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Posts Tagged ‘Revelation of the Daleks’

My intention throughout this series of pieces on specific Doctor Who stories has been to focus on ones that I have had a special affection for since the first time I saw them. This presents us with a particular problem when it comes to the sixth Doctor’s era, as my view of this period of the show has been through some fairly pronounced changes over the years.

The sixth Doctor and Peri have always had a particular hold on my affections as characters, simply because my family bought our first VCR shortly before season 22 started transmission, and for the first time I had the chance to preserve a Doctor Who story, effectively forever, and watch it whenever I wanted (which, of course, I did: several times a day in the case of some episodes). As a result I probably know season 22 in detail better than any other period of the series, even though for a long time I was quite happy to dismiss it as a deeply problematic, if not actually misconceived, set of stories.

You may well be able to join in with me as far as the Received Wisdom on season 22 goes: much too violent, obsessed with continuity and returning monsters, a programme losing touch with a mainstream audience and its own core values even as it becomes horribly self-absorbed…

Now, I’m not saying any of these bricks is wholly undeserved, but a recent viewing of half of this season has made me reassess it. I’ll happily admit to suspecting I probably picked the better half of the run, but even so – these are stories which have strong individual identities, decent production values, good creative work from the actors and directors, and – crucially – very sharply written scripts.

The best of the lot is Revelation of the Daleks, almost unquestionably the best story of Colin Baker’s tenure as the Doctor. The plot is, let’s be honest, peculiar – if the Mount Everest of summarising Doctor Who plots is having a go at explaining what happens in Warriors’ Gate, then giving a coherent precis of this story is still a considerable challenge in its own right.

Anyway. The Doctor and Peri arrive on Necros, apparently a planet inhabited entirely by undertakers and providers of dubious processed food. One of the Doctor’s old friends has apparently been placed in cryo here and he has come to pay his respects (and investigate). Almost at once they are attacked by a disfigured mutant, who tips them off to the fact that nastiness is afoot (a joyous fact which has entered fan lore is that the producer offered the role of the mutant to Lord Olivier, who mysteriously never replied).

For the Doctor’s old enemy Davros has insinuated himself into both the undertaking/cryo suspension and dubious processed food provision industries (as a result they now intersect in a fairly grisly manner). He is also at work running up a new breed of Dalek, although to be perfectly honest the Daleks do not get much of the spotlight on this outing. Davros, oddly, seems quite aware that everyone he works with hates him and wants him either banished or dead, but doesn’t seem to be doing a great deal about this: he’s spending most of his time manipulating the rather tragic personal lives of the desperate middle-aged people at the undertaking business…

revs

So the villain’s plan is to run an unethical business and be horrible, on a fairly small scale, to the people around him. And the role the Doctor plays in stopping this is… negligible. All the work of actually getting rid of Davros is done by various hard-bitten florists, disgraced knightly mercenaries, and another faction of Daleks loyal to the Supreme on Skaro (which has apparently been resettled in the aftermath of the Movellan War). There is the merest of suggestions that another character is planning to kill the local President and seize political control of the area, which the Doctor manages to prevent by radioing him and telling him to clear off, but this is really the limit of the name character’s impact on the story (the Doctor and Peri’s limited involvement in the first episode was apparently done so the performers would be free to honour their pantomime commitments at Christmas 1984, but one still has to wonder what the production team’s priorities were). There are a few other plot incoherencies going on here too.*

By modern standards, it is, of course, savagely violent and viscerally grotesque: one character is knifed to death, another is stabbed by a spurned lover, various dismemberments occur on-screen, and there is the repulsive sight of the mutated Stengos within a transparent Dalek casing. The second half of the story is another Sawardian bloodbath with virtually every guest character meeting a violent demise – frequently for no reason which really stands up in the context of the plot. Coupled to this is a level of black and often knowing humour almost unprecedented within the series (for example, the double entendre-laden scene where the regulars climb over the wall), and an oddly jaded maturity – characters like Orcini, Jobel, and Tasambeker are all defined by their foibles and their regrets – the final scene between Jobel and Tasambeker is full of an aching pathos almost unknown in Doctor Who.

And as a result one has to wonder who this story is really aimed at. This would be a post-watershed programme if made now – if it were made at all in this form. It is surely no-one’s idea of family entertainment, for all that it was originally shown late on a Saturday afternoon. There is no clear storyline to follow (at least, not one that isn’t wrapped up in existing Dalek continuity) and the main character is, as discussed, sidelined for much of the story.

And yet, this is in many ways a smartly made, highly intelligent piece of TV, and one containing some quintessential Doctor Who moments: horrible though it is, the scene with Stengos pleading for his daughter to kill him from within the Dalek can hold its place against nearly any other you care to mention (the recent re-do of it at the climax of Asylum of the Daleks is a wan little thing by comparison). Students of the weird world of Dalek characterisation will note that the Daleks from Skaro show no interest whatsoever in killing the inhabitants of Necros unless they get in their way.

The story has something of the TV literacy of the same year’s Vengeance on Varos, with the DJ apparently watching other scenes from the story on his monitor and various characters treating the actual cameras recording the action as CCTV cameras. It’s unfortunate that this kind of sophistication in the storytelling went so hand in hand with the darkness of the tales themselves, because the BBC edict to remove the latter from season 23 seems to have resulted in most of the former going too (unless you count the fact that the Doctor himself spends most of the following series watching the stories along with the audience).

This is a great story in many ways: polished production values, memorable dialogue, brilliant direction, great characters, solid performances. But it’s also horribly flawed in others: the actual plot is oblique and baffling, and much of the content is deeply inappropriate for the timeslot this story initially aired in. I once described this story as being qualitatively and quantitatively different from the rest of season 22 to a massive degree: but I would say now that this is not quite the case. Its strengths and weaknesses are those of its time – it’s just that the strengths are writ particularly large, to the extent that they mostly muffle the flaws (at first glance, at least). Massive potential going inexplicably awry: I would say that’s as good a description of the sixth Doctor’s era as any, and this is the story that best shows just how good it could have been.

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*The Obligatory When’s-It-Set Discussion

There are no dates given on screen or even really hinted at – the general tone of the galactic civilisation is rather like that of The Caves of Androzani, and the two stories could be contemporaneous – not that placing Caves is particularly straightforward. Placing this story can really only be done as part of a larger Dalek chronology, as it obviously follows Resurrection of the Daleks and, from the Daleks’ point of view, precedes Remembrance of the Daleks – it’s a question of where you place these stories in relation to others like Evil of the Daleks (on-screen evidence appears to demand Evil precedes them) and The Daleks’ Master Plan (set around 4000).

There is a slight oddity in that both Davros and the Daleks are clearly extremely well-known at this point in history – Davros is a notorious villain who doesn’t like having his name bandied about in public, and whom Orcini and Bostock get very excited about potentially killing, while the fact that there are Daleks on Necros is apparently a good enough reason to make the President turn his ship around and clear off, and so on – and yet no-one working at Tranquil Repose seems particularly surprised or concerned that Davros and his Daleks are effectively on the payroll there too, nor are they making any effort to keep out of sight (there are Daleks patrolling the grounds, for example). Possibly Tranquil Repose is simply even more spectacularly corrupt than the story suggests.

Not having attempted an in-depth Dalek history for many a year, my own inclination is to set this in a very distant, post-4000 future. My inclination is to take the destruction of Skaro as shown in Remembrance at face value, which would put this story towards the end of the Daleks’ original, pre-Time War history – certainly after Evil, for example.

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