|“Actually, come to think of it, Eric Saward has never
written for vegetables. That does kind of make me jealous.”
It’s March 23rd, 1985. Philip Barley and Phil Collins are at number one with “Easy Lover.” Madonna, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Sarah Brightman and Paul Miles-Kingston, David Cassidy, and Nik Kershaw all also chart. Lower in the charts, Billy Bragg, The Smiths, and The Damned chart. In real news, ummm… actually all I’ve got, and I regret that I am not making this up, is that production of the Sinclair C5 electric tricycle is suspended. That’s all we’ve got. Sorry. Let’s move to television and Revelation of the Daleks.
What is most interesting about Revelation of the Daleks is that, other than the fact that it’s rubbish, it’s one of the greatest Doctor Who stories ever. This is, to some extent, just a restatement of our theme for Season 22 – that every story in it is a brilliant story about how terrible a story it is. Consider, for instance, the sequence in the first episode that pulls back from the Doctor and Peri to the DJ watching the Doctor and Peri to Davros watching the DJ watch the Doctor and Peri. It’s a thing of absolute beauty – one of the most narratively complex sequences in the classic series. And it’s merely the most clever of a bunch of intense clevernesses. This whole story is about passing control of the narrative around and about who does and doesn’t have authority over what’s going on.
The best Dalek stories involve unleashing the Doctor and the Daleks into someone else’s story – a drama about a space colony, the Forsythe Saga, a World War II movie (I’m talking about Genesis, not Victory), or, more recently, a bunch of reality programs, The Invasion, or Torchwood, the Sarah Jane Adventures, and a sitcom starring Catherine Tate that Catherine Tate is taking a week off from. Superficially, at least, Revelation of the Daleks mirrors that structure. Indeed, it’s on the whole a very straightforward and competent execution of that structure, well-directed by Graham Harper. Episode one shows us the world of Necros, episode two shows us Daleks slaughtering everybody on the world of Nekros. But there’s something ever so slightly wrong about this, and for that we need to look deeper at the notion of control of television.
There’s an important technological shift to note in a discussion of control over television that happened over the course of the early 1980s, which was the mainstream adoption of the remote control. It’s easiest to compare this to earlier television technology. When, in 1971, Doctor Who did a story with a bunch of very fast cuts among things and called it The Claws of Axos, the effect was that of a strange assemblage of imagery. That is, the somewhat confusing, rapid cuts around the Axon spaceship had the effect of creating an overall collage. This is because a 1971 television wasn’t built to change channels quickly – you had to get up and change it. And so the idea of switching between radically different things wasn’t part of what television did. Television presented a continual transmission of a thing. If that thing was a collage, fine, but it was still clearly one collage, if you will, and the audience focused on the overall spectacle of the thing.
But the remote control, and forgive the obviousness of this observation, invented channel surfing. Suddenly one way of watching television – arguably the default way – was to switch among different things. So when Revelation of the Daleks begins fast cuts among different parts of Necros it doesn’t look like a collage of images from one thing, it looks like flipping among multiple television programs. All of which are, due to the structure of the story (and the obsession with surveillance states that flares up this season – note that this is the third story this season to involve lots of watching people watch people), about people watching the other television programs.
This is the key thing to realize about Revelation of the Daleks and about Necros. Look at how everybody is kept apart in the story – you have Natasha and Grigory’s plot, Kara’s plot, the DJ’s not-actually-a-plot, and Jobel’s plot. In the second episode you further spin off Orcini’s plot from Kara’s plot. None of these are recognizably part of a single milieu. The usual accusation is that this is a story that is far more interested in its world than in the Doctor or the Daleks, but that misses the point – there is no world to this story. There’s just a collection of bits and bobs from other places. (This apparently even extends to the physical world of Necros – the sets are mostly repurposed from other shows.)
So the Daleks aren’t actually unleashed into anything as such. There’s no “there” to Necros. But this can’t be framed as some complaint about the inadequate fleshing out of Necros. Too much really clever effort has gone into making Necros not function as a coherent place. So this isn’t the traditional Dalek story paradigm, but it’s also not a failed execution of it. It’s something else – an active inversion of the normal paradigm.
Given everything going on within Doctor Who at this moment in time, there’s something frighteningly apt about having Doctor Who confronted with a vast assemblage of other television. The suspension is going to have a large number of entries to unfold over, but one of the major concerns underlying it was a shift towards a more overtly commercial BBC. (This ignores, of course, Doctor Who’s overseas success. As I’ve noted, the question of how overseas success ought be considered by the BBC is complex at best. Similarly, at the time of the suspension crisis Colin Baker hadn’t yet debuted in the US. The assumption that he’d tank in the US as badly as he had in the UK was not entirely unreasonable.)
So here we have a slightly absurd reiteration of the series’ actual travails. Doctor Who is actually pitted against everything else on television here. Instead of the Daleks and the Doctor being injected into other shows we get a straightforward Dalek story that is invaded by some half-dozen other television shows. This process turns out to play out substantially differently from the normal approach.
For one thing, neither the Doctor nor the Daleks actually do much in the first episode. The Doctor spends the first episode walking from the TARDIS to Tranquil Repose as various misadventures fail to happen to him. (There is that wall he climbs.) The Daleks, meanwhile, are almost entirely sidelined in the first episode, with Davros anchoring their aspect of the plot. Or, rather, his seemingly severed head in a vat. With all of them sidelined, the first episode is freed up to focus almost entirely on its other plotlines. And it’s actually quite good.
This is a real problem. Whatever frustration one might have with the fact that the show is Doctor Who and that maybe the Doctor should be in it, the truth is that he’s just about the least interesting thing in the first episode. And, worse than that, the bits with other characters are markedly more interesting than anything we’ve seen since Martin Jarvis was on screen. Yes, the deck is stacked against the Doctor here due to him having nothing to do, but really, most of the first episode is the best the show has been all year.
But just as the infusion of Doctor Who into another show does not erase the conventions of that show, the infusion of a host of other shows into a Dalek story does not mean that the conventions of a Dalek story are not observed. And if you have a bunch of Daleks in the first act you have to have a bunch of exterminations in the second. And so all of the cleverness that gets set up over the first forty-five minutes gets violently slaughtered over about twenty minutes of the second.
This is unfortunate, if inevitable. Because, frankly, the resulting Doctor/Davros confrontation and the Dalek civil war isn’t nearly as interesting as most of what came before. The collapse of the DJ from omniscient narrator commenting wryly on events to a generic character hiding from the Daleks and then getting exterminated is particularly bleak, although if we’re being honest, blowing up Daleks with rock and roll is possibly the most charming idea Eric Saward ever came up with. But for the most part this story amounts to the series confessing and demonstrating that, actually, the Daleks are less interesting than everything else on television.
This, on its own, would serve as an adequate final admission in the course of the exorcism. Having explored all of the failings of the series, the series finally and conclusively demonstrates that it’s behind the times and that the bits of other programs that assemble to make Necros are far more interesting even than Dalek action. The supposed best of Doctor Who goes up against the rest of the televisual landscape and is found wanting. Clearly it’s time to take a break and reevaluate things a little.
Except it’s worse than that. Continuing our alchemic themes, it is worth pointing out something significant that has not happened since Day of the Daleks, which is that the Daleks do not recognize the Doctor. There we read it as a commentary on the inadequacy of the earthbound format and the fact that the Doctor, in that story, isn’t quite the Doctor. It’s especially notable in contrast with Power of the Daleks where, notably, being identified by the Daleks was what defined Troughtons Doctor as the Doctor.
So within the existing grammar of the show, not being recognized by the Daleks is a cutting insult to this version of the show. It’s a final pox on the show. If the Daleks – who, let’s face it, dominate the conclusion here, since it was never really that Davison’s Doctor was ineffective so much as that the Doctor when written by Eric Saward are ineffective – aren’t able to stand up to the rest of what’s on television, well, fine. At least they’re still able to fulfill their function. The Daleks have never worked without the Doctor anyway, as Terry Nation spent the late 60s and early 70s discovering. So if they can’t cut it in the televisual world of 1985, well, who’s fault is that?
But let’s be clear here. Even the Daleks are doing better than the Doctor here. They may not be terribly interesting without the Doctor, but it’s worth noting that they’r still able to exterminate the rest of television, even if they’re not up to the task of doing it in a compelling manner. So the Daleks don’t need the Doctor to function and television needs neither of them.
The funny thing, if you want to call it that, is that this is wholly consistent with Saward’s apparent intentions. He saw the Daleks as no longer interesting, and he genuinely believed the worlds the Doctor visited were more interesting than the Doctor himself. Yes, this is almost certainly a self-fulfilling prophecy, but, well, prophecy fulfilled. The show is clearly not working even at the most basic level. It is, in fact, providing almost the exact opposite of compelling drama. Virtually all of the good bits of Revelation of the Daleks come in spite of it being a Doctor Who story, not because of it.
A central alchemical concept is the notion of putrefaction, previously dealt with in the Green Death entry. At its most basic concept, putrefaction is the process by which death becomes a creative process. Here we have the process in spades. Our season of exorcism ends at a funeral home in which the dead are literally repurposed, most obviously into Daleks. (Physical death, of course, is strictly optional) The Doctor is confronted with his apparent actual death – he even comments that it looks like this will be his last regeneration, which, to be fair, it very nearly was. The cliffhanger is him being crushed by his own death. In one sense, all that’s missing from this story is the moment in which the Doctor is reborn through his own death. Instead we get something stranger – the putrefaction breaks free of this story and grabs the series in its own maw for the next two and a half years. The thing most obviously missing from this story instead appears vividly over the next eighteen episodes of the series, as well as over the next eighteen months of the calendar as Doctor Who grapples, in real time, with a simultaneous death and recreation. And when we get to the next season, well, that’s where we’ll pick up – the idea of Trial of a Time Lord as the productive decomposition of a series that was meticulously killed this season.
But for now, this ends the main thrust of the Colin Baker era. He does, of course, get another season. In fact, we’ll still be in his era for a solid month and a half. But this is the main of it – the part that was able to play out exactly as Nathan-Turner and Saward had imagined it. The next season, despite all the extra lead time given to it, is an ungodly mess. And despite that, even at the end of it, it’s not clear what the idea of this season was supposed to be. I admit that there’s a bit of cheek to my “consciously demonstrating everything that’s wrong with Doctor Who” theme to this season, but it’s not entirely clear that a better explanation of what’s supposed to be happening here exists. Behind the scenes, as any of the myriad of accounts of this period will show, the show spent this era tearing itself apart. There isn’t what can accurately be called a creative vision here, and in many ways it’s a pleasant surprise that in the course of all of this that the program managed to articulate as clear a self-critique as it did. Now, however, we have to turn to the question of what the series could have been in this era. There are a lot of parts to this question – what it materially was during the hiatus, what else was on television at the time, what people have suggested it could have been after the fact, and what it nearly was at the time. So for the next eight entries that’s what we’ll look at.