Planet of the Daleks bursts on to your screen in a barrage of green, purple and sandy yellow. This is a story set on a jungle planet, so the green is given. The purple comes from the Doctor (the Pert at the height of his powers) dressed head to toe a kind of grape Austin Powers outfit, and from the native Spiridons, who wear bolts of purple fake fur around their otherwise invisible frames. That sandy yellow is from a squadron of Thals; the colour of their hair and of their bulky Michelin man style spacesuits. It’s a garish combination.
The overall effect is that each episode is a televisual assault on the eyes. Luckily the gun metal grey Daleks provide some chromatic relief, at least until their big badass gold and black Supreme turns up. He’s an escapee from the 1960s Dalek movies. Can you imagine if the production team had taken more of his multicoloured ilk? All the colours of a Skarosian rainbow.
So it’s a colourful story, but also a cramped one. I don’t know if the studios were particularly small or the sets particularly bulky or that the necessity for the Daleks to have thoroughfares of clear floor meant that no one had much room to move. But so much of the action takes place very close to the cameras, with the jungle being a sort of impenetrable border leaving not much space for the actors to work in. It reaches a peak in a scene in Episode Five where Thals Taron (Bernard Horsfall) and Codal (Tim Preece) mug a Spiridon for his fetching purple furs. It’s shot so close that it looks ridiculous. Actors struggling to swing clubs, manoeuver those shag pile furs and ski jacket spacesuits and stay in shot. The things you do for your art.
All this makes Planet of the Daleks a difficult story to look at. But as an adventure story, it lays on action in spades. Writer Terry Nation, returning to the series after eight years, doesn’t let the pace falter; it’s incident after incident. An attack, then a rescue, then a plan, then a stunt, then a dispute… You get the idea. It’s not always particularly interesting incident, but Nation’s skill was always in the broad brush strokes of plotting, not the close detail of dialogue and character. That’s not to damn him with faint praise. Shrewd plotting which gives a story momentum is incredibly hard and Nation makes it look easy.
It’s often said that this is a retread of Nation’s very first Dalek story. But the similarities are actually pretty superficial. There’s a Dalek city for example, and a Thal-led expedition to infiltrate it. And a few set pieces are the same, such as the use of a Dalek casing as a disguise. Otherwise quite distinctly different things happen in them.
And their key messages are different. The initial Dalek story said that there is a point where even peace loving people have to stand up to an aggressor (an allegory, it seems, for Britain’s decision to join WW2). Planet of the Daleks seems simply to say, war is hell. The Doctor’s advice to Taron at the story’s end, to be careful not to glamourise war, may well be cloyingly moralistic, but it shows a significant shift in Nation’s position. Influenced, perhaps, by nightly TV news images of jungle warfare in Vietnam.
If Planet of the Daleks is a reheating of old Nation classics, I think it’s of his favourite elements of the last Who story he wrote, The Daleks’ Master Plan. That also had humanoid heroes on a secret mission to a jungle planet, a planet where the hostile vegetable life acted more like animal life, a Dalek stronghold, invisible aliens and a plan on a grand scale. But unlike that story, in which the Doctor was front and centre, here he shares the focus with the blond wigged Thals, and specifically their tall rugged front man, Taron.
Taron is more than your average guest character, he’s a genuine challenge to the Doctor’s status as leading man. He gets as much screen time as the Doctor, and he holds many scenes exploring plot points which directly impact his character, but not the story, like his reproaching of Rebec for turning up and turning his head, and the ongoing power struggle with second in command Vaber (an twitchy Prentice Hancock). When the action reaches the Plain of Stones, Taron takes charge when mutinous Vaber goes to blow up some Daleks (he helpfully leaves a note stating his intention):
TARON: Codal, will you come with me? Doctor, would you stay here?
DOCTOR: If that’s what you want.
“If that’s what you want”? That’s not the gung-ho Pert we’ve grown to know and (mostly) love. It’s odd to see the program try to balance two action hero leads. But it’s no contest really: Taron’s the military hero, the Doctor’s his scientific adviser and defers to Taron’s authority. The Doctor comes up with all the ingenious schemes, Taron’s the muscle. It is as if Nation is still writing for Hartnell’s Doctor, who was always accompanied by a young male companion to do the athletic stuff.
So it’s a story written like it’s still the sixties but filmed in all the vibrant hues of the seventies. But if that doesn’t float your boat, it also has Jo Grant hanging out with an invisible alien. This is Wester, the friendly Spiridon with a name like an accountant. How does she keep track of him? Well luckily he’s in the habit of carrying around random objects. A bowl. A stick. And so on.
That’s not when he’s wearing his purple yak outfit. Then he just looks like any other Spiridon. But there must be something distinctive about the way that fur clings to his frame, because when the Doctor sees him from across a Dalek filled room in Episode Five, he spots him immediately. “That’s Wester!”, he exclaims. Ha! (Or should I say ‘Hai!’). Recognise an invisible alien just by the way a day-glo rug hangs off him? Like to see you try that, Taron.
LINKS to The Time Monster. Well, they’re both six part Pertwee stories featuring a returning villain. Seeming a bit less random isn’t it? Still, after 12 Pertwee episodes in a row, I’m looking forward to something different.
NEXT TIME… Good grief! It’s Day of the Daleks.