Last year when we had a festival of Daleks here at WarpedFactor, we asked you to rate your favourite Dalek stories in order of awesomeness. (The results are here).
Destiny of the Daleks got not one of more than 4,000 votes cast. For shame, fellow Whovians. For shame!
Yes, there are plenty of things wrong with Destiny. But worse than Death To The Daleks? Worse as a Dalek story than The Chase? Worse, really, than the paddingfest of The Daleks’ Masterplan? Evolution of the Daleks?
I’m here to show Destiny some love, as the story that, when first broadcast from September 1st 1979, turned me from a casual viewer into a fan.
When two writers with absolutely opposite styles come together, the result can be an enormous car crash. Keeping that in mind, Destiny of the Daleks is actually something of a masterpiece of unlikely triumphs, let down by the peskiness of logic and faintly unfortunate late-70s BBC production values.
The story went out with Terry Nation’s credit, and to be sure, the plot is all Nation. We’re back on Skaro, and this is ultimately the story that should have been called Resurrection of the Daleks (there being very little actual resurrection in the story that did eventually bear that name) – it’s Genesis, Part II. Davros, last seen being blasted to death by his own creations, has apparently been “sleeping” for thousands of years, buried in his bunker, while the Daleks have been running around the intergalactic block like a bunch of bovver boys with ray guns. It’s only when they meet a threat they can’t enslave, exterminate or indeed out-think, that that shot that destroyed Davros begins to look like a bad idea, and for the first time in the history of the show, the fundamental Dalek begins to look weak. Their idea of running back home to tell their dad about the mean Movellan boys and girls, in the hope that he’ll beat them up for them, is faintly sad, and the story, in true Nation style, is riddled with inconsistencies: they must somehow assume that Davros has been self-healing, otherwise they’re mining their own planet to recover a cadaver. And they know he should be “in this precise location”… but somehow, they’ve conveniently “forgotten” the quick way down to him. Also they have no concept of self-sacrifice, but later in the same story, go out packed to the grilles with explosive like primitive suicide bombers to achieve a grander strategic aim.
But if you ignore the logic of Destiny, it still delivers rollicking good fun. That’s undoubtedly in no small part down to the Script Editor of the day, Douglas Adams. Episode 1 feels almost all Adams, from the extended Tardis scene at the beginning, with the Doctor replacing K9’s brain and diagnosing laryngitis – ‘How can a robot have laryngitis? I mean, what do you need it for?’ - to the parade of regenerating Romanas, and all the way through to the Doctor correcting Oolon Colluphid’s book on the origins of the universe, an idea that was recycled twice in the Eleventh Doctor’s day – when he wanders through a museum, noting exhibits as ‘Wrong, wrong, mine, mostly wrong, little bit mine,’ and in The Doctor’s Wife, where, as described in this delicious moment in Destiny, the Tardis team actually land on a planet which is basically an 8,000 mile wide amoeba that has grown a crusty shell.
Enter the Movellans, a fantastic idea in themselves – the Daleks’ equals in ruthless conquest, but nice-looking and very polite. The idea is a philosophical gem from Nation, and forces us to ask whether we fear the Daleks just because of the way they look and sound, and on a deeper level, whether we would recognise tyranny and terror if it wore a smart suit and a sympathetic smile. But in episode 1 they’re the rescuers of the Doctor, as Romana finds herself terrorised by a wild-eyed man, and then falls down a conveniently-sloped duct. The end of Episode 1, to fans of a certain age, is how the Daleks will always appear: suddenly crashing through the wall and screaming “Exterminate!” – although here, they actually scream “Do not move!”…really rather a lot, given that Romana backs up against a wall for her end-of-episode close-up, and doesn’t seem to have any plans to move anywhere in any case.
There’s an odd amount of this in Destiny of the Daleks – Daleks chanting a number of things, pointlessly, over and over again – “Obey! Obey! Obey!” to people who are already obeying; “Silence! Silence! You will remain silent!” to people having a whispered work-party chat, the now-somehow-strangely-classic “Seek, locate, exterminate!” despite the fact that the word “Seek” there is redundant – if you’re ordered to locate something, the seeking is implicit. And perhaps the most bizarre variant of all, “Seek, locate…Do not deviate!” – as though there’s a dawdling Dalek at the back, skipping along going “Ooh, look – rocks!”
But in spite of this, there is joy in Destiny – after the grimness, and the Dalek-lightness of Genesis, this is all Dalek, at least half the time: lots of meaty shots of several Daleks in their control room, lots of trundling down corridors and even a handful of extermicutions (an idea Nation would shortly recycle for episode two of Blake’s 7). Once Davros has “awoken” at the end of episode 2 though, he becomes, by the natural gravity of a creature who is half-Frankenstein, half-monster, the focal point – much of episode three involves pushing him down those self-same corridors. The Doctor is able to use Davros as a bargaining chip, both to escape from the most bizarre Dalek stand-off in history - “If you do not comply you will be exterminated in five…four…three” and to free the rest of the prisoners who haven’t yet been shot.
As the Movellans reveal themselves to be at least as heartless as the Daleks, shoving Romana in a Perspex tube with a bomb at the end of episode three, the beautiful irony at the heart of the story comes into clear focus over a game of rock-paper-scissors: two battle fleets, poised to destroy each other, but in such perfect logical alignment that neither can out-think the other. The Daleks here are shown as disappointing even to their creator, having lost that spark of organic spite from which they were originally forged, and relying too heavily on the mechanistic elements of their species. The focus now shifts to the Doctor and Davros, as the brilliant organics each side needs to break the stalemate. Of course, the irony gets another twist here – if you both have a genius, you’re pretty much back at square one, unless one of your clever people can out-think the other. Which is where the Perspex tube and the bomb come into play – the Movellans intend to destroy the Daleks and Davros by incinerating the atmosphere (do Daleks need an atmosphere?) and escaping with the Doctor, so they can break the stalemate. Meanwhile, Davros loads the Daleks up with explosive and sends them on a suicide mission to stop the Movellans, so he can escape to Dalek command in space and start wreaking illogical havoc on the opposing fleet. The tension here is very well rendered, each side with the same basic objective, and the cuts between scenarios earning Ken Grieve a directorial gold star for letting us follow the narrative without ever letting the pulse of the story drop. A third power though is moving – the exhausted prisoners of the Daleks, saved by the Doctor. This lot of dessicated space-hippies, led by Tyssan and instructed by the Doctor, set about stealing the Movellan’s personal brains and reprogramming them, leaving only their commander as a threat to be eventually disposed of by the new Romana, more than showing her class. The Doctor and Davros have a final face-off, and in a move of which Steven Moffat would be proud, they arm-wrestle for supremacy, the Doctor seeming to lose…which makes Davros slam his hand down on the detonation button that blows all his suicide Daleks sky high.
The last few minutes rather rush to wrap everything up – Davros is packed on ice and set to return to Earth to stand trial for his crimes, and the fact that apparently, Davros sent all the Daleks on the planet to blow themselves up is rather glossed over before the Doctor and this new Romana disappear into time and space, ready for their next adventure.
Destiny of the Daleks is by no means a perfect Doctor Who story – there are logic issues in the storytelling, and production value issues that let the storytelling down when viewed today – Davros wobbles every time he moves, and some of the Daleks look like they’ve seen far, far better days. But as an entertaining Dalekfest without much of the macabre sturm and drang either of Genesis, Resurrection or Revelation, it wasn’t bettered for ten years, till the Seventh Doctor’s Remembrance of the Daleks exploded on screen.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk