It’s October 5th, 1988. U2 are at number one with “Desire,” unseated a week later by Whitney Houston with “One Moment in Time.” This lasts for two weeks before Enya takes over with “Orinoco Flow,” a song that holds Kylie Minogue out of #1. Erasure, Bobby McFerrin, Milli Vanilli, Rick Astley, Phil Collins, and Pet Shop Boys also chart. Since Dragonfire The KLF has also charted, under the name The Timelords, with “Doctorin’ the TARDIS,” but we’ll deal with it next Pop Between Realities entry.
In real news, first to catch up, Perl was created by Larry Wall, perestroika began in the USSR, and Canadian Celine Dion won the Eurovision contest for Switzerland. And the Local Government Act became law, including Section 28, more about which on Friday. While during this story, Ian Paisley denounces Pope John Paul II as the antichrist while he addresses the European Parliament, bits of Spycatcher are finally published in the media, Michael Dukakis spectacularly flubs a question about capital punishment in a US Presidential debate, and the UK government bans interviews with IRA members, which the BBC deals with by hiring actors to play IRA members and read actual IRA members’ interview quotes.
While on television, at long last, it’s Remembrance of the Daleks. The first unambiguous, widely recognized classic of Doctor Who since Caves of Androzani. A tentpole of Doctor Who history. And in all likelihood, the Doctor Who story I’ve seen the most times – although The Curse of Fenric is quite a contender as well. I won’t pretend that I have anything resembling impartiality here. I love Remembrance of the Daleks. It’s one of the stories that is simply and straightforwardly why I am a Doctor Who fan.
But where to start with it? The beginning, one imagines – that is, after all, where it starts. One of the most obvious things about Remembrance of the Daleks is the way in which it returns to the iconography of An Unearthly Child to tell its story. On paper, of course, this sounds like unbearable fanwank. But this obscures the way in which the story works. Yes, it’s packed to the gills with references to the past. But they’re just that – references. There are no real ways in which this story relies on knowledge of An Unearthly Child beyond the twin facts that it’s the first Doctor Who story and it’s being referenced repeatedly by this story. Having seen An Unearthly Child is helpful only in catching the specific references.
But equally, this isn’t the sort of empty wink of Attack of the Cybermen either. There the references to An Unearthly Child were wholly extraneous – little more than an easter egg that the show was inexplicably self-congratulatory over. Here, however, it’s crucial that An Unearthly Child is being referenced, but only inasmuch as it is a major part of Doctor Who’s mythology. What matters here is that we have returned to the beginning of the series. The important thing is the symbolism of this return, not the plot mechanics as such.
Nevertheless, this return does include a honking big retcon to the origins of the Doctor. Not just the implications of the Doctor briefly acting as though he were one of the people working with Omega on the stellar manipulator, but the larger fact that Hartnell’s Doctor had, apparently, hidden a vastly powerful Time Lord weapon in London prior to An Unearthly Child, and the resulting implications regarding his departure from Gallifrey (which now appears to have included nicking the Hand as he went).
In this regard perhaps the most surprising thing is that this actually clarifies things rather than obscures them. An Unearthly Child always had a bit of a plot hole in the question of what exactly the Doctor considered so dangerous about letting Ian and Barbara go, and why he goes and kidnaps them instead. After all, the Doctor ought to figure that Ian and Barbara would simply be dismissed as lunatics with no proof. And yet he kidnaps them. The Hand of Omega, in this regard, is actually a fairly useful insertion, in that it actually explains what the Doctor was so afraid about: that in investigating him they might discover the Hand.
No, the thing that muddies the waters of the past isn’t the Hand but rather the Daleks. To phrase the question simply, at what point, exactly, did the Doctor decide to use the Hand against the Daleks. The fact that the Doctor has shown up with a plan already in place with elements that date back to the Hartnell era is striking. Indeed, it’s something we’ve never seen before. The Doctor has never entered a story with a pre-existing strategy. We’ll talk about the thematic implications of this later, but given how unprecedented it is it’s difficult, coming at the story fresh, not to get the sense that the Doctor was always planning on using the Hand against the Daleks, especially since the story gives no hints as to what else the Doctor might have been planning.
The problem, of course, is that the Doctor very clearly has no idea who or what the Daleks are in The Daleks, and that this image of Hartnell’s Doctor as being the sort of person who is rushing about time and space trying to defeat the Daleks is in stark contrast to how Hartnell, over his first few stories, develops the character into being a hero. In this regard there’s a strong reason to resist what this story is trying to do. Yes, of course, we can handwave the problems away, but let’s for the moment ignore what can be explained within continuity and focus on what the story is trying to tell us, which seems to be something that jars with the past.
All of which said, let’s cast our gaze back at past Dalek stories for some sort of precedent. Because there’s an obvious one. The last almost universally recognized classic Dalek story, after all, featured the Doctor going back and attempting to retcon the history of the Daleks. Here’s there revenge – an attack upon the history of the program and of the Doctor. But what’s interesting is what history it is that they actually attack. They do not, after all, make any move on the pre-Unearthly Child history of the Doctor. They attack the transmitted beginning of the Doctor – the start of his narrative.
Certainly the episode implies that this happens, in essence, moments after An Unearthly Child. Although there’s no reason for the book to be in the chemistry classroom the discovery of a book on The French Revolution speaks volumes. Yes, Susan brought it home in An Unearthly Child, but the fact that the camera lingers on it and flags it as a significant object is interesting. The only reason to flag it is to imply that it is, in fact, Susan’s book, forcing us to assume that the people making Remembrance falsely believed she left it in the classroom and that we’re picking up, essentially, the day after An Unearthly Child.
If we must insist upon an in-universe explanation, then, it appears that the Daleks have effectively followed the Doctor here. We could ask when, exactly, the Doctor knew that the Daleks would come here, but the question quickly becomes complex – after all, large swaths of the Daleks’ plans require them to have been in place for some time at the start of the story. In other words, for the first time the series is tacitly piercing the veil of An Unearthly Child, and what we are finding is that the space before the series began is positively lousy with Daleks.
The Daleks, then, are clearly a metatextual element here. They are attacking the Doctor in a space that does not make a lot of sense within the context of his supposed fictional biography, but that makes considerable sense within his thematic biography. To do so they must be taken to be at least partially aware of this narrative. And fair enough – if they’re the arch enemies of the Doctor then they ought to be entitled to at least as much narrative awareness as he is. But we must ask, what, exactly, are they trying to do to his narrative?
It’s not, after all, to kill him. We know that the Daleks have been buzzing around Coal Hill School and Totters Lane for ages while the Doctor and Susan were there and they didn’t lay a plunger on him. This is remarkable, particularly if you’re the sort of person who pays any attention to how Dalek chronology would have to work and recognizes that time traveling Daleks all come from late in the Dalek chronology, which means that somewhere in the vicinity of this story they were perfectly willing to try to hunt down Hartnell’s Doctor in The Chase. But here they’re actually seeming to take care to avoid the Doctor – note that one shows up around Foreman’s Yard for the first time only after the Doctor has apparently fled the premises, and that they skulk about in the basement of Coal Hill School until Susan is gone.
So what are they playing at? Back in Genesis of the Daleks we suggested that the central conflict was that the Doctor was trying to render the Daleks susceptible to history and to rewriting. If we take this story to be the reverse fixture, then, all of this makes perfect sense: the Daleks are trying to render the Doctor absolute. This is, after all, clearly what Davros implies when he suggests that now the Daleks will be Lords of Time – that somehow their use of the Hand of Omega will put them ahead of the Time Lords. The reason why this would be seems straightforward enough – they’ll have rewritten the Doctor.
And within the story there’s a continuing thread gesturing in this direction. After all, this is the first story since The Invasion of Time in which the Doctor’s knowledge and the audience’s knowledge do not develop even remotely in sync. This is significant. Most drama proceeds by steadily evolving the audience’s knowledge of what’s going on and the character’s knowledge. Dramatic twists and reversals are almost always versions of “and then he/she learns X” or “and then the audience discovers that Y has been going on all along.”
In Doctor Who the audience and the Doctor usually figure things out more or less at the same time. The Invasion of Time’s one really interesting idea was discarding that and having the Doctor acting in a way that made no sense based on audience knowledge, with the central mystery being what the Doctor knew that we didn’t. But that was a one-off dependent on the fact that the setting was Gallifrey and thus that the Doctor had good reason to know all manner of things the audience didn’t. When the Doctor returns to his pre-Unearthly Child place of origins of course he has knowledge we lack.
To an extent that same trick is used here, but there’s a difference, which is that the audience doesn’t have the same gaps in their knowledge. 1963 is a knowable time, and the iconography of this story is familiar, not strange. The audience has knowledge of what’s going on. And the Doctor isn’t acting inexplicably as such. Instead he’s acting explicably, doing thoroughly Doctorish things, but he’s doing it according to a logic that is obscure to us. And so instead of following the Doctor’s reasoning and knowledge as the story goes along we spend the story catching up to his pre-existing position while he remains largely, though not entirely, static. Or, to put it another way, the Doctor is, in fact, bordering on being absolute.
But equally important is the way in which the Daleks’ notion of absolutism is called into question. In one corner we have the Daleks, created by Davros to be the ultimate life form and the pinnacle of evolution – an absolute and teleological force. In the other we have the Daleks, created by Davros to be the ultimate life form and the pinnacle of evolution – an absolute and teleological force. These two groups, of course, hate each other’s guts. This is not merely a point about mutually exclusive absolute positions, but rather one about the eventual obsolescence of all absolutes. The Daleks, in putting themselves as absolutes outside the arc of history, have trapped themselves in a self-destructive absurdity.
This is used to create a wealth of parallels with racism in the 1960s. This is, of course, terribly heavy handed. But what gets missed in the observation that Remembrance of the Daleks is a stridently anti-racist story is its depiction of racism. Remembrance pulls off an interesting balance between moral certainty and an acknowledgment of genuine complexity. The key scene in this regard is the much-noted one in which Ace discovers the “No Coloureds” sign. Apparently the then Head of Drama, when Andrew Cartmel somewhat indecorously insisted on rewinding the tape of the episode to show him that scene when he missed it taking a phone call, noted that it was a good scene but that Ace should have torn up the sign.
Cartmel, in hindsight, disagrees, and good for him. His instincts were and are solid on this. Because what’s so interesting about that scene is the way in which Ace realizes that there is no stand she can take here that is meaningful. That she’s facing not an individual villain that can be whacked with a superpowered baseball bat, but rather systemic and institutionalized racism. What’s compelling is the way in which Ace begins to be flustered and righteously angry before stopping and realizing that there’s nothing she can do here.
And that’s what’s interesting about the racism in this story. Racism is treated simultaneously as morally simple and socially complex. This is a surprisingly difficult thing to do. The ease with which moral simplicity and conceptual simplicity can be conflated is a lynchpin of practical conservative politics. Aaronovich does a remarkable thing in showing an alternative – something that is morally straightforward (racism is, in fact, bad) and yet enormously complex in the material terms of how it manifests.
This leads into one of the more challenging scenes in the story, the “sugar” conversation. I will admit that this scene is not entirely successful – there’s something off about it, through and through – most obviously in the jarring and condescending transition to “my father, he was a cane cutter.” But the idea of the scene is fantastic because it gives the question of absolutes a new direction to work in. The Doctor, in this story, has become absolute, but everything about the story is screaming the fact that this is an illusion anyway. The sugar conversation stresses this – you can fix one point or signifier absolutely, but doing so unglues everything else.
This is the real problem the Daleks run into. They try to fix their identities as the terminus of history. But they’ve already been defeated. The retaliatory strike of fixing the Doctor’s nature does very little in the face of the Doctor having previously undermined their fixity by making them subject to history and to rewriting. In this regard the narrative collapse implied by this story is short-circuited. It’s a foregone conclusion. Absolute fixity is simply not something that the Doctor is meaningfully imperiled by.
But that does not mean that he’s not altered by it. This new version of the Doctor who doesn’t change over the course of a story is markedly, strikingly different. But for the most part it’s a compelling change. It’s part of a gambit Remembrance plays that is related to, though still distinct from, its maneuvering around the material reality of racism. On the one hand the move towards the Doctor confronting the Daleks with a pre-existing plan is a move towards the epic register in a big way. Setting this transition on the backdrop of the show’s beginning and adding in a spare ancient Time Lord weapon dials this up tremendously.
And yet despite that there’s an intense materialism to this story. In this regard Ace is invaluable to what the story is doing. This story is the one that really starts to add in the “urban teenager” dimension to her character. She still acts like a children’s television protagonist – and she is firmly the protagonist of this story – but she’s whip-smart competent. With the Doctor withdrawn to being an absolute force of nature in this story Ace becomes the character whose knowledge changes – note that she even gets to explain the plot to somebody. But the nature of her interaction with the story is very much different from what the Doctor normally does. She spends the story among ordinary people experiencing the material side of things.
The result is a story that transitions from an apparent narrative collapse into a Holmesian epic. The Daleks threaten the foundations of the series, yes, but the solution comes out of the purely material and pragmatic – from the way in which the larger themes of the Daleks echo into the mundane world. But this gives rise to the most troubling and fascinating part of the story – the Doctor’s destruction of Skaro.
We can, of course, engage in various justifications and handwaves. There’s enough ambiguity to decide that the Doctor does not, in fact, incinerate Skaro with Daleks on it. The Doctor’s line about Davros tricking himself carries some weight, perhaps. But why. Let’s be honest about this. The Doctor is reversing his famed position from Genesis of the Daleks. He now has the right.
Equally, this is not, to my mind, the sort of grave moral sin that some people want to make it into. Let’s not forget that the Doctor backs down from his original position in Genesis of the Daleks but is stymied in destroying them. Sarah Jane, arguably the moral center of the series at that point, argues passionately for destroying the Daleks. It’s not entirely clear that we’re supposed to side with the Doctor in Genesis of the Daleks, nor is it entirely clear that we’re supposed to side with him here. But it’s not a great departure. The Doctor has caused the destruction of huge numbers of Daleks before. Just two seasons ago we were supposed to overlook the genocide of the Vervoids. Troughton was never above wiping out a few species here and there. Including a pretty blatant attempt on the Daleks that included letting those with the human factor die. Yes, the Doctor obliterates Skaro. Let’s be honest. He does things like that.
But it’s still a striking and major change when taken with the immutability of the Doctor in this story. McCoy’s Doctor has established himself both as exceedingly powerful and as dangerous and unpredictable. It’s enormously compelling. It’s the most exciting the program has been in years. But it’s also terrifying, in that the way in which the Doctor has become more powerful and more dangerous is, in a very real sense, by becoming more like the Daleks – by becoming fixed.
To some extent this is the great tragedy of the McCoy era right here. This story sets up the mother of all narrative collapses. Yes, the Doctor survives the Dalek attack on his origins. But he is changed by it. He is not destroyed by his newfound fixity, but this is a different sort of character. He’s still mercurial, yes, but there’s an inherent moral tension now. And it’s one that should have gotten a payoff.
In many ways it does over the course of the Virgin books. But what’s infuriating is that it should have gotten one on television. It deserved that profile. And watching Remembrance of the Daleks, it’s very hard not to imagine an alternate universe in which it got one. Because this is, at long last, classic Doctor Who. With the Daleks, who were always a reasonable popularity booster. It’s easy to believe that with a real, genuine promotional effort that hailed a triumphant return to form that this could have restored Doctor Who to the status of “a show people take seriously.” And that this, in turn, could have led to a sufficient extension of the McCoy era to get to a story that eventually paid off the big moral tension at the heart of this era of Doctor Who.
But equally, what would that have looked like? Some story in which the Doctor renounces his manipulative ways? One where he finally, triumphantly, justifies his approaches? God help us, one where, for once and for all, the implications of all of this are fixed and rooted for good? How utterly dreadful.
No, the heart of this Moore-inflected revamp of Doctor Who is the decision to shift where the mercury is. Instead of a mercurial Doctor who unsettles fixed situations we have one who is terrifyingly constant, but who instead watches the ripples of mercury echo out around him, muddying an already complex situation. The mercury, in other words, is moved from being a property of the Doctor to being a property of the world that is brought forth by the Doctor. In classic Moore fashion this is not quite a radical reconceptualization of the character. Rather it is a different, previously unseen form of fealty to the character.
There is, in all of this, one major moment that I’m sure someone in comments will object to my failure to deal with. (There may be other moments, but this is the one I’m sure of.) That, of course, is the moment in which Doctor Who nearly comes on television. There are, of course, alternative explanations for this sequence aplenty. The show doesn’t have to be Doctor Who, and the “consensus” interpretation is that it isn’t. Piffle. The show is clearly meant to be Doctor Who. The entire reason the line is interesting is that it sounds like Doctor Who is coming on. Yes, it cuts out before it confirms it, but this isn’t some sort of 50/50 ambiguity. It’s obviously meant to be Doctor Who.
What should we make of this sudden intrusion of the larger narrative structure into Doctor Who. In some ways it’s convenient – it allows us to be downright straightforward in the idea that the series is playing in the iconography of its first episode instead of literally re-intersecting its own past. But this is sophistry. More significant is the fact that Doctor Who is something that exists within Doctor Who. Even if this isn’t quite a narrative collapse story, it reinforces the idea of narrative collapse, making it a more natural and instinctive thing for the show to do. There’s a turning point in the series here where metafiction becomes the norm for it.
It is as though, having exorcised its demons, the show is now willing to make something of its own heightened self-awareness. This story marks a point of escalation for the show, both in quality and in thematic intensity. As of this point, Doctor Who is a substantially different show – one that is still unmistakably a version of itself, but that is something we’ve never quite seen anything like.
It’s sometimes easy to forget how good an idea the Daleks are. There are few enough truly great Dalek stories in the classic series. Even in the new series there are a fair number of clunking Dalek stories. But then there are stories like Remembrance of the Daleks. We have here a story where the Doctor faces down his greatest enemy, where he is pushed to greater heights, where the mercury crackles through every beat of the story in ways we have never seen before, and where the very nature of the series shifts. These things are only possible when you have a mythos as strong as Coal Hill School and Daleks are. This is what the past of the show is for: metamorphosis.