Classic Series Doctor Who is over. New Who starts here. That might seem an odd comment, but there are so many similarities between the Russell T Davies version of Doctor Who and the final two seasons of McCoy that in many ways this feels like a more distinct dividing line with what came before. Suddenly we have been catapulted into the modern era. Let’s look at some of the things this story has in common with the revival of Doctor Who in 2005:
(1) A contemporary companion from a working class, London background.
(2) A pre-credits sequence (albeit a brief one).
(3) A Dalek that can fly up the stairs.
(4) A Doctor who has fallen out of love with humanity. ‘What a predictable response’ is said with some disgust at a perfectly understandable human reaction of disbelief.
(5) A (failed) attempt to address the problem of why nobody ever remembers alien invasions in Doctor Who.
(6) An episode set in the winter when it has clearly been filmed in the middle of summer
OK, that last one’s a bit of a stretch, but you get the idea. More than anything, this feels like a version of Doctor Who that has moved on to something new and modern, which is quite ironic considering it is trying to celebrate the past.
And how clunky are those attempts at referring back to An Unearthly Child. You get the overwhelming impression throughout of something that tries so very hard, and so nearly achieves what is intended, but just doesn’t quite ever get things right. So we have the junkyard, but with Susan’s surname spelt wrong on the gate. We have a November evening with the sun blazing in the sky. We even have a book on the French Revolution to refer back to what Susan was reading, but bizarrely it’s in a science laboratory. Where the back-to-the-start approach really does work is with the Daleks, who are for the most part free from the shackles of Davros. He was great in Genesis but his return in every subsequent story relegates the Daleks to flunkies up until this point, so although he is inevitably back again at least it is not until the story is nearly at the end.
Remembrance tends to get held up as one of the high points of the McCoy era and it is not hard so see why. The special weapons Dalek is brilliant. The story punches well above its weight in terms of special effects, considering the lack of money that went into these things. There are not a great deal of classic Who stories with so many truly three-dimensional guest characters, and three of them deservedly spun off eventually into the Big Finish Counter Measures series. We are not talking Jago and Litefoot level brilliance here, but we are certainly a step up from anything we have seen for a while in terms of the guest cast. This is also the first story where we get to see Ace properly functioning as a companion in her own right, and she is a perfect fit for McCoy’s Doctor in a way we haven’t seen really since the Fourth Doctor and Romana. This is not to say that other recent companions up to this point haven’t been good, in fact many of them have been fantastic, but this is a team that is greater than the sum of its parts.
But does it deserve the level of praise that gets heaped on this story? Not quite no. There are just so many little irritations that keep stacking up: trying to turn the Doctor into some kind of mysterious ancient architect of Time Lord society – no, that’s not the Doctor – he’s a flawed character, a man who stole the TARDIS, learned to be brave and brilliant and kind and do his best. That’s my Doctor, not some kind of super being. Then you have all those little things that don’t quite make sense. The Dalek flying up the stairs is a fabulous moment, but don’t think too hard about why it’s not just shooting the Doctor from the bottom of the stairs. Or when it gets near the top why is it just doing a lot of shouting and still not killing him? The cliffhanger at the end of Part Two has the same problem – a bunch of Daleks all standing in front of Ace, chanting ‘exterminate’ and doing absolutely nothing (I say this with the proviso that I absolutely LOVED that cliffhanger when I was a child, so it works on that level!). Then we have the Davros reveal, as long as we don’t think about why on Earth he’s going around inside a big ball. And the Doctor talking directly to the camera (“I think I may have miscalculated”) which is a pretty nasty break of the fourth wall, lacking the charm of Hartnell’s Christmas greeting, and wisely edited out of the reprise.
I suppose in the end we just have to chalk this kind of thing up to part of the 80s Doctor Who charm, and when Jasmine Breaks starts cracking up as she runs out of shot in Part Four I guess we should be laughing with her, and enjoying the crazy magic that is Doctor Who. RP
The view from across the pond:
Remembrance of the Daleks arrived at the start of Sylvester McCoy’s second season. For me, it was an era marked by halves. Typically 2 of the 4 stories of each season were strong (or strong-ish) while two were weak (mediocre, at best). Remembrance might have been among McCoy’s very best. To this day, I find myself reflecting on it time and again with the ending line, “Time will tell. It always does!” There’s also a wonderful scene where the Doctor is considering whether a decision he makes will matter. The café owner he is speaking to leans in and has a discussion with the Doctor about his own heritage and how his own ancestry was affected by sugar. It’s one of those moments that define the series as a whole: it’s great that we have monsters and excitement, but these little moments count for so much. It’s about the human condition, plain and simple.
But those battle scenes are great fun. The first time we ever see a Dalek blast actually creating an X-Ray of the human skeletal structure is amazing; a feature that would return in 2005 in Dalek. Fans have a lot to enjoy out of this story in fact. We find ourselves in 1963 in a familiar junkyard, although the name is misspelled and in an equally familiar Coal Hill School. We see and hear about a lot from the show’s past, including the Dalek/Thal war (The Daleks), Spiridon (Planet of the Daleks), we see a theta and sigma on the Doctor’s calling card which he leaves behind – this was apparently his nickname in school, or so we learn from Drax in The Armageddon Factor. There is even the attempt to do some continuity work when the Doctor tells Ace about the Zygon gambit and the Yeti in the underground, loosely letting us know that these events happened, we just ignore what we don’t understand. There’s some fun to be had when the Doctor goes to collect the Hand of Omega device from the cemetery and the caretaker makes a call saying: “I thought you said he was an old geezer with white hair…”, a clear reference to the first Doctor who would have been visiting the area in 1963. Makes one wonder what the Doctor’s motives were for coming here to begin with in An Unearthly Child.
This episode does something else that I wish more shows would do because it happens a lot in real life. There’s a piece of dialog between the Doctor and Ace as they are driving. The Doctor is explaining the convoluted history of the Daleks when he says..
The Doctor: “left here”
Ace: “when were they left here?”
The Doctor: “NO, turn left here!”
Ace: “Oh, Right!”
Doctor: “No left, you missed the turning!”
After a minor squabble, she says of her driving “If you don’t like it, you drive!” As they go through a tunnel, we see her flopping into the passenger seat, the Doctor now driving. It’s silly, fun and quintessentially Doctor Who.
The Doctor was a mystery back in 1963 and over the years, he became a guy who traveled from mystery to mystery without actually being a mystery any more. But the title, Doctor WHO, is about him; who is he? McCoy’s Doctor was bringing that back and it starts here. He mentions “we” when talking about the troubles they had with early time travel among his own people. Whether he means he was one of the original scientists or if he just means “we” as in “his people”, we don’t know. But that’s part of the mystery. There is a darkness hinted at with this Doctor that’s in stark contrast to his first episode, Time and the Rani where he was far more silly and comedic. And it’s needed. Perhaps making him a “god” was a mistake, but this season had potential to make him a mystery again, and that is critical!
Another issue with this story is that they set a major event in motion: the destruction of the Dalek homeworld Skaro using the Hand of Omega. That’s momentous. In 2009, Star Trek came back to movie theaters and we saw Vulcan destroyed. You can’t undo that. Doing a thing like that in a series with such a history as Who or Trek is a bold move and has a lot of weight, but for it to have meaning it has to remain destroyed. To ignore that it happened is far riskier than destroying the planet and its history and yet, in 1996, when Doctor Who made its first attempt to reboot, it opened with the Master being put on trial on Skaro. Worse, Skaro would be back in 2015 with The Magicians Apprentice. Forgetting or ignoring such a critical element of a series makes it little more than comic book. Let’s face it, Superman’s death was huge. Once they brought him back, it made any “death” in comic books absolutely meaningless. Now no one dies in comics because even when they do, it means nothing! Doctor Who should be better than run of the mill comic books.
But barring that, this story is a season opener. It feels like a tribute to the past and an attempt to clean up the history of the show while laying new ground for making the Doctor something more. We get classic enemies. We get the Special Weapons Dalek. We get a creepy kid and creepy music to accompany her. And we get Davros, taking a page out of the Master’s book and remaining in “disguise” in a huge-headed Dalek. There’s wonderful dialog between Doctor and Davros which rivals most dialog between the Doctor and the villain; in this the Doctor has the upper hand and he’s finally doing something about the Daleks. Drastic, but perhaps necessary. And perhaps another blow that kicks off the Time War?
But here’s a cool visual bit: when Skaro is destroyed, Davros’s ship blows up. But if you look really closely, you can see his escape pod dropping away from the main ship! Somewhere, some when, Davros will be back!
(Forgive the rather weak screen capture, but there he goes…)
Remembrance has some flaws. Roger accurately asks why the Dalek had to hover up the steps and why he failed to shoot the Doctor. Matt Smith’s The Time of the Doctor might hold the answer: fear. Fear that right up until that last minute, the Doctor might have had a plan. But it is a weak argument; and still makes little sense. Or that a regular basement door should be enough to hold a Dalek. But Remembrance is still great. I think it will always be remembered as a classic.
But… time will tell. It always does. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Happiness Patrol