Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Destiny of the Daleks’

Terry Nation is a writer who I’ve been considering writing about for ages. He remains an interesting figure; high profile (as TV scriptwriters go) and divisive – no less a figure than Stephen Fry has praised Nation’s mastery of a certain type of storytelling, while on the other hand Sue Perryman’s catchphrase (‘Terry ****ing Nation!’) more than adequately encapsulates the views of those people who find his scripts rather hard work.

I find Nation’s work to be rather exasperating: while he wrote several really important Doctor Who stories, only one of them is genuinely great, and much of the rest of the time his scripts feel like they’ve been phoned in (there’s a funny interview on one of the DVDs where Barry Letts recalls pointing out to Nation his tendency to try and sell them the same script year after year). Outside of Doctor Who, the two key Nation series are surely Survivors and Blake’s 7 – now, I like both these shows a great deal, but I also find that their quality significantly spikes once Nation himself cuts back on his creative involvement. One would be tempted to peg him as an ideas man with no real facility for actual plotting, were it not for the dearth of actual imagination in so many of the Dalek stories.

On the other hand… well, I’ve been watching Destiny of the Daleks again, Nation’s 1979 contribution and quite possibly the first thing by the writer I ever saw. On paper this looks like it should have ‘classic’ written all over it: the most iconic Doctor taking on his most iconic enemies, with a script handled by arguably the two biggest names ever to write for 20th century Doctor Who, Terry Nation and Douglas Adams.

destiny

Having recently equipped the TARDIS with a device which can make it land somewhere entirely random at the start of each new adventure, the Doctor quite naturally finds himself on a planet he has already visited on three previous occasions: the unhappy planet Skaro, birthplace of the Daleks (though he doesn’t realise this for a bit). With his newly-regenerated companion Romana he sets about poking about on the ruined planet, intrigued by signs of drilling operations and the presence of not just a slave labour force but a starship crewed by the enigmatic Movellans. Why are all these people, not to mention the Daleks themselves, here on Skaro?

Destiny of the Daleks is not a story which enjoys a stellar reputation. I seem to recall that even Terry Nation himself was not exactly enthused by the realisation of his scripts, nor the rewrites Adams performed on them (‘Adams added a lot of silly jokes’, according to John Peel). And I suppose it’s easy to see why: the Daleks themselves are not exactly in great form, with the prop casings themselves clearly in frightfully bad nick, and Nation’s grasp of continuity (never his strong point) hits a new low. Never mind that the story seems to have forgotten that Davros’ bunker was located several miles from the old Kaled city (who knows, the Daleks may have moved the body – it certainly doesn’t look like the same place), but it pretty much explicitly states that the Daleks at this point are wholly robotic – ‘the Daleks have encountered another race of robots!’ exclaims Davros at one point (my emphasis). Quite when this final mechanisation occurred, or why Davros isn’t more surprised by it, is never addressed.

Personally I’m the sort of person who tends to treat shaky continuity as an engaging problem to be solved, rather a deadly flaw in a story. Certainly there seems to be almost a tendency in fourth Doctor stories for previously-cyborg creatures to become wholly synthetic in nature: the Cybermen are also described as ‘total machine creatures’ on their return appearance. We know from other stories that different factions of Daleks have shown a tendency to evolve in different directions (observe the biological and technical differences between the Imperial and Renegade factions a few stories down the line, not to mention the physical differences between Dalek mutants in the 20th and 21st century series), so it’s not entirely impossible that this particular group have uploaded their consciousnesses into fully robotic casings.

This does present the problem of explaining the manner of the Movellans’ ultimate victory over the Daleks, which was, we are told, based on the Movellans’ exploiting the Daleks’ biological nature by deploying a virus against them. Possibly the Daleks broke the logical impasse with the Movellans by reverting to a partially-biological state of existence, thus giving the Movellans an opening which they exploited.

Then again, the Movellans are a peculiar sort of creation in many ways. My natural instinct when it comes to one of John Peel’s elaborate Dalek-related retcons is to run a mile: his suggestion that the Movellans themselves are Dalek constructs and that this entire story is a bizarre put-up job designed to stop the real Skaro being destroyed is startling, to say the least. On the other hand, it does solve several of the hanging mysteries concerning the Movellans themselves. The Movellan civilisation is evidently quite capable of matching the Daleks when it comes to technological sophistication and ruthlessness, and yet we never hear of them outside of this particular story (the old FASA RPG makes a valiant attempt to boost them to the same level of major threat as the Daleks, Sontarans and Cybermen, but even here you can sense the writers’ hearts aren’t really in it). Even in the story itself, it’s indicated that the Movellans routinely attempt to conceal their robotic nature from others, although they’re quite happy to ‘resurrect’ dead soldiers no matter how odd this looks (and how does this work, exactly? We see no sign of the bodies of Lan and Agella being retrieved from the ruins prior to their reappearance, so are these just copies, rather like the Cylons in 21st century Battlestar Galactica?). What happens to them after they defeat the Daleks? Just who exactly are these guys, and how does their society work?

Well, it’s certainly somewhere with its own special ideas about fashion, anyway. The Movellans are interesting from a cultural viewpoint as they represent one of the very last examples of a certain kind of SF aesthetic in Doctor Who: the shiny-clean-exotic-camp look. Always more of a feature of bad pulp SF, this look was practically obliterated overnight by the appearance of the grimy-used-utilitarian aesthetic in the original Star Wars. The simple look of the Movellans is perhaps one reason why this story is not better regarded, along with (while we’re talking about bad pulp SF) such awkward plot devices as the convenient brains-on-belts idea (Sharrel’s arm also comes off improbably easily in his final struggle, too).

So the continuity is largely a mass of unanswered questions and the story itself is driven along by a collection of frequently-shaky plot devices. And yet this is still a story I have considerable affection for. Whatever the problems with the script, there’s not much wrong with the direction, particularly the steadicam work with the Daleks. And while episode one contains so many Nationisms you almost feel like flinging your arms around it and greeting it as an old friend, elsewhere in the story there are moments of genuine innovation and quality: the stand-off between the Doctor and the Daleks in episode three treats all involved with respect. The Daleks are properly ruthless and intelligent (as, for that matter, is the Doctor). And the central idea of the logical impasse is an intriguing one.

Then again, there’s always the question of how much of a Terry Nation script was actually written by Terry Nation himself. There are certainly enough stories in circulation where rueful script editors recall receiving ‘scripts’ on the backs of fag packets or envelopes and being left to expand these into a workable state while Nation zoomed off to the airport in his sportscar. The truth of this can surely be seen from looking at the four Dalek scripts with Nation’s name on them from the 1970s, for each one of them clearly bears the mark of the script editor involved: the ones overseen by Terrance Dicks are carefully plotted with solid characterisation, if not a lot of new ideas, while the script developed by Robert Holmes is morally sophisticated with a very strong villain (and, by the way, the Daleks are hardly in it). Here, with Douglas Adams as the script editor, we get a story with a very interesting central conceit, some good set pieces, but a slightly shaky grasp of plotting and continuity.

I didn’t really intend this to be a hatchet job on either Terry Nation or Destiny of the Daleks, and yet I find I have largely opted for not much more than faint praise and backhanded compliments. Perhaps this isn’t the greatest story Doctor Who ever told, and perhaps Nation’s talents as a writer were more limited than his reputation might indicate. But in their own way they are both great entertainers.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Semi-Obligatory When’s-It-Set Discussion

With Destiny of the Daleks we again run into the problem of the Dalek dating issue I talked about when I discussed Revelation of the Daleks, with the associated problem of the destruction of Skaro in Remembrance of the Daleks and its reappearance in the TV Movie and that silly story with the asylum. I am inclined to stick to my inclination to take on-screen events at face value: the Skaro that’s vapourised on screen is the same planet visited in this story and others, and we have to attribute its reappearance to Dalek meddling in the timelines at some subsequent point.

Given the Daleks are apparently not active in Earth’s galaxy for a millennium prior to the year 4000, and that it seems reasonable to assume that the resurrection of Davros (in this story) occurs towards the end of the Daleks’ pre-Time War history, I am going to go with the consensus on this story and suggest it occurs somewhere around the 45th century, ninety years before Resurrection of the Daleks and roughly a century or so before Revelation. If only all the associated continuity issues were so easy to resolve…

 

Read Full Post »