DOCTOR WHO: REMEMBRANCE OF THE DALEKS, and Liz and UNIT and the Brigadier

“Remembrance of the Daleks” – Season 25, Serial 1, Story 149 – The Seventh Doctor is joined by Ace for her first adventure, and they journey to where televised WHO began back in 1963, 76 Totter’s Lane (I totally had to look that up). There, they run into Miss Moneypenny, Geoffrey the Butler, and the evilest Doublemint Twins ever: warring factions of Daleks. There’s white Imperial Daleks and black Renegade Daleks and a little girl on puppet strings. There’s a Time Controller, a Battle Computer, a Dalek Shuttle, and a Special Weapons Dalek. Everyone wants the Hand of Omega, which still makes me giggle at how the Brits say “Omughguh” and not “Omayguh.” The Doctor gets all long-term thinking, Ace gets all short-term thinking, and Skaro gets blown to crap sprinkles. Because the Doctor Has Had it With Your Exterminate, Exterminate, EXTERMINATE, Dalek Nation, and It’s Time For You to Get the Hell Out of the Doctor’s Universe.

While I greatly enjoyed Sylvester McCoy’s first season as the Doctor, that enjoyment came through the accumulation of enough small points that tilted each serial into the win column and not because the serials were fantastically executed. TIME AND THE RANI got through on McCoy’s energy alone as he threw himself into the role of the Doctor; PARADISE TOWERS had the neat sci-fi hook and just enough humor, characterization, and drama to make it winnable; DELTA AND THE BANNERMEN had a great villain, a fun ’50s vibe, and quick pacing (and Ray); and DRAGONFIRE had Sabalom Glitz, a Companion switch, and a walking dragon man with an energy crystal in his head. Everything worked more than it didn’t, and in the context of the previous year’s potentially great-turned-insipid TRIAL OF A TIME LORD, that was more than enough to make the serials better than worse.

With REMEMBRANCE OF THE DALEKS, however, we get a finely conceived, honed, and executed story, from idea to script to direction to performance. Sylvester McCoy has unquestionably become the Doctor and his performance is full of confidence unseen since the heyday of Tom Baker’s run. Just as importantly, Ben Aaronovitch’s script (and thus Andrew Cartmel’s script editing) displays depth and width, touching on historical moments throughout the Doctor’s life (both known and unknown to us) but never succumbing to them. In doing so, they provide a serial that plays to both classic and new fans.

I can’t help but think back to Eric Saward’s complaints about having to work with new writers, and his constant assertions that writing for DOCTOR WHO wasn’t easy, that it was a different kind of show with different kinds of demands. It seems a reasonable argument, but looking back on it now it seems more like an excuse to throw writers under the TARDIS to save his own reputation. In REMEMBRANCE we’ve got a writer making his WHO debut and he delivers a script that is coherent, funny, dramatic, paced exceptionally well, and subtly, deeply philosophical. It is a script that confidently calls forth images and plots of the past as it steps out onto its own path.

It’s not just Aaronovitch. The previous year saw the writing debuts of Stephen Wyatt (PARADISE), Malcom Kohll (DELTA), and Ian Briggs (DRAGONFIRE), making this the fourth serial in a row to have a new writer. Does Andrew Cartmel have a magical editing machine? Did Eric Saward spend all his time sitting in his office staring at the walls? Saward had all that extra time to come up with TRIAL OF A TIME LORD and it was still an incoherent, derivative mess, despite working with some incredibly talented writers in Bob Holmes and Phillip Martin. Heck, Cartmel even got the best of Pip and Jane Baker, who wrote the limp whodunit TERROR OF THE VERVOIDS for TRIAL and the competent TIME AND THE RANI for McCoy. (I’ll give them a pass for the junk that was ULTIMATE FOE since they were only given a week to write it, which would have been tough regardless of the situation, let alone finishing off a season-long story.)

REMEMBRANCE is both a Third Doctor story and a Seventh Doctor story. When Jon Pertwee’s Doctor was trapped on Earth for a few years, he hung out with UNIT and butted philosophical heads with Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, and (at the start) was assisted by Liz Shaw, a civilian scientist who worked with UNIT. Here, McCoy’s Doctor visits Earth, hangs out with the the Intrusion Countermeasures Group (ICMG), butts philosophical heads with Group Captain Ian “Chunky” Gilmore, and is assisted by Professor Rachel Jensen, a civilian scientist who works with ICMG.

Aaronovitch doesn’t simply write a Third Doctor serial so we can all bask in a bit of nostalgia, however. He’s writing for the Seventh Doctor and while the story is reminiscent of days gone by, the actions of the Doctor mark REMEMBRANCE as something more interested in going forward than backwards.

Let’s start at the end and move backwards.

The Doctor blows up Skaro.

Sure, he doesn’t technically push the button that detonates the bomb (which is actually the Hand of Omughguh) that blows up Skaro, but he arms the bomb and then manipulates the action to get the desired outcome of either Davros surrendering or Skaro blowing up. Davros (who’s hidden inside the Imperial Dalek Emperor casing) wants to use the Hand of Omega to turn Skaro’ sun into a power source for time travel, but the Doctor alters its programming, so instead making Skaro’ sun super awesome for the Daleks, it goes supernova and blows Skaro up. (Which retcons will later change.) The Doctor prods and chides Davros because he clearly wants Skaro, and thus the Daleks, taken off the mortal coil, and Davros obliges because the Seventh Doctor has learned from his previous incarnations how to manipulate this miserable bastard.

This is serialized science-fiction, so we know they’ll all be back eventually, but we won’t see them again on television until the relaunched series almost two decades later, and this is a very solid final appearance.

It’s hard to lay too much blame at the feet of the Doctor for this act, of course (though the fate of the Thals is something I’d like to have seen acknowledged). These are the Daleks, who’ve been killing and conquering life throughout the universe and Davros states his intent to overthrow the Time Lords.

What’s more interesting is how the Doctor manages the situation. The Seventh Doctor gives the appearance of being a bit scatter-brained, but it’s not that he isn’t paying attention, it’s that what’s physically before him doesn’t always demand his primary attention. There’s a great moment that illustrates how the Seventh Doctor is far more interested in the Big Picture than his predecessors (at least back through the Third Doctor – I haven’t seen enough of the Hartnell and Troughton years to definitively talk about them).

He’s in command central with Group Captain Gilmore, a bustle of ICMG soldiers, and Professor Jensen and her assistant Allison. The Doctor’s brow is furrowed as he’s going over intelligence information and formulating plans. He wants Gilmore to do something (evacuate or reinforce, I forget) and the Captain is worried about how that decision will effect his career advancement. “Your career,” the Doctor snarls, “is magnificently irrelevant.”

There’s another scene where this is made even more clear. The Doctor stops in at a small cafe and engages the one employee (who grows up to be Geoffrey the Butler on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) about the difference between having tea by itself, or tea with sugar. “Every large decision,” the Doctor insists somberly, “creates ripples.” In the conversation, the discussion focuses on sugar, and how the desire for people to have sugar leads to a whole range of consequences. John’s father, for instance, worked the cane fields in Jamaica; without the desire for sugar, he would have done something different, which might have led to John doing something different, which may have prevented this conversation from taking place.

Sugar may be the subject of the conversation but it’s not what’s on the Doctor’s mind, which are the larger implications and direct (and indirect) consequences of his own actions. Aaronovitch leaves unsaid the exact details of what actions the Doctor could be thinking of here, but it’s clear from the rest of the script that the Doctor could be thinking of both his past and future.

We learn here that in the past the Doctor was somehow involved with Gallifrey’s early stellar experiments, and then we watch the Doctor manipulate the two Dalek factions in order to make sure the Hand of Omega ends up with the “right” group (Davros’ Imperial Daleks) in order for him to manipulate Davros into destroying Skaro. The Doctor then convinces the last remaining Dalek, the Dalek Supreme, that there is no purpose to his existence anymore, and he blows himself up.

All of it ties together beautifully. Internally, this is a Doctor that clearly thinks about the whole of his life and knows that his actions have led to consequences good and bad, intended and unintended. Externally, this is a creative direction that isn’t going to beat everything over your head. The most embarrassing creative moment of the Sixth Doctor’s run was during THE ULTIMATE FOE, when he was about to enter the Matrix and he actually says to Mel something totally stupid like, “This might be the most dangerous moment of my life.” I forget exactly what he said, but whatever it was, it was exactly that stupid. It was totally an example of why you should “show, not tell” to build drama. That we’ve seen the Doctor have all these adventures over the years and find himself in all these dangerous situations means it’s up to the show to make this moment rise to the occasion so we inherently feel its importance; if the Doctor has to tell us, it’s because the show’s creators know that the moment isn’t playing as dramatic as they want and they need to falsely ratchet up the tension.

It fails, of course.

Instead of it making the scene play all the more dramatically, it just makes the Doctor look like a whiny, self-absorbed bitch.

The emphasis is completely different in Season 25; the Doctor has his adventure and the stuff that signals what’s happening as critically important is simply there, given screen time but not endlessly pondered over. It is simply a better storytelling technique for the Doctor to have a quiet conversation with a stranger about the ripples that play out from any event than to have him over-acting his confusion and yelling at Ace to leave him alone because, “This might very well be the most crucial decision I will ever make!”

REMEMBRANCE really is a fantastic serial and a fitting send-off (for now) for Davros and the Daleks. Every one of the primary and secondary characters is given something to do and every one of them is given something to contribute. Aaronovitch does a bang-up job of making me believe that these are all real characters with their own motivations and fears, and that they aren’t simply acting in a certain way because the story and the Doctor needs them to act a certain way.

Professor Jensen (played by Pamela Salem, who was Miss Moneypenny in Never Say Never Again) isn’t here simply to authenticate the Doctor’s scientific authority; she does that, but she’s got plenty of questions on her own. She doesn’t get to follow through on all of them, but at least the show gives a nod to the fact that she has questions about who the Doctor is and why he knows what he knows.

If you’ve been reading these reactions, you know of my hatred of lists, so I won’t tell you that REMEMBRANCE is in my all-time top 5 or top 10 or anything like that. I will say that the most brilliant serials are what I refer to as Tier One stories. Tier Two serials are those that are really, really good, and that’s where I’d place REMEMBRANCE. This isn’t simply good because it’s a cut above what we’ve been getting. This isn’t good simply because McCoy presents a more fully realized and rounded Doctor than we’ve seen since Romana was the Companion.

REMEMBRANCE is a really, really good serial because it is a really, really good serial, all on its own.

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3 thoughts on “DOCTOR WHO: REMEMBRANCE OF THE DALEKS, and Liz and UNIT and the Brigadier

  1. Everybody makes such a big deal about Skaro being blown up, but well…I don’t really get it. I mean, they were going to turn the sun into a black hole; surely the Daleks would have evacuated the planet anyway? And really, how nice of them to use their own sun, and not someone else’s. The Time Lords didn’t use the Hand in their own solar system; they had Omega travel to some remote star and detonate the thing there.

    But I guess this is pretty minor stuff and it’s nice to see the Daleks being awesome again, which didn’t happen much during the 1980s.

  2. The big deal is that Doctor Four agonised about the morality of blowing up the early Daleks in ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ and now Doctor Seven destroys their home world altogether. I watched this serial when it first came out and as I’d been a fan for years I just stared at the Doctor and knew that something had changed. Well, I knew everything had changed because this was so very different than anything we’d seen the previous season! I also think that this story and ‘Battlefield’ somehow got mixed up in a some timey wimey thing because to me this belongs in Season 26 and ‘Battlefield’ in Season 25 in terms of quality and tone…

  3. Pingback: Doctor Who: Remembrance of the Daleks « Exploring Our Matrix

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