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Doctor Who: Revelation 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.

Revelation of the Daleks originally aired in 1985.

There’s an argument to be made that Revelation of the Daleks is the only truly classic episode that Doctor Who produced during Colin Baker’s stint in the leading role. I’m not sure I agree – I’d argue that Vengeance on Varos, despite a misleading title, is surprisingly solid and clever – but I can see the logic. In fact, Revelation of the Dalekswas a fitting choice to close out Baker’s first season in the role, the last episode to air before BBC placed the series on hiatus, as it represents the very best of mid-eighties Doctor Who.

We can see right through the Daleks’ plan…

I wonder if Eric Saward knew how close the show was coming to cancellation at this point in its history. It’s hard to believe that the script editor could have been completely unaware that the BBC was ready to axe the show. After Revelation of the Daleks, the series would return from an extended vacation with The Trial of a Timelord – an appropriate storyline given that the show itself was only being given a stay of execution. Even if you remove the pressures from outside, the show itself was in a somewhat troubled stage of its existence.

There was a lot of internal pressure and difficulties behind the scenes were building rapidly. Colin Baker had perhaps the most troubled tenure of any actor in the role, never even being given the chance to define his character in the same way that his successor, Sylvester McCoy, would. Eric Saward, the script editor and writer of this serial, famously disliked the ridiculously campy outfit given to Baker – to the point where he wrote in the blue mourning shrouds of Necros simply to cover up the gaudy patchwork yellow. It wasn’t a happy time for the series.

Prisoner of the Daleks…

You can really get a sense of that in this episode. In a way, even more than Vengeance on Varos, Revelation of the Daleks is a story filled with characters watching and commentating on the action. Davros almost seems like a stand-in for BBC management, watching the goings-on on Necros from his chamber while making snide and bitter remarks (mostly referring to other characters as “fools”) and plotting the downfall of the Doctor. As such, it feels more than a little symbolic (if also a little unfair) that the first episode ends with the title character crushed under a giant likeness of Colin Baker (though it does give us the great observation, “It’d take a mountain to crush an ego like yours”).

Even the DJ, undoubtedly the most irritating part of the serial (at least until he’s paired with Peri), exists solely to comment (sarcastically, more often than not) on the action, making snide remarks. Even the Doctor feels like a passive observer in the serial, spending the entire first half of the adventure literally walking to the scene of the action. You could argue, and I can’t disagree, that the events of the serial would have played out entirely the same way if the Doctor had never shown up at all. Perhaps it’s intended to demonstrate how entirely helpless the production team felt as all the discussion about the future of the show went on over their heads, or perhaps it’s just an attempt to tell a slightly different story than usual.

Talking head…

That said, I can’t help but think the absence of the Sixth Doctor is part of the reason this story is so well received. That’s not a knock on Baker, who did the best you could expect with the material provided, but instead a reflection on the character. The Sixth Doctor was just unlikable. The First Doctor was a curmudgeon and the Seventh Doctor was a dispassionate cynical chess master, so the Doctor isn’t always a figure of virtue – even Tom Baker’s iteration of the character was prone to bouts of arrogance and self-righteousness. However, the Sixth Doctor simply comes across as distinctly unlikable, even in his limited screentime here.

Seriously, he tells his female companion near the start of the serial, “You eat too much.” Later on, helping Peri over the wall, he remarks, “Drop you? I’ll be lucky if I can lift you, the amount you weigh.” This draws the more-than-reasonable response, “Watch it, porky!”I do think that Peri and the Doctor work together about as well as could be expected, and they do shake up the doctor-companion relationship, but the problem is that there’s not a lot of depth to the relationship – it’s very hard to understand why the two would travel together (and, especially, why Peri would stay with the Doctor).

He always feels like somebody’s watching him…

There’s a moment where the difficulty with the Doctor’s portrayal becomes apparent, as Peri and the Doctor stumble across a mutant fleeing Davros, “a product of his experimentation.” The Doctor cradles the poor refugee as he lies dying, in what really should be a nice emotional scene (Peri is obviously deeply affected by it), but it’s hard to take the sympathetic side of Baker’s Doctor seriously, because he seems like such an obnoxious jerk all the time. I think that was the problem with Colin Baker’s iteration of the character – there wasn’t a counter-balance to the character’s passive aggressive (or even outright aggressive) tendencies.

Of course, the trend in the eighties was to populate stories with thoroughly unlikable characters, making it hard to sympathise with anybody the Doctor encounters. In fact, Davros himself calls attention to the fact, goading his newest disciple to learn to hate the object of her affections, “Use the security cameras to observer his activities. Then tell me if your hate doesn’t grow.” While this added quite a bit to Peter Davison’s iteration of the character (in that it turned the nice guy into a tragic figure surrounded by a hostile and aggressive universe), it doesn’t suit Colin Baker at all.

Putting the “fun” in “funeral”…

That said, I think Revelation of the Daleks works because it takes a lot of the conventions of the Doctor Who serials being produced at this time (hyper-violence, darkness, unlikable supporting characters) and somehow makes them work as best they can. In particular, the thing about populating the story with unsympathetic characters is that it means the audience doesn’t mind the large death toll that a Dalek story inevitably brings.

While we’re on the subject of the supporting cast, it’s worth noting that this episode features a real stinker of a performance. The show tends to get a bit of an unfair reputation for terrible acting, one I’d argue is mostly undeserved. Doctor Who was unlike anything on British television, so it’s understandable that classically-trained thespians might struggle from time to time – but most do well, in fairness to them. However, Jenny Tomasin is a terrible actress and she manages to suck the life out of every scene she’s in. It’s not even gleefully scenery-chewing bad, it’s the sort of stilted and wooden performance you’d expect from a child. There’s no zest or life to it. It’s a very “amateur drama group reading Shakespeare” performance.

Sword play…

On the other hand, the rest of the cast is quite good. While there’s nothing especially fantastic, Clive Swift is as solid as ever in the role of Mr. Jebel (he’d return to the new series for Voyage of the Damned) and Eleanor Bron is clearly enjoying pantomiming it up as the administrator Kara. William Gaunt does particularly well as Orcini, “a knight of the Grand Order of Oberon”(an assassin who donates his fee to charity), and one of those endearingly quirky supporting characters the show creates from time to time, with just a hint of complexity and back story beneath a scenery-chewing exterior. It’s the little moments, like watching Orcini cradle (and affectionately stroke the hair of) his dead squire, that help to make the performance.

There’s a fair amount of surreal gore and violence on display, this being an eighties Doctor Who serial. “It’s gruesome!” a young woman declares on finding a tank filled with human brains. Orcini’s mechanical leg gets blow off at the climax of the episode, and Davros’ hand is blown clean off, scattering his fingers everywhere. Philip Hinchcliffe has nothing on this, with the violence given a truly surreal edge by the way the show doesn’t treat it so much as gothic horror, but absurd pantomime. For all the death and destruction (and even a gratuitous torture scene), it’s still feels less intense than a lot of the more buttoned-down Tom Baker serials.

Shocking…

However, to the credit of writer Eric Saward, the gruesome nature of the serial fits the story remarkably well – rather than seeming like poorly-judged window-dressing, the grosteque production design actually serves a wonderfully macabre story. Like Vengeance on Varos, the violence doesn’t seem quite so jarring because the tone of the story is much darker. After all, it’s essentially the story of Davros (a.) converting the dearly departed into Daleks, and (b.) feeding poor people their dead relatives. That’s a pretty messed up story, right there, once you get past the bizarre farce and the macabre sense of humour. It’s probably the darkest Dalek story since Genesis of the Daleks. And that, I think, is why it works so well.

It works because the Dalek presence in the story is actually relatively understated – the serial is more focused on Davros himself, and his reinvention as “the Great Healer” and the mind-games he plays with the staff at the intergalactic funeral home he’s now running. There’s a long-running argument about Davros, with certain fans arguing the character diluted the Daleks, and diminished their status as a long-term recurring threat. I respect that argument, and I agree with it to an extent. Part of the appeal of the Daleks is the fact that they have no nominal head – there’s nothing to negotiate, no ego to stroke. They’re the ultimate killing machines, a biological weapon left over from a long-forgotten war. They don’t have personalities. Putting Davros at their head diminishes those traits.

Still, I do like Davros as a character. And this really feels like the only story since Genesis of the Daleks to use Davros as a character rather than a plot point. I have to admit, I like the idea of Davros exploiting population growth and unchecked capitalism in order to fund his research and development. There’s something absolutely brilliant about the villain’s reply to the Doctor’s question about whether the wheelchair-bound meglomaniac has informed his customers what exactly they’re buying. “Of course not,” he responds, ready to rhyme off what he picked up from Marketing 101. “That would have created what I believe is called ‘consumer resistance.'”

Davros knows how to get ahead in business…

On the other hand, Davros is already gleefully chowing down on the scenery. “I! AM! DAVROS!” he insists at one point, later yelling at the Daleks, “You! must! obey! me!” We’re not that far from “the destruction! of! REALITY! ITSELF! territory, and there’s a weird campy charm to it all, as there is to the character’s rather strange new ability to fire electricity from various parts of his body. I also find it a little strange that the series really bothers to explain how Davros survived at this point – the guy’s like a cockroach, so I’m amazed that the Doctor’s even surprised to see him again at this point. His explanation for surviving is fairly mundane – when the Doctor suggests he should have died in the explosion of his spacecraft, Davros replies, “Not when there is an escape pod to be had.”

There are other nice moments as well. As irritating as the DJ’s interjections are in the first half, Alexei Sayle actually works quite well with Peri. It’s also just a little bit cool that he manages to kill a Dalek using a focused ultra-sonic beam of rock ‘n’ roll – I’m not somebody who needs to take the show entirely seriously, and there’s just something very cool about the idea of music being used to defeat the monsters. More than that, I do like the fact that Saward effectively draws attention to the fact that – as far as the show’s concerned – in the future, everyone will be British. Peri is delighted at the idea of meeting another American across the whole gulf of time and space, but isn’t surprised to find the DJ is very obviously British. “I somehow stupidly thought maybe you’d come from the States,”she concedes. It’s a nice little acknowledgment of the fact that the entire universe seems to be British (which, makes sense, given it’s a British show).

Sympathy for a mutant…

I really do like Revelation of the Daleks, even though it has a lot of the same problems as the shows around it. However, Saward manages to craft a story where these flaws seem much less severe. I can understand why the production team from the new series seem to hold the idea in such high regard – the notion of “an army of Daleks out of the dead” was borrowed for The Parting of the Ways, while director Graeme Harper returned to direct more than a couple of episodes of the relaunched series. It’s not a bad little episode, and a firm reminder of what the show was capable of, perhaps just when the producers and audience needed it most.

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