Doctor Who: Destiny of the Daleks Review

Season Seventeen of Doctor Who is one of those seasons which really divides fans. For everyone who thinks it was stupid and childish, there’s someone who loves the wacky humour and wild offbeat imaginings, often inserted by script editor Douglas Adams. For myself, I see it as a comic contrast to the seriousness of the early Baker years, the satyr play after the Greek tragedy and perhaps the apotheosis of Tom Baker’s Doctor as cabaret star. It’s appropriate, therefore, that Destiny of the Daleks, which led off the season, has a slight feeling of theatricality, even pantomime to it. The plot doesn’t stand up to close inspection, the sets and props are a bit dodgy, the acting is, er, theatrical, and the jokes are silly and often second-hand. That the serial works at all is mostly down to two elements; the intrinsic fascination of the continuing story of the Daleks, and the lead performance of Tom Baker.

Following the successful completion and subsequent dispersal of the Key To Time, the Doctor has fitted a Randomiser to the Tardis to assist him in evading the wrath of the Black Guardian. Accompanied by Romana, who has regenerated into the likeness of the Princess Astra, he finds himself on a barren planet which seems oddly familiar. It transpires that he is on Skaro, many years after the events of Genesis of the Daleks. He soon discovers that two dangerous alien races are on the planet; the Daleks, who have returned to find their creator Davros; and the Movellans, who have a sinister agenda of their own.

Things are on shaky ground right from the opening scene where Romana ‘tries on’ a number of bodies before choosing the Astra facsimile. Exactly how it is possible for her to do this is a moot point although it could be that it is a version of the process shown in The War Games where the Time Lords have the Second Doctor a choice of new bodies. Why she does it is another matter and my own conclusion is that Douglas Adams – the new Script Editor who wrote the scene – simply wanted to start the season off with a few gags. Unfortunately, they’re not really good gags since the actresses chosen to play the ‘test bodies’ are so blank and give Tom Baker very little to play off – although he does get a nice moment where he glimpses the belly-dancer’s breasts and says “No thank you. Not today.”

The arrival on Skaro is rather better, largely due to some excellent steadicam filming which creates a palpable sense of unease. The entrance of the slave workers as they bury their dead is nicely handled and the separation of the Doctor and Romana creates some genuine tension as we recall how important it is that Romana has her anti-radiation pills. Or is it? The issue of the radiation is forgotten after the first episode – and in any case, as many people have pointed out, what’s the point of giving her a bleeper to remind her to take the pills if you don’t give her some of the pills as well? It’s as if, having created the jeopardy, Terry Nation thinks he’s done enough without seeing it through. A similar situation is the amount of patience shown by the Daleks when people don’t do what they’re told – all this “You will be exterminated” nonsense when what they mean is “You might be exterminated if we feel like it but you’re the Doctor’s companion so we probably won’t do anything except shout a lot!”

This sloppiness continues throughout the story, where one gets a feeling that the phrase in the minds of the makers was “It’ll do”. The sets, especially in comparison to the excellent location filming, have a cheap look to them with an apparent prevalence of tin foil and cardboard. The Daleks are in poor condition and even if one passes this off as the result of many years in a space war, it becomes increasingly obvious that the BBC could only afford to have four of the ‘real’ creatures and had to make do with dummy props for the rest. The appearance of Davros is equally disappointing, the result of Michael Wisher’s original mask being patched up to fit the much bigger David Gooderson. My own theory is that Destiny was intended to be the first serial in the production block when money would be more freely available. Pushing it back to third position, to fit in with Terry Nation’s work schedule, meant that funds were correspondingly scarcer and compromises were made.

Given the obvious constraints that the production was under, it’s perhaps unfair to complain unduly about the visual effects which are, by and large, up to the usual standard of Season 17 – although the quality of this standard is a moot point. I’m less inclined to be kind about the production design, which looks tacky throughout – and incidentally makes no attempt to keep continuity with Genesis of the Daleks - and the costumes. Despite being handled by June Hudson, one of Who’s most talented designers, the costumes, and indeed the whole look, of the Movellans are ludicrous. These dreadlocked refugees from a provincial disco look as if they’re auditioning for Earth, Wind and Fire and their space-suits – skin-tight and silver – look as if they might have been all the rage in ‘Heaven’ during the summer of 1979. As has often been said, there’s nothing so dated as yesterday’s future. The Movellans aren’t a bad idea – Terry Nation had long been interested in the idea of a robot race as adversaries to the Daleks – but they are badly executed. Good performances might have helped but Peter Straker, as the commander, is lacking in any kind of gravity and Suzanne Danielle seems to be present simply to provide some interest for the tabloid press. It certainly can’t be for her acting. Indeed, the standard of performance throughout the show is rather below par. Tim Barlow looks good as the mysterious Tyssan but hams up every line as if he were playing Richard III and David Gooderson is hugely disappointing as Davros. It’s not simply that he’s not Michael Wisher – an unavoidable problem which also plagued Terry Molloy – but that he doesn’t have an ounce of subtlety or genuine threat. His ranting is dedicated enough but he seems a somewhat sad figure, sitting on a rickety chair in an ill-fitting costume.

Yet somehow, despite all of its problems, the story works. Part of this is because Tom Baker is so bloody wonderful as the Doctor. Now, I know that this is not a universal opinion but I love Baker’s incarnation of the Time Lord so much that I love these later seasons when he seems to take over the show completely. He’s so funny as he wanders around the sets, tossing off his dialogue in an off-hand fashion before coming out with something unexpected and, possibly, unscripted. He’s totally alien here in his mannerisms and responses but he is also terribly human in his dedication to the importance of emotion over logic. Even when he gets a line wrong, it’s hard not to love him for it – no-one else could get away with telling the Daleks to “Spack off!” He plays particularly well with Lalla Ward who can match his off-beat timing and has the same sense of the ridiculous – and when you’re dealing with stories like the ones which make up Season Seventeen, you have to have a taste for silliness. Baker seems to have liked the humour thrown in by Douglas Adams – it’s just a shame that his joke about the Daleks being unable to climb after him was over-familiar even in 1979.

The other reason for my finding Destiny interesting is the way it develops the mythology of the Daleks. At the end of Genesis of the Daleks it would appear that the Doctor has managed to change the development of the Daleks, making them dependent on their creator in a way that they never were before. Consequently, in order to win the war with the Movellans, they have to have Davros reprogram their battle computers in order to avoid a stalemate. Throughout the serial, Nation refers to these Daleks as ‘robots’, seemingly forgetting that they are organic life forms inside the travel machines. But perhaps these Daleks are indeed a small detachment of robot Daleks. Or perhaps, for some reason, the Daleks themselves have replaced their organic elements with computers. The script never explains this adequately, despite a scene where the Doctor sees a dead Kaled mutant and muses that the Daleks were once organic. Given that in Resurrection of the Daleks, they were once again mutants inside casings, Destiny would seem to be an anomaly. What is interesting, however, is the nature of the Daleks in this story – single-minded and rampaging, screaming “Seek… Locate… Exterminate!” They certainly seem to be a lot more primitive than we’ve seen before. Whether this is due to lazy writing or a genuine attempt to suggest a change in Dalek behaviour is a good debating point.

Destiny of the Daleks was a huge ratings success, despite being hated by many fans. At a time when ITV was on strike, it garnered over 13 million viewers and very good audience appreciation figures. Looking back, it seems like one of the less praiseworthy Dalek stories and in comparison to Genesis of the Daleks, positively juvenile. But it remains diverting and, thanks to Tom Baker, often very entertaining.

The Disc

The high standards of the Doctor Who Restoration Team ensure that this DVD of Destiny of the Daleks is a pleasure to watch and listen to.

There were no problems with the masters used for the transfer and this shows. The picture, sourced from the original 2” tapes, is pristine throughout. Equally good is the mono soundtrack which shows an unusual depth, particularly the effect of the ‘Thal Winds’ which was laid over the Skaro exteriors.

As we’ve come to expect, 2 Entertain have put together an entertaining collection of extras, although this lot are slightly less comprehensive than I would have expected. There is no general ‘making of’ feature for example, something which has enhanced the last few discs. Nor, due to an unfortunate oversight, do we get the promised Radio Times Billings. Taken alongside the glitch on the Remembrance of the Daleks disc, some fans have taken this last omission to indicate that standards are slipping but I think we should give the benefit of the doubt – for the moment.

The main extra feature is a new commentary track. This time there is no Tom Baker but we do get the charming Lalla Ward alongside David Gooderson and Ken Grieve. It’s all very genial and light with no airing of dirty laundry. Ken Grieve tends to take the lead and he has the hard factual information, although not as much of it as I would have liked. David Gooderson comes across as a good sport - which he would have to be, given the amount of abuse he’s suffered from detractors over the years.

There are two featurettes on the disc. The first is an overview of Terry Nation’s career entitled Terror Nation. This is brief, at 28 minutes, but covers the expected ground and has good interview material with the likes of Richard Martin and Terrence Dicks. Nation comes out of it well, although his propensity for producing the same Dalek script year in, year out is humorously alluded to. It would have been nice to have a bit more detail on his activities in America during the 1980s, a period of his life with which I’m not so familiar. The second documentary is a short interview with Ken Grieve during which he discusses his work on Destiny of the Daleks. It was evidently drudgery for the most part which might partly explain why he never worked on the show again.

As has become familiar on these releases, there is the option to view the show with seventeen of the original visual effects sequences replaced with CGI effects created by John Kelly. These are a fascinating option and work very well on a story such as this where the original effects were obviously done under severe time and budget pressures.

The usual production subtitles are present and as fascinating as always but for some reason, many of them are on screen so briefly that it’s hard to read what they say. The research put in by Richard Molesworth certainly deserves better than to pass by in the blink of an eye. We also get a ‘Coming Soon’ trailer for the upcoming Beneath The Surface set, a photo gallery and the wonderful nostalgia of the original trails and continuity.

Finally, and most amusingly, there are a selection of Australian TV adverts for Prime Computers which comment on the Romana/Doctor relationship and feature some lovely interplay between Tom Baker and Lalla Ward. As ever, it’s entertaining to see these old computers which take up roughly the same amount of room as a small country estate and to reflect that today’s cutting edge is tomorrow’s joke. Oh, and I mustn't forget the little easter egg, though it's not of the standard of the one on the Planet of Evil disc.

6 out of 10
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