The Thing it Does Most Efficiently (Destiny of the Daleks)

(23 comments)

As a child, this cover made me think
of this story primarily as "the one
with the better part of a sheep's
fleece on the cover." It wasn't
until I looked at the cover again
a few months ago that I realized
it was smoke
It's September 1, 1979. Cliff Richard are at the top of the charts with "We Don't Talk Anymore," a title that seems almost tautological as song titles go. After three weeks it's unseated by Gary Numan's "Cars," a song that poses something of a fundamental philosophical problem. I mean, it was one thing to try to pretend that we were facing down business as usual when we were airing the Williams era while "Wuthering Heights" was at number one or when Siouxie and the Banshees were charting. But now we're basically just kicking down the door for New Wave. Lower in the charts are the Boomtown Rats with "I Don't Like Mondays," and The Police with "Message in a Bottle," as well as ELO, Roxy Music, and Earth, Wind, and Fire, the first two of which at least heighten the sense that there's something off here - that the 80s have well and truly started without remembering to invite Doctor Who along for the ride.

Since The Armageddon Factor wrapped, most obviously, we've had Margaret Thatcher's election. But we dealt with that last entry. The compact disc got its first public demo, two workers died in the collapse of the Penmanshiel Tunnel in Scotland, and then ten more in a methane explosion in a coal mine near Wigan. The Three Mile Island disaster happens, killing/injuring exactly nobody. Airey Neave, a Conservative MP, is assassinated by the IRA. A hundred children in the Central African Empire (previously and shortly thereafter the Central African Republic) are massacred for protesting against school uniforms with the active support (and indeed, by some accounts, participation) of the emperor, whose picture was emblazoned on the uniforms. The emperor, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, had previously blown 20% of the country's GDP on his coronation.

Stil before this story, however, anti-Nazi demonstrator Blair Peach is killed by the police during a protest in London. Gay men riot in San Francisco after Harvey Milk's killer manages a light sentence on the back of the infamous Twinkie Defense. American Airlines Flight 191 crashes in Chicago, marking the deadliest aviation accident in US history prior to 2001. (And that's not the obvious 2001 event, by the way) John Paul II visits Poland in what ends up being a tremendously influential and important trip. Skylab crashes into Australia, the famed Disco Demolition Night takes place in Chicago, Saddam Hussein takes power, and Lord Mountbatten of Burma is assassinated by the IRA on the same day as the Warrenpoint Ambush. Oh, and Jimmy Carter is attacked by a non-IRA affiliated rabbit.

While during this story ESPN and For Better or For Worse debut. Emperor Bokassa, due to being, to borrow a phrase from Eddie Izzard, a mass-murdering fuckhead, is forcibly deposed by the French. And the day that the final episode of this story airs the Vela Incident, a possible nuclear test by an unknown party (the smart money is generally on Israel, South Africa, or a joint test between the two nations) takes place.

While on television... OK, look, it's a disaster. But it's not a disaster for reasons that are particularly interesting. Almost everything that's wrong with this story is not, despite Lawrence Mile's protestations to the contrary, due to the broader flaws of the Williams era or the fact that Douglas Adams is the script editor. No, pretty much every flaw this story has boils down to the fact that Terry Nation wrote it.

I mean, this shouldn't be close to a surprise. If we were taking Bob Baker and Dave Martin to task on Wednesday for the fact that it wasn't 1971 anymore then the odds of this working had to be taken as essentially nil at the start. Nation's Dan Dare stylings were slightly retro in 1963. By now they're just a sad fossil. Watching it feels like telling your grandmother it's time to turn over the car keys and give up driving.

The litany of faults is easy to list and can be found in most reviews. For the sake of critical completism, however, I'll go over them at high speed. The story genuinely believes that the mere existence of the Daleks and of Davros is a plot hook. It maintains the first episode cliffhanger reveal of the Daleks tradition that Nation has always used even in stories in which "the Daleks" are in the title. It shows utter disregard for the actual idea of the Daleks, turning them into the robots that they never were. Its conception of logic is stupid. And it not only is a tedious series of captures and escapes but one done with the apparent belief that captures and escapes are in and of themselves inherently interesting. All of this enumerated, let's let Nation exit the series with some dignity and not dwell on the faults of his last story.

Especially because, reputation aside, there’s a fair amount to respect, if not love here. There are solid reasons, watching this, to believe that the show has turned a corner. The first and most obvious of these is the presence of Douglas Adams. Miles, in one of his least defensible critical moments, suggests that Adams is at fault for most of what’s wrong in this script, focusing particularly on Romana’s regeneration scene. Where, of course, he offers the standard complaints - that it’s an utter violation of everything we know about regeneration - along with the more esoteric - “if one of the central characters can change her appearance and personality just for a laugh, then all logic breaks down and no story can function.”

Look, this is a really stupid thing to say. I mean, the deconstructionist in me already wants to just go off on the phrases “all logic” and “no story” for their absolutism and the way in which they’re carefully crafted to foreclose possibilities without having to consider them. All logic breaks down? Really? There’s no logic whatsoever that applies? Come now.

To anyone with an even vague awareness of circumstance what happened here, the logic is obvious. Mary Tamm quit, Graham Williams didn’t get a replacement scene in at the end of The Armageddon Factor, and he was left with the choice of Liz Shawing her or, well, using the fact that she’s a Time Lord and regenerating her. And without Mary Tamm... I mean, what, does Miles just want Lalla Ward to put on a Mary Tamm wig and roll over before Davros enters and shouts “Leave the man, it’s the girl I want?” ??I mean, say what you want about the opening scene, and I’m certainly not going to proclaim that it’s the program’s finest hour, but there’s a job to be done and it gets it done with a minimum of fuss. The story then moves on. Anyone with existent visual literacy will recognize the first scene as a lark that is separate from the rest of the story - a momentary pastiche to paper over a necessary plot hole before we get on to business. Clearly there is some kind of logic here, and it’s not even meaningfully different from the logic applied when you can see the zipper on the back of a monster costume. One might as well say “if the villain is obviously a man in a rubber suit and not a real monster then all logic breaks down and no story can function.” I mean, really.

No, in fact the regeneration scene marks one of the things that very visibly improves with Adam’s taking over, which is that the way in which the show handles its deficiencies becomes more efficient and effective. Since The Sun Makers we’ve been working with a kind of big problem whereby Doctor Who’s reach rather dramatically exceeds its grasp. There we formulated the idea that there was something of a punk sensibility to this inadequacy, but by this point the series has started to figure out how to respond to its gaps in a programmatic way. Routinely through this story moments that could be embarrassing - even old standards like a planet-in-a-quarry or the mobility difficulties of Daleks - get turned swiftly into occasions for a laugh. And unlike much of the humor over the last two seasons, it generally avoids gaudy showboating, preferring a quick single beat like the Doctor excitedly saying “Oh, look! Rocks!” before the scene moves on. The only such moment that showboats at all is his taunting the Dalek about following him up the shaft, but since that moment is sixteen seasons of audience expectations being fulfilled it’s tough to begrudge the show for slowing down a beat and enjoying it.

Helping this, of course, is Lalla Ward, who is phenomenally good. Mary Tamm’s Romana was a solid character who was artful at providing an ironic distance from events. But this led equally to one of the sounder complaints that Miles levels against the Williams era, which is that she doesn’t look like she believes a word of what she’s saying. This didn’t invalidate the character - if anything giving the show a mouthpiece for the audience’s occasional eyerolls was a solid move that helped give the skeptical audience aware of the dodginess of parts of it a way to engage with the show. But it did mean that every character in the show was for looking at. I’m not a huge fan of the idea of “audience identification” characters, but between the style of Baker’s Doctor, Tamm’s detachment, and K-9 being a computer there was often not actually any emotion being generated by any of the lead characters, and that could be a problem.

But Ward introduces something that has been missing from the program since Sarah Jane departed - a sense of warmth and joy in the adventures. She still has Tamm’s ability to wryly comment on the absurdity of the plot, but Ward is able to suffuse that with a sense of glee. One gets the sense that Ward’s Romana is at home in the silliness of the universe and loves being in it. She gives even her witticisms a sense of earnestness. Take, for instance, the scene in which she comments upon having two hearts, saying “one for casual and one for best.” It’s a joke, of course, but Ward delivers the joke with conviction. It’s a gorgeous delivery - one that doesn’t make it look like she (or her character) is unaware of the joke, but one that still seems real so that the line still seems to reveal something of her character beyond that she’s funny. That the underlying idea - that one has a different heart for different levels of formality - is completely gonzo gets glossed over. Before the audience gets to adequately contemplate the multiple and contradictory levels on which the line communicates the scene has moved on. It’s a charm offensive that puts Baker to shame. (And notably, the moment she walks on screen he seems to up his game, as though aware that he actually has to fight for the audience’s affections again.)

Finally there is the introduction of Steadicam to the show’s visual repertoire. Steadicam is a technical advance that it’s easy to take for granted in hindsight, but it has enormous implications. Essentially what the steadicam does is allow for much more complex camera movement that doesn’t have the shakiness of hand-held footage. Doctor Who ended up testing a unit for the BBC in this story.

What’s significant about Steadicam is that it marks a major step in a transition away from the older and ore theatrical model of storytelling and towards something more dynamic and cinematic. With Steadicam it becomes much more possible to move the camera around in space so that the sets can be rooms as opposed to models of rooms. On a superficial level this increases that “realism” thing I’m usually so skeptical of, but the real appeal is subtler. By increasing the complexity of televisual space you get more ways of telling the story and more ways of conveying information.

Which means that for all its obvious flaws Destiny of the Daleks is surprisingly well shot. The camera does things we haven’t seen before, seeming to creep around the rubble and twisty passages of the ruined Dalek city. It’s not a phenomenal revelation or anything. Indeed, the end result isn’t actually much more impressive than what a skilled director like Douglas Camfield or David Maloney could do with a regular studio setup, and so it doesn’t even clearly beat out Genesis in the visual panache department. But that observation ignores the fact that the director - Ken Grieves - is nothing particularly special. I mean, it’s tough to judge. This is his only contribution to Doctor Who. But it’s unusual to see a first time Doctor Who director with no particular prestige turn out something that looks this good. It’s technology that immediately raises the standards.

So we’ve got writing that’s starting to learn its way around problems, directing that’s got a better baseline, and the entrance of one of the best actresses to play the companion in the classic series. Yes, this story is rubbish, but Terry Nation has written at least some rubbish in every era of the program he’s contributed to, so that can’t really be held against the show. As a kid, this was one of the ones I wanted to see most, in part because I wanted to see Lalla Ward (I didn't get to until I got the video release of Shada), in part because it had Daleks, and in part because anything with Tom Baker was exciting. It was one of the first novelizations I read, and one of the first VHS episodes I asked my mother to import form the UK. Upon getting it, honestly, while it was a bit slow and the Movellans were obviously rubbish, it wasn't an unwatchable disaster. Watched in the context of its season its flaws remain obvious, but the overall sense is still of a program that's on an upward trajectory and that might, any day now, manage something unequivocally and fantastically awesome again.

Comments

WGPJosh 5 years, 2 months ago

I am the only person in the entire world who seems to genuinely enjoy this story. It is definitely Douglas Adams who makes it work, and you get massive kudos from me for acknowledging and applauding his contributions here and laying the blame for the serial's faults at the feet of Terry Nation. It's certainly not perfect, I freely admit that (and I for one hate Romana's constant capture scenes, though she does get to pull a rather clever Xanatos Gambit here which is neat to see) but for my money this is a far more interesting story than people give it credit for.

In my opinion in order to fully understand "Destiny of the Daleks" we need to look at it in the context of the "fan industrial complex" you brought up in the "Armageddon Factor" entry and the growing hardcore Doctor Who fandom we've been talking about since "The Deadly Assassin". Back in that serial, you spent a great deal of your megapost responding to Jan Vincent Rudzki's review in which he freaked out over what he perceived as "canon defilement" and disregard for the series' established history, consistency and logic. You did an excellent job of showing why that kind of obsessive fan myopia is a dangerous way to view the show, and with "Destiny of the Daleks" Graham Williams and Douglas Adams are saying the exact same thing.

I've always read "Destiny" as Williams and Adams consciously going out of their way to de-mythologize the show as a way of wryly satirizing the kind of Doctor Who fan who obsessively keeps track of continuity errors and perhaps cares a little bit too much about trying to establish a "Doctor Who Canon". As a result, we have Adams intentionally and gleefully giving us things that are flagrantly and obviously continuity errors, hence Romana's regeneration, which, contrary to what everyone else seems to believe, I think is just a brilliant bit precisely *because* it flies in the face of what we assume about regeneration.

There are also plenty of moments where the characters are even more acutely genre savvy and medium aware than usual, like The Doctor complaining about K-9's laryngitis by openly wondering what the point is for a robot to *have* laryngitis or the famous scene with the Daleks in the corridor. Far from being offensive, I found them delightful bits of gentle, self-deprecating humour that serve to ease the transition into a rocky season for the production team.

"Destiny" is taking the piss out of Doctor Who yes, but that's the whole point of the serial (at least that's what it became once Adams re-wrote it wholecloth). And to be blunt I don't see what the big problem with that is. It's never good when we start taking something so deathly seriously we can't sit back and laugh at it once in awhile, and that's what Adams is trying to remind us of here. He's responding to the same kind of sad, lonely, anal-retentive fan who yelled and screamed at "The Deadly Assassin" for breaking canon and who's going to go on to become all the more vocal as the 1980s progress. I think we should be thanking Adams for "Destiny of the Daleks", not raking him over the coals. I mean, are we going to begrudge Steven Moffat for "Curse of the Fatal Death" as well? Doctor Who can be about material social progress and Utopian alchemical anarchy, but it should never get so self-important it's beyond the occasional good-natured trolling.

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elvwood 5 years, 2 months ago

WGP Josh, you are not the only fan of Destiny - it is, in fact, my son's joint favourite Tom Baker story, along with Robots of Death...

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jsd 5 years, 2 months ago

Not my favorite story, but I certainly don't hold with the popular opinion that it's a load of crap. I find it mostly enjoyable. The Douglas Adams influence can be felt pretty strongly and that's not a bad thing to my mind. When I first saw it in my early teens, the idea of two armies of robots (ok, daleks aren't robots but let's roll with it) was just plain coooooool.

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William Whyte 5 years, 2 months ago

I want to say something about the story, but I also want to say something about this:

There are solid reasons, watching this, to believe that the show has turned a corner.

Yes, this is a thing you could have thought at the time. Yes, it's a thing a lot of people watching wanted to think. But the problem is that this is a thing we're going to be thinking once a season from now on, and if you think you turn a corner that often, then the last time you thought you turned a corner you probably didn't. We have a show we love that never quite lives up to expectations but continually finds ways to remind us why we love it. And we still love it anyway. It's still our show. But what we want is for *everyone* to love it, like they did with Jon and with early Tom. Not just our show, but everybody's show. "Doctor Who, the children's own programme which the adults adore". And we see signs of life in the Steadicam work or in the genius of City of Death, and we hope our friends will watch it and love our show again, and then our show gives them The Creature From the Pit, Nightmare of Eden, and Horns of Nimon.

Because the problem is that for all that the Williams/Read era, and the Williams/Adams era, and the Bidmead era, and even god help us the Saward era, all have a defined attitude and an idea of the things they can say with the show, it's not until the Cartmel era (with perhaps a slight nod to the end of the Bidmead era) that this is married to a fierce commitment to good execution. What we lose at the end of Hinchcliffe/Holmes isn't just Robert Holmes's commitment to rewrite scripts so they're unrecognizable by their original author: we lose David Maloney, Douglas Camfield, Rodney Bennett and Michael E. Briant. We keep a show that's full of good ideas, but from now till Remembrance of the Daleks it trips over itself, again and again, trying to turn those ideas into TV.

So don't torture yourself looking for turning points. The grim reality is that, for seven years, there aren't any. There are just some good stories and some bad stories.

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Spacewarp 5 years, 2 months ago

General fan reaction to Romana's regeneration has always highlighted for me two major failings of Doctor Who fandom:

1. Taking the programme too seriously
2. Expecting it to be perfect

Phil, you're obviously a big fan of Doctor Who (no really Dave? How'd you figure that?), and have a great fondness for this era, so it's splendid to see you continually slaughtering fandom's sacred cows, and cutting through the BS (if you'll pardon my mixed metaphors).

- Dave

PS having lived through (and been directly affected by) the Thatcher years, I enjoyed your previous post, but have wisely kept away from the Comments. Several of my close friends fell foul of Fortress Stonehenge in 1985 (though luckily none of them were at the Beanfield), and I have always maintained that after Mrs T is dead and buried I will be putting on my dancing shoes.

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William Whyte 5 years, 2 months ago

Replying to myself: But the problem is that this is a thing we're going to be thinking once a season from now on -- to be precise, the following seemed like turning points at the time, before we get to the actual turning point of Remembrance:

* The Leisure Hive
* Full Circle
* The Keeper of Traken
* Kinda
* Earthshock
* Arguably, Mawdryn Undead
* Frontios
* Caves of Androzani
* Arguably, Revelation of the Daleks
* One story of your choice from Season 24

This is just to emphasise that the important thing is not the turning point stories themselves, it's that from Horror of Fang Rock on there was a permanent sense that a turning point was needed, and a lot of emotional effort expended on persuading oneself that it had had been reached.

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inkdestroyedmybrush 5 years, 2 months ago

@ wgpjosh - sorry, but i feel that this story is a load of rubbish and thats a compliment compared to what i would have to say about Horns of Nimon. Adams is too clever by half, and has delighted in taking the piss out of the stories, but doesn't replace it with anything that I want to hang my hat on. If the writer isn't taking this seriously, then the actors aren't and now i'm wondering why in the world you bother to have a narrative at all since actions have no consequences what so ever. Its self serving crap and far more fun to discuss on a PHD's blog than it is to watch.

In fact, i think that this is one of Philips's biases - he loves the ideas so much that it certainly makes failed on screen disasters much more interesting to chat about than to watch. And I'd much rather watch well made doctor who on television than failed but idea ridden doctor who on the blog (although, don't get me wrong, that has its enjoyment as well).

This season has turned a corner, directly into the rubbish heap and as it careens out of control it will barf out one last entertaining one in city of death before impact.

@ william whyte - agreed that it seemed at the time for the next 7 years + that we would say, "oh, now they get it right! now they've got a handle on it." but they dont'. And JNT never really did. It was all an accident more than anything else.

What i want our erstwhile blogmaster to tackle is the overarching dynamic of all the Doctors and Companions dynamic from JNT's time. Specifically that, in his era, no one ever seems to be having a good time. There is more bitching and griping and anger than ever before in the Tardis. There is no sense that Nyssa, TEgan, Adric, Peri ever really want to travelling in the TARDIS.

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Iain Coleman 5 years, 2 months ago

@inkdestroyedmybrush:

To be fair, both Mel and Ace do seem to enjoy their Tardis travelling, for all Mel's eagerness to dash off with the first bit of rough she encounters.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 2 months ago

There is a larger philosophical bias on my part towards what I call redemptive readings. Simply put, I think that given the choice between a supportable critique and a supportable piece of praise one ought favor the praise, though not to the extent of ignoring critiques or failing to adequately consider and refute criticisms. Simply put, for any aesthetic philosophy which holds that good art is a positive thing in the world it makes sense to try to maximize the amount of it you can get away with.

So yes, of course I love Doctor Who and try my hardest to enjoy a given story. But I extend the same courtesy to anything. The real sign of my obsessive love for Doctor Who is... well, you're reading it.

But more broadly, I disagree with William about the length of the wilderness years. I mean, this is hypothesis to be tested by rewatching the 80s episodes (which I've seen all of from Keeper of Traken on, but sometimes have very few memories of or haven't seen in over a decade), but I think the actual period of severe decline is basically from The Twin Dilemma to Time and the Rani - a period in which I can identify exactly zero stories that I unequivocally love. (Though there are... three that I have at least some warm feelings towards) I think that Nathan-Turner catastrophically misconceived Colin Baker's Doctor and that this took the existing problems of the Davison era (which were there, as in any era) and exacerbated them to nearly unwatchable crises.

But I think the corner-turn in Season 24 happens with Paradise Towers (though it's not until Remembrance that the show gets up to where a given story has higher odds of being a classic than it does of being a disaster), and I think that Nathan-Turner's first four seasons are solid with occasional missteps as opposed to wildly varying in quality.

As for the tail-end of Season 17... thus far only Nightmare of Eden has really tested my patience, though Horns of Nimon is... not promising after its first episode. It's an improvement on Season 16, which was in turn an improvement on 15.

So on the whole, I'd describe post-Hinchcliffe Doctor Who as having a massive drop in quality after Fang Rock, climbing out of the hole over the course of four seasons (three Williams, one JN-T) and escaping properly around Full Circle, staying good, collapsing dramatically and shockingly with Twin Dilemma, recovering starting with Paradise Towers, and then spending its last eight stories as good as it's ever been.

But the main point that the corner turn here is setting up is that much of what Bidmead and Nathan-Turner do to improve the show in 1980/81 has its roots starting here. And, oddly, in Nightmare of Eden, but that's another post. :)

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WGPJosh 5 years, 2 months ago

@inkdestroyedmybrush

We're just gonna have to agree to disagree here again.

@Phil

Definitely second you on your comment about redemptive readings. I too try to be more lenient than not when it comes to this sort of thing, though there are indeed things that test my patience as well. I'm a big fan of Season 17 in general with only "Creature from the Pit" not working for me on any level (and I'm looking forward to seeing how you redeem it). As for "Horns of Nimon", I think that is an uproarious bit of comedy that needs to be seen as exactly that: Nothing more, nothing less. Watching Tom Baker, Lalla Ward and Graham Crowden on stage together is a Ham Fest of Biblical proportions the likes of which are seldom seen. It is, in fact, a Ham Singularity. And it is awesome.

That being said, I am really not at all fond of Season 18, nor am I really even of the Davison era so calling it as a "turning point" and "Full Circle" as the moment when Doctor Who comes out of its decline is... pretty hard for me to swallow. However, I'll be the first to admit my reservations are more due to a philosophical disagreement I have with Nathan-Turner about his conception of Davison's Doctor and an intense, seething dislike of Matthew Waterhouse more than the actual structure of the show. It might be petty, but I can't get past it. The Colin Baker era is, of course, an unwatchable disaster. It'll be harder for me to be fair to those years, but I'll do my best as you cover them. We'll get to that when we get to it though I suppose.

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Alan 5 years, 2 months ago

Well first of all, I'm also a fan of Destiny. Once you get past the fact that once again they're going to be running around a gravel quarry for four episodes, I think it's pretty good. In fact, I'll shock some of you by saying it's one of the better Dalek stories I've seen. Of course, I never saw any of the Hartnell or Troughton Dalek stories, so really, it only has Day, Planet, Genesis, Revelation, Resurrection and Remembrance to compare to, and out of that list, I'd put it third.

Also, I always felt terribly sorry for Matthew Waterhouse. My problem was not with the actor but the character of Adric, and my problem with him was the same as my problem with the Sixth Doctor, Peri, Mel, and to a lesser extent Tegan and Turlough -- JNT's deliberate, conscious and frankly baffling decision to have these characters written to be as obnoxious and abrasive as possible. I honestly think he saw it as a problem that Tom Baker got by so long solely on personal charm and the likeability of his character and he resolved never to have that happen again on his watch.

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inkdestroyedmybrush 5 years, 2 months ago

@ wpgjosh - FWIW you describe what you like about it so well that i fully understand WHY you enjoy it, it just doesn't work the same way with me. Given our reactions over the earlier Baker stories, I'll be curious to see which you like in the "thoroughly uneven '80's". no offense meant.

agree with the redemptive aspects of the critique as well.

still giggling over "ham singularity". seriously. And yes, while its hard to describe Mel as a character, she really was someone for the doctor to talk to, Ace finally did break the mold of someone who actually wanted to, and had motivation to travel in the Tardis. And it showed. Its just that that is a loooooong time since having a character who felt the rush and longed for the splendor that Lis Sladen described so well in School Reunion. I think that it is an interesting period of companions chosen because JNT read a manual that said "the nature of drama is friction among the characters" and took it too much to heart.

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Keith 5 years, 2 months ago

Now we're getting into the dregs, though I never felt any hostility towards this particular story. The only things that bugged me about it were the regeneration being played for laughs, and the insistence that the Daleks were robots. Romana being able to try on several regenerations runs counter to every regeneration we've seen to this point, and bothers me in a way that changing the Time Lords from all powerful beings into petty bureaucrats didn't. I don't know, why, though it may have something to do with the order in which I saw the episodes (I saw THE DEADLY ASSASSIN long before I got around to THE WAR GAMES, so I guess I saw them as "politicians" using their power to intimidate the War Lords, rather than as all-powerful beings who have suddenly been revealed as something much less). It still annoys me less than the suggestion that Time Lords can change sex during regenerations though.

For me, the nadir is HORNS OF NIMON (yes, even worse than CREATURE FROM THE PIT), though unlike many people, I kinda like NIGHTMARE OF EDEN. Season 18 was a turning point for me, and I'd rather watch the weakest episode from that season than almost any episode from Season 17 (guess which episode from Season 17 I consider the good one, and win a prize).

When I saw DESTINY, I thought it was cool to see a sense of continuity in the series (as this episode is a follow-up to the story of GENESIS OF THE DALEKS, rather than just a reappearance of a particular alien) that was not ordinarily done in classic WHO. Odd that the Daleks were the only aliens to have an ongoing arc with each of their stories, but maybe that was a function of the fact that they had to keep finding a way to justify Davros' presence in each story. He was certainly a more interesting main villain than his creations were at this point in the series.

As for companions, the endless complaining and griping from the characters really dragged the show down. Tegan was by far the worst character. Every time she would start sulking, I'd start wishing the Doctor would drop her in the nearest supernova. I can't believe that there are people who like that character. At least she didn't scream like Mel.

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WGPJosh 5 years, 2 months ago

@inkdestroyedmybrush

I said I had a very unpopular opinion of the series! ;-) I freely admit that: It took me a LONG time to warm up to the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era but I have always adored Seasons 16 and 17. I love "Destiny" I don't mind "Nightmare" and I even love "Horns of Nimon". Blasphemy, I know, but it's true. Also, the unused stories from Season 17 are some of the most wildly creative and interesting in the show's history and I keep hoping someday they'll come to light.

I'll save my comments about the early '80s for when we actually get there but broadly, I don't like much of any of it. Season 18 (aside from not having a single story that inspires me or catches my interest) is ruined for me by Adric and the departure of Lalla Ward. But mostly Adric. My issues with the Davison era are mostly my fundamental philosophical problem with the conception of Davison's Doctor, my finding Nyssa and Tegan to be incredibly flat and underdeveloped, sloppy management on Nathan-Turner's part and also Adric. The Colin Baker era is the Colin Baker era. I have nothing to add to that.

I will say I will leap to defend Peri and Mel (this is me being unpopular again). Peri because I genuinely think Nicola Bryant is a lovely person (not just for the obvious reasons) and the character could have had potential but wasn't given the chance. As others have said, Mel seemed to truly be friends with The Doctor which we hadn't seen in a long time. She was written generally terribly of course, but she had moments where she came off as genuinely friendly and likable. It also helps I'm very familiar with them both on Big Finish, where they're astronomically better served and star in a few of my all-time favourite plays.

But wow, we're leaping ahead a lot aren't we?

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William Whyte 5 years, 2 months ago

Phil -- But more broadly, I disagree with William about the length of the wilderness years. [...] the actual period of severe decline is basically from The Twin Dilemma to Time and the Rani

Just to be clear about what I'm saying: I don't think the show was actively bad for that period. I like the Williams era, I love Season 18, I like Davison a lot, I love some Davison stories, and obviously mature McCoy is a joy. (I too don't love any of the C. Baker/Saward stories and actively dislike most of them).

But went from being a show that everyone liked and some people loved fiercely to a show that some people loved fiercely and pretty much everyone else thought was crap. As a Doctor Who fan, I always wanted to be able to tell people I loved it and have them go "oh yes, I remember that bit when...", *without* having them go on to say "it's got a bit silly now, hasn't it?". Liking Doctor Who was never meant to be a mark of rebellion. Family TV fandom isn't like outsider music. We wanted to be able to build a straw Dalek and know that people were smiling at it, not laughing at it.

So my list of turning points above isn't a list of good stories as such, it's a list of the points where the series seemed to be reinventing itself and, if it did it that way well enough for a while, everyone else would come to respect it again. Full Circle is there, for example, not because it was great but because it meant the show was going to be like The Silurians, but better made, and was going to be known as the place where 18-year-olds got their first scripts on TV (a very exciting prospect to me at 12).

None of the turning points really were, of course, and then Remembrance came along and I was able to say to my friends, "You know, you really should give Doctor Who another try". And then Ghost Light came along and I was able to shout it at them.

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William Whyte 5 years, 2 months ago

Picking up on various other points:

@inkdestroyedmybrush -- yes, "Now they've got it right!" is exactly what I felt too. It's one reason why I love Rose so much -- faults and all, they really did have a handle on it.

@iain -- although ink talked about "JNT's time", it's clear that he was talking about JNT/Saward, so I think your counterpoint re Ace actually emphasises his main point. (It's exactly Saward -- one thing that struck me rewatching Castrovalva recently was just how good the relationship between Nyssa and Tegan is in that). Mel, of course, is not canon. (please tell me I don't need to add a smiley to that)

@Phil -- Redemptive readings are not just great, they're the only approach you can take that sustains a blog like this. (Which is one reason why I felt I had to step in with the big pro-Baker and Martin thing last story). Keep doing them! The problem, though, with repeated "turning the corner" pronouncements is that they make the redemptive readings of previous stories seem insincere.

@Alan -- Yeah, Adric got very badly written, especially around Four to Doomsday. The worst part of JNT's reaction to Williams was that he knew that the show had become too silly and made it his mission as a result to squeeze all the fun out of it. The awful, joyless characters given to the companions can be seen as an attempt to keep them well screwed down, to avoid ever having again the problems everyone had with Tom Baker.

@WGPJosh: I too really like Peri -- Nicola Bryant was perhaps the only person other than Peter Davison who was able to take Eric Saward's awful dialog and make it sound like something she'd actually thought of. It didn't always work but it did sometimes. I could never hack Mel, though.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 2 months ago

All of which said, I do still think that this does mark an important turning point. Much as I'm apathetic about it, Star Wars did pose a significant problem to Doctor Who. Not just on the level that its effects were so much better (after all, it's not as though Enemy of the World's effects held a candle to You Only Live Twice) but on the level that it was engaged in a profoundly different sort of storytelling. The extent to which it told its story with images was profound, and something that Doctor Who's more theatrical tradition had real trouble responding to.

But the introduction of Steadicam - and that is, I think, by far the most important shift to happen with this story - meant that Doctor Who was beginning to move down that road as well. And more to the point, given the tendency that people have to treat the gap from Horns of Nimon to The Leisure Hive as a massive and fundamental shift in what the program was, it's an important one to mark because it shows that much of what that transition is taken to mean can be found back in the Williams era.

And that's why I'm willing to treat this one as a corner turning - because it does mark the beginning of a distinct and traceable trend of improvement. Much of Seasons 15 and 16 are the process you describe - ooh, it seems to be figuring it out, yes, it's all coming together, oh, no, wait, there it goes again. But here we have the start of an improvement that continues to develop solidly over the next two seasons until Doctor Who's storytelling style is permanently reshaped.

That's the very definition of a corner turning, surely.

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William Whyte 5 years, 2 months ago

Talking of redemptive readings, and inspired by this story, let's single out one thing Terry Nation was very good at (although it doesn't in fact appear in this story): the people who choose to live alongside evil. He brought us at least five fantastic supporting characters: Ashton the black marketeer and the two old ladies (counting as one character) in Dalek Invasion of Earth; Karlton ("The highest... next to you.") in Dalek Master Plan; Nyder, obviously; and Guy Crayford in The Android Invasion. Even the two most interesting segments of The Keys of Marinus -- Morphoton and the trial in Millennius -- are about living in a socieity that's slightly perverted compared to ours.

I know I'm obsessed with It Happened Here, but it seems to me that Nation was too. A lot of his best stories are effectively set in England after a Nazi invasion. Most other Doctor Who stories take the approach of Dicks (a good basic setup that needs to be saved) or Holmes (everything's a bit screwed up, but it's still somewhere a person of goodwill with a healthy dose of cynicism can get by). Nation really provides the template for the Resistance Fighters story, and provides it so well that Haisman & Lincoln and Holmes both reused it slavishly during Season 6.

When he doesn't use that template, though, his stories don't work so well, and sadly this is one of those cases. Oh well.

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Wm Keith 5 years, 2 months ago

Destiny of the Daleks was my first experience of the disappointment which is such an integral part of being a fan.

A Dalek story. Genesis had been...well, Genesis. And there can hardly have been a better-thumbed book in the house than In An Exciting Adventure With. The novelisation of Destiny was available for pre-order through the school book club. This was an Event.

And then. Bin bags. My abiding memory of the story is black bin bags. Chases through the corridors of the city of the black bin bags. A dalek struggling to burst through a black bin bag. None of the previous year's wit. And Davros again, even though he'd been killed last time.

I knew then I'd outgrown the Target books. I know now I still have a thing for Mary Tamm.

So, for me at any rate, a corner was turned, in the wrong direction. Fortunately, the rest of the season was much more on track.

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Henry R. Kujawa 4 years, 11 months ago

Well, nobody else mentioned it so I will. Romana's regeneration makes PERFECT sense within the already-established context of the series. The problem is, if you lived in the US, you had never been able to see "PLANET OF THE SPIDERS" until after "THE FIVE DOCTORS" aired. Because it's all right there in Part 6. They just don't explain it here.

She is NOT going thru several bodies-- she is projecting a 3D image of her potential future self. She just does it several times. She did graduate with a triple-first, after all.

Baker did something like this, only he's such a dodgy "Time Lord", he didn't do it right, and in fact, didn't even know he was doing it, and had to have it explained to him. Yes, JNT and Bidmead didn't bother to explain it either in "LOGOPOLIS".

I bet if Romana & Kam-Po ever crossed paths, they'd get along spendidly.

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goatie 4 years, 7 months ago

I view Romana's regeneration scene as an echo (one that gets louder, in fact) of the Doctor's wardrobe scene from Robot. Adams knows he has a character and actress who can perfectly complement the Doctor, so of course she gets to indulge in the same kind of silliness he started out with.

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David Gerard 3 years, 3 months ago

Watching it at the time (and I keep noting this because back then, I was in the target audience, i.e. children), I was fine with it. It was obviously being silly and sort of didn't go with the idea of regeneration as presented before, but Miles' reaction is the sort that makes people think of comic-book store staff.

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Henry R. Kujawa 1 year, 6 months ago

"pretty much every flaw this story has boils down to the fact that Terry Nation wrote it"

I'm watching it again right now. In episode form, one per day, first time in over 30 years. And I absolutely agree with this assessment.

I've seen Nation do good work on THE SAINT, on THE AVENGERS, and on those rare occasions when he's on DOCTOR WHO with something-- ANYTHING-- other than the G**-D*** Daleks. What the HELL was it with that man, that he was so incapable of writing a decent Dalek story, yet insisted on continuing to write such lousy ones over and over?

Seriously... "The Keys Of Marinus"-- AND "The Android Invasion"-- are 2 of my all-time faves. I'm not kidding.

There's only 2 things that make this worth watching-- Tom Baker & Lalla Ward.

And even there, I keep wondering if this might have been better had Mary Tamm stuck around (SIGH!).

"One gets the sense that Ward’s Romana is at home in the silliness of the universe and loves being in it."

I do get that impression. Mary Tamm's Romana started out as somebody who was out of their depth without knowing it. But by the time she left, she'd become a LOT more comfortable and confident. So I see Lalla Ward's Romana as a natural extension and continuation of that-- although with the regeneration, it's more of a JUMP than a natural slow evolve. You know, this is almost EXACTLY what happened with "Gwen Stacy" when John Romita's "editor" (and I do use that word loosely) told him, "Make Gwen nicer!", without actually bothering to do the work over a series of stories where she would grow to be nicer.

"it wasn't an unwatchable disaster"

No. But then, I find even "The Invisible Enemy" is tolerable, compared to fully HALF of JNT's output. I think it mainly hurts because this is right between TWO of my favorites.

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