Doctor Who: Day of the Daleks (s09e01, pts. 1 – 4)

4 out of 5

Directed by: Paul Bernard

From the pool of now classic Doctor Who villains we’ve seen across the first few doctors’ seasons, I have beef with, like, all of them. I don’t even understand the Cybermen – slow, shambling zombies – but at least they’re humanoid and thus can wield weapons and overpower someone, especially when functioning en masse. The Master is definitely a good foil for The Doctor, but the Pertwee years basically used him as the reveal behind every single episode, so he started to become a Scooby Doo baddie. The worst of this lot, though: The Daleks. They’re the ED-209’s of the DWverse: fun design, some explodey weapons, but, like… stairs! Again, you get some advantage by having a whole mess of ’em, but their robo-voice and need to navigate really… carefully… just make them feel like dunderheads in most cases.

Some of the reviews for the season 9 opener, Day of the Daleks, criticize the serial for having the enemy stuffed in there (and indeed, it was an after-the-fact mandate to bring a later episode’s appearance up and mash it into this one), as well as the budget limitations making it too obvious that the Daleks’ “invading force” was only three of the things, but I actually think both of those elements work in the episodes favor. While it’s true that the shape of this would’ve been different without the Daleks, and so it’s hard to know what that shape would’ve been, the Ogrons – the other aliens appearing here, as a slave work force for the Daleks – are not compelling enough on their own to have carried the villain role, and the timey-wimey stuff makes more sense with the idiotic Daleks leading the charge, since their fussiness is responsible for their downfall. As to the budget bit, this is affected similarly: I kind of liked thinking that the Daleks are so full of themselves that they figure all it would take is three of ’em to conquer Earth. Granted, both of these reads of the show are contingent upon you, like me, assuming that the Daleks are dummies, but dot dot dot open to interpretation, and my interpretation allowed me to have a great time with this.

So Doc and Jo are fiddling around with the TARDIS, and the sleight of hand on this is impressive: the TARDIS now works, but Doc wants to make sure it works without the Time Lords’ oversight, which is a wonderful bit of direct linking to the last season – something the show is getting better and better about at this point. He pushes a button or another, and suddenly the two are looking at time-displaced dupes of themselves – which ends up totally being a lark, but it’s a good setup for the time travel that will be the focus of the serial. To wit: freedom fighters from the future arrive in our present day, and attack an important political delegate whom UNIT has been tasked to protect. Also along on the ride are what we later learn are Ogrons – tall, massive, Klingon-lookin’ dudes, at odds with the freedom fighters. Jo and Doc, investigating this whole biz, get to jump back and forth in time to the future, to understand the fighters’ cause, and what their mission in the relative past was about.

The gist of which will be easy to guess, as it’s the premise of like 50% of time-travel stories, but that’s where brevity is a gift: working in 4 parts, Louis Marks’ script doesn’t have to pad this out and waste time with misunderstandings or over-explanations. Everyone pretty much gets it once it’s stated a single time, and even the disagreement between the freedom fighters and the Doc – they assume he’s against them – isn’t padding; it’s more tactically sound on the fighters’ behalf. Plus, between season 8 and this premiere, it seems like the producers have decided to allow females to be competent (gasp!), with Jo playing on equal footing to the Doc, and the fighters led by a woman. …Yeah, she gets overruled by some other soldiers, but ultimately, her tactics ended up being correct. Maybe this relative equality will only last for this episode, but I’ll take it – none of the main characters felt wasted.

The only disappointment is actually that there’s probably not enough runtime to explore some of the more interesting angles. Doc rattles off some faux time travel rule, and I get that that was just some hand-waiving filler, but it feels like they could’ve milked some drama out of delving into this more. And aspects of the future world – such as the Ogrons – could’ve similarly used some exploration. They worked as an imposing force, for sure, but just brushing them off as a simple-minded slave race felt too easy. I imagine one extra episode could’ve allowed for some depth to be added to these parts.

Overall, though, one of my favorite Dalek appearances thus far, and I was super happy that there wasn’t a Master in sight. A very balanced, tight, fun serial.