Return to the Planet of the Daleks
Planet of the Daleks by J.R. Southall
The Planet of the Daleks has been following me around. Not literally, I don’t mean. But somehow, all my Doctor Who life, this story has been haunting me.
It’s the first story I remember. The third Doctor and Sarah Jane being chased by an enormous black-and-gold Dalek through the jungles of a weird alien planet, while thousands of normal Daleks were taking a bath inside a giant mountain. Sarah Jane was the first companion I could recall, and my young mind transplanted Lis Sladen’s character into all the previous stories I had memories of; it was also she who was being stalked by giant maggots while talking on the telephone to Doctor Who, who was in the next room, at the end of that episode of The Green Death.
A few years later, I discovered the Target books. Unbelievably exciting to be standing in the bookshop with these rows of Doctor Who books all staring back at me. I was only allowed just one, so I randomly chose the Dalek story with the most exciting cover illustration, the most alien planet, a familiar Doctor. Which just happened to be Planet of the Daleks; it wasn’t till I read it that I found out the story I remembered from before was the same one.
A long time after that, I found out that our local “cult TV” shop sold pirated Doctor Who videotapes under the counter. You can guess which story I was most eager to see. It cost me £6, and the price of a blank cassette. And then my parents told me one day (this being after I was old enough to have left home) that one of the channels on their satellite receiver was broadcasting old Doctor Who stories in the early mornings at weekends, and offered to record one for me. I ferried them a blank tape and asked them to record whatever it was that was on next: no prizes for guessing. Planet of the Daleks.
I can’t make any claims for its greatness. It is, in truth, quite a dull story, and very cheap-looking too (although the director, the under-rated genius David Maloney, manages to get the most out of what little he has to work with). The eventual DVD release managed to elevate interest in the story far beyond its fan-perceived status by converting the black-and-white third episode (the BBC had contrived to lose their colour copy many years ago) into full colour; had this not happened, the release of the DVD would have been a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it affair (although it probably also helped that the far superior Frontier in Space was also included, as part of a two-story boxed set).
But somehow, Planet of the Daleks has always known how to find me, and because of that, it will always retain a special place in my affections.
(The text above is from the version of this essay that had been written for Contact Has Been Made; however, a longer version of this essay had also been written for the first You and Who book, and that version is included below. Somehow, this essay does not seem to want to find its way into print...)
My own journey with the Doctor began sometime in the early 1970s. I can’t say exactly when – I have vague recollections of monsters rising out of the sea, and possibly even of killer policemen – but my first really clear memory is of the last few minutes of Planet of the Daleks in 1973.
John Nathan Turner was often quoted for his claim that, “The memory cheats,” (usually by people who disagreed with him, oddly enough), but it’s true: the memory does cheat. For I can quite clearly recall that magnificent black and gold Dalek Supreme, flanked by a phalanx of steel-grey drone Daleks, rising up from the watery depths of the cavern repository and emerging into the sunlight, following the Doctor and Sarah Jane down a mighty ramp and into the living jungle below. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched that episode in the years since its first transmission (although you’re about to get an idea ...), but those memories are as clear as day to me still.
John Nathan Turner, eh?
After that, I never missed a single episode (not until 1986, at least). Saturday afternoons became a magical time; my younger brother and I would tear around the Sheffield streets where we lived, eager and anticipatory, until around four o’clock when Mr Tiggy the ice cream man would turn up. Thereafter it was but a short wait until hot sausage sandwiches and a visit from Doctor Tom.
Magical times, and indelible memories, from animated Mummies crashing through the gardens of a period country mansion, disembodied hands that twitched and crawled of their own accord, giant maggots that crept up on poor old Sarah Jane (yet again!) as she chatted with a friend on the ’phone, and enormous spiders that jumped through the air and attached themselves to poor Sarah’s back. Throughout all of this, the Daleks were always Doctor Who’s scariest and most exciting enemy, never more so than when they had that half man-half Dalek creature in tow.
The difference between an avid viewer and a fan, is in how you experience the series. I can date the change in my own circumstance to the spring of 1977.
I’d been an avid reader from an early age, but somehow the fact that there was a whole series of books based upon my favourite television series, had escaped me until I was eight years old. We were visiting family friends in Torquay, and I found myself in the children’s’ books section of the local John Menzies branch (a sort of pseudo-WH Smiths, if you didn’t know) when I happened upon an entire shelf of Target paperbacks. It was like waking up.
I only had enough pocket money on me for the one book. It was a hard choice, but the criteria were a Doctor I could remember (which ruled out that stern-looking white-haired chap), Outer Space (which ruled out most of the beaky-nosed fellow’s adventures) and the Daleks – which ruled in only one novelisation: Planet of the Daleks (Death to the Daleks didn’t appear in paperback until the following summer).
Planet of the Daleks had pretty much the most exciting cover illustration anyway (although Death to the Daleks gazumped it the following year). And imagine my surprise, when I got to Chapter 12 (“The Last Gamble”!) and suddenly began to recognise what I was reading!
The Target books were awesome, and I devoured them over and over again – sometimes two in a day, at the weekends.
It was around the late ’70s that I started to notice the production values over and above the production itself. Again, it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact moment this occurred, but certainly by the time of Scaroth of the Jagaroth and the less-than-mighty Mandrels, I was taking more notice of the shoddy sets and less-than perfectly pitched performances than I was of the stories they were telling. Season 18 was a real eye-opener; far from being the glossy reinvention it so obviously strived to be, it was merely Doctor Who looking slightly more glossy but with all the fun removed. I didn’t quite lose faith (and I still watched absolutely religiously), but for every time the series seemed to be getting back on track (Full Circle Part One, Earthshock, The Caves of Androzani), there’d be something like Full Circle Parts Two to Four, Time-Flight or The Twin Dilemma along a week later, to spoil things.
I had a love-hate relationship with Doctor Who for the entire decade (I had a similar relationship with The Smiths). But when it disappeared in 1989, I found I didn’t miss it quite as crushingly as I would have, had it disappeared for good ten years earlier.
But that’s when BBC Video began to get into their stride, and so instead of staring at stories like Delta and the Bannermen, Attack of the Cybermen and Kinda through narrowed eyes and interlaced fingers, I was enjoying watching and rewatching classics like Terror of the Zygons and Spearhead from Space. (These days, of course, I’d just as happily chuck on a disc of Delta and the Bannermen as I would The Brain of Morbius – well, nearly as happily – but I was twenty when that story was broadcast, and it was a shock to the system.) Pirate videos were also something of a fashion in those days, and Planet of the Daleks was – but of course – the first one I splashed my cash on. The quality was so poor, it was several years further down the line that I discovered the third episode was black and white intentionally.
Later, when UK Gold began broadcasting, I was living by myself and had no access to satellite TV. I managed to persuade my parents to get up at six on just the one Sunday morning in order to record Doctor Who for me, though (bless them, but the ability to actually set the VCR wasn’t amongst their achievements), and duly got a copy of Planet that was 83% properly in colour.
Doctor Who and I fell out during the 1990s, though. With the BBC video releases becoming less and less interesting (I had no inclination to buy rather expensive copies of stories that I hadn’t kept on video back when I’d first recorded them off the telly), and with no new TV output to talk about, the monthly magazine even lost its appeal and I lapsed my buying of it. The TV Movie – while a pleasant diversion and worthy of a second, although not a third, viewing – failed to reignite the passion. And by the turn of the millennium I’d almost – but not quite – driven it entirely from my mind.
That’s when the BBC released The Robots of Death on DVD (I had to wait another nine years for Planet of the Daleks). Again, the “vanilla” (and rather poorly packaged) release of The Five Doctors the previous year, had singularly failed to turn my head. But The Robots of Death had been one of those stories I’d most often slipped from its VHS box and into the video player. (Curiously, as an eight-year-old, those Robots hadn’t excited me at all. Not the case these days!)
It was the commentary that did it. Watching the story was a nostalgic enough experience, but listening to Philip Hinchcliffe and Chris Boucher talking in a relaxed manner about their time on the show (and through headphones as well, which put me right there in the recording booth alongside them) brought back to me just how special Doctor Who had been in my childhood. I dug out my old video cassettes and within a month or so, had rewatched the lot. I was sold, again.
From that point onwards, the New Series seemed like manifest destiny, and the announcement was less a surprise than a relief. The fact that Russell T Davies and company managed to evoke the spirit of the series’ great ’70s heyday, while also channelling the spirit of adventure that thrived during the ’60s and late ’80s, was nothing short of miraculous – and the success of modern Who (a success that only served to replicate its core appeal as a mainstream programme, rather than a niche show for fans of cult TV) has been – well, fantastic.
And now, every Saturday night at 6pm or 7pm, or every time I get a package from Character Options or Play.com, I’m eight years old all over again. What a wonderful time we live in! And how lucky are those of us who’ve now lived through times like these not once but twice.
And how brilliant to be putting together a book full of such wonderful stories.