It seems I must mend my ways.
Given producer John Nathan-Turner’s iconoclastic approach to Doctor Who, the most surprising element of script editor Eric Saward’s “Resurrection of the Daleks” (Story Production Code 6P) is just how long it took the two of them to get around to remaking the most beloved villains in the series’ history. By Season Twenty-One in 1984, fully three and a half seasons have elapsed since Nathan-Turner took over, and in that time he brought back many an old foe, from the Silurians and the Master to Omega and the Cybermen, often giving them a harsher, less subtle, and more menacing aspect. As for the Daleks—in their first full appearance in nearly five years, since 1979’s “Destiny of the Daleks,” not counting their brief cameo in “The Five Doctors,” and the first not written by creator Terry Nation in over twelve years, since Louis Marks’ “The Day of the Daleks” from 1972—the perfidious pepperpots come out of the Nathan-Turner and Saward transmogrifier with a surprising twist: they are defeated.
Saward’s story draws heavily upon Nation’s “Destiny of the Daleks,” which sees the Fourth Doctor and Romana in the far future outwit, in turn, the Daleks; their new forever enemies, the robotic, disco-bead-wearing Movellans; and Davros, the latter being captured and placed in suspended animation for transport back to Earth. Some ninety years later, the war between the excessively logical rivals has ended. The Movellans introduced a virus that targets Dalek genetics, wiping out most of the mutated Kaleds and scattering the remainder to far-flung corners of the galaxy to escape its effects. Hoping to engineer a cure, the Supreme Dalek, aided by a small core of followers, turns to their creator, Davros, for help once again (as they did in “Destiny of the Daleks,” after having tried to kill him in “Genesis of the Daleks,” if anyone is keeping score).
They can’t do it alone, though, as their power has waned and their ability to think strategically has diminished. They turn instead to a band of brainwashed human duplicates, led by Lytton (Maurice Colbourne), to serve as their shock army, and also, for reasons that Saward never really tries to explain, to guard a cache of Movellan virus canisters in an abandoned London warehouse in 1984, accessed via a “time corridor” created by the Supreme Dalek’s spaceship. It’s this corridor that the TARDIS finds itself trapped in at the end of “Frontios,” and by the time the Fifth Doctor breaks free of it, the temporal-spatial momentum brings the blue box down on the banks of the Thames, right near a street where a group of armed bobbies guns down a band of escaped slaves from the Dalek ship in the story’s opening scenes.
This opening in particular, with its sense of disorientation, juxtaposing the familiar with the unexplained, sets out the stakes for the entire two part story. (To accommodate the Sarajevo Winter Olympics, the four original twenty-five minute episodes of this story were edited into two fifty minute ones, per Howe and Walker, Doctor Who: The Television Companion.) More than anything, the first few minutes call to mind the ruined London of “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” and the shock when the usually unarmed contemporary police appear and kill in cold blood causes confusion and dismay in equal measure. Saward and Nathan-Turner intend to bring about just what the title suggests, a “resurrection” of the Daleks, returning them to their rightful place as the ominous, frightful, ruthless killers that they are. But then they take a page from the campiest of all Dalek stories, “The Chase,” and have the Doctor bundle a screeching Dalek out a window to its explosive demise…
The remainder of the story suffers from similar tonal shifts. A tense search for the Kaled mutant from the defenestrated Dalek, which has already killed one British soldier investigating the Movellan canisters in the warehouse, leads to a cat popping out from a suspicious pile of rags; the meows turn to screams as a quick camera cut, courtesy of director Matthew Robinson, reveals the obviously rubber mutant wobbling at the throat of another soldier. The Doctor lets loose with a fusillade of bullets from a pistol given him by Colonel Archer (Del Henney), leader of the soldiers, killing the creature in the least-Doctor-like manner possible. One would be inclined to call such an aberration in the Doctor’s character the work of someone unfamiliar with the long and extensive (if not always honored) tradition of the Doctor disdaining guns, and violence more generally, but Saward has no such excuse.
Indeed, one might have expected this script to be written by Terry Nation, given how little the Fifth Doctor and companions feature in the first half of the story. Far more time devolves on the group of soldiers investigating the warehouse in 1984 London and on the crew of the space station where, inexplicably, humans from Earth hold Davros in an orbital facility devoted solely to holding this one prisoner. Ostensibly Earth of this era was affected by the Dalek/Movellan war and, after receiving Davros all gift wrapped by the Doctor, decides to keep him safely under guard. With the Daleks considered defeated, though, the station has begun to fall apart by the time a Dalek cruiser attacks, startling the crew from its ennui. It’s still worth noting at this point in Doctor Who‘s run that two of the prominent speaking roles amongst the crew are of apparent South Asian descent, Mercer (Jim Findley) and Osborn (Sneh Gupta), a welcome suggestion of a diverse Earth in the far future that quite contradicts the series’ frequent monocultural depictions of the same.
Much time is spent following the crew as they attempt to defend the station against boarding, with the humans initially succeeding, allowing Saward several scenes of blasted Daleks with goo dripping from the dead mutants inside, as well as horribly disfigured humans who suffer from a subsequent gas attack. The violence levels in “Resurrection of the Daleks” exceed almost every story to date, in gratuitous display if not sheer on-screen body count. While almost all of the “blood” is green instead of red, the screams—human, Dalek, and Time Lord alike—come across even more unnervingly than the simulated viscera. The few crew who survive the Dalek assault fall back to the self-destruct chamber, where chief station scientist Styles (Rula Lenska) spends quite a few minutes flipping switches aimlessly before figuring out the combination and arming the device, just as Lytton’s troops storm the room and kill everyone.
Unlike prior stories where the Daleks call upon mentally enslaved or collaborating humans as a work force, there’s an ambiguity as to whether Lytton and his human troops are fully controlled by the Supreme Dalek. Stien (Rodney Bewes), a Dalek agent who fools the Doctor into taking him to the Dalek ship in the TARDIS, indicates that all the humans working for the Daleks are duplicates, himself included, with the originals killed once copied, but Lytton seems to make his own decisions and excoriates the Supreme Dalek when the initial plans to board the space station fail. Indeed, it’s Lytton who first confronts Davros, after the human troops prevent members of the space station crew from killing the Daleks’ creator, and he takes a venomous delight in telling the still-groggy evil genius just how far his children have fallen. Either the Dalek duplicates retain a great deal of their originals’ personality and willpower or Lytton works for himself, first and foremost, as a free individual.
Just as in “Destiny of the Daleks,” the Supreme Dalek does not trust Davros nor seek to return the ancestral creator back to a position of power; the wizened scientist serves a means to an end—a cure for the Movellan virus—and nothing more. Davros, of course, immediately begins scheming; now played by Terry Molloy, taking over from David Gooderson, Davros lacks what little equanimity Nation imbued him with in “Destiny of the Daleks” and far less than in his initial appearance in “Genesis of the Daleks.” This version rants and fairly froths, or would if the thick mask allowed Molloy any range of facial expression. Already a caricature at the best of times, Saward’s version comes across as a poorly realized archetype of monomania, as predictable as the Daleks themselves used to be, back when they were trotted out every sixth story in the First through Third Doctor’s runs. Which may be why Saward kills him off.
It doesn’t take, of course—between time travel and narrative legerdemain, ol’ Davros returns in the next two Dalek stories, and the pointed mention of an escape capsule here hints to his escape off-screen. But when he begins to succumb to the Movellan virus, which he releases in the Dalek ship to kill the remaining Daleks so he can rebuild them into an even more powerful force, his on-screen writhing—to say nothing of the copious goo-foam that issues from his travel machine—suggests that Davros is very much dead, at least for the time being, despite his protestations that he is not a Dalek. The subsequent explosion of the Dalek ship, triggered when Stien overcomes his brainwashing and throws the self-destruct on the space station, should indeed put an end not only to Davros but the Supreme Dalek as well. Nathan-Turner and Saward have brought the Daleks, and Davros, back with the express intention of scouring them down to the ground, as there is nothing left of them by the end of “Resurrection of the Daleks,” a title that turns out to be oddly inappropriate in this regard.
More significantly, however, the Fifth Doctor plays almost no part in this “victory” over his most deadly foes. While he does help Stien break through the Dalek conditioning, enabling the former slave to destroy the space station and the docked Dalek ship, the Doctor hesitates, once more, when given the chance to finish the Daleks for good. In perhaps the most shocking moment of the entire story—and arguably the entire series—the Fifth Doctor proclaims, “Davros must die,” and he intends to bring that aim about from his own hands. Tegan recoils, calling it “murder,” but the Doctor will not be swayed, calling his indecisiveness in destroying the Daleks at their birth (in “Genesis of the Daleks“) a mistake that he regrets.
But when the Fifth Doctor has a gun to Davros’ temple, he wavers, stopped short at least momentarily by the mad scientist’s claim that he will rebuild the Daleks to recognize and appreciate emotions, particularly the powers of compassion. All, as the Doctor realizes, to make them more efficient killing machines, but the delay allows for a fracas in the adjoining hall (a fight between Mercer, Stien, and troops sent by the Supreme Dalek to kill Davros) that distracts the Doctor, allowing Davros to lock him out. Davros calls the Doctor a coward for being unwilling to kill him, for falling prey to the Time Lord tendency to watch rather than act.
It is greatly to Peter Davison’s credit that the audience remains, ultimately, uncertain as to whether or not the Fifth Doctor would have pulled the proverbial trigger. The look of determination on his face when he storms out of the TARDIS, ready to carry out this final sanction, leaves little doubt that he would, but likewise the searching hope in his eyes as he confronts his quarry bespeaks an inherent desire to find some other way. Davison, as he nears the end of his tenure in the Doctor’s garb, has imbued the character with great empathy and strong emotion, enough to support either outcome; but to have pushed the character over this line could not, in a real accounting, have been sustainable for the series. As odiously as Saward has presented Davros—a genocidal madman without a single redeeming characteristic—it’s not in any way in keeping with the Doctor’s character to take that step. The uncertainty alone should be shocking enough.
So fate and happenstance do the job for the Doctor, and for Nathan-Turner and Saward. All the Daleks on Earth and in space are destroyed via virus or explosion, and even the duplicates that the Supreme Dalek has threatened are in positions of importance in 1984 Earth will prove no long-term impediment, given the mental instability of the doppelgängers. More than a few bodies for UNIT to clean up once the Doctor gets around to calling them in, but all in a day’s work—except for Tegan. She can no longer tolerate the experience. More than anything, seeing the Doctor’s venom, his declared willingness to kill Davros, has convinced her that the TARDIS is no place for her. With the arguable exception of Barbara and Ian, she becomes the first companion to choose to leave as a direct result of the Doctor’s behavior rather than love or homesickness or mental instability or a better job offer. Usually, the Doctor is the one pushing a companion away; this time, he is pushed.
Both Peter Davison and Janet Fielding play the scene exquisitely, with an undercurrent of sadness that never broaches the surface, the formality of their parting a thin, and ultimately poor, shield for their emotions. Tegan turns back to see the TARDIS disappear, and the Doctor rues who he has become, recognizing in Tegan’s parting the reason he left Gallifrey: he was tired of the lifestyle. He vows to change.
It’s an incredible shame, then, that Fielding, absent that final scene, remains underutilized and poorly scripted not just throughout the entirety of “Resurrection of the Daleks” but for the past five stories, her last decent role coming in “Enlightenment.” Once Mark Strickson’s Turlough comes on board and Sarah Sutton’s Nyssa leaves, the writing seems to be on the wall for Tegan, and a character with such potential, as seen in “Kinda” and “Snakedance,” is reduced to a one-note character who only wants to go home. The treatment of Tegan, and Fielding, by the production and writing staff remains a blemish on the Fifth Doctor’s run.
As for Mark Strickson, he has scarcely fared any better, and “Resurrection of the Daleks” sees Turlough separated from the Doctor for the majority of the story, palling around with Mercer on the space station and doing his best to avoid all conflict. Given the number of characters in play throughout the story, it’s almost surprising that they didn’t find a way to put Turlough in the same TARDIS cupboard as Kamelion for this story.
On one level, “Resurrection of the Daleks” succeeds as a gripping tale of internecine conflict: between Davros and the Daleks, between duplicates and their suppressed selves, and between the Doctor and who he believes himself to be. Saward has a firm grasp on narrative structure, and the story flows—it just doesn’t cohere. The entire 1984 sub-plot seems forced to enable Tegan to walk away at the end, in itself a fine reason to ground the plot in that setting, but none of the ties to the main plot make any sense. Why would Daleks use time travel technology to put samples of a virus that can destroy their entire species on Earth, during a time period when humanity is notionally aware of their existence through UNIT, rather than on a deserted planet somewhere? As with so much of Nathan-Turner’s oeuvre, the story has too many moving parts, perhaps the result of someone wanting to recreate the glory days of six-episode Doctor Who yarns in the time of four-episode budgets.
Too, the chance to play with, to remake, to figuratively “resurrect” the Daleks can be a tempting lure, and like Nation before them, Nathan-Turner and Saward fall in love with the Dalek background, the Dalek lore, leaving the Fifth Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough all just standing there, waiting for something to do. At one point, when the Daleks threaten to duplicate not just the Doctor but his companions as well, he asks why, and Stien replies, “The Doctor without his companions would be rather incongruous.” Someone forgot to tell Saward that, given their meager roles here. More than anything, the Doctor and companions need to remain central to the series, not just bookending the rising action and the denouement but moving the action along at every point, and recent stories have fallen prey to an overindulgence of writers who are overly fond of the worlds they have created.
Still, to apparently kill off not just Davros but the Daleks themselves takes courage, and one could scarcely accuse Nathan-Turner and Saward of lacking chutzpah. To tackle that thorniest of dilemmas from the Doctor’s past, that of sparing the Daleks, takes more daring still, and while their time at the helm of Doctor Who might not always be regarded as the safest or steadiest, from a standpoint of respect for continuity or wise planning for the future of the show, this time they got it right. Maybe the Doctor would have killed Davros this time, maybe not, but far better to wonder than to know. Some decisions you can’t come back from. It’s one thing to remake the Daleks; quite another again to remake the Doctor.
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Post 138 of the Doctor Who Project