Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Doctor Who #8: The Ambush

"Pacifism only works when everybody feels the same."TECHNICAL SPECS: The episode is on disc 2 of The Beginning DVD boxed set as part 4 of The Daleks. First aired Jan.11 1964.

IN THIS ONE... The cast escape the Daleks and a couple of Thals get massacred. But the survivors just won't fight back!

REVIEW: What is perhaps most impressive about this episode is director Christopher Barry's ability to create special effects with what we would today call rudimentary techniques. Our DVD-extra-guzzling, behind-the-scenes-savvy minds may well divine how they were done, but they are still tremendously effective. Like the use of split screen to create a rising or falling lift (combined with neat model effects) or a bubbling wall shot by a Dalek narrowly missing Ian. The Daleks cut through a metal door, then make a Dalek shell crumble and fall apart with their extermination blasts, all done practically. And the Daleks are particularly balletic as they back into dark alcoves, lying in wait for the Thals. The massacre, though slight (only two Thals are reportedly killed), is excitingly staged, with tense music, shots of eager gun turrets and a breathless Ian running through the city. You wouldn't think the black and white era would give you such eye candy, but there it is. (I'm less enthusiastic about the props, like the styrofoam sculpture, tins of food, or decidedly retro Thal archives, but we can't have everything).

There is some fun to be had with the whole escape attempt too. Susan gets to do some quick, improvisational thinking and shades of her Unearthly self, smiles and giggles through the dangerous parts of the adventure. When Ian gets trapped inside the Dalek shell, it's supposed to make you think of the the old trope (was it already old then?) of splitting up the party, but he confounds expectation by escaping off-screen. It's a well-executed piece of false jeopardy. And then he DOES split off from the group to warn the Thals of danger, but still rejoins his team before the end of the episode. The moral divide between the Doctor and his companions, as seen in the previous story, is still a source of conflict. The Doctor just wants to leave, but the others feel the need to help those who helped them. And yet, because the Daleks take the fluid link from Ian, the TARDIS crew's fates become linked to the Thals. A simple reversal of the story's set-up.

What mystifies me about this episode (and story) is Terry Nation's message. On the one hand, it's an obvious cautionary tale about war - atomic war in particular - and how it might lead to mutual annihilation (or at least, mutual mutation). But at the same time, he makes the protagonists and audience identification figures Ian and Barbara try to convince the Thals that pacifism is stupid. So which is it? In the hands of another writer, this would be irony. In Nation's, I'm just not sure. It does make sense for the two teachers to advocate standing up for oneself, even if it comes to violence. If they're in their 30s in 1963, then surely they lived through the London blitz. They have a post-war attitude and grew up on Chruchill's speeches and their parents' stiff English upper lip. Barbara will prove to be correct about Thal instincts vs. culture, and with the peaceable-to-a-fault Temmosus dead and the more balanced character of Alydon in charge, the teachers may have a shot at convincing the tribe.

THEORIES: The Thal history is suspect. Those reels have half a million years of history on them, and pictures of Thals with swords and armor. And they call the Daleks' ancestors Dals, rather than Kaleds. None of this really concords with Genesis of the Daleks. But my take is that the Doctor's looked at the first couple chapters when the Kaleds WERE called Dals (after all, I'm from French descent, but I could just as easily say Gaul). Apparently, their war started in their Antiquity. Nation's notion that mutation comes in cycles from humanoid to horrible mutant back to humanoid (and in only a few hundred years) is risible, of course, though Skarosian life may be particularly mutable, perhaps thanks to weaponized mutagens spread through the atmosphere by people like Davros.

REWATCHABILITY: High - Though the writer's message is on shaky ground, The Daleks continues to be an exciting serial. Worth it just to see how effects could be achieved with little equipment and no (or few) cuts.


LiamKav said...

"Shall I help you to the vault level with them?" has to be one of the least Dalek lines of dialogue ever. They'll be offering cups of tea next.

Siskoid said...

I think there are contenders in The Chase with the "special needs" Dalek. Stay tuned!

Siskoid said...

And of course, they DO offer cups of tea in Victory of the Daleks ;-).

LiamKav said...

That was my poor attempt at humour. Stupid internet.

I thought this episode might have the first Doctor Who/Terry Nation glitch of getting solar systems and galaxies confused, but they just avoid it, probably more through luck than judgement.

I'm surprised by how long ago the 60s was, where we expected female characters to start skrieking until a man shook them and told them to calm down, and for the girls to come out with lines like "he's right, we'd just slow [the men] down."

The pan over the characters at the end, resting on the Doctor turning round to look at the city with grim resolve is properly dramatic.

Siskoid said...

Well, it was the 60s on Earth, but who knows WHAT Thal mores are like.