Doctor Who XXI.11-14: Resurrection of the Daleks
I was thirteen in 1984, newly connected to Doctor Who fandom, a reader of Gary Levy’s still-photocopied newszine DWB (about to burst from smudgy duplication into glossy litho) and a member of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society. Resurrection of the Daleks was one of the most anticipated Doctor Who stories since… well, The Five Doctors. Everyone who read Marvel UK’s Doctor Who Monthly during 1983 knew that Resurrection was the story lost from season twenty the year before, originally intended to be made and shown between The King’s Demons and The Five Doctors. The story had been intended to reunite the creative team who were thought to have made 1982’s Earthshock such a success, writer (and script editor) Eric Saward and director Peter Grimwade. They were widely regarded in fandom as having restored a menace to the Cybermen not seen since the 1960s, a generation raised in the Troughton era apparently regarding Revenge of the Cybermen as a crushing disappointment. While fandom had a more positive view of the Daleks’ 1970s appearances in general, Destiny of the Daleks, the previous Dalek story, was regarded as unforgivable, with shoddy Dalek casings, flimsy sets, jokes about being unable to climb stairs, and Daleks described as robots. Production failings and story decisions were rolled together as ‘mistakes’. DWB, then still a cheerleader for John Nathan-Turner’s producership, looked forward to the 1984 season as repeating the success of the ‘monster season’ of 1967/68, without reflecting that Doctor Who’s fan and general audiences, like the programme itself, had changed in the interim.
Resurrection of the Daleks, as it eventually reached the screen, was directed by Matthew Robinson rather than Peter Grimwade. Robinson doesn’t quite have the same ability to extract mood and intensity from studio settings as Grimwade, nor quite the rapport with a script that Grimwade – an experienced television writer by the time he came to Doctor Who, as well as a director – displayed. Opportunities, however slim, are lost to build on the isolation of Tegan in the warehouse, especially as this is Janet Fielding’s last story, and a director with more experience of and more in sympathy with the programme might have achieved more.
Since 1979, Davros has regenerated, from David Gooderson wearing the hastily patched-up mask made for Michael Wisher in 1975, to Terry Molloy wearing an entirely new prosthetic. This was a great disappointment for me and others watching in 1984. Davros no longer looked like Davros. Terry Molloy’s features are very different to those of Michael Wisher and an attempt to fit a copy of the Wisher mask onto him would have looked even more grotesque. Molloy’s performance also attracted criticism, lacking the clinical coldness of Wisher. Against this, though, Molloy is always entertaining to watch and there is a direct line from his Davros, full of self-importance and self-delusion, to that of Julian Bleach in The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End.
As for the Daleks, the restoration of their organic nature in The Five Doctors is followed up here. The creatures are of course green, which in the mid-1980s became ever more aggressively the default colour for Doctor Who monsters, as if they all sprang through spontaneous generation from a late-period Crackerjack gunge tank.
Unfortunately much of the writing ties itself up as the story’s frayed threads are knotted through the loopholes. How has Davros, imprisoned for nine decades, equipped himself with the enslavement implants? A chance to see his charisma as a politician and persuader, established as part of the character in Genesis of the Daleks, is lost. There’s a subplot – or is it the main plot? – in which people with guns stalk around corridors for little reason. Eric Saward is clearly seeking to copy the success of his own Earthshock here, but this single high concept isn’t visualised well enough nor integrated sufficiently with the ambitions of the Daleks.
Saward has cheerily described this as the worst Doctor Who serial ever. It isn’t, but it has elements in it which could have been much stronger. Within a few years of broadcast, one fan critic attacked Saward’s writing style as ‘narrative levitation’, where images and displays of bravado or cowardice follow in a sequence resembling a plot but where there is no motivation or sense of cause and effect. Twenty-first century Doctor Who has prided itself on image-led stories, but in the mid-1980s Doctor Who had limited location filming allocations and this one doesn’t make the best use of what it has. The opening scene of escaped Dalek slave workers being gunned down and then disappearing suggests a more interesting story than we get to see, of Daleks and their foes in the Minder-like environment which Eric Saward would have liked to take Doctor Who to more often, one suspects, but (as usual in 1980s Doctor Who, at least pre-Andrew Cartmel) engagement with urban contemporaneity is avoided in favour of overlit spaceship sets. Of Saward’s characters, Stien perhaps has something to say about a weak character finding their strength, and Rodney Bewes’s qualities as an actor could manage this, but it’s let down by poor conceptualisation and (one assumes) unintentionally hilarious dialogue.
As for the regulars – Janet Fielding does her best as usual to overcome the narrow conception of the character and an impractical and incredible outfit. Mark Strickson is marking time as Turlough, again underused. Peter Davison seeks authority and wit but the script has hidden them. The overbearing personality of Tom Baker still loomed large in production folk memory, and furthermore Saward couldn’t fit the Davison Doctor into his personal hero-mould of mercenaries and disreputable vagrants. Saward’s anti-Doctor, Maurice Colbourne’s dry, sardonic Lytton, skulks in the wings, a commentary on both the Doctor and the Daleks, a hint of the stronger story which could have been told if the writer had not tacked towards an Earthshock cover version.
Nevertheless, the story is sustained by a sense of ambition even if it’s not clear what it’s looking for. The Daleks are presentable and the serial ends with a statement of their power over the Doctor; while he has sustained a limited victory, he has not frustrated the wider Dalek scheme. It’s a pity that this wasn’t developed, though it’s one of the hints which Russell T Davies would use as the foundation for his Time War mythology, and it colours various aspects of Victory of the Daleks. The location filming offers a chance to see some Docklands warehouses before an area of dereliction beloved by television action series directors was lost forever to gentrification, retail and offices. The time corridor graphic seen in episode one says more about Doctor Who‘s problems in keeping up with technological change in the 1980s than anything; but the scheduling of this story, in two forty-five minute episodes, mid-evening on a Wednesday, was also a pointer to a long-term future, even if the wrong lessons were learned.
What of those of us in fandom? Most of us were glad to see the Daleks back and seemingly redeemed, once more the scheming, exterminating conquerors we knew from Target books or from our memories. Saward is keen not to make them dependent on Davros, and turns the problem of how to present the Daleks alongside their creator into a plot point followed forever after. However, I think there was disquiet about how they are undermined by reliance on Lytton’s mercenaries and their slightly absurd Dalek helmets – I wondered at the time if they were meant to be Robomen, as seen in The Dalek Invasion of Earth – which are never justified or explained. Overall, though, most of fandom, still (like the production office) drunk on the twentieth anniversary celebrations of 1983, hailed the idea of a story apparently stitched together from the best of earlier stories as nostalgic, affectionate genius. Only a few seemed to think otherwise, and I wasn’t one of them, voting the story top in both the Official Doctor Who Magazine and DWAS season surveys. Of those who had been critical of Earthshock, Gary Russell (though perhaps mindful of John Nathan-Turner’s blue pencil) wrote in The Official Doctor Who Magazine that Resurrection had avoided the earlier story’s sensationalism. We were a year away from the shock of the 1985 cancellation crisis, though. Within two years, triumph having fled, this story’s dependence on the past would lead to widespread reassessment.