Revelation of the Daleks
Lovely, lovely, lovely. I can quite see why Revelation of the Daleks doesn’t receive the same acclaim as the absurdly – absurdly, because it’s terrible – overrated Remembrance of the Daleks. It is, after all, grim, grisly and exemplifies most of the virtues for which the Saward era is commonly decried. I’d suggest it’s an all-time classic, however, one of the few times 1980s Who gets everything, or nearly everything, right. If it has a fault, besides Eric’s self-prescribed “Kill everyone” remit, it’s that it tries too much. It’s rich, layered and very funny. It has enough material and ideas to go off in about a dozen different directions, which may be why it always felt to me like it was waiting for a trilogy capper.
DJ: Hey, which one of you guys is out of your casket?
I’m not sure such a story needed to include Davros’ trial on Skaro, but the one I was waiting for most certainly was not Remembrance of the Daleks. Revelation of the Daleks is The Empire Strikes Back of (Davros) Dalek stories, even down to its hero being side-lined from the action for much of the proceedings. Which would make Genesis of the Daleks the prequel trilogy (the less said about the wretched The Magician’s Apprentice, the better). Revelation of the Daleks isn’t as satisfying as Graeme Harper’s other contribution to classic Who – and let’s face, it both are in a whole other class to his disappointingly house-style work for nu-Who – but it’s certainly more ambitious. There’s much thematic paraphernalia accumulated here from Saward’s work and influences over the previous couple of years. The Big Brother surveillance state, body horror and specifically the corruption of the human form, transhumanism, post-modern recognition of the text itself (most particularly via the DJ device), (Holmesian) double acts, consumerism and what we consume, anti-heroes (mercenaries doing the right thing), sex and death. Most of all, death.
Vogel: I think he guesses, madam.
Kara: He can guess what he likes.
About Time and Elizabeth Sandifer both tempered their praise for aspects of the story with more profuse criticism (Sandifer admittedly deserves credit for pointing out the giddy conceit of the Doctor and Peri being watched and commentated on by the DJ being watched and commentated on by Davros, though). Which, by and large, translates as Sandifer pretty much concurring with About Time’s take. Most are scathing of Saward’s time on the show, so this should be unsurprising (I am not, although I do think he got a little too carried away with his nihilistic motifs).
Jobel: You’re a very naughty man, Takis.
About Time levels the charge that Eric “comes across as a wannabe”, due to the similarities between this and The Two Doctors (it also brings Slipback into the argument, but I won’t go there). However, I feel it’s less that than his belief he now has licence to operate unfettered in such territory. His perception of the successes of Robert Holmes and Philip Martin has given him a boost to return to the kind of writing that most engages him. About Time suggests he is “torn between writing for quirky character and writing action, and where the story resolves these tensions he produces his best work”, but I’m unconvinced he’s torn at all. He’s simply comfortable delivering both simultaneously for the first time (well, second, after the much less proficient Attack of the Cybermen). It isn’t as if his first story didn’t feature the season’s most popular (per DWM) supporting character, Richard Mace. But he wouldn’t write that kind of part again until Season 22.
DJ: I’m glad somebody likes it. Doesn’t half aggravate the Great Healer.
But both also think Revelation of the Daleks rather falls apart after its first episode (with its “daring, atmosphere, wit and panache”). About Time avers that Two is “very much a dull thud of Season Twenty-Two-ness returning after a flirtation with quality”. Which is piffle. Pulling back the cloak of mystery and surreality is inevitable in any story, such that revelation ensues, so the DJ and the mutants cannot be the be all and end all. That suggests a misunderstanding of the needs by which your average story operates (“… all that cleverness… gets violently slaughtered”).
Jobel: Fat? Me fat? My figure is the height of fashion!
Apart from which, I’d disagree that upping the action ante dissipates the smarts. Episode Two gives the crowd-pleasing material – Daleks vs Daleks! An ultrasonic beam of rock and roll! – but its only debit comes in resolving all that plate juggling through some standard Saward dispatches (the DJ blundering into a Dalek ray after warning Peri of that very thing minutes before; Natasha and Grigory’s demise; Tasambeker getting zapped). Otherwise, much of the story’s cleverest material takes place amid the violent slaughter; Davros’ explanation of what he’s doing, possibly the wittiest exposition dump the series has seen; Jobel’s cruel character assassination of Tasambeker (Jenny Tomasin); pretty much everything with Kara (Eleanor Bron really is fantastic in this story).
Dalek: You are to be taken to Skaro to stand trial for your crimes against the Daleks.
Both Sandifer and About Time also attest to Revelation of the Dalek’s essentially fractured nature, that “there’s a feeling that it’s a lot of good moments, not a story or a world-view” and “there is no world to this story”, which is “a collection bits and bobs from other places”. Which I find most peculiar. This is one of the most vivid worlds the series has conjured, in tandem with a future-tense universe to rival the Pertwee era. It makes me wonder what would count as a cohesive whole. Yes, the open ending (partially) lends itself to this assessment, but otherwise the genre mashing is remarkably effective (throw Davros – and the Daleks – into The Loved One and sprinkle some Soylent Green on top). The mixing and matching – or bitsing and bobsing – is as effective and immersive as the design of Tranquil Repose, a post-modern brew of old and new.
Jobel: I would rather run away with my mother than own a fawning little creep like you.
Saward’s taking inspiration from the setting of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, along with Mr Joyboy as Jobel – albeit, also quite divergent; he may refer to running off with his mother, but he evidently doesn’t dote on her – is a wonderfully leftfield one that blends seamlessly with the Dalek strand. It makes both for a “front”, mafia style, and a coherent rationale for their being there; Davros has not only a ready source of raw materials for his new breed of Daleks – About Time asserts the story turns the Daleks into second-rate Cybermen, but this appears entirely based on the conversion practice, which is very thin reasoning indeed; certainly, I can’t see any other similarity – but also for the food stuff that has cured hunger throughout the galaxy. Yes, About Time is right that it is unlikely one high-class mortuary could be sufficient “fuel” for Davros’ food product (“Tastes awful, though”), but the Doctor does specifically state “Davros has used the contents for synthetic protein” so the actual human component in any scoop is probably indeterminate (it’s okay, not every Big Mac tests for human flesh. Or maybe it's like using "cloned" foetuses). Chekov’s weed planet is also one of the less intrusive plot solutions in the era (although, if it really is “very similar in food value to the soya bean plant”, we can only hope it’s better for you).
Davros: He is a Knight of the Grand Order of Oberon. There is little that is common about Orcini!
The various strands within Revelation of the Daleks appear entirely motivated, even in the case of the clichéd young rebels (see also Jondar and Areta). The competing corporate intrigue (Kara) may indeed have been inspired by Morgus in Caves of Androzani, but dropping Davros into the equation ensures the story avoids seeming indebted. Indeed, the point with Revelation of the Daleks is not that it borrows, but that it borrows so well and in the best possible way, resulting in a story that feels fresh and different (and best of all, still feels fresh and different). Yes, the story features another mercenary, but Orcini is nothing like Lytton. Yes, we see the grisly transhumanist effects on man and machine merging, but in a much more visceral way to Attack of the Cybermen’s regimented approach. Which is as it should be (this, after all, is taking its cues from Genesis of the Daleks). Yes, there are asides (Davros/Morgus) and a Greek chorus (Etta and Arak/the DJ), but they’re so divergent in nature that they don’t come across as repetitive or even particularly of a conceptual piece.
Davros: I am known as the Great Healer. A somewhat flippant title, but not without foundation.
Plus, Saward has found a way to move Dalek history on in an engaging way. He hasn’t just hit upon a distinctive method of using Davros – as the never-more ironic Great Healer – he’s come up with a civil war scenario to boot. Sure, it has its roots in The Evil of the Daleks, but this is altogether more calculated and insurgent, and gives Davros substance he hasn’t had since Genesis of the Daleks. Remembrance of the Daleks would squander all the potential fostered here, where Saward has moved past Resurrection of the Daleks so persuasively, it almost makes it seem forgivable (and in contrast to Resurrection of the Daleks, while this story is stuffed, it doesn’t leave you with a sense of rampant loose ends and plot holes; President Vargos just happens to be on the way to Tranquil Repose; there’s not additional plot to usurp him or kill him or replace him with a replica).
Davros: Serve me with your total being, and I shall allow you to become a Dalek.
I’ll say this too, Michael Wisher’s may be the original and archetypal Davros, but I enjoy Molloy’s version here the most. Davros as an engaging, calculating, perceptive and even personable Kaled mutant makes for one of the best villains the show has seen. Every Davros since, from Cartmel’s unmitigated rice pudding, to RTD’s ambidextrous ignoramus, to Moffat’s eye opener, has been a cardboard cypher. Here, he bubbles with wit, malice and biting intelligence. This is a Davros versed in the nuances of personal relationships (“If someone treated me as he has treated you…”), who takes Zoom meetings and makes the best jokes in a story packed with great ones (“consumer resistance” indeed). Molloy commented that “He wasn’t just and adjunct of the Daleks, any more than they were an adjunct of him” and relished the chance to go low with the delivery. Which, like Gabriel Woolf and Sutekh, adds the sense of nuance and texture.
Orcini: Only fools would take the risks I do.
Davros has come a long way since being buried, reactivated, frozen, and stricken with Movellan virus. He’s now very knowledgeable about the galaxy and not at all the insular mutant he once was. But this is the first chance he’s really had to get up to speed, so it probably isn’t surprising he’s full of brio. With regard to dummy Davros – as About Time refers to him – I always assumed the Davros in the case was a clone (per the Borad, hence suggestions of repetition a script editor worth their salt would have noticed), rather than a dummy (on which basis, he’d presumably be kept in that very visually striking tube so he doesn’t get ideas above his station).
Tasambeker: An attendant has been murdered.
Jobel: It’s a pity it couldn’t have been you.
Saward was understandably pleased with the cast. Clive Swift has a gift of a role as Jobel (he’s unlikely to want to be interviewed about the joys of shooting Voyage of the Damned) and relishes every vain utterance and lascivious gesture (this is a story rife with sexual innuendo, from the President’s wife, to allusions to incest, to the doctor’s watch exchange, to mastery of the double entry, Takis’ mincing, and Beck’s Syndrome). Inevitably, Eric had something to complain about, that “There wasn’t enough pathos and subtlety” to Tomasin’s performance as Tasambeker. Which is true in one regard, if that’s what Saward was intending, but there’s also a truly gnarly rage within her that is quite unnerving to behold. It’s a curate’s egg of a performance, as is Alexei Sayle’s DJ. I think both are very good (and in Sayle’s case, you can complain about him, but surely it really means you simply don’t like the character). Harper and Limb produce a wonderfully woozy, disorientating quality to the scenes before the DJ is “unmasked”; the character frames the heightened nature of the story perfectly, ensuring we’re granted the appropriate lens through which to take in the garish grotesquery.
Kara: How inconvenient. Do you know how difficult it is to find good secretaries?
Bron embodies Kara’s presumption and entitlement perfectly, and Saward is rightly impressed by Hugh Walters’ obsequious Vogel; the oozing dishonesty when they meet Orcini and Bostock (John Ogwen) is a delight. Gaunt is one of those cases where unlikely casting – him from No Place Like Home – turns out to be a triumph (for the inverse, see Beryl Reid). It isn’t mentioned in the DVD’s “making of” – Laurel and Hardy are cited – but I always assumed Takis (Trevor Cooper) and Lilt (Colin Spaull) were a couple.
The Doctor: No, I’ve arrived in my own future, and I’m dead.
But amid this sea of memorably vital characters, the (legitimate) criticism that the Doctor is hardly in it surfaces (or the Daleks, for that matter). Sandifer has it that “Virtually all of the good bits of Revelation of the Daleks come in spite of it being a Doctor Who story, not because of it” which is one of those statements that elicits a “Well, define a Doctor Who story, then”. The Doctor entering the action late isn’t really the problem; it’s locking him up as soon as he starts investigating proper. Even then, I don’t think it matters too much here, in part because his material is good; he gets to do some cool stuff, attempting to hypnotise the mutant (Ken Barker), experiencing a burst of existential funk – see also Attack of the Cybermen, Vengeance on Varos and The Two Doctors – shooting out a Dalek eye stalk (clearly the same Doctor who took the test of the Horda!) and being granted a fine debate with the villain. He’s subordinate to Orcini in proactivity, but when it comes to it, his presence is crucial. And Colin makes the most of the characterisation here too (His “Nothing at all I was merely showing an interest” in response to Tasambeker’s snarling bile is perfectly timed and delivered).
Grigory: You forget I’m a doctor. When they slice me open, I’ll know the name and function of each organ that plops out.
Natasha: Well, at least you won’t die in ignorance.
The bad-taste humour is alive and well, but if it works, as it does here… We may not have seen Colin sticking one of Davros’ dismembered fingers up his nose, but he gets in a “No arm in trying” and even – perhaps my favourite moment – punks Davros by getting him to extend his now lack of hand for a shake (the idea that Davros would even shake hands if he had one).
Peri: Get your hands off me, you creep!
Peri? Aside from the usual predatory males, she’s well catered for, although I haven’t done a count of how many other companions have actually killed someone (another human). She fends of Jobel amusingly (“O-ho, but not by you”) and her interaction with the DJ is quite sweet. Basically, despite Season 23’s “reframing”, there was little more work needed with the bickering Doctor-Peri relationship by this point. They’re closer to an old married couple (“Well, it’s the last time I eat any more of your nut roast rolls”), and the weirdly sexual pocket-watch conversation was surely intended to resonate somehow.
Jobel: Me, tout for business?
Harper’s work on this and Caves of Androzani is superlative, and superbly complemented by Roger Limb in both cases. It’s notable that Limb was producing some great material at this time – The Box of Delights score is a gem – and yet, a few years earlier, his scores for Time-Flight and Arc of Infinity were an affront to the eardrums. Limb’s score blends music and sound effects in a sometimes-startling way. The sinister buzz of Daleks gliding down a catacomb corridor. Or the screech of Kara being stabbed (“You before me”). The snow-capped setting adds enormous production value (I have to admit, I never quite worked out what the mutant was doing in the lake, and had it that he had somehow been evacuated from his coffin). When Harper pans down levels, you wonder for a moment if it’s supposed to imitate the vertical hold on the telly going. The meeting with Stengos’ head is full-on horror, played for all its psychological worth (although, I think the most disturbing sequence is actually Takis and Lilt getting Grigory drunk). When the action comes, it’s generally as effective as you’d expect. Yes, the side is occasionally let down (the Sevans Dalek; hovering Davros), but it’s a story lacking that one glaring example; you know a rat or Magma Monster).
Davros: I never waste a valuable commodity. The humanoid form makes an excellent concentrated protein. This part of the galaxy is developing quickly. Famine was one of its major problems.
Revelation of the Daleks picks up on The Two Doctors’ vegetarian “message” and makes that story’s implicit cannibalism explicit. As such, one might see it as drawing a connective line (or tissue) between eating animal flesh and human flesh, but virtually the first exchange is pitched to emphasise the drawbacks of eschewing meat (Peri wanting a burger) and of settling for more sensitively selected dishes (nut roast). And notably too, for Davros’ synthetic protein: “... tastes awful”. If that brings to mind Bill’s lab-grown meat (as well as the proven, so not unreasonable – it rather depends how rife you’re willing to regard it – presence of human flesh in the food chain). Davros’ positioning is surely uncannily similar. He is, after all, a tech wizard turned philanthropist pursuing an avowedly transhumanist agenda. Even the flaw that Davros should be too well known to pass himself off as a Great Healer only needs the primer prism of Gates, the product of a family of proud eugenicists bent on depopulation, as some kind of saviour figure. And like Davros, if you want to see what he’s really like, you just have to take a good look at him. Davros’ hiding out has also been compared to that of a Nazi war criminal, of course (Gates simply hasn’t been prosecuted yet). One might look to The Boys from Brazil for cues here, with Davros hanging out in a “backwater”, experimenting on humans, indulging a spot of cloning here and there and having Laurence Olivier – Olivier allegedly turned down the mutant – I mean the Doctor track, him down. Well, be summoned by him, at least.
Davros: I have conquered the diseases that brought their victims here. In every way, I have complied with the wishes of those who came.
Disease on Necros appears to have followed very much the Rockefeller-approved allopathic model. Which makes sense, as no one there is pretending other than that the whole thing is a racket. To wit, looking for a cure (“There isn't room for them. The idea of this place just doesn't work. The galaxy can barely support the people alive now”). The references to famine and rapid growth suggest universal overpopulation as a comparison to Earth’s, but the Doctor is notably having none of such ideas (he is no Gates; more of a Buckminster Fuller). This is a story in which the most vulnerable are actively plundered for spare parts by those who should ostensibly be taking care of them (it’s ironic that Takis and Lilt, despite actively involving themselves in torture and coverup, are allowed to live; almost as much as cynic Takis assuming the Daleks would leave them in peace). The “Do not resuscitate” orders are in full effect here. There’s even prerequisite surgical-mask wearing for those outside the theatre. Unless you’re in charge, when the rules don’t seem to apply.
Stengos: I am to become a Dalek. We are all to become Daleks. We are to serve a new order.
What is also notable is that, while the transhumanist agenda in Revelation of the Daleks apparently parallels that of Attack of the Cybermen, the difference is a significant one of perception. The Cybermen given no consideration to, offer no reflection on or philosophical insights into what they become, since what they become is on the level of pure functionality. They may not be AI, but they apply themselves as if they were. Both races’ transformative states represent something to be feared. That is, the act of becoming one (Tobias Vaughn was happy for cybernetic limbs but drew the line at his brain; Stratton and Bates weren’t even best pleased about that). We’re in no doubt about the grim truths when we meet Stengos. Meanwhile, Davros continually stresses the Daleks as a realisation of the goal of immortality. He offered it to Jobel (who refused) and offers it to Tasambeker (but lies, as she isn’t pure enough, “of status, ambition”; she is evidently one of the “lesser intellects”). The immortality of the Daleks is the immortality of the materialist. Of one who can think only in terms of the physical plane and so sees its perpetuation as a prime objective. To any rational, unconditioned person, it is a living nightmare (no wonder the Daleks hate so much).
The Doctor: I think we should leave the dead in peace, don’t you?
Of course, this brings us back round to the Doctor, whose race has achieved immortality – or near enough – through transhumanism, and his assumption of superiority over those he perceives to be co-opting such targets in a less ethically acceptable way. I suppose it’s true; the Daleks and the Cybermen are using coercion, by this point anyway. But then, who knows how it was with Rassilon? Such doubts are entirely in keeping with the Saward-Holmes vision, of a flawed Doctor who wishes he was better, consumed with existential angst and recognising he can’t really, legitimately, sit on a high horse, so has to bombast his way through his encounters. Rudolf Steiner believed man’s involvement with machine was less necessary than it was inevitable. The key, he stressed, was the manner in which this occurred. We’d undoubtedly rather take the Time Lord route than the Dalek or Cybermen, but the more probing question is whether one is indeed ethically more legitimate.