I was recently knocked offline for a week by a problem with my broadband: one of the upsides about not being distracted by any number of online or social media diversions was that it allowed me to spend some time with my ridiculously oversized DVD collection. After having watched the Doctor Who serial Kinda last month (and reviewed it), I followed it up with another Peter Davison adventure – his sole encounter the infamous Daleks.
Davison has a high opinion of this story and seems to regard it as one of the best of his tenure in the lead role. I honestly can’t understand why. If I was to pick out a script that is an example of an utterly dreadful piece of writing and which fails on just about every level required of it, it would be this story. The writer, Eric Saward (who was also the show’s script editor at the time) seems to have gathered together a few disparite threads – creepy policemen in industrial wastelands; a plot to kill, duplicate and replace key people; lots of deaths; Daleks; and, of course, Davros – and thrown them into the same episode in the presumption that this makes for a coherent story. It doesn’t. What we have is about four totally different storylines that individually barely hold together, but en masse don’t connect with each other and force totally unworkable overlaps and coincidences upon events. It doesn’t so much leave believability and credibility behind, as take them out round the back and shoot them point blank in the face. And then shoot them again ten times over for good measure.
Actually the amount of violence is often used as the main criticism of this story – more people die on screen (and brutally) than in any other Classic Who, and by the end the survivors are struggling to find space on the studio floor to walk on without tripping over all the killed-off extras. It even adds the “duplicates” thread so that the same actors can get killed once, cloned, and then promptly shot again just to add to the numbers. And even the Doctor gets in on the act, picking up guns and shooting things with a bloodlust that these days would never be permitted of the noble hero in NuWho. Personally I don’t actually have a problem with this aspect of the script: a story about the real cost and impact of bloody violence is a valid approach, and Tegan’s final speech about how she’s so sickened by the events – especially when an innocent bystander is killed because of her calling out to him for help – that “it isn’t fun any more” and understandably she wants to leave as a result makes this strand of the show actually effective and coherent.
It’s everything else that fails. Basically, things happen in this show because the script requires them to, not because of any internal logic. Where to start? Once a character has finished their purpose in the plot, someone just shoots them for no reason (why then and not half an hour earlier if they were so disposable?) Another character manages to activate a space station’s self-destruct mechanism despite having no idea how and no level of security access, just by poking at buttons at random for five minutes – because anything can be made to work by stabbing buttons long enough, right? The Daleks risk all to retrieve Davros, only to then decide an hour later than it’s rather troublesome and so they’d rather kill him. There’s a time tunnel between the space station and a warehouse in Earth because … because … Well, I couldn’t tell you. There’s some cylinders of a virus lethal to Daleks lying around in the warehouse for some reason, which you’d expect the Daleks to be wary about but instead they seem oblivious and happy to leave them with their enemies. One companion character (Turlough) is allowed to wonder the Dalek base at will: why? Even the Deputy Dalek asks the question, and all his Dalek Supreme can say is “leave him, he’s bait to reel in the Doctor”. Really? At least stick him in a cell if you want him to “act baity” rather than risk him running round and causing problems, surely? Oh – look at what he did. Caused problems and undermined your plans. Davros has some sort of secret weapon that brainwashes humans and Daleks alike to his cause … How? Where did it come from? When the Daleks finally trap the Doctor and take him to be duplicated, they leave him with a single human guard because all the other troopers and Daleks suddenly develop pressing business elsewhere and pile out of the room. Well, it’s not like the Doctor is going to be able to escape LIKE EVERY OTHER TIME THE DALEKS HAVE HAD HIM IN THIS POSITION now is it?!?
Seriously, this is plotting of the laziest and worst kind. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever and ought to be truly ashamed of itself. And Saward can certainly do much better when he tries – he wrote Earthshock which is regarded as one of Classic Who’s all time best episodes (it’s also criticised by being all surface superficial ‘wow’ and nothing underneath; I disagree and find it eminently rewatchable and well written.) In fact, Resurrection was supposed to be the show that relaunched the Daleks in the same way that Earthshock rebooted the Cybermen – but here it really is all surface action bling and absolutely nothing underneath.
But let’s give the serial its due and admit where it gets things right: that surface bling is really very well done. There’s a high technical level of quality of production that is really hugely impressive, and while they’re rather over-used the scenes of exploding Daleks (and especially one Dalek pushed out of a high warehouse window) give a real thrill. One scene (shamelessly ripped off from the opening of Star Wars where the stormtroopers board the rebel freighter) includes a slight miscalculation in the pyrotechnics that resulted in the biggest explosion ever staged within BBC TV Centre – and a severe reprimand to the production team as a result never, ever to do that again. Looks great on screen, though.
The sets and costumes all look great and are well-lit and well-designed, save for an over-prevalence of ‘Dalek bumps’ everywhere and some lamentably designed trooper helmets with stubby protuberances at the front that can’t help but make it look like they and the Daleks are in some sort of phallic “mine is bigger than yours” contest. The dilapidated locations (in the Shad Thames area next to Tower Bridge that is now fully renovated and the home of the Design Museum) are wonderfully chosen and suitably atmospheric. The guest cast includes some top talent (Maurice Colbourne, Del Henney, Rula Lenska, Philip McGough, Terry Molloy taking over as Davros, a first big role for Leslie Grantham pre-EastEnders stardom, and … err, Rodney Bewes) and is also impressively multi-ethnic for a production of this vintage, something Doctor Who had been very bad about in its recent past. And all that cast is putting in reliable, top-notch performances and believing in what they’re doing, in a way that so many other Doctor Who stories that followed never managed, which is amazing considering what the script gives them to work with (which is nothing.)
And a special word for the direction of Matthew Robinson (who moved on to EastEnders and remembered Grantham from this production.) He provides a kinetic, fast moving style to the show which at times comes close to being confusing and irritating, until you realise that he’s (a) having to chop around so much because that’s what’s in the script, and (b) the style is papering over the gaping cracks in the story by keeping it hustling along and that consequently slowing down simply isn’t an option. I suspect it’s the energy and visual flair of Robinson that so appealed to Davison and made this one of his favourite serials – he also highly rates The Caves of Androzani which was the product of the show’s other auteur director of the 80s, the delightful Graeme Harper.
But really, if you want to see how important and fundamental the script is to a show, then watch this for an example of how it can go catastrophically wrong. That this should be the work of the same person who wrote Earthshock is bad enough, but that he should be the show’s script editor as well for Heaven’s sake explains why the show went so disastrously off the rails soon after, when Saward finally got a Sixth Doctor more to his liking than ‘wet vet’ Davison but found that absolutely no one else liked his vision of the character or stories that he lumbered Colin Baker with. It really wasn’t Colin’s fault: he could only ever play the part and say the words that Saward put in front of him.
As for the DVD: wonderfully restored as ever and with the usual great selection of extras. There’s a great commentary track featuring Davison, Robinson and Janet Fielding (Tegan) well worth a listen, and the ever-interesting information subtitles. A new Special Edition has also just been released as part of the Revisitions 2 boxset which includes a second commentary from Saward, Molloy and FX man Peter Wragg, moderated by NuWho Dalek operator Nicholas Pegg; there’s also an hour-long documentary retrospective on the Davison years presented by David Tennant which heaps a lot of blame for the series’ problems at this time at the door of producer John-Nathan Turner. The documentary ends with a clip from the Children in Need Time Crash special in which Doctors Five and Ten meet, and then back to presenter Tennant donning the distinctive coat of the Fifth Doctor. It’s an odd moment: Who cognoscenti will be wondering whether Davison knew that his successor and de facto son-in-law and father of his granddaughter Olive had been rifling through his wardrobe at home that morning after breakfast before heading out … ! The extras, as ever, make even the weakest classic Doctor Who serials a must-buy on DVD for any reasonably dedicated fan.
The aforementioned documentary also inspired the writing of a related blog post for Doctor Who blog Cloister Bell comparing and contrasting Peter Davison’s time in the Tardis. Since that blog no longer exists, the “Three seasons of the Fifth Doctor” has now been reproduced here on Taking The Short View.