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Doctor Who: Remembrance of the Daleks (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Remembrance of the Daleks originally aired in 1988.

You can always judge a man by the quality of his enemies.

– the Doctor explains why the Daleks needed to be badass again

I think Sylvester McCoy’s tenure in the lead role has been vindicated by history. While he may have been the title character as the show slid quietly into cancellation, there’s no denying the massive impact that the show has had on the hugely popular revival. It’s quite something that the McCoy era managed not only inspire both Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat, but in two radically different ways. Although it kicks off his second year in the role, you could make the argument that all of that really kicks off with Remembrance of the Daleks, which was also a hell of a way to celebrate the show’s twenty-fifth birthday.

They’ll never keep them clean…

I’ll be entirely honest. There are times during Remembrance of the Daleks when the celebratory atmosphere gets a little bit too heavy for me, with the production team falling back on the old habit of making in-joke-y continuity references to appease older fans. The entire story is one giant in-joke reference back to An Unearthly Child, so all the references feel just a bit unnecessary and feel like reference for the sake of reference. More than that, though, they seem rather pointless.

On wiring up something to interfere with the Daleks, the Doctor explains, “I rigged something like it on Spirodon.” It’s something that makes no sense to anybody with him, so it seems rather strange to say – though the character has a history of name-dropping, it’s typically icons that people recognise. There’s a slightly better moment later on when he responds to Ace’s observation that people would remember a Dalek invasion of sixties Britain and the Doctor retorts, “Do you remember the Zygon gambit with the Lock Ness Monster? Or the Yetis in the Underground?”

Keep soldiering on…

That example works slightly better because it makes sense in context – the Doctor is attempting to illustrate that he has been involved in some large-scale stuff that people kinda brush over. It’s interesting that the series addresses the epic problems the Doctor has faced over the years, and attempts to explain why none of this has radically altered twentieth-century Earth. In an answer that the new series would borrow from time-to-time, the Doctor observes, “Your species has the most amazing capacity for self-deception, matched by only its ingenuity when trying to destroy itself.”

At this point in time, the series was becoming increasingly self-aware and subversive, digging well past the threshold established during the Tom Baker era. This is, after all, the year that produced the surreal anti-Thatcher adventure The Happiness Patrol and provided a meta-commentary on the show itself in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. Some might argue that series’ increasingly clever meta-narratives made the show seem even more insular and disconnected, but I’m not convinced. By this stage in the game, there was nothing that could have been done to stop the BBC from pulling the plug (they seemed to be waiting for an excuse), and I’m just glad the last two years were as intelligent and as unique as they were.

The real McCoy…

There’s no denying the sense that the show was grinning at its fans a little bit, taking the common jokes and criticisms on board. After all, the first part of this serial ends with a cliffhanger based around a Dalek mastering a flight of stairs, something that they were (and arguably still are) mocked for (it doesn’t help that Destiny of the Daleks actually incorporated a stairs gag). That level of self-awareness seems like a strength here, as the show takes on board a whole host of very serious and valid criticisms of the franchise’s most popular monsters. It then works to improve the Daleks in response to them. If you consider Revelation of the Daleks as a “Davros story – with Daleks!”, the last really good Dalek story had been more than a decade earlier, so the Doctor’s oldest foes needed to seem threatening again.

In many ways, Remembrance of the Daleks foreshadows a lot of what Rob Shearman’s Dalek and Russell T. Davies’ The Parting of the Ways would do to make the pepperpots scary again. A single Dalek trapped in a building is a threat to an entire fully-armed military group, for example, and proves incredibly tough to kill. The Daleks operate using agents, made all the more sinister by the fact that they are coopting young children to serve their will, something that Davies would touch on again with his “Controller.”Nobody pushes a Dalek out a window or into a lake. Ace does take one on with a baseball bat, but it seems like she’s lucky to get out alive, diving through a window to avoid a shot.

“Elevate!”

More than that, though, the serial doesn’t just reinvent the Daleks as a physically imposing force. It also hits on their key philosophy, in a way that the revived series really hasn’t. The Daleks are waging a civil war around ethnic purity, trying to purge those among them who have dared to evolve. Set in the sixties, the story also effectively contextualises the creation of the monsters by Terry Nation. This is a Great Britain that is still wounded from the Second World War. Nation invented the Daleks to serve as Nazi analogues, and there are hints of that here. It’s very clearly implied that their collaborator, Ratcliffe, was a Nazi collaborator. “This country fought for the wrong cause in the last war. When I spoke out, they had me imprisoned.”

As Ace discovers, finding a “No Coloureds” sign in the window, Britain of the sixties still had problems with race and diversity. Hell, you could make the argument that difficulties still exist today. It helps to give a sense of depth and resonance to the Daleks’ quest for racial purity, that we can see some of the more xenophobic human traits reflected in them – it’s something the new series hasn’t really touched upon. Is there really that much difference between the racial philosophy of the Daleks and that espoused by Mike? “It’s just you have to protect your own,” he suggests, “keep the outsiders out just that your own people can have a fair chance.”It’s depressing that some people still think like that today.

Ace steps up to bat…

There’s a strong sense of Russell T. Davies’ revived Doctor Who to be found in the setting, urban Britain not too far from the modern day – and even in the scene where the Doctor talks a lone Dalek to death, which is somewhat similar to what we see in Dalek. However, there’s also quite a bit here that seems to have inspired Moffat, particularly in the portrayal of the Time Lord himself. The Doctor isn’t really that much of a hero here. In many ways, Remembrance of the Daleks feels like a follow-up to Genesis of the Daleks, and the Doctor seems to be reflecting on his decision not to eradicate the monsters at their creation, rationalising, “Every great decision creates ripples.” However, it seems that this version of the character is more than willing to commit genocide, an act that many of his predecessors would have hesitated to do (and an exception his successors reserve for the Daleks). I do wonder, though, about the Thals, the aliens who share the Daleks’ planet and were presumably also caught in the supernova.

The Doctor is in fine chessmaster form here, and it actually seems like he’s playing the game as perfectly as expected. The Daleks traditionally catch the Doctor a bit off guard, but it seems like this iteration was expecting them – much like in The Curse of Fenric, it seems like the Doctor has decided it’s finally time to tie up all the remaining loose ends, to the point that he seems to only be slightly off schedule, clarifying, “I don’t want them here just yet.” In fact, it’s telling that his only complication involves the human soldiers who have embroiled themselves with the situation. “My problem is trying to stop Group Captain Gilmore and his men getting diced in the crossfire.”

The emperor strikes back…

Have pity on me.

I have pity for you.

– Davros and the Doctor

It’s at this point that the show began dropping hints of what became known as “the Cartmel Master Plan”, an attempt to reintroduce mystery to the title character, and more than a hint of ambiguity. So we get hints that the Doctor was involved with the Time Lords discovering time travel (mixing up his personal pronouns), and his rather chilling warning to Davros, “Oh, Davros, I am far more than just another Time Lord.” I do like, by the way, that Davros is pretty much the one villain that the Doctor doesn’t seem to regret killing or destroying, defending his actions rather than apologising.

I also like the relationship between the Doctor and Ace, which feels more paternal than most companion relationships. Here he has to remind her to take money, filling that role that many parents might empathise with, as the walking ATM. More than that, he reminds her time and time again not to carry around highly dangerous and explosive chemicals, but knows her well enough to know that she’ll do it anyway. Aldred and McCoy work well together, and while neither is a particularly incredible actor, they fill the roles remarkably well. There are still a few cringeworthy moments, like Ace and her ghetto blaster (“it’s not my fault this decade has no street cred”) or her awkward teen slang (“toe rag”), but these are dealt with relatively quickly and don’t impede the story toomuch.

Small screen hero…

Remembrance of the Daleks is a fine little story, and one that proved the show was back in relatively strong form. After a shaky first year, the production team and their leading man had found their footing. It’s a little too self-referential for my tastes, but I suppose you can forgive a show for celebrating a milestone like this. Perhaps the best thing about Remembrance of the Daleks is the fact that it’s a sign of things to come.

We did good, didn’t we?

Perhaps. Time will tell. It always does.

– Ace and the Doctor

This is BBC television. The time is a quarter past five and Saturday viewing continues with an adventure in the new science fiction series, Doc-

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