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…