5 years, 9 months ago
|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.
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