Monday, March 18, 2013

Ex-Terminator: Judgment Day

You know how it goes: soldier travels back through time to ensure the future of humanity, relentless killer cyborg travels back to stop him and make certain the war goes according to plan. Mayhem ensues, the temporal tampering becomes part of history and it all turns out to be one big loop.

Hollywood attempts to bolt sequels onto the loop. Well, if anyone ever feels like doing a sequel to Doctor Who’s Day Of The Daleks, they could do worse than Night Of The Daleks for a title. But it’s hard to suggest what they might improve on for the follow-up because, frankly, there’s a little too much to list.

At its core there’s a solid story. We know that because it works well in Terminator (and progressively less well in its sequels). But the road to a decent temporal paradox is paved with good intentions and what was well-meant doesn’t necessarily become well-realised. Like dear old Blinovitch, this has its limitations.

It begins quietly as an intriguing time-ghost story, like a not too distant relative of (the later) TheTime Warrior and might have benefited from sustaining that mystery for a while longer. (Louis Marks’ original script was titled The Ghost Hunters and didn’t feature the Daleks at all.) But it seems to take the attitude of, well, we’ve blown the whole Dalek reveal in the title so we may as well wheel them onto the set as soon as possible. Which is fair enough, except the first episode ending serves up their presence - with a rousing chorus of Ex-Term-In-Ate! – as if it’s something more than old news.
We’ve been shown the future, we’ve been shown the time guerrillas, we’ve been shown the Daleks as the Controller steps behind the scenes to converse with his masters. We’ve pretty much been armed with everything we need to know what’s going on.

The only real WTH (what-the-heck) moment is an early shot of an Ogron which must have had audiences at the time sitting up and paying attention. And the Ogrons, I have to say at this point, are great. John Friedlander’s masks are simple but effective and the costumes combine to create the image of the perfect alien jackbooted thug shock troops for the Daleks. Of course, all that fine work is undone when they speak – especially as one actor delivers his line as though through a mouthful of primordial gravy, then another actor decides not to bother.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s comical. But I’m reasonably sure that’s not the effect the director was going for. While the actor clearly wasn't going for any effect whatsoever.

Anyway, these time gorillas are more convincing than their guerrilla counterparts. On paper, the story would like to shine a glaring spotlight on the idea that the difference between terrorist and freedom fighter is merely a question of perspective. All fine and worthy, except it loses impact when it’s the middle classes who have risen up. At best everyone’s an officer, at worst they’re drama-school students playing at soldiers. A bunch of people in guerrilla costumes. None of these people seem like they have lived through any of the hard times to which the Controller refers in his speech to the Doctor.

Of course, watching it in the cold light of the 21st century you can’t help but wonder at the different spin this story could be given by casting Arabs in the guerrilla role. But regardless of the minefield that would tread, I would have settled for a few grittier Ray Winstone types. As it is, none of the actors are dreadful, they’re just not right.

Over on the other side of the fence, in some ways AubreyWoods is more authentic as the Controller. Yes, he’s as theatrical as a painted canvas backdrop and wooden as the boards he’s treading but he has the air of privilege (and shiny complexion) you’d expect from a collaborator living what passes for the high life under Dalek occupation. And that starched delivery could be attributed to rich food and an emotionless inherited from too much time with the Daleks. His staff of female underlings are robotic in the extreme and to be honest their delivery gets tiresome, but you can see the intention – it’s the way SHADO in Gerry Anderson’s UFO would have turned out if the Daleks had taken charge.

Other than that and a few token labourers seen shifting buckets of rubble we’re not really shown how bad things are under the new regime from Skaro. Imagination can fill in the gaps well enough, since we know from past appearances what the Daleks are like, but this is a tale that leans more towards tell than show.

Worst offender in this regard is a scene – okay, it’s intercut with other stuff to try to give the illusion of movement but essentially it’s one long scene – in episode four where the Doctor, Jo and the people in guerrilla costumes gather around for a friendly recap and Q&A. Some allowance can be made for the fact that these were originally meant to be viewed at the rate of one episode a week so audiences may have lost a thread or two, but it’s sloppy plotting that drags. Out. The. Action. At. A Crucial. Climactic. Point.

The action is then so ham-fistedly directed that we’re back to the bunch of people playing at soldiers and the Daleks pedalling in for the big finish. You can forgive the Daleks for just rolling in across the open field and marching their Ogron troops head-on into the enemy gunfire – what do they care? They’re impervious to bullets and they have a whole army – at least five or six – expendable Ogrons to waste. But what’s the rationale for the UNIT troops standing around in the line of fire? It’s rubbish and one of those sequences in Who that you have to watch through your fingers not because it’s scary but because it’s painful.

To cap it off, Shura’s desperate act of self-sacrifice is weakly argued and the Doctor and Jo leave him to his fate a bit too readily, then fail to properly acknowledge his contribution in the post script.

Obviously, the writer didn’t want any loose ends on his neat little time loop but the end results of all his tidying up is a bit of a scrappy mess. The rest of the guerrillas, for example, are entirely too trusting, leaving the Doctor and Jo to return and – ostensibly – resolve the situation on their behalf. But if they’d tagged along to make sure of things – which sensible ‘fanatics’ surely would have done – they would have been another element that needed clearing away afterwards.

The news report on site at Auderley House with the delegates arriving for the conference is a nice touch, but it’s not followed up on when all hell breaks loose. And there’s an absolute vacuum of reaction to the gunfire and explosions as the delegates are conveyed unhurriedly away in their limos. That, for me, sums up this story for me – a collection of good intentions and missed opportunities.

Day Of The Daleks is not altogether woeful but it’s nowhere near as auspicious as it should have been.

Doctored Video

As it happens, the DVD release features a Special Edition which attempts to redress some of the adventure’s shortcomings. These are not the sort of CGI effects you can just switch on or off, as has been the case with other Doctor Who DVD titles, so the entire story is reproduced on a second disc.

As with the original version, you can appreciate the intent behind the project, but I’m not sure the end results save the day.

It’s new and improved in a number of respects. Most effective of all are the redubbed Dalek voices. For some reason the original Daleks all sound sluggish, possibly drunk with success after their successful conquest of Earth. Nicholas Briggs invests them with a bit of life and hate and all the things Daleks are made of.

The souped-up disintegrator guns and Dalek weapon effects are nicely done but feel a little overcooked at times, too obviously at odds with the rest of the production.

Most impressive are the way in which extra Daleks are dropped into the action, intercut with newly shot scenes to ramp up the battle scenes and multiply the invaders’ numbers. The illusion succeeds for the most part, although there are a handful of shots remaining where it’s clear they only had three Daleks.

A lot of times, I’m not a fan of re-vamped fx on these DW classics: as well-meaning as they are, imagination ought to be enough to make up the production-value deficit. In this case, the original production doesn’t do enough to help that along – at least not once the viewer has reached adulthood. And ultimately, this slicker, flashier edition is little more than a (laudable) gesture in the right direction.

In my childhood mind the Daleks were at least as formidable as they were portrayed in Rob Shearman’s Dalek. So three should have been a serious threat in any case.

But the truth is the trio here, like most elements in this promising temporal tale, don’t do quite what they say on the Dalekanium tin.


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