Thursday, 26 November 2009

Doctor Who: Remembrance of the Daleks

Part One

“Ace, give me some of that Nitro Nine you’re not carrying.”

As if the pre-titles sequence isn’t great enough, we begin just outside Coal Hill School. Wicked! Except that the kids seem to be wearing uniforms, an apparent continuity error.

The Doctor and Ace are walking by, Ace very much acting the teenager and hinting at a hinterland never possessed by Mel, while the Doctor ‘s new persona is now firmly and fully formed, as shown quite superbly as he just leaps straight into the van with Rachel and Allison and casually takes charge.

Then we’re off to Totters’ Lane. Which looks a lot more plausible than “it” did in Attack of the Cybermen. There’s a building which could be the one where it all started- except that right now there’s a Dalek in it!

I can’t remember any previous story as fast-paced as this. We’re introduced to the clipped but impotent Gilmore, the apparently friendly Mike and the frustrated Professor Rachel Jensen very very quickly, but they all have clear personality traits to remind us who they are. That’s good writing from newcomer Ben Aaronovitch.

I love the Doctor’s muttered “Humans!” as Gilmore insists on sending his men into the meat grinder. For different reasons, I also love the brick Mike uses as a phone! The story’s full of those nice touches to remind us that we’re in 1963- the Doctor having to remind Ace to use the choke in the van, for example.

The scene in the van is extremely nice for a number of reasons- the immense coolness of the Doctor and Ace switching places in the tunnel, the nice character stuff between them, the establishment of the Doctor’s grumpier, more manipulative yet still fluffy personality (or, in other words, a bit like early Troughton, which is definitely a good thing) and of course the exposition. We get an admirably concise potted history of the Daleks and a mention of the mysterious Hand of Omega. Naturally, much is left dangling.

We’re briefly introduced to Mike’s dodgy friend Ratcliffe, only for Mike to let him have the dead Dalek a couple of scenes later. Mr Bronson from Grange Hill turns up- not only Michael Sheard, but as a proper teacher with the glasses and everything! We discover that Rachel is Gilmore’s “Chief Scientific Adviser”- nice title!- and we see the inside of the school chemistry lab, which seems to have a book on the French Revolution left lying about. Hmm.

We finish with the revelation of a Dalek-like thing in Ratcliffe’s office- Davros?- and the doctor and Ace in a spot of trouble in the cellar. The cliffhanger is one of the all time greats as the Doctor is pursued up some stairs by a Dalek…

Part Two

“Frightening, isn’t it? To find others better versed in death than human beings.”

This episode is pretty much the reason I’m doing this Marathon, because one day in October 1988, at eleven years old and having just started secondary school, I happened to come across it. I’d watched Doctor Who before when I was younger, but drifted away from it after Colin Baker took over. This time, though, I was hooked. Looking it up, it seems that 12th October 1988 was the day I became a Doctor Who fan.

And I can see why- it’s bloody exciting. We start with a bit of action, and then we get the fabulous café scene which, bizarrely, seems to feature the butler from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. There’s some philosophical musings about choices and consequences, and also the unspoken implication that while everyone else sleeps through the night the Doctor remains awake drinking coffee and ruminating.

Early in the morning he retrieves a levitating coffin from an undertaker, having been “an old geezer with white hair” when he first dropped it off. Well, well, well. With the assistance of a blind vicar he buries the Hand of Omega- best not to think of how he actually handled all the organisational necessities- and we hear the grave has been ready for “a month”. So presumably the school has been without a history teacher and a science teacher for about that time.

More exposition, during which the Doctor is seen reading a copy of Richard Gordon’s Doctor in the House in what seems to be a recurring gag after The Doctor’s Dilemma showed up in Dragonfire. Will we see any more of this? Anyway, there are two Dalek factions, the Imperial and Renegade Daleks.

Ace is left behind at Mike’s mother’s guesthouse, where among other things she encounters the phenomenon of television sets needing to warm up and almost catching the start of a new Saturday teatime sci-fi show scheduled for 5.15, called “Doc-“ something. I wonder what it was? But most impressive is Ace’s reaction to discovering the “No Coloureds” sign. It’s a nice moment.

Ace goes to the school to find her tape deck, as she misses her uber-modern technology, and discovers that loads of white and gold, Revelation-style Imperial Daleks have transmatted in. She proceeds to kick no small quantity of arseage, attacking Daleks with her baseball bat and leaping through a window. And this leads to another brilliant cliffhanger.

Part Three

“Weapons- always useless in the end.”

This is the first episode I ever recorded on its original transmission- and I’ve done the same for every episode ever since. So for me there will be no more stories in this Marathon that are particularly unfamiliar- although of course there are loads I haven’t seen for years. This one, for example.

The Doctor gets strangled by a strange looking claw from inside an Imperial Dalek; apparently the blobs inside have mutated functional appendages and are cyborgs. Lovely. And then we get more great moments- Rachel and Allison’s faces after the Doctor smashes the Dalek transmat with the baseball bat; the Doctor’s discussion with Ace about how such unimaginably advanced tech as a tape deck is a glaring anachronism in the year when sexual intercourse began; and a casual mention of “Bernard” and “British Rocket Group”. I’m sure Nigel Kneale would have loved that…

We establish that Ratcliffe has possession of the Hand, and then, in a key scene, the Doctor finally explains to Ace what’s going on. And it’s important stuff. Simply by writing the line “[Omega] left behind him the basis upon which Rassilon founded Time Lord society,” Aaronovitch resolves an apparent continuity clash between The Three Doctors and all Time Lord stories from The Deadly Assassin onwards. It’s fanwank, yes, but dammit, it’s the acceptable face of fanwank. Another interesting line is “Didn’t we have trouble with the prototype?” Gosh, I wonder where this could be going? Could script editor Andrew Cartmel have some sort of, I dunno, master plan up his sleeve?

The Doctor certainly has a plan, and apparently it’s to ensure that one particular faction gets its, er, hands on the Hand while ensuring there’s as little human collateral damage as possible. But others have plans too; the Black Dalek turns up, and the Renegade Daleks finally turn the tables on their human pawn, Ratcliffe. We discover that the mysterious Dalek thing is in fact that sinister little girl, and also that these Daleks have a “Time Controller” which is so very late ‘80s.

The Doctor and Ace dodge some tatty Daleks to discover the room where all this has just taken place, and the Doctor explains how the Dalek battle computer works- by taking a child’s natural imagination and enslaving it to the Daleks’ will, thus relieving them of their dependence on logic. How they must wish they’d thought of that during their war with the Movellans.

Mike reveals he’s been betraying secrets to his dodgy fascist mates, leading to some slightly embarrassing ersatz swearing from Ace. But never mind that- an Imperial Dalek shuttlecraft is landing…

Part Four

“Daleks are such boring conversationalists.”

It’s good to hear that old familiar throb inside the Dalek shuttlecraft. It’s also nice to see a bit of innovation and coolness with the Special Weapons Dalek, although admittedly it impresses me rather less now than it did when I was eleven.

I’m increasingly noticing how many excellent little bits of physical acting McCoy is always integrating into his performance, such as his umbrella getting stuck in the shuttlecraft door and using his umbrella handle to close a gate. I’m particularly impressed by the way these little comic moments are used to counterpoint the Doctor’s more brooding side. Suddenly this new Doctor seems to have an awful lot of depth. Davison may have been a better actor, but this is arguably the best Doctor since Tom Baker.

The Doctor communicates with the Imperial Dalek mother ship, claiming to be “President Elect” of the High Council. Er, not when we last checked he wasn’t. Just how many untelevised stories did we miss out on between Trial of a Time Lord and Time and the Rani? But then, if he’s 953 that would imply a gap of fifty years. A lot can happen in that time. For example, the Doctor seems to be carrying out some kind of long term plan against the Dalek, and reels off a long list of fancy Time Lord titles. Davros (for it is he), on the other hand, seems hell-bent against the Time Lords. It’s almost as if there’s some kind of, I dunno, “Time War” of some kind under way.

Anyway, the Doctor essentially destroys Skaro, just like that. It’s a very new departure for the Doctor, which could end up either very good or very bad; it all depends on where all this is going in the long term. For now, though, this story is fab.

Brilliant, a strong 5/5. Fast paced, exciting, and just as good twenty-one years later.

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