Friday, September 6, 2013

"Remembrance of the Daleks"

You want a good serial to really grab you.
"What the hell am I watching?" This was my first reaction when "Remembrance of the Daleks" started playing mere hours ago. It's been a while since I've seen this, and a while since I've watched a Seventh Doctor serial in general, and it was a slightly weird experience. I've read a lot of rather negative reactions to the McCoy era lately and it had perhaps coloured my expectations, because at the very beginning "Remembrance of the Daleks" seems rather naff, and my immediate thought was how I had really remembered the serial and the era. I suppose my question is this: is "Remembrance of the Daleks" legit? And I think the answer is that by and large yes, it is legit. It's a pretty darn well-written and well-paced story with a good amount of content and nice effects which doesn't get bogged down in the usual navel-gazing which tends to afflict a Doctor Who anniversary story. It instead establishes its credentials as a tribute to the past through setting and theme, and while this may seem a little laboured at points it doesn't get in the way in the manner that a bunch of past Doctors and companions would have.
The response to a post-Hinchcliffe naysayer.
Put simply the Doctor and Ace show up near Coal Hill School in 1963, back when things all began in "An Unearthly Child." Trouble is afoot as the Daleks have arrived to sequester the Hand of Omega, an ancient Time Lord device used for stellar manipulation. Worse still, both the Imperial and Renegade Daleks are after the Hand and are duking it out on Earth. Both sides are using human agents for their own ends and need to be outplayed by the Doctor so that he and his supporting cast of two-dimensional soldiers and scientific staff can survive to the end of the story. There's plenty of action, lots of Daleks yelling at each other and having shoot outs, some memorable dialogue, a lot of rather frantically-resurrected back-story and what was in my opinion an incredibly impressive shot of a Dalek shuttle landing in the schoolyard that makes any CGI crap churned out for the New Series look like unbelievable garbage by comparison. The music gets a bit funk dog on occasion but I can live with it.
You won't find good reviews down there.
To be perfectly honest with you, dear offended New Who fan, I'm not a massive enthusiast for Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor. Don't get me wrong, he's on the right side of the median line as all the Classic Doctors are, but I don't find him as watchable as the Big Four, Colin or P McG. He's more sort of hovering around the Six out of Ten mark with Davison, who is looking slightly uncomfortable about proceedings. He's entirely watchable in this, but I don't especially love him in the role. It's not like with Tom, who can sell practically anything no matter how bad the script or how many refreshments he's had at lunch, or William Hartnell, who can fluff lines left and right and still be pure class from start to finish. McCoy gives a somewhat more workmanlike performance as the Doctor, pressing the right buttons and certainly feeling like the Doctor but perhaps not quite with the extra flourish that the character has been afforded in some incarnations. He does come across as rather masterful and abrasive despite his diminutive size and eccentric appearance, though, so I have to give him credit for that.
"It was John's idea. Do you like it?"
As for the rest of the cast there's not a great deal to say for them individually. Sophie Aldred's a bit panto as Ace, but then again she always is, isn't she? Something about her makes me think of a giant overgrown baby on occasions, but I can't think why. There are also some incredibly unflattering shots when she's in the leather jacket where she just looks disproportionate, like she has a tiny head and legs and a massive upper torso. There's a weird bit in the Boarding House, too, where she says good morning to Mike in a way that made me think that they'd slept together the night before. Later he asks her out to the pictures. I don't know. Mike himself is fairly horrendous, and a very dull character for whom I felt absolutely no sympathy. In fact I found it darkly thrilling in a very evil way when he got fried by the Sith Lightning of the little girl. Captain Gilmore's incredibly unmemorable as well, and beyond him there's no one really to talk about in terms of the protagonists apart from Rachel and Allison. I have no idea why they're even there, although I assume Rachel is meant to be a sort of analogy for the Doctor in his secondment to UNIT, sort of like how Liz was meant to be back in Spearhead? Who knows. Allison is cute but neither of them have any purpose in the story.
"Yes, more than half the Troughtons are inside for safekeeping."
The problem with the Daleks in this story is that they're rubbish. I prefer the Renegade Daleks to the Imperial Daleks because I think they look more soldierly and professional, but they also look a bit cheap. In the final confrontation where McCoy's harrassing the black Dalek and it's wobbling back and forth like it's going to shit itself you can actually see the trainer-clad foot for a second of the bloke within who's rocking the prop from side to side, which killed my suspension of disbelief stone dead in an instant. I also don't particularly like the idea of them needing to use the little girl in their battle computer for her creativity. The Doctor remarks that the Daleks are otherwise over-reliant on logic and reason and have no creativity or intuition to aid their battle plans, but that makes absolutely no sense to me. It seems to be a misunderstanding dating back to "Destiny of the Daleks." They're not robots, nor purely logical like the Cybermen. Daleks are completely capable of emotion.
A video game advocate's nightmare.
The only caveat is that they only experience negative emotions: hate, anger, disgust, the diabolical thrill of power and triumphing over defeated, degraded enemies. I can only imagine we were meant to expect that Davros was sitting in the chair wearing a virtual reality helmet or something before the girl turned around, but given that he's always been part of the Imperial faction that seems like a pretty serious assumption they want us to make. In the end, of course, Davros isn't playing the two factions against each other. It's just a little girl who somehow shoots lighting from her hands. A decent twist, but a bit of a twist for twist's sake.
I have nothing bad to say about this.
This looked awesome.
Returning to the Imperial Daleks, I'm not a huge fan of the design. The Doctor mentions inside the shuttle that they largely lack an aesthetic sensibility, so it doesn't really explain why they dress up in white and gold. I realise that it's meant to subvert our expectations by turning this traditionally positive colour imagery on its head but in terms of internal consistency it doesn't make a great deal of sense. I don't mind the mothership bridge set but I think Davros looks utterly ridiculous in his giant globe chair thing, covered in those spiralled analogue telephone cords and with a microphone in front of his mouth. He looks a right knob when he runs away at the end too, although I daresay that was intentional. One of the problems with this episode is that a lot of the Dalek-related tension involves the Daleks confronting something, yelling "Exterminate", and spending so much time yelling "Exterminate" over and over again without doing any actual exterminating that by the time they're ready to actually follow through, someone shows up and rescues whoever is in danger. I always thought that this should have been established as part of the Daleks' character - that they waste time prior to the attack thrilling in their victory, that all the yelling is a sort of psychological wind-up to the climactic moment when they discharge their weapons in fury, but that might be too Freudian an interpretation for early evening family viewing. I find the Special Weapons Dalek a slightly bizarre addition, too. Sometimes it seems like the regular Dalek gun can do anything, but apparently not. Why is it so dirty, anyway? Not a huge fan of the rivets, either. Looks like something slapped up in a metalwork shop, not an alien killing machine. I like the exterior design of the shuttle, however, and that the Imperial Daleks have recovered something verging on humanoid form, albeit apparently with lobster claws. Terry Molloy gets the job done as Davros, and when I criticise the costume I shouldn't go too far, because I like the black mouth, teeth and tongue, which in lieu of eyes are kind of mesmerising. The confrontation between Davros and the Doctor is pure ham and cheese, and the bit where Davros utters "You tricked me!" is completely play school but I like the fact that the Doctor is acting and Davros isn't. It's a nice contrast.
Twice the size, twice the relief.
The plot itself I find rather bizarre. I like the idea that the Doctor is trying to trick the Daleks into blowing themselves up, but I don't understand why he goes to all the trouble of burying the Hand of Omega knowing full well that someone is bound to try to dig it up again. The effects aren't too bad to show it hovering along in my opinion, but it's awfully convenient that the priest at the cemetery is blind. Didn't any passers-by notice this huge metal box floating through the air? Also, are we meant to believe that the First Doctor brought the Hand of Omega all the way from Gallifrey and hid it in London for the specific purpose of tricking the Daleks, whom he hadn't met yet and knew absolutely nothing about, but then decided to just leave it there when he pissed off to prehistoric times and so on, and then hundreds of years later for him personally decided that he ought to pop back and deal with it? It writes an awful lot into the character's motivations from days gone by, and is a rather hard sell beyond the means of the story. What's more, we get a bit of Cartmel Masterplan leaking through as the Doctor implies that he was around in the days of Omega and Rassilon. Thank god that never got off the ground. Why does he claim to be President-Elect of Gallifrey, incidentally? Was he just bluffing? At the end he says the Hand is going back to Gallifrey, too. Why did he bother taking it in the first place, then?
"I require the complete Dentistry of the Daleks!"
This probably all sounds very negative about "Remembrance of the Daleks" but none of these awkward bits of plotting or pointless supporting characters really diminish the overall appeal. It clips along at a decent pace, more or less carried, I would argue, by McCoy's engagingly consistent performance as the Doctor, and while there is a fair bit of pointless spectacle it's nothing too offensive. We get the impression that Mr Ratcliffe was a Nazi sympathiser and that Mike is a bloody racist but it's not especially overplayed, used mainly in compliment to the attitude of the Daleks, but overall that notion is possibly not given the attention it deserves, which might have happened had the silly Hand of Omega plot been scrapped. I like Ace's reaction to the racist sign in the Boarding House window, too, but no one really follows through with these points, and for all the Doctor's moralising about the fate of the living beings inside the Dalek cases he doesn't have too much compunction about blowing up the ship, does he? Let alone Skaro and its sun - I assume the planet was abandoned by that time. Why did it have to be Skaro's sun, anyway? And didn't the Daleks check the Hand? Of course they didn't. The Renegades can't even tell when McCoy and Ace are hiding behind a shelf. Also what's with the bit where McCoy goes to the café? What the hell was the point of that?
"What do you mean, 'Not as good as Revelation'?"
The thing about "Remembrance of the Daleks" is that it's the kind of Doctor Who serial that transcends these shortcomings, where something like "The Armageddon Factor" might get bogged down in them. It might not be one of the great serials of all time, but as far as Eighties Who is concerned it manages to keep up largely through the mere fact that it never particularly becomes boring or unnecessarily stupid. Is it legit, though? I think it's about as legit as was possible by that time. In terms of its style it actually made me think of what New Who would be like with the majority of the most cringe-inducing dialogue cut, the story given a bit of complexity and room to breathe and direction and music that wasn't just faux-Hollywood crap. It feels jarringly different to previous material, even Colin serials from mere years before, but I think it still feels more or less like its heart is in the right place. I think it benefits from largely not being a proper Davros story, his inclusion being very limited, and even though the plot is a bit all over the place by the end it still has a certain charm, although the prospect of Earth being caught in the middle of a Dalek civil war is never realised with great effectiveness. As far as Dalek stories go, it's decent. As far as Anniversary stories go it steers clear of a lot of traps. It's nonsensical at times, but works itself out, and is regularly quite corny, but also easy to watch. "Remembrance of the Daleks" is a robust offering which, much like the Dalek civil war, showcases two distinct yet inseparable sides of Eighties Who.

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