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Doctor Who: Revelation of the Daleks (part two)

You know, that hung together better than I remembered it. Alexei Sayle’s still the best thing about it, and it would have been a whole lot more wonderful with more of him blowing up Daleks with his concentrated beam of rock and roll, but I think it gelled for me a bit more this time, for some reason. Sayle’s sonic cannon was, of course, our son’s favorite part of the story. His eyes lit up and he had the biggest smile you can imagine on his face when that first Dalek exploded.

Actually, one reason I enjoyed this more than I have previously is that I used to really, really loathe a character played by Jenny Tomasin, and thought the actress did a rotten job. I was wrong. Her character is a really tough one for an actor to play; she’s meant to be much more pathetic than endearing, and foolishly duped by everybody around her. But apart from one snickeringly bad line reading in part one when she bellows “Find the intruders!” I think Tomasin played this role extremely well, which can’t have been easy when you’ve got an amazing actor like Clive Swift literally brushing you aside. I may have mentioned before that my time talking with and observing the actors at the Children’s Museum of Atlanta gave me a newfound understanding of what actors have to do to make their characters work at all. I’m always glad of the opportunity to reconsider the opinions I held when I was even more stupid than I am now.

But right behind Sayle, there’s William Gaunt underplaying his role of a disgraced assassin from a noble order, and Eleanor Bron, who’s magical in anything. I love how Gaunt’s character acts like he is in complete control of the situation in Davros’s lab, and responds to any obstacle without taking an extra breath, just communicating with his eyes and piercing stares. And Colin Baker and Terry Molloy get one of the better Doctor-Davros arguments – easily the first good one since “Genesis,” honestly – as they debate Davros’s latest sick scheme.

We won’t wait fifteen months until starting the next season of Doctor Who like us poor folk had to do in the eighties… in fact, we’ll be back for more adventures in time and space in about eleven days. But first, something else, like the other two shows that we’re watching, that I’ve never seen before… stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: Revelation of the Daleks (part one)

I’ve never really enjoyed “Revelation of the Daleks,” which brings this disappointing season to an end, but I do enjoy just how weird it is. I mean, this is an extraordinarily weird 45 minutes. It barely has the Doctor or the Daleks in it. It’s mainly a bunch of Eric Saward characters alternately yelling at each other or mumbling underneath the incidental music, having their own adventure that doesn’t concern the Doctor at all. Parts of the story are sort of narrated by the wonderful comedian Alexei Sayle, playing an oddball DJ piping music and long-distance dedications to a city full of stiffs in suspended animation. I could have done with a whole lot more Alexei Sayle and a whole lot less of desperate double-acts arguing with each other.

Sayle’s role prompted me to pause, because it occurred to me that once again our son has no frame of reference for something I took for granted. We never listen to radio, so the world of Wolfman Jack or Casey Kasem is another planet he’s never heard of. They still have DJs on some stations, I think, but I’m at work when the local NPR / college radio hybrid gets to play music – Chattanooga is woefully short a WUOG or WSBF or WREK – so he doesn’t even get to hear college kids, never mind celebrities.

And of course, he didn’t recognize William Gaunt from The Champions as an assassin called Orcini. Say what you will about this weird story, it’s got a terrific cast that also includes Eleanor Bron and Clive Swift, who underplays the role of the funeral director amazingly well and is so entertaining. Terry Molloy is back as Davros, making him the first actor to play the role twice, and the story is directed by Graeme Harper, who had made the previous year’s “Caves of Androzani” look so good. He can’t save this one, but he fills it full of moments that are at least interesting. Next time, the Doctor will actually have something to do and I recall it becomes considerably more ordinary.

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Doctor Who: Resurrection of the Daleks (parts three and four)

If you read around, you’ll find some stories about how the American movie version of “Resurrection of the Daleks” was edited together from a complete cut of the first half, and a rough cut, lacking music, voiceovers, and sound effects, of the second. These stories don’t really explain how weird, ridiculous, and strange the experience was. Lionheart, the company that syndicated Doctor Who in the US in the 1980s and 1990s, made all sorts of dumb decisions about the prints that they offered stations, but one of the worst was not phoning the BBC to get a replacement copy. We were stuck with that thing for years.

Bear in mind that for a long time, your average American viewer might not have had any idea that these 90-minute adventures were edited movie versions of four-part serials. There were clues that something was up, though. There were occasional editing hiccups, like the one halfway through “Arc of Infinity.” For some reason, the editor used the end of part two rather than the recap at the beginning of part three, so the shot of Sarah Sutton has the sound of the cliffhanger “sting” over her face right before the credits rolled.

So with “Resurrection,” halfway through, there’s the clumsiest edit in the universe. Rodney Bewes’s character says “I’m a Dalek agent,” and the screen goes black for a half-second, and then picks up halfway through a Dalek shouting “-terminate” and there isn’t any music or sound effects anymore. This makes some of the scenes completely comical. When the actress playing the civilian advisor to the military is deafened by a weird sci-fi sound, there isn’t actually any sound. She just falls over with her hands over her ears making odd noises. Another scene doesn’t have a pair of voiceovers by Terry Molloy, so he just opens a door and closes it for no apparent reason. Then there’s a trooper who gets shot in part four. With the music blaring, you can barely hear him, but without the music, he steals the scene when he yodels “Eeee-ohhh-urrrrp!” before falling over.

I wasn’t a big buyer of the Who VHS range. The tapes – at least the American tapes manufactured by CBS/Fox, were notorious among some of my friends for being bargain-basement quality. But I did buy the VHS of “Resurrection” just so I could see the second half as it was meant to be seen and heard!

While our son absolutely loved all the Daleks blowing each other to pieces, the most interesting thing to me about this story is that it writes Tegan out in a remarkably grim and unhappy way. The whole thing is relentlessly bleak – not just the entire supporting cast, but literally every character we see onscreen at all, save the resourceful mercenary Lytton and his two guards, all die – and part three of the story doesn’t just tread water as part threes in Doctor Who generally do, it’s tediously violent and gruesome while also barely advancing the plot. And so this is the point where Tegan decides that she just can’t stand it any more, and leaves. I think the final punch in her gut is the Doctor telling her that he intends to murder Davros. So when it’s finally safe to go because everyone is dead, she shakes the Doctor and Turlough’s hands and she’s gone before she bursts into tears. It’s so abrupt and sad, and it’s always punched me in the gut.

I was talking with our son two nights ago about the idea of fan theories. He was talking with some other kids about connections in the Pixar universe, and how Andy’s mom in Toy Story might have been Jessie’s original owner. I told him that there were all sorts of fan theories in Doctor Who and that I’d tell him about one in a couple of days. That’s because the previous day, I saw that somebody had suggested that the gun used in the most recent episode, “Resolution,” came from the warehouse in this adventure.

A couple of other theories come to mind about this story. Tegan leaves with literally nothing but the clothes on her back. She doesn’t even have a handbag, and that miniskirt doesn’t look like it has pockets. I think she made a collect call and phoned her grandfather, who we met in “The Awakening,” and he took the train up from Little Hodcombe to get her.

I was reminded of one of the many great ideas that Virgin’s line of Doctor Who novels introduced in the 1990s. At one point, the Doctor’s companion Bernice is left abandoned in 1909 and makes use of the Doctor’s bank account. At some point, the Doctor realized that it might be a good idea to have a resource available to any of his companions that get stranded or stuck in the UK, and time travellers should be pretty good about taking advantage of compound interest. I figure that’s part of Companion Orientation, getting the account number and a couple of withdrawal slips, and maybe an ATM / debit card for when you’re on the right side of the 1980s, so that when you call it off because it’s not fun anymore, you can take out a few hundred pounds to get your life back in order. All Tegan would need is proper identification… so maybe she should have grabbed her purse!

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Doctor Who: Resurrection of the Daleks (parts one and two)

Yeah, that’s the Doctor carrying a pistol. I’d ask what the writer was thinking, but the writer was the program’s script editor Eric Saward, who had a very strong interest in telling stories about tough guys with guns. One of the tough guys with guns in this story is a mercenary working for the Daleks called Commander Lytton, played by Maurice Colbourne, and it’s fairly obvious across this story and the character’s next appearance that Saward would much, much rather have been working on a program called Commander Lytton, Space Badass.

Joining Colbourne in this story is Rodney Bewes, yet another example of the show casting a really recognizable face from a sitcom. Bewes is best remembered as one of The Likely Lads, a much-loved comedy from the sixties and seventies, and was also the straight man to the puppet Basil Brush for many years. This is the first adventure to feature Terry Molloy in the role of Davros. Molloy seems to try to make Davros much more disgusting, with a constant mouthful of spit and bile, than either of the previous actors to play him did.

When I was thirteen or fourteen, “Resurrection of the Daleks” was one of my favorite adventures, because it’s a story with lots of tough guys talking macho, and lots of guns, and, in our son’s favorite moment – most kids’ favorite moment, I bet – a Dalek gets shoved out a second story window and blows up when it lands dome-first on the pavement. I kind of prefer these less invincible Daleks, honestly. I think this story has aged very, very badly, but our kid, who was already riding high on the thrill of a much more invincible Dalek in Tuesday night’s new episode, “Resolution,” was in heaven.

More to talk about in the serial’s second half, though, so stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: Destiny of the Daleks (parts three and four)

Yesterday, I said there was a third thing about the otherwise boring “Destiny of the Daleks” that’s worth a hoot, and here they are: the space age disco robots, the Movellans. Apart from a few mentions and about a two second cameo in the 2017 story “The Pilot,” the Movellans retreat into obscurity after this, but I like them for some dumb reason. They’re so wonderfully seventies. Over in Hollywood, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (which we’ll be watching quite soon) was in production at the same time as this serial. It’s the stupid crossover that totally should have happened: Ardala teamed up with the Movellans to boogie on down with Buck in New Chicago. The soundtrack, because it was an American show, might have been “A Fifth of Beethoven.”

Several chapters ago, I gave the About Time series an unusual-for-me sneer because Miles and Wood’s analysis just started digging up garbage as they coughed up some downright dumb material for season sixteen. True, Lawrence Miles has always obsessed over questions nobody else cares about – he once spent six hundred pages across two novels because he wanted to know who owned the junkyard where the TARDIS was first parked – but there’s some genuine pablum midway through volume four. Anyway, they redeemed themselves with a little gem talking about “Destiny of the Daleks.”

In 2003, I bought Placebo’s album Sleeping With Ghosts, which came with a bonus CD of ten cover versions. One of the tunes they did was something I’d never heard of called “Daddy Cool.” I thought it was pretty good, filed it, and mostly forgot about it. Years later, About Time drew a line between the Movellans and Boney M., a based-in-West-Germany disco act with about four dozen members, sometimes all on stage at once, who originally performed that song. Sometimes I go off on musical tangents – this paragraph is proof of that – but friends, I have watched the absolute hell out of Boney M. on YouTube for the last two months. My friends and I were so busy being punks in the late eighties hating disco for whatever its sins were that I never looked back and missed out on how gloriously ridiculous and fun some of it was. Emphasis on some.

Look. Here’s Boney M. at the Sopot International Song Festival, literally the weekend before “Destiny of the Daleks” first aired in the UK. Watch this and you’ll have disco-dancing Movellan fever for good.

Back in our living room, meanwhile, our son came around and really enjoyed this story’s climax. The Doctor flings his hat onto one Dalek’s eyestalk and it goes completely nuts and starts shooting everything and he was in heaven. Then all the suicide-vest Daleks blow up in a series of detonations and he darn near melted that was so wonderful. Once again, a Who adventure starts out weird for him, gets creepy and unpleasant, and ends triumphantly. I’m sure he’ll dream of exploding Daleks tonight.

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Doctor Who: Destiny of the Daleks (parts one and two)

And so back to Doctor Who for six stories that fandom has always found pretty divisive. Conventional wisdom: It’s the two that Douglas Adams wrote and four wastes of time. Revisionist thought: This is Doctor Who at its most charming, effervescent, and downright fun.

I confess that I was in the conventional camp for a long, long time. These were the days when list-creating so-called fans, for whom Doctor Who was SRS BSNSS, kept looking back to their program’s glory days instead of looking forward. It took a lot of time, and the help of writer Gareth Roberts, to get me seeing straight. Roberts defended the season – and the Graham Williams era generally – in an excellent essay for the fanzine DWB in 1993, and then wrote a trio of downright fantastic Who novels set among these six serials. I liked all of his Who books that I’ve read, but The Romance of Crime, The English Way of Death, and The Well-Mannered War are all completely superb and I love them all. They sparkle with so much energy and possibility, and are witty, dramatic, and incredibly unpredictable.

Onscreen, things don’t quite look as full of energy as those books suggest. Douglas Adams took over the job of script editor and apparently wanted very badly to really shake up the format and introduce lots of new writers. He failed with both goals; the format of four-part serials was too much work for the new-to-television novelists and short story writers that he approached for pitches, but the format was critical to the show’s budget working out the way that it did. In the end, Adams had to rely on people who already knew Who, and even one of them, David Fisher, submitted a story that wasn’t working and so Adams and producer Graham Williams had to rewrite it from the ground up.

But a lot of the energy came from the stars of the show. Since Mary Tamm had decided to leave the program, they could have just had the Doctor return her character, Romana, to Gallifrey offscreen and meet a new character. Instead, they decided – and it’s kind of weird, when you think about it – to have Romana just up and regenerate and have her new body look just like the character of Astra from the previous story, played by Lalla Ward. And then Baker and Ward fell crazy stupid in love with each other, and you know what? They’re kind of wonderfully fun to watch together. Until a bit in the next season when they started fighting, anyway.

Things got started with “Destiny of the Daleks,” and you can be revisionist until you’re blue in the face, but Tom Baker and Lalla Ward are two of the only three elements of this story worth a hoot. I’ll get to the third one tomorrow. Adams found working on Who to be incredibly dispiriting and disappointing, and here’s four episodes that proved his point. He really wanted to do lots of short, zippy, intricate adventures with weird scientific concepts, a totally fresh outlook, and a fun, frantic pace, but ended up with four installments of Terry Nation phoning in his stock action-adventure cliches and filmed, again, in a rock quarry. The only things that Adams could do for this boring serial was spend extra time in the TARDIS at the beginning with Romana’s fun played-for-laughs regeneration instead of lumbering through an extra set piece on the planet, and insert a gag about a very minor Hitch-Hiker’s Guide character, Oolon Colluphid. He’s the author of a book that the Doctor is reading at one point.

But there are Daleks in it! Not that it matters much, because the story is slow and turgid and done without any urgency at all. There’s even a subplot about our heroes needing anti-radiation pills which is completely forgotten by the time part two begins. There’s no visual continuity between this and the previous Dalek adventure, which is allegedly set in the same place. But there are Daleks in it! And our son strangely didn’t seem to care too much. He grumbled that this was too creepy, again, although he was fascinated by the cliffhanger ending to part two, and the unfortunate revelation that Davros is still alive. Nothing has ever persuaded me that this was a good idea, but he’s curious about what will happen next.

The high point, though, was a fun moment where he speculated about what is going on in this ruined city. In the background of the main “entry level” set, there’s one of those old reel-to-reel computer tape decks. Our son remembered seeing similar props in the 1973 story “The Time Warrior”, although he couldn’t remember details about the adventure. He said “The Doctor HAS been here before, in the one with the alien in the medieval city!” He’d forgotten that “Warrior” was actually set on Earth, but he remembered a prop. I adore that even more than I adore Roberts’ incredibly fun novels.

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MacGyver 2.1 – The Human Factor

Our son really likes MacGyver, and why shouldn’t he? It’s perfect for kids, with an inventive hero who doesn’t use guns and no real shocks or scares in the stories. Plus, his mom likes it, and he sure does like his mom, even if he somehow thinks that she has spent three years lying to him about how covering your face with a washcloth will keep shampoo out of your eyes, the blasted kid. So she and I have selected another ten episode run, this time from the second season.

“The Human Factor” is the only episode of this show I’d ever seen, and I wasn’t taken enough to watch it again. I tuned in for this one in the fall of 1986 (or possibly on a repeat) because somebody at the Atlanta Doctor Who club, Terminus TARDIS, had said that it was a tip of the hat to the show’s former producer Terry Nation and had little waist-high “Daleks” in it. They’re in the service of a supercomputer that’s lost its marbles and wants to kill Mac and guest star June Chadwick, who you may recall from V and This is Spinal Tap.

It’s fun to see the little drones with gun-eyes shooting lasers at our hero while the supercomputer is saying “Eliminate!” It’s a little less fun to see a garbage room with an acid bath beneath the floor, which opens when 280 pounds of weight piles up. Daleks and fake floors above pits of acid? This is meant to be a top security military base, but it seems to have been designed by a middle school boy in between Dungeons & Dragons evenings. At one point, Mac walks on a tightrope above a pressure-sensitive floor, and later there’s a corridor with a laser beam “gate,” and later still they sneak around in a ventilation shaft. I guess the budget must not have run to trained crocodiles with chainsaws, because that’s where this very, very silly episode was heading.

We asked our son whether the drones reminded him of anything. He shouted “Daleks!” Good. I’d have been worried if they didn’t.

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Doctor Who: Genesis of the Daleks (part six)

There are some good Dalek stories after this one. Some very good ones, in fact. But I really don’t think “Genesis of the Daleks” has been surpassed by any of the Dalek adventures that have come since its 1975 broadcast. And it all comes down to the last seven minutes or so.

Honestly, this last part is a little flabby. The Doctor’s debate about blowing up the incubation chamber and killing all the infant mutants inside is rightly remembered as amazing. It’s good that it takes a minute to address the issue: the Doctor is about to commit genocide. The only Daleks that will survive are the ones in the death squad that’s been recalled. It’s left to these eight or nine to spawn all the Daleks of the future.

Interestingly, this story has sparked all sorts of speculation about what, exactly, the Doctor actually accomplished here. Did he change the future in some way? Did he cause a long enough delay to force the Daleks that we see later in the program to be less scheming and less successful?

On a related note, I really like the retcon that Russell T. Davies introduced, that once the Daleks somehow figure out that the Time Lords screwed with their development, this story becomes the first strike in the Time War of his era. I remain disappointed that something that could have been mythic and almost impossible to imagine, let alone visualize, a cosmos-spanning event that rewrites all of galactic history with every campaign, finally made it to the screen as a bunch of silly men and silly robot-things shooting each other with zap guns, but I think that Davies had the right idea. If the Daleks absolutely had to be the Time Lords’ opponent in the War, then making “Genesis” a preemptive strike is a great idea.

Minus that scene, the first two-thirds of this episode is padding and flab, and then the Daleks make their move and it’s incredible. I love how they don’t talk for a few moments. They just murder Nyder. Then they kill all the extras, after letting Davros know that they do not understand the word “pity.” I love this all mainly because they’ve been obedient little killers, agreeably doing whatever Davros tells them, until they all get together and exterminate everybody. It’s a fabulous climax.

But with it goes the greatness of the old Daleks. The scheming and the quiet manipulation of “Master Plan,” “Power,” “Evil,” even “Planet” really gets replaced from this story on, at least until the Time War. The Daleks that we see in the rest of the classic series just aren’t as effective, in a narrative sense, despite a couple more good stories. And Davros, sadly, doesn’t stay dead, again despite a couple more good appearances when Julian Bleach is in the chair. So I guess the Doctor did accomplish something after all. He made the villains so much less entertaining!

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