Friday, 12 December 2014

Revelation of the Daleks written by Eric Saward and directed by Graeme Harper


This story in a nutshell: The Doctor and Peri visit a planet devoted to the dead...

Theatrical Adventurer: Some have argued that the sixth Doctor does take something of a back seat in Revelation of the Daleks and that this has something to do with Eric Saward's casting of Colin Baker as the Time Lord. Both may be true but I don't think that it detracts from the story as a whole. Colin Baker's Doctor is such a wonderfully dominant figure in every other story in his tenure that a one-off story where he is sidelined in favour of a superbly drawn guest cast is no bad thing. It also helps that the half of the story that he does feature in prominently sees some of his finest characterisation and certainly one of Baker's most charismatic performances. I love the respect that he shows to the mutant, gently holding his hand as he dies in his arms despite the fact that he has just attempted to kill him. This is a Doctor that because of his extremes of personality is capable of surprising you when he is tender. There have been few scenes so perversely engaged in the double entry in Doctor Who then that of the Doctor and Peri climbing over the wall ('I rarely use it...').  Stengos, like Azmael, Magellan and Tonker Travers, is another character that we have never heard of before but has apparently played a pivotal role in the Doctor's life before. There's no reason to assume that everybody that we have encountered with the Doctor are the only people he knows - he surely has off screen adventures (look at all those novels for a start). It's nice for the sixth Doctor to be drawn into an adventure on a personal note for a change, to look out for a friend rather than t repair some piece of the TARDIS. Colin Baker excels at the moments where the Doctor is confronted with something that haunts him (remember his reaction to the end of the universe in The Two Doctors) and he delivers a genuinely traumatized turned when the Time Lord has to face the possibility of his own death (in keeping with the theme). The thought of never again regenerating and that this is where his body will end up, it's the events of The Name of the Doctor in a microcosm. Apparently it would take a mountain to crush an ego like his. The Doctor/Davros confrontation in episode two is one of the greatest scenes of the eighties, both characters given the chance to shine verbally and the Doctor in particular coming to the fore as a moral character who wont stand for Davros' revolting scheme. It's witty, dramatic, grotesque and hugely entertaining. What a shame they didn't get more time together (go and listen to the Big Finish audio Davros for more magic from this pair). The quiet moment where he sits with Orcini at the climax and allows him the dignity of killing himself without objecting might be my favourite sixth Doctor moment and he doesn't say a word.

Busty Babe: Proof, if it was needed, that Peri can work extremely well as a solo companion, that she compliments this Doctor perfectly and that the pair of them can get on. Saward is clearly as bored with all the griping between the pair as everybody else (mind you he was the script editor, he had the power to do something about that a long time ago) and presents a far more effective pairing; playful, considerate and sparky. There's a sly piece of continuity in the opening scenes, harkening back to the Doctor's newfound vegetarianism thanks to the events of The Two Doctors. Peri does not approve, especially of the Doctor's ghastly nut roast rolls. Her botany degree is given some consideration again and she mentions that her grades aren't exactly spectacular - there is an effort to make Peri less of a cipher and more of a person. The scene where she beats the mutant to death to save the Doctor and feels remorse for behaving so savagely could have been hideously overplayed but instead is hauntingly played by both Bryant and Baker and shows the Doctor comforting his companion at a disquieting time. This is the first time Peri has had to kill in order to protect the Doctor. Tellingly Peri admits that the Doctor is a close friend when she thinks that he is dead, a sign of how far they have come since his regeneration. Her scenes with the DJ are vital for her growth, showing her homesick for America that would continue to be explored in the next season.

Scarred Scientist: 'It is an offer that must be fulfilled through blood! Show me your total obedience and kill Jobel!' My personal favourite Davros story. I can sympathise with anybody who might disagree and put forth Genesis of the Daleks of Big Finish's Davros as a alternative (because they are both top dollar too) but for me this is the story that does the most interesting things with the character and presents the most shades. Not only does he live up to the ranting old loon of repute he is also teasing and hilarious, sadistic and manipulative, intelligent and patient, blackly comic and terrifying. Terry Molloy cites this as his personal favourite because he had the chance to bring his voice right down and show a boarding, menacing side to the character that was absent in Resurrection. Early scenes of him sitting like a spider in the heart of Tranquil Respose and directing everything, chuckling to himself as the Doctor walks into his trap, are genuinely unsettling. When Davros has something to giggle about, be scared. He is forced into doing business with people like Kara ad tries to restrain his tongue when dealing with her, sometimes failing dismally. He's in hiding from the authorities and other factions of Daleks and so doesn't want his real name mentioned on open communications. Davros takes perverse pleasure in manipulating Tasambeker, he can see how weak and easily led she is and selects her because of it. He strokes her ego a little, tugs on her insecurities and then directs her to murder the man she loves to please him. It shows a new kind of sadism in the character, playing with peoples emotions for sick pleasure. He had no intention of upholding his promises - as soon as Tasambeker has seen Jobel off, Davros sends in the Daleks to polish her off too. He could have just have easily have dispatched a squad to kill Jobel too, he wanted to manipulate his victim into doing it for him for his own perverse gratification. He's drawn the Doctor to Necros to pull off another joke in awful taste, trying to convince the Time Lord that this is where he is going to die...and then attempting to kill him. He's lost his mind but there is still a keen intelligence shining through, directing all of the insidious threads of this story. I'm not sure if the Davros in the tank was a clone throughout or whether he put one in place as soon as he realised he was being targeted by Orcini but it's a marvellous surprise either way. Trust Davros to be so paranoid as to create another version of himself purely for the purpose of being blown away. His method of receiving universal acclaim (a nice reversal of his usual notoriety) is to take a starving universe, develop a way of luring in the dead, turning them into food and selling it back to them. He's had some revolting ideas in his time but that takes the biscuit. 

Grotesques: Such is the quality of the performances and the dialogue that I feel compelled to give the astonishing guest cast in this adventure a section of their own. It might be predictable to say that they are split into Robert Holmes style double acts (no he wasn't the first person to pair of strong characters against one another but he is responsible for some of the best double acts the show ever presented) but Saward's close friendship with Holmes and his sudden penchant for vivid character pairings is a remarkable co-incidence. When the usual Saward massacre takes place in the second episode you feel every death because these characters have the depth to go on beyond this story...

Few people could admit to have such a bloated ego with so little reason than Mr Jobel, the Chief Embalmer at Tranquil Repose. You'd have to search a long time to find a character quite this grotesque, drowning in his own self importance, convinced that he is something of a ladies man, insulting, flirtatious, lecherous and turncoat. As soon as Jobel sets his sights on Peri nothing can hold him back. His charm has the same effect as repelling magnetic poles, she wants to run as far away from him as possible. Somehow he has caught the eye of Tasambeker, one of the supervising attendants. Jenny Tomasin's performance has come under fire in the past but this is one occasion where an uncomfortable turn isn't a problem - that is the whole point of the character. Dumpy and awkward, she is the obsessive sort who takes out her frustrations with herself out on other people whilst fawning over somebody out of her reach. She's a character that you both despise and pity, not an easy mix to pull off. It's ironic that this doomed love match should end up with a pair of scenes of both characters being killed and Jobel's fate at the hands of the woman he has spurned is perfect, his toupee falling off with his last breath revealing his hideous egg-like dome underneath. All his barely concealed ugliness revealed at his death. Perfect.

One of Sward's most bizarre characters is the DJ, an entertainer that is set up in Tranquil Repose to communicate with the those in suspended animation and keeping them up to date with current affairs and playing them music to make their lying in state an entertaining experience. Whilst his public persona is all overdone humour and in yer face broadcasts, he makes snide and sarcastic asides to the bodies at times that reveal a much more complex character. I think I would be far less forgiving of such an outrageous character (I know some people who wont give this story a chance simply because of the DJ) if it weren't for his gorgeous scenes with Peri in part two where he is revealed to be quite a shy, bashful man. He's confident and charismatic when behind the microphone, adopting the persona of old American DJ's (he'll adopt every persona from Elvis to a stoned out student) but in reality he is quite an unassuming man. I imagine a lot of actors to be like this.

There are also a pair of grave robbers in town, Natasha and Grigory, the former who is trying to find out why the courts were so unwilling to give her fathers body back. Saward uses this pair to suggest that something very sinister is going on, performing the Doctor's role in episode one of investigating the dark underbelly of Tranquil Repose. These two talk in typical Saward macho dialogue but I do love the occasional moment of morbid humour that Grigory brings to the table ('You forget I'm a Doctor, when they slice me open I'll know the name and function of each organ that plops out.').

Saward manages to further carve out this vivid slice of the universe with the use of Kara and Vogel, a shrewd businesswoman and her secretary who are responsible for the processing and shipping of Davros' product. With this pair there is the suggestion that there is a much larger world out there in Necros beyond Tranquil Repose, an industrial nightmare headed by officials with entangled relationships and secrets of their own. With very little help in the way of the script, Eleanor Bron and Hugh Walters manage to suggest that there is far more going on beneath the surface between this pair. The scenes between Davros and this pair are wonderfully entertaining in episode once he realises that she has sent a hit man after him, talking politely about potential dangers but knowing that they are the only danger to each other. The longing look that Vogel gives Kara when he is blasted by a Dalek suggests great regret at the life they could have had with Davros out of the way. Isn't it wonderful how Davros forces Kara into admitting that she sent Orcini to murder Davros with a great big bomb and thus signs her own death warrant? Since when did Davros getting the upper hand become so delightful?

The corner of the galaxy that this story portrays is further expanded with Orcini and Bostock, a pair of assassins hired by Kara to take out Davros. Steeped in honour and looking for glory, these two could easily have been macho clichés but thanks to a pair of subtle performances, especially from William Gaunt, who imbues Orcini with a courteous stillness that somehow makes his history as a professional murderer even more convincing. It is the relationship between the two characters that us again so interesting, a pupil and a mentor but it seems to go much deeper than that. There is a respect between them that suggests a long partnership and Orcini's quiet and understated stroking of his squire's head after he dies and he is about to commit suicide speaks a thousand words. Interestingly as soon as Bostock is dispatched by a Dalek, Orcini is happy to throw his life away too.

Probably the least interesting are Takis and Lilt because they are portrayed as little more than violent thugs (well Lilt is, Takis usually stands back smugly and let's it happen) but once again they are terrifically cast. The most interesting thing about this twosome is their apparent turn at the climax, suddenly becoming the good guys after spending the story roughing up characters, going at them with knives and alcohol and fists. Clearly Lilt is a little deranged ( Takis is no better, setting him on people like a guard dog) but were they simply reacting to a restrictive situation set up by Davros? Will things genuinely be more productive with these two in charge?

Sparkling Dialogue: I could recite half the script, but these are my personal favourites...
'I hope they're on time, she's already started to froth.'
'I killed him...and he forgave me. Why did he have to be so nice about it?' 'You had no choice.'
'You've got a wife and half there, George. They found a cure for Bex syndrome forty years ago. Still, it would be interesting to know what she's really doing with the money.'
'There will be no drinking, swearing or smoking of herbal mixture in the presence of the deceased...'
'Those rose red ruby lips were made for kissing...' '...but not by you' 'I love a woman who plays hard to get' 'Then you'll love me to death!'
'Serve me with your total being and I shall allow you to become a Dalek...'
'I would rather run away with my mother than own a fawning little creep like you.'
'This is a highly directional, ultra sonic beam of rock and roll! It kills!'
'But did you bother to tell anyone that they might be eating their own relatives?' 'Certainly not! That would create what I believe is coined consumer resistance! They were grateful for the allowed them to go on living.' 

The Good:
* Few things excite me more than seeing the TARDIS make a beautiful landing in a picturesque setting (I don't get out much) and the opening to Revelation of the Daleks is a particularly gorgeous example. Standing askew atop a snowy hillock, freezing mist battering its exterior. Graeme Harper sure knew how to get value on screen and the most out of his locations.
* I love the confidence of Saward's writing and how he isn't afraid to have two narratives co-incide briefly in the same scene without either of them meeting (such as the grave robbers dashing through the corridors of Tranquil Respose at the end of Jobel's rant about etiquette).  Or how he can shift tones so self-assuredly, turning the mutants attack into a touching warning of the shocking experiments that are going on on Necros. He's far more invested in his guest characters in episode one than he is in the Doctor and Peri (despite characterising both of them magnificently) but in order to pull that off there has to plenty going on and real complexities in the relationships. It's hard to believe that this is the same writer that brought us the surface-level depth of The Visitation and Earthshock (both stories barely contained characters) - with Revelation Saward has managed to brew up a whole world of nuanced characters, intriguing situations, engaging relationships and twisting loyalties. There are plenty of worlds in Doctor Who that seem specifically designed for the titular character to land in and sort out its problems. That is it's only function, to provide a setting for a Doctor Who story. Not so with Necros, this is busy world, populated with strange, perverse, wonderful characters and it's complexities exist whether the Doctor visits or not. The fact that the Doctor is kept out of the action for so long and this world keeps on turning in a fascinating way proves that. It's Saward's greatest achievement on the show.
* Not only is Revelation of the Daleks one of the funniest serials of the eighties but it is also one of the scariest too. It is packed to the gills full of horrific imagery and frightening moments that I'll give some consideration to here. The attack by the mutant a great example, a thrilling fight sequence that sees a blistered, blemished, salivating man come screaming from the darkened woods and threaten the Doctor and Peri. It's a revolting make up job  and the camera settles at the bottom of the snowy ravine so the Doctor and the mutant can come rolling dynamically down the hill. Truly this is the stuff of nightmares. Although not quite as much as the much celebrated sequence where Natasha discovers her fathers remains in Davros' laboratory of horrors. Lit from below in a pulsating red light, discovering brains suspended in tanks, Natasha and Grigory stumble upon a glass Dalek holding the sickening remains of her father. There is all manner of technology grafted onto his body and pulsating organs and offal smeared across his head - it is one of the most unpleasant sights in the series' long history. More insidious is the psychological implications of the scene, Natasha having a neat breakdown at having to murder her dad in order to protect him. It is impeccably scripted, acted and directed and one of the finest moments of horror in small screen science fiction I have ever seen. I've watched it dozens of times and it still gives me the chills. Stengos is bring turned into a Dalek in the most horrific way imaginable and the way he slips from caring father to mechanical killer (with excellent, rising music) is superbly acted. The assassinations begin in episode two and some of the murders are up close and personal.
* If you are going to write a Doctor Who story that revolves around the theme of death you have to be very sure of the tone you are going for. Saward settles for blackly comic and explores the theme in a number of entertaining ways. I love the idea that if you take a look at the numbers that the whole idea of Tranquil Repose doesn't work - there are simply too many people alive now for people to be stored and brought back once their terminal conditions are curable. And yet people like to believe that there is the possibility of going on and the relatives can live their lives safe in the knowledge that they have done their best by the loved is a shared delusion when secretly everybody probably knows the truth. That kind of pretence exists in our lives all the time and it's nice to see the most subversive Doctor Who story built around that kind of self delusion. The truth of the matter, though, is positively nauseating. Trust Davros to come along with a scheme that takes care of both over population and starvation in such an awesomely disgusting manner. Yes, that's right, he's turning the dead into food and delivering them back into the hands of their loved ones to nosh on. An idea so grim I am surprised it made it past the censors.
* It's no secret that Graeme Harper is considered one of the finest directors to have worked on Doctor Who, despite only having worked on two stories in the classic series his work really stood out as being more imaginative and dynamic than the directors around him. Some inspired moments of direction: shooting the Daleks from below (designed in cream and gold, looking sexier than ever) for maximum dramatic impact, another scene shot from below that reveals the disfigured state of the corpse told entirely from the point of view of Jobel's haunted face ('I suppose you can't make him look any worse...'), the sudden flick of a knife in front of Vogel's face, the Doctor looking straight into the camera that is posing as a security camera (but with no concessions to the fact until he looks straight at us), the sweeping camera work as the Doctor and Peri walk the steps up to the President's wife's death bed that takes in all the stylish detail of the set, the chilling Dalek eyestalk that comes into view as Tasambeker is offered immortality, the dramatic handheld camerawork as Tasambeker chases Jobel with the hypodermic needle, Davros' hand stretched out with Bostock aiming his gun slowly in the background, the sexiest computer voice in science fiction, plenty of explosive Daleks but especially the exploding glass one and the guard that erupts and parts of it flutter to the ground for an age.
* In Resurrection of the Daleks Saward simply used the creatures as assassins but he tries a completely different and far more insidious tactic in Revelation and thus manages to find new ways to make them Scary. Firstly there is the terrifying notion of people being turned into Daleks on their death bed and the psychological implications of that (dealt with in the transformation of Stengos). Then there is the idea of being offered that form of immortality as a reward. That's chilling. Davros sends a squad of Daleks to 'escort' Kara to him for her protection and it is loaded with ominous threat. Check out the menacing shot of them coming through the mist in the catacombs. Then there is the whole idea of a Dalek civil war, that is barely touched upon here but has massive implications. Finally I love the notion of Daleks being destroyed with music, the joy of which is something that simply could not comprehend. It is the perfect method to dispatch a Dalek because if they took over there would be no music. The Daleks get to murder a great number of the characters and I found the DJ's casual execution the most shocking, mostly thanks to Peri's horrified reaction.

The Bad: The transitions between floors are a neat idea but they don't really work. Tasembeker's 'Find the intruders!' has to be seen to be believed. I get that the Dalek voices are untreated to suggest that they are human...but they don't really work. The climax of the Daleks sweeping in and taking Davros away only feels unsatisfying because I was desperate to know what happened next - a sure sign that this story had sunk its claws into me.

Result: The fact that Revelation of the Daleks was the last story before the hiatus that was enforced on the show because the powers that be thought it was getting too adult is an irony that isn't lost on me. For one story only we enter a world of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, a world of lecherous old men drooling over pretty young things, where blood is on everybody's hands and funky music can be used as a weapon. Mentions of necrophilia, incest, alcoholism and murder. Fingers sliced away by laser beams, women stabbed in the gut, legs blown clean off, organs pulsing organs grafted onto heads, psychological torture and men being force fed liquor. It's a perverse, squalid world that fascinating characters inhabit, a setting that stretches far beyond the confines of Revelation of the Daleks, where the characters pairings have so much more to say than the little they do when they converge at Tranquil Respose. Each double act feels expertly crafted and is impeccably cast, so much so that it feels like a world that is populated by characters that could front a series beyond the trip Doctor Who makes to Necros. It's the perfect world for the Doctor and Peri to visit, a Doctor/companion pairing that has always been a bit more larger than life, because for once they are most subdued and normal characters in the show. I've waxed lyrical about Eric Saward's script and Graeme Harper's direction but both are so different from the norm in the mid eighties that they are worthy of great praise. Saward writes with absolute abandon, refusing to conform with the rules of telling a Doctor Who story and producing his finest work as a result. Harper packs every scene with visual interest, assembles a first rate guest cast that gets to grips with their characters and ensures that the whole piece is constantly moving, imaginatively realised and thick with atmosphere. A lot of credit for that has to go to the set designers and the lightning supervisor, there is far more much creativity in those areas than was the norm during this period. I have watched Revelation of the Daleks more times than I can remember and every time I do there is always something new that I spot, such is the complexity of how this has been put together. The sixth Doctor and Peri might be forgotten in episode one but their material once they join the action is their best and Davros has rarely been written as such a nuanced character, revelling in the madness of his own schemes and seen to be much more than just a one-note ranting villain. It's rare for everything to come together quite this perfectly for Doctor Who, it's even rarer for a story to achieve that and push the envelope quite as much as this one does. Revelation of the Daleks is a thrilling one-off in the season that also gave us Vengeance on Varos and The Two Doctors. It's a remarkable oddity and has stood proudly in my top ten ever since I first saw it: 10/10


rumblebars said...

Spot on review. I know more than a few people don't like this story very much, but I always have, and you hammered down all of the reasons why!

Burstingfoam said...

Absolutely 100% spot on. Possibly my favourite Who of all time - only one story challenges it in the original series (and bizarrely, it's just about its polar opposite - I'll let you guess).

Martin Hudecek said...

I would give it a bit less, a 9 or a 9.5, but still absolutely love this story. Maybe seeing it in 4 parts and then in its 'proper' 2 halves made me only appreciate it more over time.

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David Pirtle said...

Indisputably 6's best TV story, and one that really shows how the show runners and Baker could have made him a Doctor for the ages if personal and professional hangups by the network big wigs hadn't derailed the entire thing. At least he eventually gets one more (doozy of a) story.