Monday, 11 January 2021

Tales of Old Skaro


Terry Nation said he didn't like other Doctor Who writers using his creations because they couldn't get the Daleks' psychology right. He had a point. Certainly the Daleks have been increasingly badly handled in the 21st century version of the series. I think modern writers are all suckled on character arcs and rubber ducky motivational cues. Screenwriting doctrine teaches them to wrangle stories into those familiar shapes, but they aren't taught to stretch their imaginations out of the box so as to dream up really strange and original fantasies. Give them an alien menace and they want to portray it in soap opera terms -- were they abused? what's their character diamond? how can I make them more human? 

Ugh to all that. The reason the post-Nation Dalek stories kept featuring Davros (who was good for just one story) was that writers said they could give him a lot of dialogue, whereas the Daleks' own monotonous voices meant their dialogue had to be terse. Well, less is more and vice versa. To take an example from another show, as soon as you have a Borg queen spouting theatrically villainous dialogue like Ming the Merciless, the Borg are no longer the Other and you have to start from scratch to create that weirdness and menace. Or (attention, writers) you could just not cock them up to begin with.

Anyway, back to our would-be overlords from Skaro. For two years The Daleks was a strip on the back of the weekly UK comic TV Century 21. There's the first surprise. Only two years? I remember it as a major part of my childhood but the fact is (like the Silver Age heyday of Marvel Comics that same decade) it came and went in a blink. Now those 104 strips have been collected in book form, which you might be able to get here or here. Just not anywhere convenient like Amazon.

Quite apart from the stories, which are gems of compressed comics writing by Alan Fennell and David Whitaker, the background material about the strips is fascinating. As a child I never knew the artists’ names, but I remembered the first one (Richard Jennings) as being quite sloppy in the way he drew Daleks, which for speed he just did as round bullet-shapes. He also drew the strips in the first two Dalek annuals.

Ron Turner took over after a year. His work was more stylish, and he put more effort into getting the Daleks’ shape right, but I don’t think the stories were as good later on. And because his artwork was executed with such technical precision it was less engaging than Jennings's scrappier panels. There's a lesson there for comics artists today.


Why did Jennings leave the strip? I found the answer on the ever-reliable Bear Alley:
"[Jennings] spent a year drawing The Daleks for the back page of TV Century 21 in 1965 but drifted away from comics. 'For 18 months I worked as a long-distance lorry driver. Not very exciting but I was broke! I took my ancient jeep up to the Yorkshire Dales where I travelled around painting pub signs and portraits.'"

And that was when there were a lot of comics selling in the hundreds of thousands of copies every week. How much more impossible it is to make a living as an artist today. To think of a talented creative craftsman reduced to driving a lorry because it wasn't possible for him to actually get a decent wage for his work. I'd say it makes me weep but mainly it just makes me furious.
 
Still, those are old battles lost long ago. Back to the present day: the collection's editor, Marcus Hearn, theorizes that the end of the strip runs straight into the TV/movie storyline Daleks' Invasion Earth. But that’s set in 2150 AD, whereas the human race in the TV21 strip are clearly much more advanced, with FTL spaceships, which implies that it leads into the events of The Dalek Book and The Dalek World, which are set in the 25th century. (Since that’s the Daleks’ first contact with humanity, they must use their later discovery of time travel to conquer Earth in 2150, presumably to prevent their defeat at the end of The Dalek Book.)

8 comments:

  1. Love your observation about writers turning enemies into soap-opera ducky characters! It's so true. Evil. Alien. Things you can't understand. Those are frightening. Everyone isn't simply the result of a ducky incident.

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    1. If they had to do an adaptation of Hoyle's The Black Cloud or Wyndham's The Kraken Wakes, they'd make the aliens' treatment of humanity something to do with bad parenting!

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  2. It has to be said that after The Mutants, one of the writers who handled the Daleks most ineptly was a fella by the name of Terry Nation. Unless you're going to tell me that Destiny of the Daleks (which also features Davros, of course) is better than anything David Whitaker wrote?

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    1. No argument from me on that score. Nation could be a lazy sod of Thomsonian proportions. I believe we only got Genesis of the Daleks because Terrance Dicks rejected the outline Nation originally submitted: "Terry, you sold us this story once and called it The Mutants. You sold it to us again as Planet of the Daleks. I'm not buying it a third time. Write something new."

      And Power of the Daleks, probably their best appearance after The Mutants, was by Whitaker, who I think remembered Nation's point about Dalek psychology better than Nation himself sometimes did.

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    2. To be honest, I often incline to the view that Nation is one of the less important elements in the Daleks' success. I put Raymond Cusick above him in importance, in that the look of the Daleks triggered the imaginations of so many people. If you imagine The Mutants, but with the Daleks looking like Marvin the Paranoid Android, I'd wager they would never have gone on to conquer the (metaphorical) universe.

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    3. As a writer it pains me to have to agree. I wish I could say the scripts had more to do with it, but what first grabbed my imagination along with that of a million other 6-year-olds was Cusick's remarkable design.

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    4. Still, you can take comfort, as a writer, from the fact that the writer made a fortune, while the designer had to put up with the extra fiver he was given for his trouble...

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    5. I hope I'd have behaved a little better than our Tel did there!

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