Saturday, August 22, 2009

Random Who Report: Destiny of the Daleks (1979)

Destiny of the Daleks DVD link
With the Daleks now an annual guest on DOCTOR WHO, it’s interesting to think that their appearances used to be more spaced out. Terry Nation took them on a forced hiatus for five years starting in 1967 as part of an unsuccessful attempt to give them their own series in America, and after GENESIS OF THE DALEKS in 1975, they took another, shorter siesta. DESTINY OF THE DALEKS marked their return to the series, and also Nation’s final work for the show as a writer. It also has the unusual distinction of being the most highly watched story in the show’s history; the BBC’s main competitor, ITV, was temporarily blacked out by an industrial strike, and over 13 million people tuned in to watch this story. And yet, for its various distinctions, the story itself is unmemorable; a sequel to GENESIS in many ways, DESTINY has little of the former’s atmosphere and energy, often presenting itself as the generic archetype of a DOCTOR WHO story, right down to being filmed in a quarry. Some good ideas almost save it in the last episode, but it’s otherwise a rote affair.

The Doctor and a newly regenerated Romana (Lalla Ward) pop up on a rocky alien world and go exploring, not realizing that it is, in fact, the Daleks’ home planet of Skaro. The Daleks have been bringing human slaves to their planet to work on a massive excavation of their own ruined city, a project which has drawn the attention of their major rivals the Movellans, an enigmatic race of dreadlocked, androgynous warriors. (One wonders if the designers were doing a riff on the glam rock movement.) After various captures and escapes and so on, the Doctor and Romana discover that the Daleks are, in fact, digging up their creator Davros, who survived his apparent extermination in GENESIS and has been waiting in suspended animation ever since.

From the opening sequence in which Romana casually tries out a few bodies before settling on that of Princess Astra from the end of last season (Ward played her, too), to the Doctor’s pronouncement of “Oh look, rocks!” upon checking out where they’ve landed on the TARDIS scanner, the story establishes a very light tone. The show had been moving in this direction for a while under producer Graham Williams, and with Douglas Adams editing the scripts a bit more quirkiness and comedy than usual was bound to seep in. This isn’t a bad thing in itself, obviously, and was used to great effect later in the season in CITY OF DEATH, but it has the effect of making this story feel inconsequential.

The structure doesn’t really help- Terry Nation came up with some interesting themes and concepts for the story, centered on the Daleks’ dependence on logic, but the revelations which make all this work all come in the last quarter of the story. Which means that for the most part, we’re reliant on a bog-standard series of serial setpieces: the Doctor and companion clamber around some rocks for a while, get separated, run up and down corridors, etc. It’s all very boilerplate, and the art direction is a bit bland and monochromatic as well. Not helping things is the near-total lack of a music score; Dudley Simpson is trying for some sort of weird atonal minimalism, which doesn’t exactly ramp up the drama.

The story does have some things to recommend it, one of them being the lovely Lalla Ward. The second Romana’s personality is a charming combination of youthful giddiness and aristocratic ease, and she would soon establish a chemistry with Baker’s Doctor that added a lot to their stories together (and would lead, with less beneficial results, to the brief marriage of the actual actors.) Despite lackadaisical direction, the actual performances are enjoyable.

This really wasn’t the best story for Terry to go out on, let alone the best for the Daleks to return with. It’s kind of sloppy, the sort of thing a show puts out when they’ve had trouble getting their ducks in a row. But there are some nice bits to it, and it’s interesting to see how this sets up the next couple of entries in the Dalek saga. So, a minor footnote in the show’s history, but I kinda think the Movellans are cool.

Written by Terry Nation
Produced by Graham Williams
Directed by Ken Grieve

Grade: C+

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