Sunday, January 13, 2019

Never Forget Daleks

I naturally continued my tour of Dalek episodes of Doctor Who recently added to BritBox's collection by watching Remembrance of the Daleks this past week, a Seventh Doctor serial from 1988. This season première serial is when the Seventh Doctor really started to cook after his spotty first season and when his companion, Ace, made good on the potential she showed from her first appearance in the previous season's finale. It also continued the Dalek civil war storyline from Resurrection of the Daleks and Revelation of the Daleks but with the decidedly different tone of the Seventh Doctor's era. It lacks Eric Saward's penchant for pushing the envelope, violence-wise, yet its introduction of the Daleks conveys more of a sense of danger. But what I like most about this serial is its theme of misapprehension and people, good and bad, suffering for their mistaken impressions. But not the Doctor.

Despite an amusing moment in one of the episode cliffhangers where Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor pulls a face and delivers a line straight to the camera about how he miscalculated, it's very clear the Doctor's only miscalculations are pretty trivial. The proto-UNIT military group in the serial, with which the Doctor quickly makes himself an ally just by intruding on one of their surveillance vans and explaining things, seem to be also his only real problem. As he tells Ace (Sophie Aldred), he has to keep them occupied while the Daleks play into his hands.

The proto-UNIT group has no idea what they're fighting, of course, but a lot of this serial is about just how much the Daleks and humanity have in common, referencing the relatively recent menace of the Nazis in World War II (the serial's set in 1963) and the recent tensions arising from Jamaican immigrants who came to England for the rights promised to them as citizens of a British territory.

Although the serial isn't directly about racial tensions in Britain at the time, 25 year old Ben Aaronivitch's teleplay does a decent job of showing how racism operated in a community. Racists aren't simply easily identifiable two dimensional jerks; they can be the seemingly nice young man, Mike (Dursley McLinden), whom Ace almost falls for. Or Ratcliffe (George Sewell), an Englishman who felt the Nazis had it right, who now allies himself with the Daleks, finding their ideas of racial purity to be congenial.

The Daleks also aren't what they seem in this serial. The viewer is deliberately misled as to which side is which now in the Dalek civil war, which has become about race, as well, since one side has mutated, as is shown when the Doctor inspects the shell of a partially destroyed Dalek casing. The old rebels and the old establishment have switched roles but we don't know until we're directly shown, a nice way of showing just how illegitimate intrinsic ideas of racial superiority are.

Through it all, the Seventh Doctor earns his reputation as a manipulator, with Sylvester McCoy occasionally employing an effective, quietly sinister tone between his moments of clowning, giving the impression the latter is a calculated ruse. Like a good strategist, a lot of what he does is counter-intuitive, as when he seems to be working against his British military allies, or when he deliberately refrains from destroying some Dalek equipment, explaining to Ace that he doesn't want to strand the time travelling Daleks, which would increase the chances of them corrupting the timeline.

One of the famous moments in this serial is Ace cracking a Dalek with her enhanced baseball bat and that's one of the reasons she and Seven are such a great pair--he's the subtlety, she's the direct approach. But we see in this episode there's more to the Doctor's disdain for weaponry than pacifism--his techniques can be far deadlier than any weapon.

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