Review [DW]: “Remembrance of the Daleks”

25×1. Remembrance of the Daleks
Writer: Ben Aaronovitch
Director: Andrew Morgan
Script Editor: Andrew Cartmel
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor and Ace return to Coal Hill School in 1963 London – where Susan was once enrolled in school – as two Dalek factions are competing to gain possession of the Hand of Omega, a Gallifreyan device that the Doctor left behind and that could enable them to rival the Time Lords’ power.

Review: Fans might have been forgiven for wondering if the Daleks were a spent force after their last few appearances, but “Remembrance of the Daleks” finds an effective angle by focusing on a still relatively new Doctor and how he responds to the competing Daleks’ attempts to acquire a Gallifreyan relic. While I’ve voiced skepticism of taking the Doctor in a darker direction in the past, particularly during Colin Baker’s tenure, “Remembrance” finds a way to do this that’s less off-putting and feels more of a piece with how we’ve seen him behave before. For starters, instead of simply being an aggressive, overbearing blowhard, the Seventh Doctor emerges as a more mysterious figure, playing the competing Dalek factions against each other and using the hand as a trap to destroy Skaro and the Imperial Dalek mothership. Another fan once commented that the Daleks seem to bring out the worst in the Doctor, and there’s something of that in his calm intention to “finish” things with the final renegade Dalek and the way he dismisses Davros’s plea for pity when the nature of the trap becomes clear – this isn’t the same Doctor who couldn’t help but show mercy to the Master at the end of “The Time Monster.” More importantly, he does seem to realize that he’s crossing a line (something that couldn’t always be said of his prior incarnation). In the final scene, he gently dissuades Ace from following the procession into the church for Mike’s funeral, and when Ace asks him if the two of them “did good,” he replies only that “time will tell.”

Meanwhile, we get a hint that perhaps there is more to the Doctor’s backstory than he’s let on before, as he makes a verbal slip in a conversation with Ace that implies that he was an active participant in the experiments by Rassilon and Omega that first brought time travel to Gallifrey. While there’s plenty that’s been left unclear about the Doctor’s history, we were left to assume, at least from “The War Games” onward, that he grew up in a Time Lord society where time travel was already an established fact of life and that he wasn’t anyone particularly important before he went on the run in the TARDIS. Are we now to believe otherwise? Is it possible that perhaps his current regeneration somehow assimilated aspects of a different Time Lord’s past altogether? We don’t know, and perhaps it’s best that the original series never actually tried to answer these questions, but in the short term, it’s an effective reintroduction of a certain mystery about the Doctor and a way to keep the viewers guessing as to his true nature and intentions.

The script also returns to the theme of the Daleks as a symbol of fascism,which hadn’t been emphasized as much in their other recent appearances. Ratcliffe seems to be a Nazi sympathizer and aspires to become a “strongman” leader of Britain by working with the renegade Daleks, only to discover that fascism is considerably less appealing when you’re at the bottom of the authoritarian ladder: the renegades ultimately dismiss him as a “slave” born to serve their needs. We also see how fascism can hide behind a friendly face in the character of Mike, who at first seems like a reliable soldier and to whom Ace is initially attracted, but turns out to be working with Ratcliffe in a desire to “keep the outsiders out” and whose mother runs a boarding house with a “No Coloureds” sign in the window. The social commentary here is perhaps rather obvious, but it’s nonetheless effective in drawing a parallel between the Daleks’ malevolence and human prejudices. I was less impressed, however, with the notion that the renegade Daleks had to enslave a young girl because they are otherwise too dependent on rationality and logic and therefore need the influence of a more creative mind. This concept also surfaced in “Destiny of the Daleks,” and my objection is the same now as it was then: while the Daleks may not display much in the way of *positive* emotion, I have trouble reconciling their xenophobic malice with any image of rationality and logic, especially in a serial that goes out of its way to compare them to human political extremists.

Finally, while I, like most Doctor Who fans, do not watch the classic series expecting first-rate special effects and technical quality, I should mention that “Remembrance” does have some fairly well-done action scenes, as the Daleks variously square off with each other, with the military, and, perhaps most memorably, with Ace, who takes them on with an electrified baseball bat. Ace certainly earns her “Action Girl” stripes (to borrow a TV Tropes term) and builds on her first appearance to stake out territory as one of the more unique companions, and I’m looking forward to seeing more from her in future serials.

Other notes:

– The Daleks really give new meaning to the cliche of “Let Me Explain My Evil Plan Before I Kill You” in this serial. At the end of the first and second episodes, they have the Doctor and Ace, respectively, trapped, and yet they spend so much time yelling “exterminate!” that their quarry escapes before they can get around to the actual exterminating. The Doctor, in particular, get the benefit of not only several “exterminates” but a full-on, “You are the Doctor. You are the enemy of the Daleks. You will be exterminated….”

Rating: *** (out of four)

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