Tony Fyler remembers.
Season 25 of Doctor Who would see a fundamental shift in the show’s dynamic. The scripts for Season 24, the first with Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor, had been written to meet the dictates of BBC high-ups, who wanted the Seventh Doctor to be ‘more funny, less violent’ than Colin Baker’s morally outraged peacock Doctor. It’s possible that McCoy was acceptable to those high-ups partly because he was best known as a funny man, a zany part of several children’s programmes and a graduate of the Ken Campbell Roadshow.
Ironically then, McCoy, along with Producer John Nathan-Turner and especially Script Editor Andrew Cartmel had plans to take the Doctor in a much darker, more brooding, introspective direction, making him a game player and elevating his mystery back to the heart of the show.
Season 25 had to do several things at once – it had to set that process of character development in motion and prove that it wasn’t a dreadful idea to restore the sense of mystery about the Doctor that the first two incarnations had carried with them; it had to be at least partly a celebration of the show’s history as it hit its silver anniversary on screen; it had to bring in some big league monsters against which the Seventh Doctor could fight, as Season 24, with only one recurring villain in the Rani, had felt a little lightweight, perhaps in keeping with the idea of the show being funnier and less violent; and it had to prove that Doctor Who could still do things to surprise and engage its audience.
Remembrance of the Daleks is by some considerable way the best story of Season 25, not least because it hits all these goals and more besides.
Firstly, in the pre-credits sequence, it established a new tone, a new level of modelling skill, and a new approach to storytelling, as the giant Dalek spaceship arrives in orbit over the Earth, picking up broadcast signals from the sixties. The sense of big alien threat is immediate and visceral, a BBC budget Independence Day. But it’s so much more than that. From the moment the Doctor and Ace appear, it’s clear that things have changed with them – they’re written by Ben Aaronovitch, then new to Who, as an established team, the Doctor more mysterious and dark, Ace more able to handle herself than the somewhat childish version of the character we’d been introduced to in Dragonfire at the end of the previous season. The multi-level storytelling feels fresh – Daleks versus Other Daleks mirroring the themes of racial purity in the Association, showing the Sixties more as they were than was perhaps comfortable to remember – Mrs Smith’s boarding house with its commonplace sign, demanding that ‘No coloureds’ call to stay. By the mid-80s, those attitudes were marginalized, rather than the mainstream, and even in the Sixties they weren’t exactly the absolute norm, but certainly there was a more heightened sense of racial difference made plain in the fabric of Sixties society on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s this multiple layering that makes Remembrance of the Daleks more than just a great Doctor Who story – as we’ve seen as recently as Series 9 with the Zygon two-parter, when Who comes close to the real politics of our world, and gets it very right, it elevates the show to a whole new level.
And it’s not as if it ends there either – there are so many levels on which Remembrance still delivers to this day. There had been a conflict developing since Resurrection of the Daleks between factions of Daleks with different command hierarchies, and Remembrance was able to bring that strongly to the fore, gold and white Imperial Daleks (we should have known their allegiance really, having seen Revelation of the Daleks just three seasons earlier) on the one hand, with their impressive spaceship and their chunky shuttle, and Renegade Daleks on the other, with their controller and their Supreme Dalek (you can write a thesis even now if you like about the fact that they were basically white Daleks versus black Daleks), their creepy schoolgirl lookout and their Association henchmen. There’s the whole Hand of Omega MacGuffin around which the plot pirouettes, introducing whole new rafts of Time Lord history with an ease that made it seem entirely natural. There’s the first new invention in Dalek history since Terry Nation created Davros – the Special Weapons Dalek. Oh and yes, there’s that little joyfest that is the episode 1 cliff-hanger, with the Dalek floating up the stairs! There’s Ace bashing hell out of a Dalek with a supercharged baseball bat, proving her nature as a companion to keep an eye on. The Doctor, for once, pondering the consequences of his decisions, the Doctor less sure than usual about whether he has the right to do what he’s going to do, making Remembrance in very real terms a successor to Genesis. McCoy’s Seventh Doctor gets some great speeches that take him away from the OmniDoctoring of Season 24 and give him a very much more distinct personality. We get to see the Emperor Dalek from the comic-strips, its bulbous head uniquely recognizable. The nods to the past in the Totters Lane junkyard and Coal Hill School locations are joyful, and then of course there are the realistic secondary characters – Group Captain Gilmore, Professor Rachel Jensen, and Doctor Allison Williams on the one hand, Mr Ratcliffe and Mike Smith on the other. All of them feel as though they exist beyond the confines of the story, and indeed Gilmore, Jensen and Williams have gone on, decades later, to record four series of stories as the Countermeasures team.
Spread over four episodes, there is by necessity some feeling of running about while first one group and then the other grab the central MacGuffin, the Hand of Omega, and there’s a sense in at least one instance of manufactured peril for the sake of a cliffhanger. And yes, if you’re being really picky, some of the Daleks look a bit wobbly as they beggar about in uneven outdoor environments. But there are still four things that elevate Remembrance above most other 80s Who stories.
Firstly, all the visual treats: the spaceships, the big Dalek fights, the Special Weapons Dalek, the Emperor, the flying Dalek, Ace with her baseball bat. Eeach of those is a timeless moment that helped redefine what Doctor Who was going to be about from then on.
Secondly, the parallel storytelling: Doctor Who as allegory is frequently a good idea, and here the allegory of blobs versus bionic blobs with bits added shows us how idiotic our perceptions of differences between the races were, both in the Sixties and in the Eighties. The sad fact is it still works today when we view people as inherently different or inherently dangerous because of where they come from or what they’ve been taught to believe about themselves and the world. We’re all still human under the bonded polycarbide armour of our prejudice.
Thirdly, the characterization and pace. This had been developing in some stories in Season 24; Dragonfire by Ian Briggs was a quantum leap forward in terms of complex characterization from what has come before, but Aaronovitch and Cartmel together deliver secondary characters in Remembrance of the Daleks that live and breathe in the complex world of Sixties Britain. It’s as though the two young writers were pushing forward with the confidence of a Robert Holmes, delivering real people into whose lives the Doctor just happens to drop, bringing chaos in his wake.
And finally – the redefinition of the Doctor and Ace. Both in terms of his quieter, more reined in performance, his mysterious mentions of Gallifrey and the Old Times, and the actual nature of his plan – to get everybody out of the way and as safe as possible while the ‘right’ Daleks convincingly steal the Hand of Omega, this is the first time viewers look at the short funny man in the question-mark jumper and think ‘Hello – there’s more here than meets the eye.’ Remembrance served notice that this was what Doctor Who would be like from now on; the hero darker, quieter, more mysterious, playing a longer game, while Ace took up the Leela role of wanting to hit things but also wanting to learn everything the Doctor could teach her.
It’s now been 27 years since Remembrance of the Daleks was first broadcast – longer than the history of the show it was celebrating at the time. But its importance, both in redefining what the McCoy era would be like and what it would be about, coupled with the staggering invention it brought to the screen and the underlying themes that remain sadly relevant today, cannot be overstated. Remembrance of the Daleks redefined Doctor Who not only for the two remaining seasons of Seventh Doctor stories, but for everything that has come since.
Go – watch it again today.
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
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