Sunday, July 12, 2015

Destiny of the Daleks - "One for casual, one for best."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Destiny of the Daleks - Details

Season 17, Story 1 (Overall Series Story #104) | Previous - Next | Index

Image via Devon's pinterest

Two warring supercomputers at a logical impasse. Neither, apparently, willing to hire a consultant. One side chooses instead to find body of their creator, whom they killed, as far as they know, centuries ago, to consult it. The whole thing is ridiculous. Tedious, confused about what it is, and problematic on several fronts.

Even before we get to the improbabilities of the plot -- what the heck is Romana doing regenerating for no apparent reason? Either she's hopelessly vain and silly burning off a regeneration so she can look like someone she just met, or we're forced to imagine scenarios like she has some dreaded Time Lord disease that is forcing her hand, but she's too vain and silly to tell the Doctor the truth. There's simply nothing good about this regeneration sequence. (Can't blame Nation for this, it was Douglas Adams's doing.) That Romana ultimately settles on wearing a pinkified version of the Doctor's get up doesn't speak well for her either. It's not like it's a practical explorer's outfit. So why ape the Doctor? Again, the potential motivations aren't appealing, and not aligned with what we know about her character.

When the TARDIS lands, things don't get better. We go from an unpromisingly silly scene to yet another disused quarry, the TARDIS prop looking desperately cheap with one if its doors warped, shot in such a way to highlight the problem. Once we notice how rough a shape the TARDIS prop is in, it's more obvious that the Doctor's scarf is looking a bit ragged. Drab environment, shoddy props and costumes and no incidental music to speak of to distract the viewer from what they're seeing, a few minutes in and we're already bored and restless. Any one of these things can be overcome, and often is, but when everything is off, all the problems are exacerbated.

Hinchcliffe, discussing "Robots of Death," observed that they key to getting away with some of this stuff is not holding the shot too long. This advice must not have been relayed to director Ken Grieve. The shot of the Movellan saucer landing and drilling itself into the ground is excruciating.

The risk here is I keep going on about all the things that irked me about this story, and I'm really not interested in hammering away at the negative when it's a matter of several things not clicking. This one is just a clunker. The Romana regeneration fiasco is the closest thing to a problem that risks breaking more than just the episode. Regeneration is a concept key to the ability of the series to endure, so getting it so wrong strikes at the stability of the series itself. The other flaws here hurt the story, but I don't think do anything more than sap momentum, or fatigue viewers in a way that can largely be overcome by making the next story better. (The next story, by the way, is "City of Death," so this one could be quickly forgotten.)

What does work here is Lalla Ward as Romana and her chemistry with Tom Baker. (Baker and Ward were briefly married. Script Editor Douglas Adams later introduced Ward to Richard Dawkins, to whom she has been married since 1990.) She does as well as anyone could with the material given her, and really sells the performance Romana lays on the Daleks after she's captured. Whether bringing Davros back, at least in this fashion, was such a great idea is debatable, but now that he's back, he's going to become an important figure in the series in the years and decades ahead.

So, welcome Romana II, welcome back Davros, and farewell Terry Nation. The Daleks and Davros were your ideas, so thank you for that. Not so much for this or the prior story, but you deserve a great deal of credit for the series lasting as long as it has.

Leftover grumbles:

  • The Doctor, pinned under a fallen beam: "My extremities seem unimpaired ... " Sounds more like something a Movellan would say.
  • Why doesn't Romana say, "Hello," when she realizes she's being followed by one of the humanoids? Why didn't he introduce himself or ask her to? The sequence leading up to Romana falling down the shaft at the end of E1 is just puzzling. Feels like we're watching fearful, mute idiots, and that's not what these characters are.
  • Yes, Daleks are know for repeating themselves -- working themselves up to a fever pitch while shrieking "Exterminate!" is one of their charms. But they go to ridiculous extremes here. For example: "Do not move! Do not move! Do not move! Do not move! Do not move! Do not move! You are our prisoner! Do not move! You are our prisoner!" I mean, come on. 
  • The line Nation has the Doctor utter: "Just another race of robots, no better than the Daleks" is wrong on so many levels. For one, the Daleks aren't robots. You'd think Nation would know this? And, even if they were, there's something distressingly essentialist about dismissing an intelligent species on the basis of their not being purely organic. If they have consciousness, which the Movellans apparently do, they're not mere machines and to lump them with the Daleks, who are explicitly evil, and whom they are battling, strikes me as boneheaded. The Doctor isn't boneheaded, so this is hard to watch.
  • Expanding on that, are we really supposed to believe Rock, Paper, Scissors is the best the Doctor could do to explain a complex impasse? Wouldn't chess, which we've seen him play, or an invented game, or any other game involving actual strategy, have made more sense? 
  • Really feel for the actors scrambling over that terrain in their scarves.

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