There are two ways of looking at the stories that comprise the hotly anticipated The Dalek War release. One, as a double-bill of Doctor Who at the top of its game; the other, as a 12-part epic that never was.
For Frontier In Space and Planet Of The Daleks run into one another with, and I hope this isn’t too much of a give-away, the appearance of Who‘s favourite villains. Planet picks up from the cliff-hanger ending of Frontier, where the Doctor is struck by a blaster,and shifts the focus from the broad Machiavellian schemes of Skaro’s finest to the build-up of an invasion force intent on conquering the galaxy.
The over-arching scheme of the Daleks unite the two stories – the first complex and multi-layered, the second a relatively straightforward action adventure – in a way not seen since William Hartnell’s highly ambitious The Daleks’ Masterplan. This makes for a more involved, rewarding watch than usual and, as a totality, has to be the highlight of the series’ 10th anniversary year.
Frontier In Space is a 26th century space-opera about the efforts of the Daleks, through the services of their henchmen the Ogrons and the Doctor’s Moriarty, The Master, to upset the delicate peace between the Earth and Draconian empires and plunge the two into a brutal inter-planetary war, a war that could only ever result in a Cadmean victory at best.
Into this power vacuum the Daleks are preparing to launch their army, which is hidden on the inhospitable jungle planet Spiridon. With the intervention of the Time Lords, a barely-conscious Doctor manages to materialize the TARDIS there and so begins Planet Of The Daleks.
After some gunky run-ins with over-excited vegetation more animal-like than plant, the Doctor and Jo Grant team up with the survivors from two Thal expeditions (the Thals being peace-loving co-inhabitants of Skaro) to seek and destroy the Dalek army, hidden away deep in the ice volcanoes that riddle the hostile world. More hunted than hunters, the group have to keep one step ahead of their foes while fending off the beasts that lurk in undergrowth and the native Spiridons, who are particularly hard to spot on account of being invisible.
Though never intended as a celebration of Doctor Who‘s first decade, Frontier and Planet can easily be viewed as such. The Daleks were the first of the bug-eyed monsters so detested by show creator Sydney Newman to appear on screen, instantly exterminating any doubt that the series would continue. Dalek originator Terry Nation had penned the Doctor’s first brush with his most-popular opponent back in 1963 and was invited back 10 years later for Planet. That explains why the two stories, the other being The Daleks, feel so similar. Whether that was intended as a knowing homage or laziness is beyond the remit of this review (though I suspect the latter).
Similarly, Frontier (written by Malcolm Hulke) harks back to the Patrick Troughton era, particularly season six’s The Space Pirates. The commemoration is rounded off with the filtering of Nation’s Planet through the hands of Who‘s best behind-the-scenes double act, script editor Terence Dicks and producer Barry Letts. Their James Bond-inspired take on the series with front man Jon Pertwee had revived the series’ fortunes and taken it from strength to strength.
Individually, the stories that comprise The Dalek War are good but nothing spectacular. Both six-parters feel a little flabby and those weaned on nu-Who may find the Daleks themselves shockingly weak in comparison to their Russell T. Davies counterparts. Yet, together the stories become more than the sum of their parts and make a fantastic treat for Whovians with many things to cherish, not least the brilliantly realized (both visually AND scripturally) Draconians.
Pertwee is always watchable and the stories notably give companion Jo (Katy Manning) a strong role in the action. It’s sad that Frontier has to serve as the unintentional swansong of Roger Delgado (as the first and definitive incarnation of The Master) due to his tragic death in a road accident months after these stories were transmitted, but he is as charmingly sinister as ever and steals all the scenes he appears in.
Regardless of the quality of the stories themselves, many fans will, no doubt, want to purchase this release solely for the chance to watch episode three of Planet Of The Daleks in (almost) glorious colour for the first time in 36 years.
Before 1978 the BBC regularly junked past shows to clear space in its archives. Though 11 of the 12 episodes featured in the set were retained on 2″colour videotape, the fore-mentioned episode three was a victim of the purge and until recently only existed as a black and white 16mm film copy.
The unofficial Doctor Who Restoration Team has, for the last few years, been able to restore the ‘video-ness’ of such recordings thanks to a clever process dubbed ‘VidFIRE’. Now they’ve gone one further with the assistance of the boffins who comprise the Colour Recovery Working Group.
The Group has come up with a chroma-dot colour-restoration process, which, in layman’s terms, decodes hidden colour signals on black and white telerecordings. This exciting process – which promises to restore colour to the majority of the remaining 13 Pertwee episodes held only in monochrome form – has been coupled with a more traditional computer colourisation by Legend Films. The result is breathtaking, with only the occasional inkling that the episode comes from inferior source material to the rest of the serial.
As with every 2 entertain Doctor Who release, The Dalek War boasts a bountiful supply of extras. For Frontier In Space there is the first of a two-part dram-u-mentary (part drama, part documentary) about the wider contexts of the story (The Perfect Scenario: Lost Frontiers), a making-of feature (The Space War), clips-filled 30-minute tribute to Roger Delgado (Roger Delgado: The Master), and examination of the Third Doctor in comic form (Stripped for Action: The Third Doctor”).
Planet extras include part two of The Perfect Scenario, obligatory making-of (The Rumble in the Jungle), a look at the restoration wizardry behind the re-colourisation of episode three (Multi-colourisation), Stripped for Action: The Daleks, which looks at the highly revered TV Century 21 comic strips, and two amusing Blue Peter excerpts concerning the theft of a pair of hapless Daleks,
Both extras discs also include richly illustrated photo galleries and PDF material. Finally, both stories have commentary tracks with Frontier featuring Katy Manning, Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts and Planet having them joined by actors Tim Preece and Prentis Hancock (who played Thals Codal and Vaber).
The Dalek Wars is another essential purchase in the Doctor Who DVD range and serves as a poignant tribute to the genius of Barry Letts, who, sadly, recently passed away.
Doctor Who: Dalek War is out now.