Doctor Who complete reviews: Remembrance Of The Daleks
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
The Doctor's best-loved/hated foe gets an anniversary story to remember...
Remembrance Of The Daleks kicks off with a pre-credits sequence – the fourth in Doctor Who up to that point. Featuring snippets of speeches from JFK, Martin Luther King and Charles De Gaulle, and an overhead shot of the Dalek ship, the unusual beginning jump-starts the new season of Doctor Who in fine style.
In fact, the Remembrance pre-credits heralds what feels like a new era for Doctor Who. After the to-ing and fro-ing of season 24, Remembrance finally lands the series a classic, something that hadn't really been since Revelation Of The Daleks back in 1985. It's a fast, pacy action story that also happens to say lots of interesting things about racism and betrayal. It's also the first example of the Cartmel Masterplan, in which The Doctor is, at times, portrayed as something more than just an ordinary Time Lord. There's enough meat here for both casual viewers and dedicated Who aficionados, who can pick their way through a million and one continuity references.
Remembrance was just what Doctor Who needed, given that it was the story chosen to launch the programme's 25th anniversary season. The Three Doctors and Arc Of Infinity weren't quite the celebrations you'd want or expect for past anniversaries, but Remembrance hits the nail on the head – good thing that Silver Nemesis wasn't the season opener. What's great about the story is that it builds on the potential that some of season 24 showed, to provide a tale that's chock full of confidence and interest. It may be shamefully nostalgic, but there's plenty of interesting new ideas and concepts that keep Remembrance from getting stale.
Take the Daleks for instance – recent adventures such as Revelation had seen different factions of Daleks at loggerheads, but this reaches new heights in Remembrance, as the Imperial Daleks and Renegade Daleks battle it out for a stellar manipulator called The Hand Of Omega, a pretentious name that still nevertheless sounds better than The Nostril Of Omega or The Ear Wax Of Omega. While the Imperial Daleks have stayed loyal to their creator Davros, the Renegades slavishly follow their master, the Supreme Dalek. What I like about Remembrance is that it fools you into thinking that the croaky thing in the corner of Ratcliffe's office is Davros. In fact, it's nothing of the sort – it turns out to be the weird, smirking kid who's singing odd nursery rhymes about The Doctor. That's a great little reveal, and furthermore it throws you off the scent about Davros – at least until the giant mobile anti-perspirant dispenser on wheels trundles into view. The credits read “Roy Tromelly” at the end of part three, but you'd have to be pretty clueless to not guess that Davros is back for yet another rematch.
Inexplicably, he's now a disembodied head in a mass of wires – which just looks odd, but more crucially, the cunning, vicious Davros of Genesis Of The Daleks has been replaced by a cackling imbecile, who's now gone down the Black Guardian route of spouting ineffectual gibberish at The Doctor in a bid to sound tough. He even wails “Have pity on me!” in the voice of a four-year-old when he realises that the Hand Of Omega is about to reduce the home world of Skaro to atoms, before throwing a tutting hissy fit and retreating into his I'll Be Back Escape Pod.
Davros isn't really needed here, since the Daleks are back to their menacing best. They've got a few handy upgrade gizmos on display here. The new extermination effect, which shows the victim's skeleton for a nanosecond, looks amazing, and it's a pity that only one extra dies this way – the rest of the time, the likes of Ratcliffe and Mike are bumped off by the annoying kid and her lightning. The Dalek POV shots also impress – we're worlds away from the distorted crystal ball visions of earlier stories, now, we have an electronically distorted cross-haired effect. Again, it works brilliantly in part one (most notably for the frantic cliffhanger), but sadly, it's never used again in the story. And talking of the part one cliffhanger, the Daleks can go up stairs! Who needs Thora Hird when you have your very own Dalek stair lift? We tend to take mobile Daleks for granted these days, but at the time, the sight of an elevating Dalek advancing on a terrified Doctor was thrilling stuff.
Mind you, how long does it take to exterminate The Doctor? It's too busy shrieking “Exterminate!” at its arch enemy, but it never carries out its threat. What happened, did a stray bit of egg get caught in its deadly whisk?
"It's a crisp debut script from Ben Aaronovitch, who manages to juggle the moral message with bundles of action and countless continuity references"
Apart from the new innovations, the Daleks are very much the embodiment of the story's anti-racism message. One or two of the earlier stories such as The Daleks and Genesis Of The Daleks had dwelt heavily on this theme, but Remembrance really goes for the jugular. Aside from one or two heavy handed moments (Ace's crass explanation in part four - “They hate each other's chromosomes” - seems to have been lifted from the Peter And Jane Guide To Racism, for example), the story delivers its message well. 1960's England was nowhere near as tolerant as it is today – a good example of this is when Ace disgustedly finds a “No Coloureds” sign in Mrs Smith's B&B front window (“I'm going out for a breath of fresh air,” she mutters, after initially contemplating taking her to task). It's a subtle little moment, and although the revelation of Ratcliffe's and Mike's far-right tendencies is less subtle, it's still just as effective. What works is the way in which they aren't portrayed as stereotypical crazies – indeed, Mike initially comes across as a likeable chap, taking a fancy to Ace and apparently helping out The Doctor. So this makes his real allegiance all the more shocking, especially in his clueless attempts to reason with Ace over his motives.
It's a crisp debut script from Ben Aaronovitch, who manages to juggle the moral message with bundles of action and countless continuity references. Luckily, the nods to the past are, for the most part, blink'n'miss it. Aside from mentions of most Dalek stories, we also have comparisons with UNIT, mentions of Omega and even throwbacks to his status as President of Gallifrey. Aaronovitch also knows how to judge the mood of the story.
While most of the story barrels along, it sometimes pauses for quiet reflection. Take part two, which successfully weaves together the fast and slow – there are many nice moments dotted throughout this instalment: The Doctor claiming his casket; The Doctor saying goodbye to the past with good old Peter “Packer” Halliday, and the best of the lot, the quiet contemplation in the café with none other than Joseph Marcell, who'd go on to bigger things as Geoffrey the butler in The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air. This is a fantastic little scene in which The Doctor muses on how one small decision can affect the future, like chucking a boulder into a lake that creates countless ripples. Not only does it refer back to the anti-racist message (“If this sugar thing had never started, my great-grandfather wouldn't have been kidnapped, chained up and sold in Kingston in the first place” says John), it also highlights the melancholic side of The Doctor again, as he weighs up the big decisions ahead of him. What I like is the way in which John, at the end of this great interlude, just shrugs and says: “Life's like that! Best thing is just to get on with it!” A perfect combination of expert scripting and also understated acting from both Joseph Marcell and Sylvester McCoy.
In fact, the 7th Doctor is much more steely and less manic than in his previous season. He's curiously unmoved by the fact that he's tricked the Daleks into blowing up their own planet, causing how many deaths? This also highlights one of the most notable traits of this incarnation: Manipulation. By setting up the whole Hand Of Omega plan, The Doctor's been manipulating the goalposts right from the start. Morally, it's a bit questionable, given that many people on Earth bite the dust as well, but then The Doctor has always looked at the bigger picture. And he'll do so for the next few stories, even if some of his manipulation goes beyond devious to downright cruel (for example, his manipulation of Ace in Ghost Light and The Curse Of Fenric). It's a brave move to go back to a darker Doctor, although I'm not quite sold on the Cartmel Masterplan of making The Doctor some god-like being who was up there with the likes of Omega – wouldn't The Doctor have ordered the Time Lords to bow down before him at his trial in The War Games, for example? It's a worthy attempt at reinventing The Doctor as some awesome force to be reckoned with, but it doesn't really ring true.
"The only letdown is the terrible music from Keff McCulloch"
It's one of Sylvester's best performances though, full of quiet contemplative moments and luckily less gurning (The unlimited rice pudding bit notwithstanding). It's also a good one for Sophie Aldred who already gets a lot to do as Ace. Despite her tough cookie image (she smashes a Dalek with a baseball bat after it calls her small), we get to see the more vulnerable side of Ace, as she's betrayed by Mike. Aldred turns in one of her best performances too, full of feisty confidence one minute and teary anger the next. Although what's up with her expression at the end of part two? I know the Daleks are scary and that, but Ace looks like she's trying not to go to the loo.
The guest acting's just as good as the regulars. Simon Williams makes for a good Brigadier substitute as Group Captain Gilmore, while Pamela Salem provides a strong foil as the shrewd Rachel. On the other side of the tracks, George Sewell and Dursley McLinden are excellent as Ratcliffe and Mike, making them more than stereotypical thugs. Even cameos from Who stalwarts Michael Sheard (as I Can't Believe It's Not Mr Bronson) and Peter Halliday work very well. Director Andrew Morgan gets the best out of a very strong cast, and he does sterling work with Aaronovitch's script – even if his swanky visuals meant that he'd go over budget. The production values are high, with detailed interior designs, mostly convincing effects (the cardboard cut out ship lets down the impressive real one that lands at the end of part three) and excellent set pieces including some well-executed Dalek battles.
The only letdown is the terrible music from Keff McCulloch. OK, so we're meant to be in 1963, but Keff's attempts to get down wiv da 1988 kidz means that we're stuck with what sounds like Side 4 of Now That's What I Call Music 11. There's one crazy bit when The Doctor and Ace shelter from Daleks in a workman's makeshift hut to the sounds of Keff doing kung-fu on his drum machine. Shame, since one or two quieter themes work, such as the mournful music at the end as Ace asks whether her and The Doctor did good. Overall though, as with Murray Gold's music, the Keff cues are too inappropriate, too in-your-face and too much.
But that's a small quibble (as is the silly post-modern bit in which the TV announces the start of a new programme called Do... - on a sunny bright November evening of course). Remembrance Of The Daleks is a superb start to the season with the right mix of action for the kids and intellectual food for thought for the older ones. It's also a shameless nostalgia fest for the faithful, and rightly puts the angry dustbins at the forefront of the monster league.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.
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