Doctor Who: Destiny of the Daleks (1979) [DVD]

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Even when this four-part story originally aired back in September 1979 it was a distinctly pedestrian outing for Doctor Who. Time hasn’t really done all that much to improve things – 35 years on it remains thoroughly mediocre. But nonetheless there’s a reason why I wanted to revisit this story in particular, as it holds a quite important pivotal role in my relationship with the series as a whole. Allow me to explain…

By the time “Destiny of the Daleks” made it to air, it had been more than four years since I’d watched the programme. I simply hadn’t been able to reconcile myself to Tom Baker taking over from Jon Pertwee, and as a result my childish petulance meant I missed out on seeing the original transmissions of some of the greatest classic Who stories of all time. I’d been oblivious to the delights of such stories as “Terror of the Zygons”, “Pyramids of Mars”, “The Robots of Death” and “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”, and what I saw when I finally climbed off my high horse to give the series another go didn’t exactly fill me with confidence or lead me to suspect the series had been any good in my absence.

What finally did draw me back, of course, was the Daleks. Just knowing that they would return for the first story of the new season gave me an impetus to check out the show again. It felt appropriate, because almost the last serial I’d watched before my self-imposed exile had been the brilliant “Genesis of the Daleks”. If only this new story could be half as good as that, I thought to myself …

Actually it pretty much exactly is. Half as good, that is – which is to say, thoroughly middling. It’s not bad, and certainly had points to recommend it; but it’s also worryingly limp and lifeless, old-fashioned even for its original air date. And I’m afraid much of the liability for this has to land at the feet of the writer, the legendary Terry Nation – creator of the Daleks not to mention Blake’s 7 and Survivors as well as contributor to so many more 1960s and 70s action serials from Lew Grade’s ITC. Nation was a script writing machine, but unfortunately by this stage of his career it seemed he was bored silly with the Daleks and the result was a string of stories that really did feel that they had been mass-produced on the factory floor, constructed by robots from a load of ideas, plots and even characters used many times in the past. A producer such as Philip Hinchcliffe had shown that Nation could be shaken out of that malaise to create something daringly new and original such as “Genesis”, but Hinchcliffe’s successor Graham Williams simply needed serviceable scripts as soon as possible and the result was that Nation simply rummaged round in his bottom drawer and bolted together a slightly inert and careless but nonetheless entirely serviceable offering.

The story sees the Doctor (still Tom Baker at this point, in his penultimate season) and Romana (recast over the summer break from Mary Tamm to Lalla Ward because of the former’s pregnancy) arrive in a rocky radioactive wasteland that seems disturbingly familiar. It turns out to be Skaro, the long-deserted homeworld of the Daleks, although it looks nothing like it did back in 1963’s “The Dead Planet” and instead more like a very earthbound sandpit and quarry. The pair soon find that the Daleks have returned and with the help of a slave workforce are digging deep underground for some unknown objective. Then a new spaceship arrives carrying a detachment of disco-styled Movellans, here to find out what their sworn enemies the Daleks are up to and to stop them at all costs. Clearly, the Doctor’s and the Movellans’ objectives are aligned – but does that make them allies?

That’s the spoiler-free summary of the plot, but be warned that spoilers are somewhat inevitable from here on in so if you don’t want to know more, this may be the place to stop.

Carrying on? Excellent! The first episode feels very much like a throwback to the 1960s as the Doctor and Romana explore their new surroundings, get separated and then find themselves cut off from the Tardis by a rockfall. This was how things used to be done in the Hartnell and Troughton years and it seems that Nation hadn’t watched the series since, because he evidently still believed that without blocking a quick escape for the Doctor there would be no reason for him to stay and carry on with the plot. There’s a nice continuity call-back to the 1963 original when the Doctor hands out anti-radiation pills to Romana before they go out, and which adds some jeopardy when Romana can’t get a prescription refill in time for her next dose and starts to duly fall ill; unfortunately in the first of many annoying oversights in the script, the pills are never mentioned again and Romana conspicuously fails to die as a result, save as a ruse to get out of working on the slave gang: it turns out that the radiation was just a passing bug like 24-hour ‘flu, good for calling in sick even if the shift manager happens to be a Dalek.

The first episode holds back the Daleks right until the final scene, when they smash through an apparently blank wall and take Romana prisoner. It’s a curious moment – are we supposed to be surprised by the fact that the Daleks are in a serial conspicuously entitled “Destiny of the Daleks”? – but it’s hard to blame anyone for that as it was fairly standard operating procedure for many stories of that time. Nor am I going to blame Terry Nation for the opening sene of the episode in which the casting change from Mary Tamm to Lalla Ward is explained by Romana trying on different bodies as part of a seemingly ‘because I can’ regeneration which makes absolutely no sense at all in the wider context of the series’ mythology. This is just script editor Douglas Adams being Douglas Adams and you’ll either love it or hate it, just as you will his little dab of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy continuity by having the Doctor reading Oolon Colluphid’s “Origins of the Universe” at one point.

Overall the story looks pretty good – none of the production department’s late-season collapse evident here. The locations are well used and the sets have a perfectly acceptable reality and texture to them as a whole. The only problem is that there simply aren’t quite enough of them to maintain the fiction: at one point the Doctor and his group escape from the Daleks by climbing up a shaft, and then jog around the block before returning to the same place and climbing down the same shaft to get to somewhere completely different. “Destiny” was hardly the only show back in the day to struggle with limited resources of course, but in this case the end result is genuinely puzzling to the viewer rather than just a case of pedantry; a little set-redressing, change of lighting or move of camera positions could have worked wonders here.

And the fact there isn’t is actually rather surprising, because director Ken Grieve is clearly a cut above the usual run of Who directors of this time. He goes to great lengths to find new and interesting ways to shoot what could otherwise have been very pedestrian ‘running up and down corridors’ scenes. He tries to keep the camera low and shoot upwards to effectively exaggerate the Dalek’s menacing presence, not an easy thing to do back then – not only did the cameras need a ‘reverse periscope’ to enable them to shoot from floor level, it also meant that you had to pre-plan and build ceilings onto the sets to obscure the studio lighting. Grieve was also gifted an early-model Steadicam to trial its use on location which immediately perks up the look-and-feel of things and makes them feel more raw and visceral than was standard for the era (although commonplace now of course.)

Unfortunately the one thing that Grieve didn’t seem to have was a matching sense of tension and drama, because the on-screen action is peculiarly flat and lacking in excitement even when gifted some perfectly decent material for the end of episode cliffhangers. The explosive arrival of the Daleks through the wall is shot very effectively, but instead of crashing to the end titles the scene then drags on another 15 seconds as the Daleks chant the same lines and Lalla Ward does her best to get herded into a corner. The shock reveal of the Daleks’ true purpose in returning to Skaro is somewhat wasted when the Doctor and his gang simply stumble across the cobwebbed form of Davros in a broom closet, the cliffhanger moment instead coming a minute later when the Daleks’ creator starts flexing his fingers – hmm, thrilling. And Grieve somehow manages to make even a classic bomb countdown ending to season 3 seem slow and plodding.

Doubtless Grieve’s hands were tied somewhat by the script that he was given, which brings us back to Terry Nation. The first couple of episodes notably underrun, which probably explains why the director can’t do the tight editing he needs to make these moments work better. The bomb used for the episode 3 finale is particularly silly and straight out of 1960s Batman logic, being a device that could incinerate the planet if the protective seals are broken. The Movellans probably oughtn’t to test the device while happily standing just a few feet away in that case – Health and Safety would have a fit.

However the biggest problem with Nation’s scripts doesn’t fully arise until episode 4 when the concept at the heart of the story is finally revealed: the Daleks and the Movellans have battled each other to a stalemate, because the Movellans are robots and their purely logical stratagems are being perfectly countered by the Daleks and vice verse. The Daleks are looking for a way to break this logic impasse and have decided they need the organic irrationality of their creator Davros; the Movellans respond by deciding the Doctor can serve the same purpose for them.

As a story that’s not bad (and beautifully illustrated very simply for the kids watching by the Doctor and Romana playing rock-paper-scissors.) But there’s a problem: the Daleks themselves are emphatically not logical robots like the Movellans. They are instead mutated, seething organic blobs of hate driven by rage, fanaticism, megalomania and xenophobia and have rarely if ever appeared logical as a result. So why on earth should the man who created the Daleks make such an elementary mistake – especially after spending the first three episodes dutifully recapping the Daleks’ true nature? Either Nation lost interest and just jammed the ending on in order to file the script and get the cheque, or possibly he wondered off even before this and it was up to Adams to pull together the threads and deliver the final script. At the risk of upsetting the legions of Douglas Adams worshippers, I’d have to say that brilliant writer though he is there are few people less congenitally suited to the demands of being a rigorously effective script editor than Douglas Adams, especially if required to work to a deadline.

Whatever happened, it appears to be the case that the whole of “Destiny” is predicated on the Daleks finding themselves at a point in their history where for some reason they need to return to their creator – an intriguing religious parable if you like. The logic impasse and the existence of the Movellans in the first place are simply the plot mechanics put in place to enable this, but they simply don’t work for anyone with any working knowledge of the history of the show and/or the Daleks – which unfortunately seems not to include either Nation or Adams at this point.

There’s a lot of other narrative laziness going on here as well – at one point the Daleks apparently deploy every single unit bar one to go on a suicide mission, leaving the primary object of the original mission (Davros) alone and unguarded in an empty control centre which the Doctor can just stroll into having walked undetected past through the line of advancing suicide bomb Daleks. When the lone Dalek guard does show up it’s quickly discombobulated by the Doctor throwing his hat over its eyestalk – despite the fact that we’ve already seen that the Dalek can switch to other visual frequencies when it wants to. Presumably it just forgets this facility in its hysteria; someone really should give it a good slap around the, uh, face.

Oh, but now we really are picking at the sort of loose threads that almost every classic Who serial has if you look hard enough. The truth is that for the most part – yes, even the ‘Daleks are robots’ error – this is still a perfectly robust and serviceable story that looks fine and which gets strong performances from all concerned. Baker is still very much engaged in the role, and while his dialogues with Davros don’t reach the iconic status of their encounter in “Genesis” they’re still pretty darn good. Lalla Ward makes an immediate positive impression after taking over from Romana and enjoys instant chemistry with Baker; her soft pink version of the Doctor’s own attire is possibly one of the best costumes any companion had in the entire series. David Gooderson is fine as Davros without really matching original performer Michael Wisher, while the Movellans (Peter Straker, Suzanne Danielle, Tony Osoba) initially appear bizarre until the reveal of their true robotic nature makes the performances much more understandable.

So to give it its due, back in 1979 “Destiny of the Daleks” really did keep my attention sufficiently enough that I rolled into the next story which was “City of Death” – one of the classic series’ all-time great instalments. The fact that the rival ITV network was blacked out by an industrial dispute at the time probably helped focus my attention too. Unfortunately the rest of the season was blighted by clunkers such as “The Creature from the Pit” and “The Horns of Nimon” not to mention “Nightmare of Eden” which had so much promise but was undermined by catastrophic production failures (see my earlier review of that story.) Ultimately I came away from season 17 thinking Doctor Who was just terribly old-fashioned and lame compared with the modern delights of Space: 1999 and Battlestar Galactica that I’d been watching, let alone the sort of big-screen fare such as Star Wars. Even the original TV series Star Trek – made over a decade previously – looked better than the tired old Doctor who didn’t appear to have changed at all during my hiatus, even down to still utilising the same background music (the work of dear old Dudley Simpson.)

It was only when I heard that there were big changes afoot for the next series that I decided to give it one last go. John Nathan-Turner made a huge statement of intent with “The Leisure Hive” and while I can’t say I understood all of it, the story nonetheless looked terrific. Not only had the opening titles been updated but the sacrosanct theme music itself had been re-scored. Finally, Doctor Who felt fit for purpose for the 1980s and I gratefully resumed regular viewing once more.

Even so, I’m genuinely glad that I’d seen the previous year’s “Destiny of the Daleks” at al because they allowed me to see and understand what had gone awry with the series in recent times, and fully appreciate the changes that JNT then implemented in response. Of course, a few years on and JNT’s ‘new look’ for the show had itself aged badly and developed its own set of problems, eventually leading first to hiatus and then to cancellation in 1989 (or in strict terms, a lack of a new series commission – it was never formally cancelled as such.) I’m by no means a carte blanche JNT apologist and have plenty of criticisms of the 80s era (see my review of “Resurrection of the Daleks” for example, which incidentally is the direct sequel to “Destiny”) but I have a higher regard for what he attempted to do and bring to the show than many other parts of Who fandom seem to.

And for a lot of this clear perspective, I have “Destiny of the Daleks” to thank for bringing me back to the show at just about the right time. It might not be a particularly good story, but it’s also not a particularly bad one; it’s actually a rather perfect choice to use as a baseline for classic Doctor Who stories. Checking in with it again – say, once every three decades or so – is no bad way to recalibrate one’s critical facilities when it comes to the classic adventures of everyone’s favourite Time Lord.

Destiny of the Daleks is available on DVD. It was also part of the limited edition Davros Collection boxset released in 2007. Among the extras are an audio commentary featuring Ward, Grieve and Gooderson, a featurette on Grieve’s sole directorial stint on the show and another on Nation’s work on Doctor Who from 1963 to 1979, and some enhanced CGI effects which frankly aren’t much of an improvement on the original.

3 thoughts on “Doctor Who: Destiny of the Daleks (1979) [DVD]

    John Hood said:
    March 5, 2014 at 3:02 pm

    It’s incomprehensible to imagine never seeing Tom Baker’s triumphant turn as the Doctor during S12-15! The Sontaran Experiment is my earliest memory of watching television (aged 2) and Morbius, Sutekh and Zygons were the stuff of nightmares…

    By the time of Destiny, I was preoccupied with adventures in a galaxy far, far away and human survivors fleeing the Cylon tyranny! However, the serial conjures up fond childhood memories of holding hands with, literally, the girl next door and anxiously awaiting the return of the Daleks.

      andrewlewin responded:
      March 5, 2014 at 3:20 pm

      Only as incomprehensible as it is to me to imagine that there were people who grew up not understanding that Jon Pertwee was the one, TRUE Doctor, while also missing out on things like the Autons, the Master, the Sea Devils, the giant maggots of The Green Death and the giant spiders of, uh, the Planet of the Spiders!

        John Hood said:
        March 5, 2014 at 3:26 pm

        You did get more Dalek adventures during Jon Pertwee’s tenure! I knew him better as Worzel Gummidge, which is the perfect cue for a cup ‘o tea and a slice ‘o cake.

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