You can’t change history, not one line…

The words “Special Edition” on a Doctor Who DVD give far more information than two words should be able to. Whenever a Doctor Who story has a Special Edition made, it’s because someone thinks there’s something very wrong with the original, something that needs to be fixed.

Unfortunately, in nearly every case, they seem to think that the fix is to put in some incredibly cheap-looking CGI that looks like it was done on an Atari ST and do a slight re-edit, so it’s a very good job that they always include the unfixed story on the DVD as well. (The one exception to this rule is The Curse Of Fenric, where far more material was filmed than could be used. There the special edition is the best way to watch the story).

And there usually is something ‘wrong’ with the original, although not usually something that can be fixed by a quick re-edit. In the case of Day Of The Daleks there are some basic structural problems with the story that go much deeper than just getting Nicholas Briggs to re-voice the (admittedly rather poor) Dalek voices. It’s three episodes of running around followed by a single episode of info-dump, and it doesn’t so much end as stop (Terrance Dicks fixed this in his novelisation, by having a call-back to the scene where the Doctor and Jo meet their future selves — a move so obvious it’s unbelievable that it didn’t occur to anyone while they were making the story).

But it’s also a sign that there’s something right about the original.

Nobody has ever suggested a special edition of Timelash or Arc Of Infinity, because those stories are unfixable. Yes, you could come up with a CGI version of the giant chicken in Arc Of Infinity that looked less rubbish, but you’d also have to fix the script, the set design, most of the acting, the lighting and the background music. But Curse Of Fenric or Day Of The Daleks are stories people remember fondly, and they desperately want to make the experience of watching them now feel like the experience of watching them for the first time.

So the stories that tend to get the special edition treatment, then, are precisely the most interesting ones — the ones where the programme’s reach exceeds its grasp. And I, for one, am far more interested in ambitious failures than in comfortable successes.

(This is, incidentally, one of the reasons I tend to be down on the post-2005 series of Doctor Who. In a very revealing comment in a round-table discussion in 1995, Stephen Moffat says of Robert Holmes, who he’s dismissing as not even a good hack, “How could a good hack think that the BBC could make a giant rat? If he’d come to my house when I was 14 and said ‘Can BBC Special Effects do a giant rat?’ I’d have said no. I’d rather see them do something limited than something crap.“

My own opinion is precisely the opposite of this.)

Day Of The Daleks is definitely an ambitious failure. This is a story packed with ideas. We have a terrorist attack on a peace conference that is trying to prevent a global thermonuclear war from being started by China (an all too real possibility when the story was written — it was broadcast the month before Nixon’s visit to China, which signalled the start of the thawing of Sino-American relations — although the Doctor had only revealed the previous year that he was friendly with the genocidal bastard Mao Zedong, so given his security clearance things must have been slightly different in the fictional universe of the show).

And we then have the terrorists turning out to be the good guys, at a time when this was incredibly politically inflammatory — the Red Army Faction in Germany killed thirty-four people in the time between June 1970 and June 1972, and closer to home the IRA had been stepping up its activities since 1969 (and the government was fighting back — two days after episode four of this story was broadcast, the Bloody Sunday massacre occurred).

Only three weeks after this story, Paul McCartney and Wings released the incredibly mild protest song Give Ireland Back To The Irish, which was considered so inflammatory that it was not only banned, but even mentioning it was banned from the radio — on the chart rundown they had to say “a record by the group Wings”. In a climate like that, having the resolution of the story being when Jimmy Winston from the Small Faces suicide-bombs a British stately home was surprisingly brave.

Of course, the terrorists are shown as being in the wrong — in fact, they’re shown as perpetuating a cycle of violence — but because they’re factually mistaken, not because they’re bad people.

Because these terrorists are time-travellers trying to change the past, but whose actions are inadvertantly going to cause the terrible future they’re trying to avert.

Amazingly, given that this was the start of the show’s tenth year, Doctor Who had never done a ‘proper’ time-travel story before — that is, one whose plot revolves around the implications of time travel, rather than using it as a means to get to the time and place where the story happens. There would only be one more, in fact, before the series ended in 1989, 1983′s Mawdryn Undead. This may surprise those whose knowledge of Doctor Who comes from the post-2005 series, for which time-travel episodes have been a regular occurence, but then again this was the first Dalek story in five years, too. They did things differently then.

So a quick handwavey rule is set up, that no-one can travel back to the same point multiple times to try to fix the past, and called the Blinovitch Limitation Effect, and the plot is allowed to go on. It’s revealed that the future the terrorists are intending to avert is caused by their own actions, but the Doctor helps them change their past, which is his future.

Now, this is interesting in a few ways — it’s an example of the Doctor standing somewhat outside the laws of the narrative, as he does increasingly as he becomes more of a Trickster figure, but it’s also an example of two different narrative and philosophical conventions in Doctor Who coming into sharp collision. Because while not being able to change the past is one of the most fundamental truths in Doctor Who (and it remains true no matter how much CGI and re-editing you throw at the past later), the only thing which is asserted more often is that free will exists and the future is what we make it. The terrorists are limited because they’re interacting with their own past, but the Doctor has free will, and can change the future.

So what happens when the Doctor’s own past is brought into his future? Well, that’s for next time…

9 Responses to “Doctor Who: Fifty Stories For Fifty Years: 1972”

  1. New MindlessWho post « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! Says:

    [...] This one’s on Day Of The Daleks. I have the flu, so I’m not quite coherent – I may have inadvertantly equated Nick Briggs revoicing the Daleks with the Baader-Meinhoff gang. But I may not. Why not read it and see? Share this:PrintEmail Tagged with: me elsewhere [...]

  2. Ad Mindless Says:

    It’s fascinating to consider timetravel as simply a way of getting from a to b rather than a plot device. Seems so archaic, but also quite freeing.

  3. Andrew Hickey Says:

    Totally agree. Basically, once you’ve read By His Bootstraps or All You Zombies, and maybe The Sound Of Thunder, you’ve read everything you need to read about time-travel-as-plot-device. Stephen Moffat actually in some ways does it more interestingly than most, but that’s actually because he gets rid of internal logic – his ‘time travel’ has different rules from minute to minute.

    But really, all you can do with time travel as a plot is do variants on the Back To The Future films (incidentally, I’m amazed no-one has remade/rebooted those). Time travel as a means of travel though lets you go *anywhere*.

  4. PHMREL Says:

    I’ve always liked stories that do something with time travel as a story mechanism rather than just a means of travel. There’s something inherently melancholy about it. People getting locked in the same fate loops, people trying to escape or change things and never succeeding. Though it ruins it a bit when people try to place rules on it. It never works on any kind of logical level, if you think about it at all, but if the emotional logic works then it’s golden.

  5. Ad Mindless Says:

    Yeah, still think there’s lots of room for time travel as a story mechanism (Andrew’s suggested how he’d use it in his ideal Who elsewhere), but it does tend to get overused in that way.

  6. RSH Says:

    City of Death is a time-travel story, surely?

  7. Andrew Hickey Says:

    City Of Death does rely on time travel more than most of pre-2005 Who, true, but it is in essence a caper story for which time travel is just one of several plot points, rather than the most important one. But yes, I’ll give you that one.

  8. Don Alsafi Says:

    2010′s How to Live Safely in a Science-Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu, is a great read that really plays with the possibilities and themes of time travel in a way that no other story really has (that I’ve come across anyway). He explains how time travel is powered by memory

    when people could use time travel to visit any period in history, or see the amazing possibilities of the future – but instead, they almost invariably use it to revisit the worst days of their lives, re-live their deepest regrets, etc. Which, as soon as I read it, resonated like with a certain truth.

    “Everyone has a time machine. Everyone *is* a time machine. It’s just that most people’s time machines are broken. The strangest and hardest kind of time travel is the unaided kind. People get stuck, people get looped. People get trapped. But we are all time machines.”

    It’s not a perfect book by any means – there’s a LOT of potential hinted at but never explored – but it certainly used the concept of time travel in a way I’d never really encountered before. Check it out.

  9. Don Alsafi Says:

    Guh! For lack of an edit button… (Just pretend the first paragraph has an ending, and the second a beginning.)

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