Yesterday I rewatched the South Park two-parter Rehash/Happy Holograms. It’s an interesting concept. Kyle wants to play Call of Duty with his brother Ike, however Ike is more interested in watching someone else playing Call of Duty on YouTube and commentating on it. This subsequently leads Cartman to engage in the fad by commentating on people commentating on all manner of things. This ends when the person who is doing the watching and commentating on the watching and commentating becomes the watched and commentated upon.
It reminded me of a scene from my favourite Doctor Who episode. In all likelihood, I’m the only person who can say this, as the episode in question is usually granted the damning praise of being “probably Colin Baker’s best episode.” At best. However, I’ve always found it a fascinating outlier in terms of the series. Revelation of the Daleks. I decided to rewatch it.
The episode is largely based on the premise of Evelyn Waugh’s ‘The Loved One.’ It’s the only Doctor Who episode to my knowledge to combine themes of mortuaries, cannibalism and bodysnatching. Although that makes it different, it isn’t however, why I like it.
The story is broken down into a number of subplots (usually) between two people and their interaction. There is the story of the Doctor and Peri arriving on Necros and the first episode largely concerns itself with their ‘misadventures’ of getting to ‘Tranquil Repose’ including encountering a mutant who Peri kills in about thirty seconds – bewilderingly, the then show-runner John Nathan Turner originally believed he could get Laurence Olivier to play. Some thinly veiled innuendo as the Doctor climbs over a wall and then finally, the Doctor being crushed by a statue of himself. Which I’m sure is also thinly veiled metaphor for that era of the show. There are two ‘bodysnatchers,’ one of whom is trying to retrieve her father – who is also the man the Doctor is seeking. There is Jobel the arrogant chief mortician and the woman (whose name I’ve forgotten) who is attracted to him and subsequently is lured and manipulated into murdering on Davros’ behalf. Along with Davros – now going by the ironic and portentous non de guerre: The Great Healer – whose head is now suspended in a jar, there is Kara who is the owner of a food distribution company (yes) and a pawn of Davros’. Kara hires two assassins to murder Davros, in the form of Orcini and Bostock. Further to this, there is a DJ played by Alexei Sayle who watches events unfold and provides a running commentary. Then we have Davros watching the DJ watching events unfold. This provides an interesting collage of events which is infinitely more interesting for the fact that the Doctor (or the irritating paper tigers, the Daleks for that matter) is not at the centre of them until well into part two. I actually really like how the episode pans in and out of the individual stories of each of the characters.
Of course, being a Dalek story, inevitably, all of these characters end up being murdered, but it was fun while it lasted. However, despite this, the story is still better for the fact that the Daleks or the Doctor are never truly able to take centre stage. Even the slightly lacklustre resolution through the introduction of the Dalek civil war doesn’t overshadow, the revelation of gratuitous cannibalism or Orcini – who I find to be one of the shows better mercenaries, in aiming to kill for ‘honour’ blowing the mortuary to bits.
The best Dalek stories are the ones where the Daleks do not take centre stage. Which is why there are so few good stories with them in. The acclaimed Genesis of the Daleks which is essentially a WW2 movie with a moral ending, or the excellent RTD era ‘Dalek’ which centres on the owner of an underground museum being cases in point on how to do these episodes well. As an aside, to be fair, RTD generally carried off his Dalek stories with a degree of aplomb, due to filling his stories with enormous amounts of emotional chaos. Even the woeful and virtually unforgivable Stolen Earth saga, much like his previous over-the-top season finales which had an abhorrent over reliance on deus ex machina endings, could find some redemption in that the over-the-top (even for any sci-fi) action was a secondary backdrop to almost tear-jerking human drama. That Davies’ stories were so grounded in the real lives of ordinary, relatable characters was probably both his greatest strength and weakness in terms of the bold stories he created. Imagine watching a good, really engaging version of Eastenders where you begin to strongly identify with the characters and their daily foibles. Invariably it would go something like this: one of the characters has just discovered he has cancer with only months only to live, his motherless teenage daughter who for months has been getting bullied about her weight, meanwhile has just discovered she’s pregnant and has nowhere to turn as the guy who impregnated and the only decent person she knows apart from her father has been ran over by a car, only for the Queen Vic to suddenly have the real Queen Victoria turn up and then be stolen and taken to Mars by giant alien elephants and then Daleks come and indiscriminately destroy the whole planet, except Albert Square, because someone activated the eye of harmony and the time vortex, preserved all life there but destroyed all the Daleks. That teenage girl and her father however are still up shit-creek without a paddle and the tenth doctor is “so so sorry.” However, they are all the better for the chance to live better lives – no matter how short, inconvenient and miserable – for the experience of meeting The Doctor, even if it now transpires it’s in a parallel universe. It’s a better place and atleast if her father is going to die, she now has her long dead (in the other dimension) mother to help her through this. Oh wait, it turns out that there’s another fully healthy version of her father in this world too, so atleast when he dies, there’s a like for like replacement. Just heartbreaking she had to leave behind her XBox which meant so much to her. Still, I suppose that’s better than Moffat equivalent where he’d have the girl, her father and her boyfriend all die out of sequence at the beginning of the episode, the whole planet be destroyed except for the Queen Vic, because one of the regulars is actually responsible for rewriting the entire continuity of Eastenders and the cosmos, and the Doctor is all puzzled and like “I can’t rewrite time” and then his companion who is also the barmaid realises you can go back in time and just change the barrel of beer which caused all of this disaster in the first place and opened the chasm in space time which by rights shouldn’t have even been there because that beer barrel was actually out of date sludge from the 17th century infected with the bubonic plague which was put there in a plot by the Cybermen with help from the master (who has now regenerated into a female version of Wel’ard) earlier in the season arc, so after timey wimey stuff, no-one actually dies at all. Apart from Wel’ard and the Daleks who were also there for no reason whatsoever. Well, until the first episode of the next season. But I digress.
Doctor Who is always more interesting when it’s about other people. The Doctor – aside from a brief spell in the late eighties, and a short period in the mid nighties where it may or may not be the case he’s a genocidal maniac with the blood of billions of civilisations on his hands, particularly the time lords who are the most annoying, tedious bunch of bureaucrats in television history (RTD’s greatest contribution to Doctor Who until it was undone) – hasn’t actually been a particularly interesting character since the sixties when he was a cantankerous, manipulative old fossil with a penchant for kidnapping. Similar to the comeback of the series with Rose in 2005, was framed through the eyes of not the Doctor, but his granddaughter Susan and her two schoolteachers. After that initial, iconic first episode, the serial goes wayward with some Shakespearean caveman before picking up again in the next episode and first episode starring the Daleks, titled, well, The Daleks. An interesting if not drawn out lament on pacifism, the Daleks, although severely limited – they are reliant on radiation to live and can only move on surfaces that give off static electricity – are a bit more interesting than in later outings due to their cunning, manipulative tendencies which interacts well with the character of the still rather unlikeable Doctor. Villains are always more interesting when they mirror the hero of the piece. They would subsequently undergo a lot of retconning, to the point where they can broaden their horizons, go out into the universe and take control of other civilisations. Including Earth. This terrifies the bureaucratic time lords so much they force the fourth Doctor to go and attempt to change history in the aforementioned Genesis of the Daleks. By this point they had long ago ran their course, but in the context of placing them in a story about their creation – as a race that are so badly mutated from millennia of biological, chemical and nuclear war they placed into mini tanks to survive – with not remotely subtle Nazi and World War 2 undertones, it works. Davros and the Daleks’ next outing – ironically written by their own creator Terry Nation – would see all of this completely undone by actually forgetting they are living beings in tanks and useless they can beat some rubbish 70’s disco robots because they’re too logical (!) despite the fact that in previous outings they have ruled over countless planets including Earth and were considered so dangerous by the most powerful civilisation in the Doctor Who universe, that they were willing to completely rip up the rules of time – their apparently fundamental reason for being. Although it’s never really fully explained what the time lords do, other than act as some accidental metaphor for public sector bureaucracy – stop them from ever existing. So by my reckoning ‘Revelation’ to even have a remotely watchable Davros/Dalek story is an achievement in itself. You can accept that Davros who is someone who is completely useless in every conceivable use of the term, might be a little bit edgy and dangerous. This is why gruesome concept of the cannibalism and harvesting people into Daleks works in the context of the story. It gets back to the roots of what makes most of the better villains in the series effective and interesting, a desire for survival, rather than just some lacklustre plan to take over a world. Again, it works because as I’ve said, it’s not a story about Davros, the Daleks or the Doctor. It’s a story about an arrogant conceited man and a woman’s unrequited love for him which subsequently leads to a brutal murder, it’s a story about a girl with her alcoholic friend searching for her father, a story about a woman who wants to essentially kill her boss, who has been manipulated betraying and being betrayed, a story about two assassins and their motives, about a de facto security state where the watchers get watched. It works because it’s different and an outlier in the series. An episode that manages to use the characters at its disposal and portray an alien world through creating an interesting collage. That’s why I like it. It should also have been the last time Davros ever appeared on TV. His unnecessary appearances in later stories from Rememberance of the Daleks, where the creepy little girl was far more interesting, RTD and Moffatt era Doctor Who – I still can’t figure out the point of bringing him back and then retconning him again to actually make the Daleks even more pitiful through them now having a concept of clemency -along with Skaro and the Master/Missy – mean he and his paper tigers have more than long outstayed their welcome. Perhaps it was just a big fuck you from Moffatt in restoring Skaro at the start of the series and Gallifrey at the end to completely undo the greatest service RTD did for Doctor Who. Largely killing off the two most boring races in the universe to a level that was palatable for Saturday night audiences.