What Who series 8 can learn from Remembrance Of The Daleks

Feature Andrew Blair 11 Aug 2014 - 06:05

Andrew traces the influence of a classic Seventh Doctor serial on today's Doctor Who, and looks at what series 8 can learn from it...

Previously on Den Of Geek, we looked at The Ark in Space and its relatively drastic shake up of Doctor Who’s tone following the Pertwee era. This time we’re looking at a different set of circumstances for the show, at the start of its twenty-fifth anniversary season in 1988.

Doctor Who had been in trouble since at least 1985. Cancelled, then reprieved due to the outcry, it hadn’t been helped by the ambitious but flawed Trial Of A Time Lord story/season, which probably didn’t endear itself to the casual viewer with its fourteen-episode narrative and Gallifrey-heavy intrigue. After its trial, the verdict eventually came back from the BBC to sack Colin Baker and make the show more child-friendly.

Script Editor Eric Saward had already departed acrimoniously, so we were deprived of the sight of his concept of ‘Child Friendly Doctor Who’. Anyone who has heard his audio story Slipback would be forgiven for suggesting it would be influenced strongly by Douglas Adams, and - if the reaction to the BBC Radio Doctor Who adventure is anything to go by - views on it would probably be similar to those of the actual season twenty-four, overseen in something of a rush by the incoming Andrew Cartmel.

Season 24 has its fans, but it has more detractors, and usually comes near the bottom in fan polls. In terms of viewing figures, Remembrance Of The Daleks saw a slight overall improvement, but it has a legendary status: for a brief moment in the playgrounds of 1988, Doctor Who wasn’t being instantly dismissed by casual viewers. Stating that it was the BBC’s top selling show in 1987 was not a widely accepted counter-argument at primary school.

Relatively speaking, for those who had stuck with the show during its turbulence, this was a blissful time. Remembrance Of The Daleks Part One is the same production team as Dragonfire, but they’ve been left alone by an apathetic BBC to get on with things, and are more sure of themselves after a testing first season. In fact ‘more sure’ is not even close. Remembrance Of The Daleks is imbued with a confidence that the show wouldn’t see again until Russell T. Davies took over.

Remembrance is Ben Aaronovich’s first ever television script, and it sets out to own the show from the off. The pre-credits sequence lasts less than ten seconds, but does everything it needs to: time, location, and threat are all realised superbly. Even Keff McCulloch’s often-dated synths suit this story very well in places. The special effects in Remembrance hold up too, barring the Dalek shuttlecraft leaving in Part Four. This is partly because Andrew Morgan, the director, overspent on visual effects. The reason Remembrance Of The Daleks looks so good is because it used more money than it was allotted.

There’s an obvious lesson here, borne out by the reborn 2005 series: give Doctor Who more money, and it can compete with bigger budgeted shows. However, in 1988, the BBC decided to ban Morgan from working on the show again. They were in a win-win situation regarding the show: if it improved by the sheer effort of its production team, great. If it didn’t, they could legitimately cancel it quietly. In the end, arguably, both happened. So, one lesion to be learned from Remembrance is the value of the BBC’s support. Though there’s a consensus that the show hit a rocky patch in series seven, the overall feeling is that the BBC is still very much behind it. If it hits a bad patch now, it has a safety net to recover.

Another lesson is the balance between entertainment and continuity. Remembrance was the opening story for the show’s twenty-fifth anniversary season, and celebrated accordingly, and also a continuation of the story arc present in all the Dalek stories since Genesis Of The Daleks. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was a tad impenetrable.

In fact, it largely gets away with both a 12 and 25 year long continuity reference because it manages – mostly – to seamlessly weave this into a bigger and better story. The Time Of The Doctor, which came in for criticism for being a Christmas Special with a lot of continuity (moreso than the 50th Anniversary special, certainly) had some marvellous moments, but it didn’t make them as palatable for a casual viewer as Remembrance. Thus, it’s frequently cited as a good story to introduce casual viewers to despite being a sequel to the original episode, and its additions to the show’s mythology.

This is because Remembrance limits its indulgences, and its core story is about an alien civil war spilling onto Sixties London in search of a McGuffin. That’s easy enough to understand without having seen Revelation Of The Daleks. Also, and anyone who had written something substantial will be familiar with this, as a first story it’s crammed with ideas and characters and backstories, because when you start writing you generally write as if you’re never going to get to do so again. You must impress people with your depth and intelligence. Fortunately, this sometimes works, and does so in this case.

We’ve got several plots ongoing, and they all dovetail. Ace is infatuated with Mike, Mike is part of the fascist group working with a Dalek faction, the Dalek factions are after the McGuffin, the Doctor is the one who left the McGuffin on Earth, Professor Jensen and her assistant Alison tell the audience how to react to the Doctor (‘We’re reliant on the Doctor because only the Doctor knows what’s going on’ – a line delivered with anger, that cuts to a shot of McCoy sitting quietly contemplating, more ominous than any ‘Far more than just another Time Lord’ could ever be). Jensen is part of the military group that Mike belongs to, which brings us back to the fascist group and Ace.

Plot-wise, it’s worthy of Dicks and Hulke, but Aaronovitch’s dialogue has a post-modern sensibility (yes, I know, I feel like a dick for writing that, but it does) while maintaining the same wit as his predecessors. It makes meta jokes about the show and television, but also has the Doctor offering backhanded compliments like ‘I’m sure I’ve heard of you’ like prime slabs of Pertwee.

Crucially, Remembrance is balanced. For every smart-alec quip or in-joke there’s a great action sequence or a quiet moment of pathos. This is something that the new series really went for more than the show ever had before. It’s not necessarily that they saw Remembrance Of The Daleks and thought ‘That’s a good idea,’ so much as they thought ‘That’s a good idea’ and it happened to have overlap with Remembrance Of The Daleks. Again, that man Terrance Dicks once said ‘You need a good strong original idea, but it doesn’t have to be your good strong original idea.’

You can’t quantify exactly how influential Remembrance Of The Daleks is, but it has definitely endured. It’s stayed popular in fandom throughout, a steadfast anchor in the ever changing ocean of fan consensus, a cause of tenuous metaphors in chin-stroking fan articles.

Plus, above all, it has Special Weapons Dalek in it.

Special Weapons Dalek is awesome.

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