|Of all of the silly set design elements of the Nathan-Turner
years, the tendency to make surfaces more “spacey” by
covering them in bubble wrap is, in fact, my favorite.
It’s February 8th, 1984. Frankie continues to relax in Hollywood, with Queen lurking just below. Duran Duran and The Eurythmics also chart, and The Smiths have one of their biggest hits during their actual career with “What Difference Does it Make” just barely missing the top ten and peaking at #12. But perhaps most significant is Madonna making her chart debut with “Holiday,” which peaks at #6.
The Winter Olympics run through this story, necessitating the merging of episodes into two 45-minute episodes, an experiment that becomes the norm in the next season. Konstantin Chernenko becomes the head of the Soviet Union.
While on television, Davison gets his obligatory Dalek story. There is no such thing as a great era of Doctor Who that has ended without a great Dalek story. The Pertwee era’s inability to quite stick the landing on any of its Dalek stories is emblematic of the nagging doubts plaguing that era. The fact that the Williams era went to pieces on its Dalek story is almost a perfect metaphor for its failings. And on the other extreme, however good – and indeed better – stories like The Brain of Morbius are, it will always be Genesis of the Daleks that is the defining moment of the Hinchcliffe era, and all the various weak spots of the Troughton era can be forgiven in a heartbeat in the face of his two Dalek stories. But perhaps no stories exemplify the way in which Dalek stories serve as the defining metaphors of their eras as the two Saward-penned Dalek stories.
For all the stick I’ve given him, John Nathan-Turner was not untalented. The quality of work at the beginning and end of his tenure makes it very clear that he was capable of producing some phenomenally good television. But it is equally telling that he is by miles the least writerly Doctor Who producer. He is the only post-Innes Lloyd producer of the series to have no significant writing credits to his name. Bryant and Sherwin both served as script editor, Letts wrote several scripts, Hinchcliffe started as a writer, wrote three novelizations, and submitted scripts after his departure, and Williams stepped in on scripts in his era and was set to write one for Season 23. Nathan-Turner, however, was not a writer.
This is not an insult, I should stress. The producer’s job is not first and foremost a writing job, and writing is only one path to the chair. Nathan-Turner has a strong sense of publicity, is savvy about stretching the budget, and is attentive to the visuals even if his aesthetic is at times exceedingly dodgy. But it does explain a fairly basic truth about Nathan-Turner’s tenure, which is that he is more dependent on the quality of his script editor than almost anyone else. (Of course, with a nine season tenure and three script editors, there’s considerably more data available for Nathan-Turner) When he’s paired with a writer who has a strong creative vision for the show he’s able to get that vision to execute successfully and compellingly week in and week out.
Unfortunately, for the better part of five seasons Nathan-Turner was paired instead with Eric Saward. Saward, as we discussed on his first appearance, is a writer with a profound gap between his ability and his taste. And in Resurrection of the Daleks we get a very pure Saward script – one that is has a lot to say, is profoundly concerned with the series history, is constructed as an ambitious, exciting script, and doesn’t quite come off.
Let’s start with what Resurrection of the Daleks isn’t, which is an indiscriminate festival of violence. It is violent, yes, but to read the violence as the point of the exercise requires almost completely ignoring the fact that the story ends with Tegan appalled at the level of violence and leaving the Doctor with the declaration that it’s not fun any more. Given that Tegan has fairly reliably been used as a moral mouthpiece in the series, and given that the Doctor is shown to be very much shaken by her departure, it’s clear that we have to take this seriously as part of the point of the story.
Given this, the structure that Saward is going for is clearly one of a sucker punch. After a lengthy story in which it appears that the story is about the pleasure of fast-paced action and space adventure the rug is suddenly pulled out and the story critiques what we’ve been ostensibly enjoying for the past eighty minutes or so.
Not only is this a perfectly valid structure and approach, it’s a damn good one that’s considerably savvier and more interesting, structurally, than Doctor Who has been in years. On top of that, there’s actually a savvy and interesting engagement with the past. Not only is this story drenched in Dalek continuity – gratuitously picking up from the Movellan war exactly as absolutely nobody wanted – but the story’s iconography is a loyal execution of the Terry Nation style. By situating itself loyally as the extension of Nation’s style of storytelling and then pulling the rug out, we finally have what all of these engagements with the past should have been from the start – an actual commentary on the past that’s interested in it as something more than cheap nostalgia.
It also marks a maturing in Saward’s use of action set pieces, of course. Earthshock was easy to criticize, not because of its violence but because of the complete lack of any engagement with it and its clear belief that men in uniforms shooting things were just plain cool. And Warriors of the Deep repeated the error, treating massive casualties as an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of the need to have cool men in uniforms who shoot things. But here we get something that actually holds its action heroes up to some inquiry. And not just in the end. The whole of Resurrection of the Daleks plays an ongoing game with its mercenaries and soldiers, making them just a bit too ruthless and psychopathic to enjoy. The main example, of course, is Lytton, who plays a clear villain role, but who the story is visibly fascinated with.
Lest we assume because of the more problematic aspects of his tenure that Saward was not a savvy enough writer to attempt something like this, let’s not forget that the writers Saward was most visibly fond of while working on Doctor Who were Philip Martin and Robert Holmes. That Saward had tremendous respect for social satire and structural complexity is evident. The idea that he would attempt it himself is surely uncontroversial. It seems to me difficult to argue seriously that this isn’t what Resurrection of the Daleks is trying for.
And many aspects of it are quite solid. The direction is quite strong (no surprise that the director was tapped to launch Eastenders), and the action sequences come off better than they ever have before in the series. The acting is solid, and there’s several moments where the violence really does successfully tick over to troubling – the sequences with the face-melting gas are really quite disturbing. All of the brutality is pitched exactly where it needs to be so that it’s just troubling enough that we should be able to buy the sucker punch at the end.
So why doesn’t it work? Part of it is, ironically, that this is the one bit of the series’ past that you can’t take this approach with. If you’d just swapped the monsters of Earthshock and Resurrection of the Daleks, both would have been dramatically improved. But the return of the Daleks after four and a half years is one of the few bits of continuity that carried enough inherent weight that it was difficult to undermine. Even if the final sequence hadn’t looked for all the world like Davros and the Daleks ejaculating themselves to death, the idea of Tegan being horrified by a bunch of Daleks exploding just doesn’t quite wash. There’s just too much history of enjoying Daleks slaughtering everybody to use them as the basis of this critique. No matter how solid the critique is – and I think Saward does, in fact, effectively skewer the flaws with Terry Nation-style plotting – actually using the Daleks for it is just a bridge too far, simply because they’ve long been more than just Terry Nation villains.
Lawrence Miles speaks admiringly of the way in which this story was the last time that Doctor Who felt like an event, and he’s surely right. But that’s the problem – this is one of two times in the Davison era when the show is right and the weight of the returning continuity is genuine and big. There’s a lot of room to play within that – as Remembrance of the Daleks will eventually show, you can do a lot, even within the classic series, with the Daleks. But the sucker punch isn’t one of the things you can get to work here.
But there are also just some sloppy and unforced errors here indicative of the larger problem with Saward’s work, which is that he’s just not good enough to do the ambitious scripts he’s shooting for. The decision to kill Laird in the third episode, for instance, is indefensible. As the one character Tegan is actually close to in the story, her death is an obvious opportunity to actually provide a motivation for Tegan’s departure. She should have survived through to the end and died in the final battle so that Tegan actually had a proximate cause for her departure. Instead she gets killed almost as an afterthought, with the big dramatic supporting character death being Stein. Who is a well-acted character, but the struggle of a pleasantly cowardly man to overcome Dalek conditioning is not the best opportunity for dramatic impact.
Indeed, this scene gets at the crux of the problem that Saward has. Stein goes down with a snarky one-liner about the Daleks being just in time for the fun before he suicides to destroy them all. Miles and Wood describe it as “adolescent,” but that’s not the real problem. The problem is that it’s macho action movie posturing of the most stereotypical kind. In other words, it’s exactly the sort of thing the story is supposedly critiquing. And yet in this scene it’s played as a big, cathartic moment. Never mind that the catharsis is unearned and that Stein is completely the wrong character to be using here given that his only settings in the story are “wet” and “traitor,” it’s just the wrong catharsis for the story.
And this is the problem. Saward is writing a critique of violent storytelling, but he has a very muddy sense of where the line is. To constantly push the line as setup to a big about face and moral point requires a meticulous sense of what that line is. And Saward doesn’t have it. He enjoys giggling like a schoolboy at the violence of it all too much. The dead giveaway is the opening, with its “evil cops” routine that’s a blatant homage to the Terror of the Autons scene with the Auton police officers that proved controversial. He’s got a critique of violence going here, but he can’t keep from, in places, engaging in exactly what he’s trying to critique.
Still, it’s easy to like this story – considerably easier than people would have you believe, in fact. In context it’s far from, as Miles would have it, cheap and lightweight. It’s an attempt at a great story, and while it falls short, that’s worth something. In an era where the program has had trouble when striving for mediocrity at times, in fact, it’s worth a great deal.
The problem is that this is by the script editor, and that points to more systemic problems. Especially when you have a producer whose blind spot is writing, when the writer can’t quite deliver the goods you have a big problem. Saward is almost, but not quite, up to the task of greatness. And Nathan-Turner’s production, to work, requires actual greatness. As ever, Dalek stories have an uncanny knack for summing up their eras.