Here’s a house. Here’s a door. Windows: one, two, three, four. Ready to knock? Turn the lock. It’s Play School! What window are we going to go through today? Oh look, it’s the brutal violence and death window.
Sometimes less is more. Resurrection of the Daleks tries to pack in a lot of ideas and ends up leaving all of them underdeveloped. Normally I would be praising a story for being overambitious, but the problem here is that the ideas are all either intrinsically bad ones, or ideas that don’t really function at all without being the entire focus of a story. Probably the most frustrating missed opportunity is the set-up of a machine that can make evil doubles of the Doctor and his companions, only to make doubles of just about everyone but the Doctor and his companions.
That displays a wider-randing misunderstanding here of what constitutes good drama. Violence is not interesting or fun for the sake of it, especially when it is so pointlessly gratuitous. Somebody reacting in horror while his face turns to mush simply does not belong in Doctor Who. It’s the sort of thing you find in the laziest kinds of horror movies, the ones that think something gross is intrinsically scary and worth doing, when it is neither of those things. The fact that anyone thought that was a useful or necessary thing to put in a family show is as clear an indication as any that the people making Doctor Who at this point were simply not up to the job. Apparently, they were also people who thought remaking past glories was a worthwhile exercise.
Eric Saward was the writer of this train wreck and script edited himself. There has never been a better example of why that should never happen. He appears to have looked at the scene in Genesis of the Daleks where the Doctor has a chance to destroy the Daleks by touching two wires together and decided to remake that scene. Apart from the pointlessness of doing that, it shares the same problem with the final scene of Warriors of the Deep, which lazily reran the ending of Doctor Who and the Silurians: both woefully miss the point of the original scenes. The Doctor being able to touch two wires together is replayed here as the Doctor stood over Davros with a gun. There’s no tension there. We know he’s not going to pull the trigger, but Saward failed to recognise that a pair of wires to kill an army of identical killing machines that hate everything is not the same thing as a gun to kill a man who created the killing machines. The Doctor simply murdering Davros would collapse the whole show immediately, so we know there’s no chance of it. And instead of the Doctor talking about the morality of the situation with his companion, questioning the silver linings he will destroy in the process, and then going off to find a better solution, we get Davros making a fool of the Doctor and showing him up as a coward. There is no moral high ground here. The Doctor just comes across as a weak man, helpless in the face of the bloodbath he is witnessing. There are, what, 60 or 70 deaths on screen here?
And to try to excuse the violence, Tegan leaves at the end, in a last-minute attempt to make this an anti-violence parable. It’s not fooling anyone. The story revels in the violence for far too long to make that scene work, glorifying all manner of deaths, including innocent bystanders being killed, people casually shot in the back, a created virus graphically killing humans and Daleks alike, dying in agony. The moment is not earned. It could have worked as a reaction from Tegan to the loss of her friend within the story, but Laird is despatched casually and with an episode to spare, when her death should have been the straw that breaks the camel’s back for Tegan, in order for all this to have some kind of coherence rather than just feel tacked on.
Viewers who have come to this via VHS/DVD/download rather than first broadcast might not realise the significance of what happens to Laird. Between 1964 and 1988 there was an educational children’s programme on the BBC for very young children called Play School. I don’t know the viewing figures, but I think it’s reasonably fair to say just about every child in the country watched it at some point, myself included. US viewers, think the UK version of Seseme Street in terms of popularity and the aims of the show (although not in the approach). For older children there was a spinoff called Play Away, which ran from 1971 to 1984. One of the presenters of both these shows was Chloe Ashcroft, who plays Laird in Resurrection of the Daleks. She would have felt almost like a friend to some of the children watching at the time, and just as the companion can be considered to be the identification figure for children watching, Laird was a friend to Tegan. It all makes a great deal of sense.
Then she gets shot in the back and dies.
If this happened right before Tegan’s departure it might have a point to it. I mean, it would still be a terrible idea, but at least there would be something coherent going on, but instead it is hard to understand what happens in any terms other than the people making Doctor Who at the time trying to be as nasty as they could, actively rejecting the family demographic as they continue to turn towards the only demographic Doctor Who is going to be made for very soon: teenagers who think this is what adult television looks like. So in the end, that final line from Tegan couldn’t be more accurate. It’s stopped being fun. RP
The view from across the pond:
It seems that when Tom Baker’s Doctor gave Davros the idea of a virus in Genesis of the Daleks, the idea stuck with him. Yet again, viruses are at the center of a story in Resurrection of the Daleks. The Movellan virus has to be defeated and Davros needs to be brought out of cryo-storage to help the Daleks overcome it. It’s an interesting fact that viruses are so powerful that they can even decimate a Dalek. Perhaps the true universal conqueror is a virus. (What does that say about the Swarm?)
But after 90 years in frozen storage, Davros is still a genius. Back in Genesis, we were privy to the discussion between Davros and the Fourth Doctor during that momentous speech but there must have been a lot he was made aware of that took place off-screen. For instance, until Resurrection of the Daleks, there is no indication that Davros or the Daleks knew anything about the Time Lords, but they do now. And maybe that makes sense. The Doctor was sent on a mission during Genesis and it’s likely Davros would have asked about it. It wouldn’t be surprising for the Doctor to have told Davros, assuming there would be nothing that he could do with that knowledge at that time. It would therefore be no surprise that Davros would want to strike back against these plotters. And how better to do it than infiltrating the High Council using clones. Might as well get Earth at the same time, since that’s a vital planet for all alien races. And also start a battle between factions of Daleks. Hey, go big or go home, right? Resurrection of the Daleks is a big story. It has a manic energy that never lets up over its 4 parts. The only break in the action is a truly amazing scene where Stien is shot by a Dalek, and then forces himself onto the detonation device to wipe them out, at which point things go quiet… and he destroys the Daleks. Visually it’s a stunning scene enhanced by the silence that ensues but there are a number of incredible moments in this story. The problem is that they are all very dark.
I say “dark” as in bleak. Let’s face it: Stien’s death is shocking. Visually and cinematically, it was amazing, but equally stunning seeing the Doctor planning to execute Davros. The Doctor stands in front of him, staring at his enemy, with the intent to execute him in cold blood; a shot to the head. While he may not do it, it’s a stunning scene. Having Davros double-cross his own Daleks, causing them to foam at the casing, is also visually shocking. Even having the Doctor shoot and kill a Dalek mutant with a handgun seems surprising. What about Lytton? Lytton is a mercenary who will come back for a particularly nasty end during Colin’s era but he is no stranger to violence in this story either. It seems the Doctor’s comments about needing to mend his ways is well timed; very few episodes have this high a body count!
Which of course is why Tegan left the TARDIS; she was tired of all the violence. The irony is that Tegan left once before only to come back in the very next story. She’s leaving now for good… or is she? She comes back with the 5th Doctor in an audio adventure called The Gathering (which I just listened to for the first time). And she comes back yet again to help Gareth Jenkins defeat some Sontarans in A Fix with Sontarans. Like the Daleks, you can’t keep a good Aussie down under… I mean down!
Resurrection of the Daleks is an action story that never lets up. Perhaps too much is going on with it, but it keeps the audience on the edge of their seats with enough action to fill a summer blockbuster. Unfortunately, it suffers from the age old issue of bad titles. Had they stuck with the working title Warhead, they could have at least maintained some level of surprise. Instead, we get the villain revealed in the title and save the surprises for a story full of shocking visuals. ML