Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Remembrance of the Daleks

[1988, Season 25, Serial 1]

Remembrance of the Daleks came at a desperate time for Doctor Who.  Season 22 was, even by this show's standards, highly uneven and had hugely mixed reactions.  About this time, BBC brass apparently decided that Science Fiction was a blight on civilized society.  The show was given an 18-month hiatus and had its season length chopped in half.  The production team responded with the hugely ambitious Trial of a Timelord, which has many good points but builds to an astoundingly anticlimactic conclusion, and resulted in Eric Saward resigning from his post as script editor and angrily criticizing JNT in the media.  Then the Michael Grade unceremoniously fired Colin Baker and cruelly forced John Nathan-Turner to tell Baker he was fired, and then reneged on the deal he had made with JNT.  The next season was thrown together at the last minute, with a new Doctor who was totally lost, an undeveloped and unpopular companion inhereted from Trial, and no script editor.

In a surprise move, Season 24 sucked.  Horribly.  Fourteen episodes, four stories, none of them good, only two of them even watchable.  Still, by the end of the season, things were looking up.  Delta and the Bannermen and Dragonfire, while very, very flawed, showed hints of improvement.  Sylvester McCoy got a couple of good scenes between the two serials, and showed some potential in those scenes.  Bonnie Langford's ill-fated Mel got a little good material before be written out as abruptly as she came in, but her replacement was promising.  Ace was a bit long on then-current teen slang, and Sophie Aldred's performance a bit rough, but Aldred's personality was appealing, and Ace's background and basic sketch was intriguing.  Finally, the production had gone from the ugly-looking Time and the Rani and the appallingly cheap Paradise Towers to a pretty good-looking and well produced finale in Dragonfire.

This doesn't have anything to do with that.  I just wanted this pic somewhere.

But even with all that promise, Remembrance of the Daleks is a remarkable success.  Every hint of quality form the previous season is seized, but it goes far beyond that.  In the history of Doctor Who, Remembrance is one of the most perfectly-paced stories, and one of the most exciting.  It's a wild, rolicking ride full of action, humor, and character, and it ends with a terrific climax.  Most of all, its vision of the Doctor is one of the most intriguing variations on the enigmatic time traveler since his inception.

Also, Ace is awesome.

I mentioned in my review of Earthshock that the pacing felt much faster and tighter than usual, but this is something else entirely.  Earthshock mostly feels faster because it's surrounded by quiet, thoughtful stuff like Castrovalva and Kinda.  Where Earthshock felt action-packed, Remembrance actually is.  It's actually better paced than most modern episodes.  Not necessarily faster, but better; it's always moving forward, always doing stuff, but it knows when to slow down and rest for a moment.  It's paced better than most movies.  It may seem like a minor thing on the surface, but perfect pacing in film and television is exceedingly rare.

Part of it is Andrew Morgan's direction.  His previous Who story was Time and the Rani, which is a legitimate contender for worst Doctor Who story ever, but I will give him credit: he gave the serial visual flair and a wild energy.  There was nothing he could do to overcome the abominable script and production problems.  Here, with a good script and more confident leading actor, he knocks it out of the ballpark.  Tragically, because he went over budget by 13,000 pounds, he was not considered for directing future installments of the show.  It's too bad; this is one of the best-looking stories in the entire classic run.  It's not the flashiest-looking, but it belies its limited budget and captures the early '60s superbly without drawing attention to itself.

Writer Ben Aaronivitch and script editor Andrew Cartmel have a great take on Doctor Who.  There's a scene in the story where the Doctor has a quiet dialogue in a cafe with the server played by Joseph Marcell (Jeffrey the butler on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air).  It's a wonderful little conversation as the Doctor weighs the nature of decisions, but it's also a start to Cartmel's vision of the Doctor: the great wanderer finally taking control of his destiny.  He's no longer aimless traveling: he moves with a purpose, bending the universe to his will, attacking and destroying his enemies rather than waiting to stumble into an encounter, reshaping his companion.

On the surface, it makes him more actively heroic - he looks for villainy to thwart.  But the Doctor has a darkly manipulative side, and always has.  So it's not enough to stop evil: he wants to get evil to destroy itself.  [SPOILERS] The climax of Remembrance of the Daleks isn't just checkmate; the Doctor tricks the Daleks into destroying the entire solar system in which their home planet of Skaro resides. [END SPOILERS] It's an unusual and fascinating take on the character, making him new and mysterious again.

McCoy, finally given good material, takes the role and runs with it.  He's wonderful in the quieter moments, as he always was, and his blustering is great.  But his darker side is terrific.  The scene where he coldly talks a Dalek into blowing itself up is a great concept anyway, but McCoy makes it really gripping.

His teaming up with Ace only adds to the fun of the story.  Sophie Aldred has none of the roughness she showed in her first episode, and she's just a blast.  Ace is one of my favorite companions, and she shows why throughout this episode.  Despite her fanciful origins, she is a grounded, credible character; her emotions and struggles are spot-on for a teenager growing up, but they're also wisely underplayed, and her surface toughness and humor lead her.  Also, she makes her own explosives, just because she likes to.

She gets a lot to do in this story, like beat up on the evil Ratcliffe, blow up Daleks with anti-tank rockets, jump through windows, and is just generally be about twenty different kinds of awesome.  She also gets a nice character arc where she falls for a guy who doesn't turn out to be who she thinks.

Aldred and McCoy work together very well; it's the warmest and most enjoyable Doctor-companion relationship since Four and Romana.  There's also some darker stuff in their relationship, too, with the Doctor manipulating even his companion, but that mostly shows up in later stories.  Here, it's mostly just a good partnership, but the beginnings of it are here, as he refuses to let her in on his plan for no real reason, just because he prefers to keep it to himself.  It's an intriguing dynamic, and it only gets more interesting from here.

Aaronovitch fills the story with great supporting characters.  Dr. Jensen and Allison are a double act worthy of Robert Holmes.

Group Captain Gilmore is nicely drawn - antagonistic with the Doctor on occasion, and sometimes pig-headed, but a competent man nonetheless.  He's reminiscent of the Brigadier in his glory days, but also a distinct personality from the Brig.

As for the villains, there's several human villains, all interesting and full of personality, but Aaronivitch doesn't let them steal the stage from the titular bad guys, and the Daleks are awesome here.  Not scary, but they don't need to be: they're fun, threatening villains able to do genuine damage and, thankfully, never stupid or annoying.  It's a terrific story for the Doctor's best bad guys.  Aaronovitch manages to add some nice twists and little ideas - the Special Weapons Dalek is just awesome, and really needs to show up again.  Davros shows up briefly because Terry Nation insisted that he always show up, but Aaronovitch handles him well, keeping him hidden until the last ten minutes and pulling a nice trick about what exactly he's doing during the story.  Terry Malloy is as good as ever in his one scene, and Davros has good dialogue.  He's not at his Genesis brilliance, of course, but since the story doesn't revolve around him, and as his scene is itself pretty terrific, he works very nicely.

Also, we actually see them hover for the first time.

But the most memorable villain is probably the little school girl mentally possessed by the Daleks.  They need a human child to add some imagination to their strategies as their computers can't move forward, and the possessed girl is a genuinely creepy notion.

The dialogue is among the best non-Holmes dialogue in the show.  It's full of funny lines, but also manages to be dramatic, mystical, or poetic when needed.  The script is also filled with imaginative ideas and notions; the hand of Omega is the best of these, but they show up throughout.

Remembrance is one of my favorite stories, and unlike many of my others, it's so much fun and so fast-paced that it has remarkable replay value.  Despite an entire season preceding it, it's the true start of McCoy's era, and it's a knockout.

ACE: We did good, didn't we, Professor?
DOCTOR: Time will tell, Ace.  Time will tell.  It always does.


* * * *

  • For Whovians trying to introduce people to Old Who, this is one of the best places to start, thanks to its pacing.  It's especially useful for people like my sister who are allergic to anything filmed before their birth.
  • They really should have let Aldred keep her hair down more often: she's a lovely girl anyway, but she's gorgeous when given the chance.

  • Keff McCullough gets a lot of flack for his Doctor Who scores, and deserves a lot of it - his obtrusive, obnoxious mess of synthesized chaos pretty much single-handed brought Battlefield down half a star or more in quality.  But I can't complain about his Remembrance music; the action stuff is thrilling and dramatic, the music-box stuff for the girl adds a lot to her creepiness, and the other incidental music is very competent and effective.  Also, I'll go ahead and go on record now and say that, while it's not my favorite, I do like his version of the title theme.
  • I just want to mention the Special Weapons Dalek one more time.  Man, that thing rocks.  


    1. I'm practically bouncing. Love this one. Have you seen the "bloopers" and outtakes? Even those are fun. Ah, Sophie...

      Your review perfectly covers many things I enjoy about Remembrance. Didn't specifically mention though that this was a return to the settings of the first ever Who story. Of course time & money are still too short so it's a general sort of referencing rather than an exacting recreation, but it's the ideas that count. *promo narrator voice: "A plot centuries in the making..." Also it's great the classic series didn't end without doing at least something with its own history beyond the multiple Doctor deals.

      IMH, in the "classic" series, the Dalek stories I like the best are their first (establishing them as a danger to "our gang," their evil mindsets and eerie world, all made for pocket change) and last (consistently good in so many ways).

      It sure is a shame Andrew Morgan was punished for making a decent show. Dragonfire is an example of iffy, rushed direction (even the scene cuts are awkward at times) and it was so nice to see a higher level here.

      "Most of all, its vision of the Doctor is one of the most intriguing variations on the enigmatic time traveler since his inception. Also, Ace is awesome."

      Yes! and Yes!

    2. I'm not sure why I didn't mention its references to An Unearthly Child. It's appropriate, though: this is the story where Cartmel and McCoy really figured out what they were doing, and they brought a show that had been struggling and dying for years and brought it back to life. And its wonderful that the show's new life - its regeneration, if you like - is so tied in with its birth.

      I think Genesis and Power are the two best Dalek stories, but this is way up there. I really love the Dalek stories -- of the 20 or 21 Daleks stories in the series (depending on whether you count The Big Bang), I'd give 7 of them a full four stars. They're fantastic villains, and the show almost always does them well. (almost.)

      I really believe that if Andrew Morgan had directed Battlefield, it would be as highly-regarded as the rest of that amazing season.

    3. Id REALLY like to agree with most everything EXCEPT the idea of daleks being talked into self destruction being new AND that the music is acceptable.
      Its EASILY the WORST EVER.
      Its AWFUL. During action scenes, its distractingly bizarre and badly imitating symphonic waltzes, during 'emotional' scenes its so COMPLETELY OFF it caused me to wonder if the sound had been faulty and if it wasnt from another part of the video or ANOTHER EPISODE or even ANOTHER SHOW COMPLETELY...its so INNAPPROPRIATE.
      As far as the 'creepy' sections being assisted by this crapshow of 'incidental music' amusical nightmare--the only reason it MIGHT be interpreted as also 'creepy' is because it is so JARRINGLY out of place and WRONG..sort of like "well that music was pretty creepy because it reminded me of an insane clown playing a jukebox and choosing Japanese Elvis impersonators who were singing Nirvana covers in Danish"..in other words-its creepy because its so awful it borders on insane.
      Although Ive seen every Who except a couple of the new ones and a couple from the Colin Baker/McCoy years, this is easily the worst music ive ever seen in Who --PERIOD.
      Its NOT "different-cool" like the Pertwee-era Sea Devils episodes (NOT to be confused with the Silurians/Sea Devils reappearance in Davison era)-which are AWESOMELY early electronics..and its NOT "weird-cool" like the "dominators" score from Troughton era.
      Its BAD, its so BAD it actuallly cameclose to making the whole thing unwatcheable.

      Just FYI-if youre a musician or tend to notice incidentl music or like scores-GOD, avoid this episode like the plague unless its the only one you havent seen and youve mde a vow to watch them all or somesuch.

      1. (I doubt you'll see this, given that it's several months after your post and I missed this the first time around, but might as well respond...)

        To be fair, I really like kitchy '80s synth. There are times where I think it works against the program in the McCoy era, and it's certainly never up to the standard of, say, Brad Fiedel's The Terminator, or even the best synth music from the early '80s Who (Logopolis and Castrovalva jump to mind). And like I say, I think the Battlefield music was atrocious. But I like it here.

        It might also be a case of the story being strong enough to carry weak music. But even on its own, I enjoy it. As I say, it's probably just that I like the general style.