Friday, October 11, 2013

A Doctor A Week: Colin Baker: Revelation of the Daleks

11 weeks. 11 Doctors. 11 stories. Right up to the fiftieth anniversary, Russel will be reviewing one story a week for each Doctor. He will try and relate each story to a larger picture and how it relates to each period. He will occasionally make fun of them. But he will try and show you what a varied and brilliant history the show has. As well as overcoming his own prejducies about certain periods in the shows history. Each review will have spoilers and will assume a certain level of knowledge about the story in question.

Ahhhh, the sixth Doctor. The shortest serving Doctor. The worst costume. Some of the smallest budgets. The era in which the BBC tried to kill its flagship show with poor scheduling and management.

But while popular opinion would hold that this is the fault of the Doctor, it is anything but. Colin Baker - and maybe this is controversial - is more Doctorly than poor Peter Davison was ever given the chance to be.

He’s rude. Egotistical. Flamboyant. Alien.

Yes, I do agree that it comes as a shock after Peter Davison. And yes I hugely agree that The Twin Dilemma may be one of the worst introductions to a new Doctor ever (not because of the whole psychosis aspect - that’s brilliant - but rather because the adventure surrounding the new doc is so terribly terribly thought out). But the fact is that Baker is playing an alien character. He’s not neccesarily your best friend. He is someone who operates on a different plane of existence. And Baker gets that. He amps up the egotism. And even better, he’s very very funny. With just the right amount of empathy beneath the exterior.

Yes, that’s right. Empathy.

Look, the sixth Doctor does a lot of things one would consider unusual, given our expectations of the Doctor. But actually what he does is in line with past incarnations, only exaggerated.

The Doctor never uses a gun? Oh, let us count the ways in which he makes others use guns, joins paramilitary organisations (UNIT) and recklessly engages in fisticuffs (Seeds of Doom, any time the third Doctor employs his Venusian akido).

The Doctor always never allows anyone to die? The first Doctor did it all the time. The third doctor is stepped in the bodies of UNIT soldiers. The fourth Doctor contemplated genocide (Genesis of the Daleks). And on and on.

The Doctor is generally nice? The first Doctor is caustic and rude. The third Doctor is extremely patronising to Jo when he first meets here (and then tries to get rid of her until he realises he can’t).

On and on.

The sixth Doctor is just louder.

A lot louder.

And its all in the looks. In this story, when the mutant dies after Perry accidentally kills him, check the look on the Doctor’s face, He knows what the cost is and yet he also knows there is a bigger picture and he can’t hang around mourning. When he realises Perry is stuck with the DJ facing an onslught of Daleks, you see it in his eyes: this Doctor cares. He really does. But he also has a different sense of perspective than most.

I think Revelation is perhaps the perfect sixth Doctor story. Which is odd considering that the Doctor isn’t in it for much of the first half. He’s mostly tromping around the country getting attacked by mutants and assuring Peri that no, they really couldn’t get the TARDIS any closer to Tranquil Repose.

Which leaves us a lot of time for the drama inside Repose. And what drama it is. The story is set in a funeral home - a blatant homage to Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One - and features a gallery of human grotesqueness on display. The characters are complex and unlikeable to a man. And perhaps this is what makes the story fascinating; the very fact of the cast’s grotesque and unpleasant nature serves to show the Daleks for the functional, sterile creations they are. They are simple creatures driven by basic emotions. The funeral home staff, however, are complex. Tamsembeker in particular is a mix of self-obsessed busybody and infatuated virgin. She wants to be loved but doesn’t know what it is. And she certainly won’t find love with the pompous lech that is Jobel, the head undertaker played to skin-crawling perfection by Clive Swift.

The DJ who entertains those whose corpses remain in Tranquil Repose is the only character who shows any humanity at all. He must be the only human in this era of Who, who doesn’t make eyes at Peri (although that could be down the bizarre coat and beret arrangement she’s sporting) and who dies trying to proect her. Its a pity that we don’t see more of this side of the DJ, as in the early part of the story with his truly appalling US accent (Its hard to believe Peri would think he actually was a fellow American) he serves as a pointless greek chorus. And how does he see what’s going on anyway? Isn’t Davros supposed to be the only one with access to the near infinite camera system in Tranquil repose?

Oh, I haven’t mentioned Davros and the Daleks? Maybe I should seeing as they’’re in the title. But Revelation is less about the Daleks and more about Davros. WHich is a good thing. The Daleks, like the Cybermen, can get a little dull with their one-size-fits-all goals. As can Davros, admittedly. But here - unlike his appearance in the Peter Davison story, Resurrection of the Daleks - Davros is a conniving, scheming and quite terrifying presence. Reduce to a head in a jar for the majority of the story, he plays characters against each other and generally manipulates everyone in sight as he slowly builds his new race of Daleks - the ones with the stunning white and gold bodywork. The only bit of what-the-hellness comes from his plan to torment the Doctor by luring our hero to Tranquil Repose. No one can give a satisfactory explanation as to why Davros has errected a polystyrene statue of the Doctor in the garden of memories or why he forces it to topple on to the Doctor in what may be one of the top 10 worst resolutions to a cliffhanger ever.
There’s so much more going on in Tranquil Repose, but amazingly, Eric Saward’s script avoids too much complications. The strands - with bodysnatchers, assasins, political intrigue, gruesome goings on in the underbelly of the funeral home and so on - run concurrently but comprehensibly. And in the end almost everything has a purpose. Not neccesarily a grand purpose (inkeeping with this era of Who, very few characters survive the ensuing bloodbath) but nonetheless, the story makes mostly dramatic and logical sense.

Its interesting that this is the last story for this season Doctor Who. The show would go on hiatus for 18 months following this story, resulting in one of the worst pop songs of all time, and a return that was begrudgingly offered by the BBC and designed to try and kill it off completely. Its a shame, because as Baker himself has said, his Doctor was supposed to be on a journey of discovery, moving from arrogance to understanding. Revelation was probably the story where that truly began, but with the hiatus and then the Trial of a Timelord season (which, for the most part, is far better than its reputation might suggest, as long as you snooze through the appalling Vervoids section) Baker never saw the chance to truly round out his character. Which is a shame because his take on the character was never less than interesting, even when surrounded by some godawful guest stars or cheap effects (The Timelash, from the story previous to Revelation). Its cool to hate on Baker and his era, but the truth is that, especially given the BBC politics of the time, Baker was actually one of the most intriguing takes on the Doctor, but never got the chance to truly shine.

As to Revelation itself, it is perhaps Baker’s finest hour. It looks gorgeous, thanks to Graeme Harper’s direction, and its often a lot more thoughtful, witty and terrifying than most of the newly revamped series. If you only ever watch one Sixth Doctor (and you should watch more, just for the Doctor himself), then make it this one.


- Blue is the official colour of mourning on Necros, which is good because the Doctor covers up that hideous costume.

- The location filming at the start is brilliant. Absolutely beautiful. And even better it gives us a chance to see the softening of the relationship between the Doctor and Peri. Its no longer bickering; its moving to affectionate banter.

- “This one thinks with her knuckles” There are some killer lines in here, assisted by the execution of actors (in this case, Clive Smith) clearly having a ball.

- “we don’t want the poor thing uncertain who the corpse is, do we?” Clive Smith gets all the best bitchy lines.

- The incidental music is terrible. This is the 80s, after all. But still not as bad as the farting kazoos in Pertwee’s era.

- When he’s being strangled by the mutant, Baker’s gurning almost matches the mighty Jon Pertwee’s. Almost.

- In case you were in any doubt, the graverobber’s hairdos remind you constantly that this is the eary 80s. Mulletastic.

- “I killed him and he forgave me...” “You had no choice.” Anyone who thinks Baker was too gung ho isn’t watching. He is alien. And his reactions may sometimes seem off, but there is definite compassion there. He is on a journey, here. becoming more and more compassionate and in touch with himself as the series progresses. One could only imagine how he would have continued if he’d been allowed to.

- For once the Daleks are not a cliffhanger. They’re there right from the start. And they’re not the focus, either. Which is wonderful. The silent Daleks are wonderfully scary.

- This is black, black humour. And that’s probably why it didn’t sit well with people.

- “I’m a past master at the Double entry”... oh, really? I think the campness in this one is mostly intentional.

- There’s real horror in the discovery of the Dalek factory. Makes anything Davies did seem weak and superficial. Here we understand the real horror of the Daleks.

- Speaking of which, the Glass Dalek is incredible.

- There is a lot of cynicism in the story; particularly Ocini and his squire. I think perhaps this marks the point where Doctor Who tried to grow up but couldn’t move beyond the perceptions of itself. Much of what people remember about the Baker era is the violence, and I think the memories of these violent moments has embedded more than the stories in which they take place.

- Hate the effect where teeny tiny Davros hovers over legless Ocini. Looks incredibly cheap. The sense of scale is gone. I think they were trying to make us believe that daleks could hover, but it doesn’t come across at all. Just wait until the McCoy era where the Daleks become truly frightening again as they climb stairs to get at their enemies.

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