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9x01. Day of the Daleks
Writer: Louis Marks
Director: Paul Bernard
Script Editor: Terrance Dicks
Producer: Barry Letts

Synopsis: The Doctor and UNIT look into an assassination attempt against Sir Reginald Styles, a British diplomat who may be the key to crucial international peace talks. He discovers that the attempt was the doing of a guerilla faction from 22nd-century Earth, where the Daleks have taken control of the planet. Drawn into the 22nd century himself, he and Jo must outmaneuver the Daleks and their alien Ogron servants while preventing the time paradox that will lead to Styles' death.

Review: It took them four tries, but the Doctor Who team have finally produced a first-rate four-episode Jon Pertwee serial. "Day of the Daleks" works as a fast-paced Dalek yarn that keeps the viewer involved on a basic "what's going to happen next?" level, and as an intelligent examination of how the ravages of war drive people to extremes.

It helps that the three main recurring protagonists -- the Doctor, Jo, and the Brigadier -- are all handled well by writer Louis Marks. Too often in Season 8, the Doctor's irritation with his exile on Earth had been portrayed in a manner that frankly made him rather unpleasant, but in this serial he seems much more at ease with Jo and the UNIT personnel, limiting himself to just a couple of snide comments toward the Brigadier. Jo, meanwhile, shows that she can be just as fearless as anyone else when it's necessary, staring down the guerillas by threatening to destroy their time machine and later helping the Doctor knock out an Ogron guard when the two of them are being held prisoner. The Brigadier doesn't have a lot of screen time, but the fact that he's involved in a deadly serious effort to stop World War III and his decisive style at the end when the Doctor warns him to evacuate Styles' house remind us that he's still a smart military professional and a valuable ally for the Doctor. Benton and Yates aren't treated quite so charitably, with Yates pulling rank on Benton as an excuse to have a snack and the two of them somehow failing to check the basement when they're looking for the Doctor and Jo in Styles' house, but at least they're both cool under fire when the Daleks and Ogrons attack at the end.

"Day of the Daleks" is also a very entertaining serial in terms of basic plot mechanics. Though a fair amount of it involves the familiar "capture and escape" formula, the reasons for the numerous captures and escapes are varied and complex enough that this isn't really a problem. Between the timeline-hopping and the guerillas' unexplained motivations, the Doctor doesn't get the whole picture until close to the end, and thus both he and the audience are kept guessing as to what the various characters are going to do and why. This is also one of the few serials to make time travel itself a crucial element of the plot rather than just a device to bring the Doctor into the story. The explosion that will kill Styles and all the conference delegates if the Doctor doesn't stop it is the result of a temporal paradox: the bomb set by one of the guerillas so as to assassinate Styles (whom they believe caused the explosion himself to sabotage the conference) is, in fact, the one that will cause the deaths that they are trying to prevent. The paradox itself isn't really the point of the story, but Marks' script is at least aware of the intellectual quandaries posed by time travel. In addition to the paradox, there's an amusing gag near the beginning when the Doctor literally has a conversation with himself as a result of another failed attempt to repair the TARDIS, and there's also a rather wry scene when Jo asks why, if the guerillas fail in their first assassination attempt, they won't just travel back to a day earlier and try again. The Doctor responds that the "Blimovitch Limitation Effect" would prevent it, and he is then conveniently interrupted before he can explain what that is.

The most interesting character in "Day of the Daleks" is the Controller, who at first seems like a simple villain who has risen to power as the Daleks' toadie but who turns out to have more depth than that. The planet has been under Dalek control ever since the Daleks took advantage of a human race divided and weakened by war to launch an invasion, and the Controller comes from a family that has worked under the Daleks for three generations. As he sees it, he has actually saved lives by working as an intermediary and gaining concessions from the Daleks, especially since, as the Doctor himself points out, there will always be someone to play his role. This isn't to say that he hasn't done terrible things -- he's capable of objecting to Dalek orders one minute, then issuing them to a subordinate with cold indifference the next -- but at least he does object, and he also treats Jo with kindness and, most importantly, eventually sacrifices his own life to save the Doctor when he realizes that perhaps something can be done to stop the Daleks after all. The Doctor's words that the Daleks will always find someone prove gruesomely prophetic when his own would-be torturer (who was restrained by the Controller) becomes their new lackey following the Controller's death, demonstrating that, whatever the Controller's flaws, he might well have been the best alternative under the circumstances.

The guerillas who travel to the 20th century to assassinate Styles represent the other side of this equation: basically good people who have been pushed to the limit by their circumstances. Anat, the leader of the group, decides to spare the Doctor and Jo by declaring that they are "soldiers, not murderers" when her subordinate Boaz simply wants to kill them. While Boaz is a little more trigger-happy and admittedly driven by fear, he does show a willingness to follow his own words ("What do two lives matter when so much is at stake?") to their logical conclusion, killing himself to blow up a Dalek when the guerillas attack the Dalek facility in the 22nd century. Unfortunately, the guerillas also represent the main weak point of the plot. Not only is their information so slight that they think the Doctor is Styles when they first arrive at the mansion, but their version of history which pegs Styles as a traitor is completely wrong and illogical on its face. (Why would a diplomat choose to ignite World War III by blowing himself up along with an entire group of delegates? I mean, why not just sabotage the conference by deliberately inflaming everyone?) It's certainly conceivable that desperate people might fixate on an illogical and unfounded hatred of a single individual believed responsible for all their misfortunes, but unfortunately I don't think that's the point. The Doctor himself says that he hoped to be mistaken for Styles by staying overnight in his mansion, and this without any knowledge of who was behind the assassination attempts and the quality of their intelligence, indicating (to me, at least) that this is just flimsy logic.

The return of the Daleks in this serial is one of those "events" that is less momentous for latter-day Doctor Who fans such as myself than it was for viewers at the time, in that they'd been absent from the show for the previous four seasons. The Daleks are still a topic of debate among fans: some think they deserve their trademark villain status, while others see them as a childish concept or at least contend that they eventually got too campy. Myself, I tend to think they work pretty well when they symbolize something, whether it's Nazi racial ideology ("The Daleks") or fascist dehumanization in general ("The Dalek Invasion of Earth"), but not so much when they're just bumbling villains who can't shut up ("The Chase"). Fortunately, "Day of the Daleks" falls under the former category. The fascist imagery is present again, in that they've turned the entire planet into a sort of slave-labor factory, but what I find most interesting is their overconfidence and refusal to listen to the Controller's suggestions. Maybe I'm unduly influenced by contemporary events, but I can't help but see this as representing the tone-deafness of an occupation force that doesn't understand the culture or the capabilities of the people under their control. (Before anyone sends me an angry e-mail, I'm not saying that the American administration or the soldiers in Iraq are Daleks. I'm saying their leadership suffers from a similar problem, even if their intentions are better.)

Though it's not quite flawless, "Day of the Daleks" represents an example of Doctor Who working at all levels. It's a smart examination of what war can do to people, a creative story that makes clever use of time travel, and a fast-moving, entertaining adventure.

Other notes:

- It's interesting that, despite the UNIT era's setting in what was then the near-future, the flashpoints in this brewing international crisis seem to be Russia, China, South Asia, and South America, with no mention of Western Europe or the United States. Whatever this is, it doesn't seem to break down along Cold War lines.

- I must admit that I'm not particularly amused by the Doctor apparently being on such good terms with Napoleon as to call him "Bony" -- the guy was a megalomaniac opportunist who killed an awful lot of people.

Rating: ***1/2 (out of four)

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