleks themselves – I shouldn’t like them here. All they do is respond to what other characters are doing. And it’s all very well pushing them into a pool of “molten ice”(?), but it should take much more than just the water’s edge to put them out of action.
No. The reason I love Planet of the Daleks is because of the mythology. From the beginning, mythology is a large part of this serial. There’s the obvious connection of the Doctor’s previous visit to Skaro making him something of a messiah to the Thals, but it’s the Dalek culture as well that’s built-up. We learn so much about them, like the way sub-zero temperatures can affect them, and the distress signal released when their casings are interfered-with. That’s great stuff right there – Nation’s clearly thinking about his creation on that sort of level, but it’s obvious that he wants more from them. But he just doesn’t try hard enough. For starters, there’s the question of just how much he contributed to the Dalek mythology – many things originated in TV21’s Dalek comic strip, which were written by David Whitaker. And there’s the annoying tendency he has to write the same thing every time just to keep the Daleks on television. The reason Genesis of the Daleks happened is because the Script Editor suggested a Dalek origin story, rather than a remake of The Daleks again. Even Death to the Daleks featured the Doctor helping a group of survivors rebel against them in a primitive environment. It’s strange that it was The Daleks’ Master Plan that inspired a continuous run of twelve episodes given that’s also about a jungle full of Daleks and a desperate attempt to defeat them.
But here, we do get at least something beneath the surface. The Dalek hierarchy is expanded, even if the Dalek Supreme’s eyestalk light is ridiculous, given that it would surely impair its vision whenever it speaks? But one thing Nation did do in Planet of the Daleks was to build a layer of tension. So even though it didn’t hit the fences it wanted to, it aimed high and its freefall was all the better for it.