Doctor Who: Revelation of the Daleks Review
There are several facts that any Doctor Who fan will tell you about Revelation of the Daleks. It’s meant to be Colin Baker’s best story. It’s certainly the story in which he participates the least, an irony some would say is a telling commentary on his era of the show. The Daleks, likewise, don’t have much to do in it, the most evil beings in the galaxy relegated to the role of mere henchmen for their creator Davros. It’s directed by Graeme Harper, who’s coming back to direct some of David Tennant’s first season, and is written by Eric Saward who had a fiery relationship with both his leading man and his producer, John-Nathan Turner (JNT). It’s one of the few of the original series serials never to have been novelised and it upholds the rest of Season Twenty-Two’s reputation for having moments of seemingly excessive violence. And, most importantly from a historical point of view, it’s the last story broadcast before the infamous cancellation crisis of 1985. Ask any knowledgeable follower of the Time Lord about this story and these are the facts they will rattle off, but what is sometimes crucially forgotten about the last in that list is that because it was the last story before the extended hiatus, there was a very real possibility at the time it could have been the Doctor's swansong and as such would have had the weight of history pressing down on its grim shoulders. If that had been the case, would it have been a suitable farewell, summing up everything that had made the series great for twenty-two years, or would the Doctor’s final journey in the TARDIS have been a sad reflection on its slow decline in the Nineteen-Eighties?
Script editor Saward had already written a Dalek story, the previous year’s Resurrection of the Daleks with Peter Davison, but had been dissatisfied with the results, and wanted a chance to redeem himself as a teller of Dalek tales. Although BBC rules at the time said a script editor couldn’t employ himself, Saward and JNT found a way around this difficulty, and Saward spent an enjoyable holiday in Rhodes writing the two episodes. He had recently read a novel by Evelyn Waugh called The Loved One which was set in a Californian memorial park that had greatly impressed him with its macabre parody of American attitudes to death, and he decided to take it as his main inspiration. In the Doctor Who version, Waugh’s “Whispering Pines” became “Tranquil Repose”, a cryogenic facility on the suitably named planet of Necros. Davros (Terry Molloy) has commandeered the facility and is using the frozen bodies to create a new army of Daleks with which he hopes to wrestle back control of the entire Dalek race who have cast him out in favour of the Dalek Supreme. It’s a convoluted plot which includes the daughter of one of the dead breaking in to try and reclaim his body, a mercenary hired to assassinate Davros himself, the loathsome chief of Tranquil Repose and his fawning assistant, and (eventually) the Doctor, who is lured by Davros for what initially appears to be a rather juvenile practical joke aimed at knocking him on the head with a large piece of polystyrene (in the shape of a statue).
From that synopsis it doesn't sound very promising, but its reputation as the Sixth Doctor's finest hour is, at the risk of going along with the crowd, well deserved - at least in the sense that it succeeds in conforming to the style of the programme at the time while simultaneously telling a good story in its own right. In keeping with the source novel, its blackly comic take on some fairly unpleasant subjects (cannibalism is a secondary plot point, as well as a vague but definite allusion to necrophilia) serves as both a neat bookend to a season which had pushed the boundaries more than any other in regards to the level of violence depicted on screen and also a justification for having done so. The gore, it says, is perfectly allowable as long as it is seen in context, while if we can laugh ay even the most taboo subjects then their power is lessened - thus the Doctor can make a bad joke after seeing someone die in an acid bath or having his hand blown off. We are invited to find humour in the most grisly of subjects, whether it be the callous attitudes of the workers in Tranquil Repose towards their “clients” or in the moment of death itself, which in the shape of Jobel’s demise is stripped of its very dignity. There are still moments of genuine horror mixed in, especially when the daughter finds her father half-converted into a Dalek and trapped within its casing, but overall this is the one story of the season - and, indeed, Baker's era as a whole - which manages to clearly set out and explain the intentions of Saward and JNT without resorting to cheap shocks or seemingly callous behaviour from the leading man. How one responds to the story, then, comes down more than most to individual taste about the visceral tone Doctor Who had at the time, but at least here there's an intelligence behind the gore lacking from other episodes. (Irregardless of opinion, it is arguable whether this was ever the right approach for something destined to be broadcast at 5.20PM on a Saturday afternoon, but thankfully nowadays we can judge the story, and era, on its own merits and not have to worry about the suitability of such material on teatime viewers).
And yes, judged purely as a story in its own right, it is the best of Colin Baker's era. In an era with more than its fair share of nonsensical stories with plot holes you could pilot a TARDIS through, this is a coherent, tight tale with interesting characters and a satisfactory beginning, middle and end (not always present in other stories) and a general lack of superfluous elements (besides the statue of the Doctor, of which more later). The various plot strands complement each other well, with only the daughter's tale fading out a bit towards the end, while the world of Tranquil Repose is populated with well-drawn characters. Whether it be a dignified assassin looking for one last glorious kill so that he can retire with honour, a sleazy creep who will step on those underneath him to get to the top, or even Davros himself, a once-triumphant tyrant pitifully reduced to scheming in what is virtually a gothic prison, these are stock characters fleshed out by Saward's fine dialogue and careful handling. Although there isn't anything new about any of them, there's enough about them to merit spending ninety minutes in their company, while there's enough going on to ensure that boredom never sets in. If the ending might seem a bit sudden to those who haven't been paying close attention to Dalek history, well so be it - the gist of it, that Daleks Davros doesn't like are fighting Daleks Davros does likes, is enough, a secondary issue to the real drama going on between himself, the Doctor and Orcini.
The higher quality of the scripts is reflected in the generally excellent production values. While cliché fans will cheer the several scenes in which characters run up and down corridors, the general look of the story is very impressive. Alan Spalding’s sets for Tranquil Repose are simple but effective, from the almost Egyptian-like look of the main ceremonial chamber through to Davros’ laboratory (and, indeed, Davros himself) with only Kara’s quarters looking a little under-furnished. The morbid tone of the piece is underlined in the opening scenes of the TARDIS landing on a white landscape, the snow a helpful case of serendipity that reflects the stone-cold realities of mortality they are about to encounter (the production crew, inconvenienced by the unexpected flurry, cursed the snow at the time but the end result is very atmospheric). The exteriors of Tranquil Repose itself were filmed at the British Headquarters of IBM (in one shot you can spot an employee walking by in one of the buildings) which give the complex a suitably industrial look, although I can’t decide whether I’m personally convinced by the giant polystyrene statue of the Doctor the two time travellers find within its grounds: JNT had ordered Saward to include it but it doesn’t have the impressive scale he so obviously wanted. That said, the only significant flaws that really lets the side down looks-wise are the Daleks themselves, who don’t come across well at all. Several unkind close-ups emphasise how shoddily some of these particular models were put together (I’ve seen fan-made Daleks at conventions far superior) which, together with the fact the viewer can occasionally spot the men sitting inside them through the grills, combine to give the impression we are dealing with bargain basement versions – apt, I suppose, considering Davros is making them from whatever is at hand, but not conducive to suspension of disbelief. (Their shrill voices don’t sound right either, actor Roy Skelton having never sounded more like his other famous alter-ego, Zippy from Rainbow: there are a couple of times you half expect the Daleks to stop killing people and start wondering when Rod, Jane and Freddy are coming over).
Daleks aside, however, director Graeme Harper takes full advantage of the better-than-average material he was presented with. Harper was extremely lucky with the two Doctor Whos he got to take charge of in the Eighties: in an era when classics were exceedingly rare he managed to land both Peter Davison’s swansong The Caves of Androzani (voted the best story ever in Doctor Who Magazine’s fortieth anniversary poll a couple of years back) and this, the undoubted highlight of an otherwise dubious season. In no small part the two stories’ success, in particular Revelation, are down to his fine direction. Giving the story a rapid pace, his camera-work breaks the mould and uses single-camera techniques and some steadicam work at times, lending the drama a vibrancy that with its fairly static locations might otherwise have lacked. Low angles and an almost furtive movement at times help give the impression we are spies watching the action in the same way many of the characters do in the story itself, creeping along the corridors hoping not to be spotted. Harper also seems to have an acute awareness for how long to dwell on the shocking moments, never lingering more than is necessary on unpleasant scenes but at the same time ensuring they have sufficient impact to send the young ‘uns scampering behind the sofa, as well as bathing them in suitable colours like crimson red, the warmth of which both contrasts with the cold exteriors and also puts one in mind of the death that is being dished out. Best of all is his handling of the climactic scenes in the laboratory, moments such as Davros’ hovering over the stricken Orcini which must have been a nightmare to work out in the rushed and cramped conditions the crew had to deal with but which come across much better than it really has any right to (spoilt only slightly by the fact Davros should not be obscuring Orcini’s leg).
He also coaxes good performances out of his cast, especially Terry Molloy who gives the best of his three on-screen performances as Davros – it must have been hard expressing impotent rage when confined to a tank for most of the story, but he gives the character a cold vehemence that was missing in the character’s other post-Genesis appearances. His adversary raises his game too - Baker’s Doctor is a more restrained, less overtly loud Time Lord than in the rest of the season, his sombre demeanour reflecting the situation he finds himself in. (It’s particularly telling to compare his performance when faced with his own death here to a vaguely similar scene near the beginning of Vengeance on Varos, his quiet shock in the one much more powerful than the brash selfishness of the other). The complaint that the Doctor has little to do is fair (had the Doctor not been there, it's probable things would have turned out in exactly the same way) but one can see it in another way, that the story shows the Doctor as observer. Surprisingly for this most showy of Time Lords, it's a role he seems quite suited to, and his sad reflections on the misery surrounding him, from the mutant he and Peri encounter onwards, are much more Doctor-ish than the "Me? Me?! ME?!!" bombast of other stories. (That said, there's one moment that is utterly in keeping with the Sixth Doctor's slight callousness, when he refuses to help Davros at the end, denying who he is to the Daleks so he can escape after having mocked his adversary for losing his hand). Of the guest stars, it’s only Jenny Tomasin’s as the love-struck Tasambeker who divides people – Eric Saward in particular felt she was miscast – but her uneasy demeanour suits the character’s nervy situation well, and is not nearly as bad as some reviewers have suggested. William Gaunt’s Orcini is hampered by a slightly annoying sidekick played by John Ogwen but still gives a dignified performance as the noble assassin, while Clive Swift’s Jobel is sliminess personified. The one character who we could do without is Alexei Sayle’s DJ, his role as Greek chorus utterly unnecessary to the narrative. Many people say Sayle is the one example of JNT’s stunt casting that really worked, but I find the DJ’s scenes, especially in Episode One, tiresome and unnecessary.
But no Doctor Who is perfect, especially not in this era (hell, even Caves of Androzani had its magma-beast). But this is a far better story than any of those surrounding it, and is a story that can stand proudly with favourites from other eras. Personally speaking, I like some of the ethos of what JNT and Saward were trying to do with Baker’s tenure, making it more overtly horrific and its lead character more unpredictable, but more often than not the execution was woefully misjudged - this is the one story of the season in which their vision of what the programme at that time should have been like really comes together. Suggesting that neither an unhealthy fascination with nor a casual dismissal of death is appropriate, this can be seen as both a commentary on attitudes per se and also what the writer feels works and hasn’t worked during the past season, something which, together with its amusing dialogue laced with double entrendres and better than-average use of Davros, makes it by far his most layered contribution to the series. It wouldn’t have done as the final-ever episode – however one may feel about the story, it’s not really what the fundamentals of Doctor Who are about – but possibly would have as the final of that era; after a season spent struggling, it seems he finally got a hold of what Colin Baker’s Doctor should be about. When the Doctor is cut off at the end of the episode, it’s not just the line of dialogue we’re being denied – it’s the blossoming of the Sixth Doctor’s era. People often say the title makes no sense but in the end it turns out the serial was revelatory after all - but only for its script editor.
It’s business as usual for this disk, which is identical in set-up to all the others before it. The story comes on a single dual-layered disk which is housed in the familiar dull grey jewel case. Regular buyers will notice the new “2 Entertain” logo on the spine which heralds the company taking over the management of the disk - this transfer has no discernable effect other than the disappointing fact that the commentary track is not subtitled, unlike the other disks'. It might cut costs not to have it , but it’s a good feature – can we have it back next time please?
The menu is broken down in the usual way, with clips of the story running alongside the main options – best to try and ignore these if you haven’t seen the story yet as they do contain spoilers. All extras with the exception of the audio commentaries are accessed from one sub-menu and everything bar the commentary is subtitled.
One thing to watch out for is that some people have reported problems using the disk in their players, which have been struggling with the branching options. One of the extras is new CGI which can be selected to replace the original effects, but the authoring of this feature has not agreed with some players, with the result that the disk stops playing at the first such branching point, about eight minutes in. For more guidance go to the Restoration Team's site but the general advice, should you have problems, seems to be to select and then deselect (or not) the branching option on the menu before you begin watching the story.
Aside from the layer of grain over it all, this looks pretty nice. There’s some softness to the image but that’s only to be expected, but there’s no evidence of any digital artefacts or other compression problems which is good. The old problem of microphony (horizontal lines appearing when the camera vibrates in response to loud noise) pops up several times, but there’s not much can be done about it. The new CGI is a decent improvement on the original effects (which weren’t that bad to begin with) and blend in perfectly with the look of the show, so much so if you didn’t know they were new shots you would never guess.
A very nice new 5.1 mix is one of the highlights of the disk. Actors were called in to redub some lines to help create this track (as shown on the Easter Egg), and very worthwhile it is too, lending Tranquil Repose a very atmospheric timbre and immersing the viewer even more in the impression of being there, spying around the corner at all the goings on. It’s worth noting that one of the pieces of music the DJ played in the broadcast version, a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s Fire, has had to be replaced on this release which is a bugbear for pedants such as myself but utterly unavoidable.
An enthusiastic track with director Harper, writer Saward and actors Molloy and Nicola Bryant. Harper takes the lead and proves amiable company for the other three, all of whom contribute reminiscences about making the show. A nice, relaxed get-together with none of the behind-the-scenes tension that permeates some other commentaries.
The usual mix of background information, missing scene script extracts, broadcast data and any other type of trivia you can think of. Worth watching in conjunction with the audio commentary I always find.
A typically excellent documentary covering the story, made up of reminiscences about the making of the story from many cast and crew members. While you would expect contributions from director Graeme Harper and writer Eric Saward, it’s nice to see people such as costume designer Pat Godfrey and composer Roger Limb appearing as well in a feature that covers all aspects of the production. An impressive number of the supporting cast appear too, and all have relevant and interesting things to say about their characters and the show in general, and it’s heart-warming to see the affection people such as Clive Swift show when looking back on its making. The only disappointment in an otherwise faultless feature is the absence of anything from Colin Baker who has often said this was his favourite story – he had prior engagements which clashed with the dates of filming. This minor omission aside, superb.
Behind the Scenes
Fifteen and a half minutes of on-the-floor footage of the story being shot, showing various scenes being put together, most of which involve some kind of pyrotechnics or video effects. The footage itself gives a good impression of the quick pace the show was shot at but there have been many other DVDs with similar footage which can all seem to blend together (there’s only so many times you can see someone saying “Cut, okay let’s move on.”) This selection, though, is considerably enlivened by an optional commentary by Harper and Malloy, which is extremely good value and makes the whole thing much more interesting.
Three short scenes excised from the final cut, totalling around two minutes. The first is the longest in which Tasambeker and Takis spar with each other which is mildly amusing (“I like flowers”), while the other two are just extensions of the DJ’s death and Daleks on the attack.
Included here are both the original continuity announcements of the story’s first broadcast (“And now on BBC 1…”) and the four part version that was transmitted in 1993. We also get to see the endings of the episodes for this edited version, and very incongruous they are too, plainly showing that the episodes were not written to be split in half – the first cliffhanger, in particular, consists of two characters running down a corridor. (I suppose it could have been worse: the Doctor warning someone not to step onto a floor for example). It’s always nice to see these continuity announcements included and make for a pleasingly nostalgic extra, although be warned: John Leslie makes an appearance.
A typical photo gallery consisting of a mixture of behind the scenes shots and stills from the episodes themselves. There’s a large selection here but I never find photo galleries particularly exciting.
Amusingly edited together minute-long look at various members of the cast re-recording their lines for the new 5.1 mix.
I feel I've been a bit harsh in the main body of this review in condemning the large bulk of Colin Baker's time as the Doctor. There's actually a lot about it I like (including most of The Two Doctors, albeit mainly for the fact my favourite Doctor returns) but Revelation of the Daleks is such a story that makes one stop and concede the monumental flaws that were running rife through the show at this time. How one responds to its tone depends on individual taste, but there’s no arguing it’s a solid piece of work which was undoubtedly the highlight of its season. A goodly supply of extras, marked out as ever by fastidious attention to detail and passion for the show, represents real value for money and makes this the best Who release of 2005 so far.
Now, after that review I think I need a break. Hmmm, where to go though? I know, how about B-