“No one’s going to turn me into an interplanetary puppet.”
When asked which actor to play the Doctor on Doctor Who is the most beloved, many fans like to say, “Your first Doctor is always your favorite.” What they mean by this is that you always look back fondly on the one who first introduced you to the show and its world, and you always compare others to that first one you saw. (There’s a metaphor for something else in this, isn’t there?) When I first started watching Doctor Who on those late-night PBS repeats so many years ago, it was the third Doctor, John Pertwee (Worzel Gummidge), who served as my gateway into all things Who. Now, the third Doctor’s first encounter with those pesky Daleks is now on a two-disc DVD.
On the verge of an international peace conference, a diplomat refuses to attend after fearing his house is haunted. The United Nations Intelligence Team (a.k.a. UNIT) calls on the Doctor, a time traveler, and his companion Jo (Katy Manning, The Quest) to investigate. These “ghosts” are actually other time travelers, wanted criminals from the distant future. Complicating matters is that this future has the planet Earth overrun by the Daleks, the deadliest creatures in the universe. Can the Doctor and Jo figure out who to trust before the Daleks launch a full-scale invasion from the future onto modern-day Earth?
Yes, there are invading Daleks, but for the most part this is a talky, cerebral adventure. It’s more interested in speaking about big issues and big ideas, rather than supplying big thrills or big chases. One of the episode’s best scenes has the Doctor and Jo sitting down for a discussion with Controller (Aubrey Woods, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), a human who has been working with the Daleks. The Doctor argues that he is fraternizing with an oppressive enemy, while the man argues that he’s actually advocating for other humans, trying to do some good for his people by working with the enemy. It’s a sci-fi spin on the war sympathizer thing that was prevalent in World War II and other conflicts and remains a “grey area” debate, and the episode does a great job of being fair to both sides, making for some genuine drama in between scenes of Daleks yammering on about exterminating this or that.
Because this is a grim, relatively grounded tale, Pertwee plays up the Doctor’s more serious nature and downplays the character’s quirkiness. He has this superior attitude throughout, dismissing both the military and the politicians for their lack of intelligence compared to his own. He even snaps at good ol’ Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney, Incendiary) for his gruff militaristic ways. Jo doesn’t do much except run around in a skirt far shorter than any worn by Amy Pond, but her presence gives the Doctor someone to be nice to. Without her in this episode, he’d be using his intellectual superiority to talk down to everyone. Nonetheless, he eventually saves the day thanks to his cleverness and his appealing the greater good in us lowly humans. Plus, go ahead and take a drink every time Pertwee calls someone “old chap.”
Fortunately, it’s not all tea-sipping drama. It had been years since the last time the Daleks appeared, so this serves as a nice reintroduction to them, establishing them as sinister and intimidating no matter how silly they might look. The finale features an exciting ten minutes or so of Daleks and UNIT troops shooting at each other, along with these cool Klingon-like aliens called Ogrons. This is also a rare Doctor Who tale that actually deals with time paradoxes caused by time travel. Time travel on the show is traditionally more “Check it out, we’re in ancient Rome,” as opposed to, “We can’t change anything or we’ll wreck the future.” Not in this case, as actions in the past/present timeline have consequences in the future timeline.
As always, the folks doing the restorations of these old episodes have done a bang-up job. The early ’70s shot-on-video picture has been cleaned up as much as it can be. The original mono is clean, with dialogue, sound effects, and the classic theme music coming through nicely.
Par for the course for Doctor Who on DVD, this two-disc set contains enough bonus features to fill the deserts of Skaro.
• Special Edition. Disc two comes with an alternate version of the episode, with brand new CGI special effects, and all the Dalek voices redubbed to sound like more like they do in the rest of the series. Whether this is needed is open for debate, seeing as how there’s not a lot of effects, and I didn’t think the Daleks sounded that bad. If you don’t like this tweaking, disc one has the original episode as it’s always been.
• Audio Commentary. Guest stars and crew members from the episode reunite for a chat track, looking back at it fondly, while poking some gentle fun at its cheesier aspects.
• “Blasting the Past.” This making-of episode goes over the production, emphasizing the work that went into the invasion scene in the episode’s finale.
• “A View From the Gallery.” The episode’s editor and “vision mixer” compare a modern-day BBC editing room to the one they used in the ’70s. At first they don’t know what to make of all the new tech, but once they get talking about editing in theory it’s clear that the knowledge is all there.
• Nationwide. This is a news report from around the time the episode aired about a group of English schoolkids who won a contest and had a Dalek visit their school. It’s a powerful, almost scary illustration of how the show impacted young people back in the day.
• Blue Peter. The English children’s variety show Blue Peter has done a number of Doctor Who-themed segments and skits. This one focuses on the Daleks.
• The Making of Day of the Daleks Special Edition. A look at the hows and whys of changing and updating the episode for this DVD.
• Now and Then. A look at the filming locations today, compared to how they appeared in the episode.
• The UNIT Family, Part Two. A look at the actors who played UNIT characters throughout the third Doctor’s era. This is my favorite extra on the set, which has a lot of great stories and facts about the series. Part one of this doc was on a previously-released DVD.
• The UNIT Dating Conundrum. When did these UNIT episodes take place? In the present, or the distant future? That’s the problem the show’s writers and producers address in this featurette, as different years mentioned in different episodes contradict themselves.
• The Cheating Memory. To further make their case for making a special edition, the producers have included this interview with a psychology expert who discusses why movies and shows we loved as kids don’t look as great when we’re older.
• Also included are a text commentary, a photo gallery, and PDF materials.
Doctor Who: Day of the Daleks is a low-key story that builds to a big ending. It might be different for those who are used to the fast-paced thrills of the new episodes, but if you have an open mind, you can enjoy it for some old-school sci-fi.