It’s what’s on the inside that matters.
During Doctor Who‘s first dozen seasons, the Daleks appeared with tedious inevitability, losing some their power to frighten and amaze each time they trundled onto the screen in increasingly bumbling fashion. And then, after 1975’s “Genesis of the Daleks,” arguably the finest Dalek story since, well, “The Daleks,” they just…vanished. These iconic antagonists would not reappear until five years later, with Season Seventeen’s opening story, Terry Nation’s “Destiny of the Daleks” (Story Production Code 5J). Though the title gives away the surprise, as it tends to with Dalek stories, “Destiny of the Daleks” nevertheless builds on the strong foundations of the prior story. Terry Nation returns his beloved pepperpots to the top rank of Doctor Who villains by making sure they don’t play too large a role in the proceedings, setting them against formidable foes and bringing back their creator in a tightly-plotted story that demonstrates both Nation’s growth as a writer and the benefits of letting the Daleks lie fallow for a time.
Still on the run from the Black Guardian, the Fourth Doctor and a newly regenerated Romana (Lalla Ward) trigger the TARIDS randomizer circuit to arrive at an unknown place and time. Random, that is, in the way a loaded pair of dice is random, for they arrive on a deserted, radioactive planet that the Doctor vaguely recalls from prior visits: Skaro. Nevertheless, Nation neatly avoids confirming the Doctor’s—and the audience’s—suspicions until the end of the first of four episodes, only announcing the planet’s infamous name seconds before a column of Daleks smashes through a barrier, pinning Romana against a wall with their sucker arms in a knowing recreation of their initial introduction, when Barbara suffered the same fate. The Daleks do certainly know how to make an entrance.
But even with the Daleks revealed, Nation continues to layer on narrative mysteries, through both extensive world building and deliberate obfuscation. Another group makes an appearance, the Movellans, a multi-cultural platoon of humanoids dressed in white leotards and silver braided wigs, ostensibly keeping tabs on the Daleks. Typically in Doctor Who, the audience has knowledge that the Doctor lacks, a technique that drives tension as we watch the Doctor and companions figure out the plot complications. The Doctor’s trademark cleverness comes through more strongly in this structure, as his logical (and illogical) thought process becomes part of the story. Here, though, Nation gives the Doctor moments of awareness that he keeps to himself, both in his supposition about what the Daleks dig for on Skaro and, more significantly, his realization of Movellans’ secret. This structural decision shifts the story’s focus from the Doctor onto the Daleks and Movellans, a vintage Terry Nation approach when it comes to prioritizing his own creations.
In retrospect, all the clues are there from the moment the Doctor enters the Movellans’ diamond-shaped spaceship, but one is overwhelmed by the visual impressiveness of both the ship’s interior and the costume design of the Movellans themselves, which owes far more to the 1970s than the 3070s. Indeed, the most striking aspect of the Movellans’ presentation comes from the refreshing casting, with an even split of male and female actors, most of whom are actors of color. For a series where the number of speaking parts by non-white actors can still, some seventeen seasons in, be counted on two hands, it’s a noticeable decision. So once can be forgiven for not immediately recognizing these disco-fied, idealized humanoids as robots themselves. As far as Dalek enemies go, they’re no Mechanoids, that’s for sure…
The sheer volume of effects work in this story bears mentioning, from explosions aplenty through to the large Movellan spaceship exterior and ruins built in the quarry standing in as Skaro. Even the Daleks, quite a few of which are seen on screen at any one time, got a lick of paint, appearing in a slightly darker grey than is typical, with blue eyestalk vanes and surprisingly haphazard plating around the collar between the upper and lower torso. But they also show wear and tear, with paint chips and flecks noticeable on several of them. Given the attention to detail in the story’s presentation, there’s a very real possibility that the distressed state of the Daleks is intentional, reinforcing that they have fallen onto hard times. That would help explain their presence on Skaro; they seek their creator, Davros (David Gooderson, taking over the role from Michael Wisher), in need of upgrades.
Yes, that would be the same Davros that the original Daleks attacked at the end of “Genesis of the Daleks” due to his organic imperfections, right before the Thals destroyed the Kaled base, entombing them and delaying the Dalek project by at least a thousand years, per the Doctor’s estimate. (The actual chronology of the various Dalek stories remains hazy at best, though Romana seems quite well versed in their history.) The Daleks seeking out Davros in this story need his help to defeat the Movellans. The two quasi-robotic combatants have been locked in gigantic space battle for centuries—but neither side has yet fired a shot. The master computers on each side continually calculate a means of achieving a breakthrough, a decisive advantage, but every move on one side is predicted and countered instantly. To secure victory, the Daleks require new programming, their original organic components apparently having lost the ability for independent thought.
Once the Movellans understand what the Daleks are up to, they change their plan from just destroying Davros to capturing the Doctor as well. They, too, desire upgraded programming, a realization brought about in part by the Doctor challenging them to endless games of Rock, Paper, Scissors, which they lose every time thanks to their inability to deviate from logical thinking. The reasons for the Movellans’ endless war against the Daleks remains unexplored, the implication being that both robotic species seek to conquer and dominate, despite the Movellans’ benign appearance. Their hesitancy to reveal their robotic nature also lacks development, though perhaps it has something to do with the ease with which they can be incapacitated simply by removing the power pack/central command unit each wears loosely clipped on its belt.
Again, Nation signposts this vulnerability through a brief exchange the Doctor has with the leader of the Movellans, Commander Sharrel (Peter Straker), near the end of the first episode, but it’s such a quick moment, overshadowed by the revelation of Skaro and the Daleks seconds later, that one really only sees it on a second viewing. Nation reinforces the Doctor’s cleverness through his piecing together the evidence that, in truth, is there for all to see. It’s a nifty bit of writing, giving nuance to both the Doctor’s character and also preventing the Movellans from being perfect machines.
Indeed, Terry Nation shows his strength, and growth, as a writer in this story by allowing the Daleks to share the stage not only with the Movellans, but also with Davros and the Doctor. Certainly, our perpetually persnickety pepperpots roll hither and yon shouting catch phrases, taking up a good bit of screen time, but the Movellans also share the spotlight, showing a hauteur one would not expect from a species of robots, no matter how fabulous their outfits.
As for Davros, the creator of the Daleks picks up right where he left off from the end of “Genesis of the Daleks,” expecting to take control of their destiny as though thousands of years (and one assassination attempt) had not passed. He assumes, not incorrectly, that they have gone to war with the universe. There’s a moment of seeming hesitation when the Dalek in charge of the search team agrees that Davros will unseat the Supreme Dalek, but wisely Nation does not delve too deeply into Dalek politics at that moment. With a full story already under way—there’s an entire sub-plot involving human prisoners taken by the Daleks from all over the galaxy for use as slave labor in digging out Davros—Nation puts the needs of the narrative first, a choice he might not have made when starting out with the Daleks.
Tom Baker and David Gooderson play the Doctor/Davros repartee well, though perhaps Gooderson lacks just a bit of Wisher’s self-sure mania in playing the character. Still, Davros’ sullen silence as the Doctor wheels him about through the ruins of the Kaled base speaks volumes; the scene is played for laughs, but Gooderson retains just enough dignity to signal his defiance—a doubly hard task when covered with so much makeup and so many facial appliances. When Davros demands that all the other Daleks sacrifice themselves to protect him, by strapping themselves with explosives and rolling up to the Movellan ship, there’s a cold edge in his voice, and again just the slightest trepidation on the part of the Daleks, who nevertheless trundle forth.
In the end, the Fourth Doctor shows one of the humans who escaped from the Daleks, Tyssan (Tim Barlow), how to deactivate and reprogram the Movellans by fiddling with their power packs. Tyssan and Romana set about overpowering the stately androids while the Doctor tricks Davros into prematurely blowing up his Dalek suicide force, though not before a near-obligatory scene where a Dalek cries out in panic because the Doctor throws his hat over its eyestalk. The ending, it must be said, lets the story down somewhat, with all three of the Doctor’s foes being foiled without much fuss. The Doctor whips up a cryogenic storage chamber for Davros, who defiantly declares that no prison can hold him, then he and Romana skip out before the freed human slaves return to Earth in the Movellans’ ship.
Tom Baker plays the Fourth Doctor in this story with a gusto that belies his five years of service in the role; he’s not simply showing up for work. Certainly he gets to clamber about the quarry and the sets, sliding down a hillside and dodging explosives that seem quite near to him and Lalla Ward. As noted, his interplay with David Gooderson drives much of the interest in the latter half of the story, and it turns out that he—or at least the Doctor—plays a mean game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. The Doctor does come very close to killing Davros, being willing to sacrifice himself to take out this evil he thought was long-dead. As for the Daleks and the Movellans, he lacks any empathy whatsoever, readily tricking Davros into destroying those on the planet and even chucking aside a Kaled mutant slug he finds in the “wild,” presumably destroying it in the process.
Lalla Ward returns to the series after her turn as Princess Astra in “The Armageddon Factor,” the change in actor explained away as a regeneration. The whole scene is presented humorously, with Romana trying on several different bodies until finally appearing in a trench coat and scarf just like the Doctor’s, of which he readily approves. It cheapens the import of regeneration somewhat, with Romana simply trying on bodies until she finds one she likes. The Time Lords have demonstrated the ability to choose a particular regeneration’s result, as with the forced regeneration of the Second Doctor into the Third, but previously, regeneration has been traumatic, uncertain, and filled with import. A more graceful explanation for Romana regenerating into Astra’s form would have been preferable.
As for Romana herself, this regeneration seems somewhat more given to emotion, showing more fear than the original version when confronted with her potential demise. Lalla Ward does exhibit a great deal of chemistry with Tom Baker—indeed, the two eventually get married after a tumultuous courtship—and she retains Romana’s self-certainty, going so far as to prevent a Movellan from detonating a device that would ignite Skaro’s atmosphere. That she winds up kicking the arm off of an android speaks to either previously unknown strength or a bit of directorial license on the part of Ken Grieve. Her wardrobe choice of a pink trench coat and long white scarf, playing off the Doctor’s uniform, works quite well.
The term “companion” makes a welcome return to the series for the first time since “The Sun Makers” almost two years prior. Here, a Dalek uses the phrase to pass along information about the Doctor’s whereabouts to Davros:
Dalek: Listening scanners have detected non-Movellan voices inside the space vehicle. Computers identify the voices as those of the Doctor and his companion.
It also marks the first time that Romana has been referred to as the Doctor’s companion.
As for that other erstwhile companion, K-9 (Roy Skelton, voice, uncredited) does not figure at all, being sidelined with robot laryngitis at the start and thus in a state of disrepair. The Doctor does send Romana back to the TARDIS to retrieve K-9 after a pillar falls on him, but it serves merely as a means of separating the Doctor and Romana for an episode; when Romana reaches the TARDIS, a convenient earthquake knocks rubble over the TARDIS doors. Perhaps having the metallic mutt would have meant one brand of robot too many for the tale.
“Destiny of the Daleks” fails to reach the heights of its immediate predecessor, “Genesis of the Daleks,” and indeed suffers for being something of a sequel to it. Nevertheless, the return of the Daleks, in what will wind up to be Terry Nation’s final Doctor Who script, demonstrates that they still have the power to shock and amaze, if only they are used as proximate threats instead of central dangers. It’s hard to take them seriously when they want to take over the universe story after story; but when they are looking for their creator, to advance their evolution, their destiny, they gain a depth that enriches them as foes. Their beat-up presentation, with peeling paint and mismatched collar plating, only heightens their pathos. Ranged against the outwardly perfect Movellans, they cut a more menacing figure than they would simply wheeling about endless corridors, looking for something, anything, to exterminate. Wisely, the Fourth Doctor will not match wits with them again—the Daleks are at their best when they are least expected.
(Previous Story: The Armageddon Factor)
(Next Story: City of Death)
Post 107 of the Doctor Who Project