Saturday, 2 July 2016

Revelation of the Daleks

Chapter The 27th, The relatively well-Loved One.

Davros has taken over a tacky funeral parlour cum cryogenic storage unit, where he runs a nice little earner turning half the residents into Soylent Green and the other half into a new breed of Daleks. He tricks the Doctor into visiting to play a practical joke on him (no, really). All at the same time, a disgruntled relative of one of the departed along with her drunk pal break in to investigate, a mercenary and his squire arrive to kill Davros on the orders of Davros's mutinous business partner, and the President of an unspecified area of the locale is coming to see his dead wife lying in state. Everything collides together at the end with explosions and killing, and then the Dukes of Machina, the old Daleks, turn up and cart Davros off to their equivalent of the Chilcot enquiry. Alexei Sayle, Clive Swift and the girl from Upstairs Downstairs are also in it, but it's hard to say exactly what their characters contribute.

Me and the kids watched over a couple of nights on DVD with the alternate CGI effects switched on, as they are pretty unobtrusive and make one moment a little clearer. The Better Half sat out episode 1, but joined us for the start of the second part. I gave the eldest child (boy, aged 10) the challenge to summarise to his mother where the story had got to, as I didn't know where to start; he just said "A statue fell on him" and left it at that. Collective attention was not held by episode 2 and all drifted off leaving me on my own; the Better Half caught the end, though, and tutted at the Doctor shooting guns, then was intrigued by Orcini ruffling the dead Bostock's hair, and surprised by an odd shot just after where Orcini hauls Bostock's body along the floor with him. I quote: "It looks like he's humping him". Evidence of JNT's gay agenda, probably.

First-time round:
I saw these episodes on their first BBC1 broadcast in 1985, and - though I don't remember it as such - it must have been in the shadow of then recent cancellation / hiatus crisis. I was stumbling towards being a teenager, and was often out with friends on Saturday afternoons, not necessarily keeping an avid eye on the clock anymore, so I missed a few episodes from Colin Baker's first full season. At around the time of Revelation's broadcast, I'd read a letter in Doctor Who Magazine by someone criticising the stories of the year so far, but holding out hope for the Dalek finale. The correspondent criticised the Mark of the Rani's fake plastic trees, but they are in episode 2, which I missed. I remember being annoyed by this letter; I thought it had been a great year up to that point. But perhaps I just managed to miss all the bad bits. When it came to the final story of the season, I also really enjoyed it, and didn't think this was a programme that needed to be taken off the air, even if only for 18 months. But I was young.

To research this blog post, I read the novella that Revelation of the Daleks is pastiching, Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One. (Well, no, of course I didn't - life's too short; it should be one of the test questions in a Cosmo Quiz style 'How Insane a Fan Are you?' questionnaire  - have you read the not-exactly-set-text curios The Loved One or The Prisoner of Zenda just because they were used as the inspiration for Doctor Who adventures?) What cursory research shows me is that The Loved One is eschatological in intention. Coming as it did at a crisis point behind the scenes of Doctor Who, Revelation of the Daleks similarly has a feeling of the end of times. It was written on a Greek island, like its namesake by St John the Divine, the season finale of that other popular series The Bible. The fates were clearly pointing in an apocalyptic direction. Seemingly, writer and script editor Eric Saward has had enough of Doctor Who, and wants to destroy it and create it anew.

The other prominent influence on Revelation of the Daleks is The Caves of Androzani, a very successful story from the previous year, which provided the new shape into which the script editor wanted to hammer the show. In both stories, the Doctor arrives in a brutal, cynical world, where a disparate bunch of mostly venal self-serving characters are coming to the point where years of backstory are going to blow up in their face, leaving most of them dead. There’s a superfluity of double-acts, and - while he can’t match the earlier story’s mordant wit - Saward leavens the grimness with dashes of camp humour.

The author of Caves, Robert Holmes, is a better writer than Saward (as I think Eric would be first to admit) and he ensures his story has a simple plot through-line, a single- minded purpose (the Doctor and Peri are dying and he needs to find them a cure) around which the machinations of the different characters collide. Revelation of the Daleks has no such coherence; the Doctor does not instigate the events we witness; in fact, no one does – the subplots we see are all happening simultaneously by coincidence. It feels like the imminent presidential visit should have been used as the catalyst, but in the final version that subplot could be removed and make no difference. In fact, a lot of the characters can similarly be lifted out, and it wouldn’t change the resolution, including – unforgivably – the Doctor and Peri.

Make no mistake, the protagonist of Revelation of The Daleks is not the Doctor; this is instead the story of Orcini, a once noble warrior, now a gun for hire. And the story is mainly of how he walked to the place where he had a job to do, then did the job, semi-successfully, at the cost of his life. The Doctor is just briefly an assistant to Orcini, having spent most of his time similarly walking to where the action is (if everyone had parked nearer, the story could have been over in a quarter of the time). Saward’s unhappiness at Colin Baker’s casting is well documented, but that is no excuse for sidelining the character people are tuning in to watch. What also sticks in the craw is how various characters talk up how great Orcini is, even Davros: yeah, he’s a knight of the order of thingummy-doo-dah, but the Doctor’s a Lord of Time.

I want so much to like it: I like Colin and his portrayal, and this tends to be his most popular story in polls. I have good memories of watching it first time round, and it does have some wonderful moments: the scene where Natasha’s father turns into a Dalek before her eyes, begging her to kill him, is highly praised, and rightly so. And, where everyone’s favourite charming interviewee Clive Swift overplays it, if you want a masterclass in camp acting, Hugh Walters’s memorable turn is the one to watch. Full disclosure: he was the Better Half’s acting tutor for a while, but there’s no bias. Just see that final sad look he gives Kara as he dies, it’s excellent. Elsewhere, though, there’s inappropriate violence, references to alcoholism, maybe even necrophilia. One hates to agree with the architects of the hiatus, but maybe it was time for a rethink.

Both stories contain a levitating Dalek, mutated humans with nasty looking faces, and a comedy robot (if you count Davros's rotating head as a comedy robot, and I do).

Deeper Thoughts:  
There is artron energy in a union. Doctor Who stories don't often dwell on where the money comes from to build an evil empire; Daleks usually rely on slave labour, not as any kind of script comment on slave labour, just to explain it away so we can all get on with an action adventure, and there's nothing wrong with that. But Revelation dwells on the political and economic twists that Davros has gone through to build up his new breed of Daleks. Like everything in this story, it's not very well integrated, nor properly developed, but it does make an interesting change. In his debut, Davros is something of a political animal, but Saward is the first to develop this further, just one example of an ongoing effort on behalf of all the creators and writers of Doctor Who to address real world concerns within its narrative. Even Saward.

Recent seismic political events in my birthplace and home have given me pause for sombre reflection. I have always believed any union of like-minded persons or countries is worth fighting for, though as with any joint enterprise there will always have to be compromises. We learn and grow in relationships with others, and the more diverse a range of other people we interact with, the better and further we progress. Consequently, I have never trusted any cult of individuality from whichever political wing it has emerged. Have so many years of exposure to Doctor Who contributed to this credo?

Because of its structure, Doctor Who can suggest that solutions mainly come from a lone charismatic individual, a figure that has consciously rejected the wider society he was born into, and continues to resist conformity and convention. At a superficial level, this could place the Doctor as one who wants to claim sovereignty of his own little patch. Does he like to be the one in charge at all costs? Well, great swathes of the show’s stories (including the whole season in 2014) have dwelt on that question, but it’s always been a battle within him, that mirrors a fundamental choice within all of us: control versus cooperation, loneliness versus community. And from the start, he’s never been an isolationist, nor has he ever got on well with those with a dislike of the unlike. His rejection of his own society was balanced with a passion to explore and help every society to which he journeyed. He’s no Little Gallifreyer.

The original series starts with “Kal is not stronger than the whole tribe” and ends with “if we fight like animals, we’ll die like animals”. All the way through, the Doctor has never worked alone, and indeed he spent a long time working for the United Nations. He’s never held back from criticising institutions, but neither has he rejected them. He’s no lone (bad) wolf. In the new series, this is even more pronounced: it is returned to repeatedly that when the Doctor is working alone, it never ends well. He needs a team around him, as much as they need him.

The Jon Pertwee story The Curse of Peladon, of course, directly referenced the United Kingdom’s entry into a union with Europe; it was used less as an allegory than just as a springboard idea, but Peladon still joins the union in the end. I can’t think of any examples which would align to a leave scenario, though there’s certainly many revolutions against the status quo and a lot of criticism of bureaucracy; I’m sure someone could make a case for it, if they were that way inclined. This is a comfort in a way; even as we enter a long period of uncertainty, something like Doctor Who (and many other much more highbrow examples in the lively arts, of course) contain multitudes. Stories can help us make sense of the world, which right now feels more vital than ever.

In Summary:
It's not the apocalypse, it's just a very naughty story.

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