Steven Moffat may have some big surprises in store, but so far it seems Doctor Who’s fiftieth birthday will heavily weigh towards the extreme poles of Mark Gatiss’ docu-drama An Adventure in Space and Time and Moffat’s low-calorie (now with 43 years less nostalgia!), doubtless audacious Smith/Tennant/ John Hurt team-up. But it’s only right that we fans celebrate the spirit of Doctor Who, rather than a clip-show celebrating the letter—and pay tribute to its boldest and most original narratives.
So step forward, Revelation of the Daleks (1985)—a triumph from Colin Baker’s all-too-brief and troubled Doctorate. It’s a thoroughly unique and weird experiment—and its triumph, despite casting aside so much of Doctor Who’s then-standard repertoire, is as great a testament to Who’s storytelling prowess as any.
No matter what your taste in Doctor Who, chances are Revelation of the Daleks’ peculiar flavour is not easily acquired. Light on the Doctor, liberally seasoned with the blackest humour, subplots simmering over its 90 minutes, and served with a side of Dalek entrails, is it a freewheeling example of Doctor Who’s limitless potential or a shapeless and over-stylized demonstration of its mid-1980s, audience-alienating excess? I’m old/young enough to remember both viewpoints—my first exposure to these episodes on Canadian TV reruns left me cold, an even steeper struggle due to my difficulty accepting my favourite Time Lord, Peter Davison, being slagged off five minutes into the new bloke’s first episode (“Sweet? Effete!”). All these years later, I can see the flaws—writer Eric Saward’s disinterest in both the Doctor and the Daleks would never have been tolerated if he wasn’t also the script editor. Also, the small army of supporting characters haphazardly waltzing in and out of the plot doesn’t help the hardly-snappy pace, or non-fan patience (several civilians I’ve watched it with have given up midway).
But I’ll forgive these gripes because its plentiful morbidity actually seems grounded in reality rather than the wannabe-Shakespearean melodrama of most other Colin Baker episodes. Why is that? An ingenious director, Graeme Harper, gets splendid performances from one of Doctor Who’s all-time classiest casts. Saward’s script is definitely his best, but just one element of this mix.
It’s Harper who unifies Saward’s disparate tragicomic notes and, with Doctor Who’s usual pocket-change budget (Pat Godfrey had £5,000 for the costumes) creates a whole world of style and artifice around them. The setting, Necros, is a planet of the dead—and meaningless funeral ceremony, and the underground horror it masks, is portrayed with satirical relish. Harper’s location filming is gorgeous—an IBM building in snowy Hampshire is utterly perfect for Necros’s ‘Tranquil Repose’. But even with less-forgiving studio videotape technology, he uses depth-of-field and floor lighting to create a grim, cinematic palette. The scene where Natasha (Bridget Lynch-Blosse) must kill her father before he turns into a Dalek is one of Who’s eeriest, the creature’s transparent casing the only light source.
Harper’s choices also create some much-needed verisimilitude. Okay, a planet drawing on Egyptian and medieval design and populated by dental-scrub-clad morticians is a long way from Rose Tyler’s council estate. But did I mention that superb cast—including Eleanor Bron (one-time Paul McCartney paramour in 1965’s Help!, here playing Kara), Clive Swift (Jobel), William Gaunt (Orcini), Jenny Tomasin (Tasembeker), and comedian Alexei Sayle (the DJ) as well as Who veterans Hugh Walters (Vogel), Alec Linstead (Stengos) and Terry Molly (Davros). Then there are glorious details like Jobel’s horrible ginger toupee, the DJ’s Liverpool accent (in an era of Who when no planets had a North), and Natasha’s unspoken relationship with Grigory (Stephen Flynn) … this kind of stuff, not Star Wars-aping model shots, was how Doctor Who should have regained its wavering relevance. That and its funky cynicism: its soundtrack features Glenn Miller, Procul Harum, and Jimi Hendrix (though the latter’s estate kept “Fire” off the DVD release—boo!).
The mundane and the melodramatic intersect most fascinatingly when Tasembeker discusses her unrequited love for Jobel with—of all people—Davros. The Daleks’ creator opines, “If someone had treated me the way he has treated you, I think I would have killed them” before offering her immortality as a converted Dalek (what a charmer). Terry Molloy underplays Davros’ dialogue enough for the viewer to briefly consider the more emotional side of Skaro’s mad scientist. That throughout this scene he is a disembodied head in a tank only adds to the dialogue’s creepy, surreal frankness.
Like other adventures dramatizing sci-fi Thatcherism (Peter Davison’s swansong The Caves of Androzani, 1984, and Sylvester McCoy’s The Happiness Patrol, 1988, and Survival, 1989), a muffled, impotent despair is writ large. What other decade would see Daleks less devious than business tycoons, and Davros opining that his Soylent Green-inspired famine solution might cause “consumer resistance”? It’s wholly, bitterly appropriate that Colin Baker’s dazzling, show-off Doctor almost gets lost in this shuffle. Post-Tom Baker, Doctor Who the series lost confidence in the Doctor as a character (not helped by Saward’s opinion that both Davison and Colin were miscast). So don’t expect any “bow-ties are cool” equivalent—the Doctor is ridiculed by the DJ (“This guy looks like the walking dead”) and Jobel (“It would take a mountain to crush that ego”); and his sympathy for Tasembeker is by his own admission insincere (“I was only showing an interest”) and raises her ire. That’s right; Saward makes the Doctor less charming than Davros. Yikes. Other episodes side-line the Doctor—but where Love & Monsters or Blink fill their Time Lord deficits with guest-stars’ hymns to his heroism, here he spends his brief screen time being insulted (before being assaulted by Takis and Orcini). But Baker rises above these indignities, giving a redemptive fervour to the Doctor busting first Davros’, then the Daleks’, ball-bearings in Part Two.
This (for want of a better term) ‘character arc’ for the Doctor is arguably blunted by eleventh-hour structural faults. Its late plot twist—a different Dalek faction carts Davros away to stand trial—is incomprehensible to non-fans. And amid its staggering death toll, Takis and Lilt randomly gain consciences and survive, while Natasha and Grigory are arbitrarily exterminated (and the Doctor coming to Necros to visit Natasha’s father, Arthur Stengos, gets completely forgotten). However, these fuzzy details, and a particularly rushed conclusion, shouldn’t dampen the majesty elsewhere. Like many of Doctor Who’s latter-day gems, Revelation of the Daleks’ legacy has grown with age. Harper returned to the reborn series (but despite larger budgets, never bettered his arresting work here), as did Clive Swift and Colin Spaull. Fictionally, human-Dalek hybrids pepped up Dalek rematches three times (in The Parting of the Ways, 2005, Evolution of the Daleks, 2007, and Asylum of the Daleks, 2012—each time presented as a shocking twist), and the Doctor’s mortality hangs over Matt Smith’s second and third seasons.
In the short term of 1985, Part One’s cliffhanger—where the Doctor encounters his gravestone—presaged 18 months off air, a lacklustre return with The Trial of a Time Lord, then Baker’s sacking and the series’ seemingly permanent cancellation four years later. But the long term has given the scene some dramatic-ironic perspective. Only someone as short-sighted as Davros—or his human equivalent, then-BBC executive Michael Grade—could be stupid enough to think he could kill Doctor Who. And the Time Lord’s oldest companions—we, the viewers—weren’t fooled for a second.
This article was first posted on July 3, 2013