Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Serial 142: Revelation of the Daleks

Doctor: Colin Baker (6th Doctor)
Companion: Peri Brown


Written by: Eric Saward
Directed by: Graeme Harper

Background & Significance: In a lot of ways, "Revelation of the Daleks" represents the end to a number of eras in Doctor Who. Coming at the end of Colin Baker's initial season (which is problematic, to say the very least), this story really signified an ending to the first twenty two years of Doctor Who. From here on out, Doctor Who would be on borrowed time, always under the threat of cancellation. Always with a far abbreviated season than what it was typically used to.

It's also the end culmination of four years of Eric Saward as script editor. How fitting, then, that he should be the fellow to write it.

Because the Daleks always elevated the show's ratings, Producer John Nathan-Turner sought to bring them back for another season after their success in the previous one. Despite the fact that script editors weren't allowed to commission themselves to write for their own show, Saward somehow managed to wriggle his way around the legal workings of this by writing the scripts in the six weeks leading up to the renewal of his contract as script editor for the next round of Doctor Who. It's underhanded, sure. But he wanted to write The Daleks and Davros, and he'd be damned if he'd let any other "unexperienced" writers go out and write them in his stead.

To direct, the production team brought back the excellent Graeme Harper to handle the proceedings. So that's a plus.

But really, it's just the end result of the show's direction over the course of the previous four years. It effectively kills Colin Baker as The Doctor and is his last proper televisual adventure ("Trial" is a more complicated animal and not exactly the most proper of adventures where every "week" he's somewhere new) and is the last time location shooting for the show was shot on film. Location shooting in the future would all be shot on video tape. It's also the last script written by Eric Saward and is very... Sawardian in all its proper respects. As I'm so wont to say, Doctor Who writers only ever seem to get more themier (Moffat only seems to get Moffatier just as Davies only ever seemed to get more Daviesier) and "Revelation" proves itself to be the Sawardiest script of all the scripts he ever wrote for the show.

Wonder how that'll turn out.

So let's get to it!


Commentary!: 

Part 1:

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these forty five minute episode Colin Baker stories, and it doesn’t matter how prepared I think I am for it, but watching a forty five minutes long Classic Doctor Who episode is… not something they ever got quite right, is it?

That said, and even though I think this first part is loaded with problems that I’ll get to in just a bit, I think that Saward does do a tremendous amount of world building and character work in this story that you just don’t get elsewhere. Sure, you see it in some of the great stuff, but you never quite get it like this. Everywhere else the setup is twenty five minutes and then once you hit episode two you’re already bouncing off the walls and going because… well… you only really are allowed to world build in the first part of the story. You don’t want to have crazy world building later when you should be playing with all the world you set up in the first part.

So what we get here is an extensive, almost excessive amount of world building as Saward (in effect) “takes us around the room to meet all our key players”.

And I don’t mind this on principle. I don’t, especially not if it’s good, and I’ll even grant you that Saward’s work here is quite good and strong. The characters all are (at the very least and with one exception) fairly interesting and engaging) and (as a friend of mine is so wont to point out every single time we talk about this story while defending it) interesting and well done, conveying information while also being interesting discussions. The dialogue never expositions in a way that makes it feel like Saward’s ham-handedly jamming it in your face, and he really does take a lot of faith on the fact that you’re able to keep up with him and his ideas. In his defense, everything he’s trying to do here is here and it’s perhaps buried under the poor storytelling of the Nathan-Turner years, but even still, I really can’t complain too much.

No, the problem with this setup is he takes forty five minutes to do it. Which is half the story.

I mean, look at it in terms of numbers: The Doctor and Peri don’t jump over the wall that separates Tranquil Repose (the funeral home where all this action is going down) until halfway through this first episode. Orcini and Bostok don’t enter the narrative until almost two thirds of the way through, and by the end of this episode The Doctor and Peri have come across no one aside from one of Davros’s experiments (who is only really in one or two scenes with them and is only alive for the first ten minutes. So it hardly counts), which means that for this entire episode (which is the first half of a Doctor Who story) The Doctor and his companion literally spend the entire time just wandering the wilderness and not getting involved in the narrative at all.

But I’ll get to that in a minute.

To spice up the pace of the story, Saward introduces the characters of Natasha and Grigory, who are infiltrating the “funeral home” (as it were; that’s what I’m calling it, anyways) to retrieve the body of Arthur Stegnos, Natasha’s father. Their infiltration is really the most action packed piece of all this, what with the fact that they’re constantly being hunted down by guards who want to get them. And that’s nice and welcome, I suppose. I mean, I can’t really complain about it, especially when the whole “seemingly random action plot to distract from the exposition needed to set up the real plot” is certainly not unfamiliar to Doctor Who. I mean, Robert Holmes did it in “Pyramids of Mars” with Ibrahim Namin.

But even without those, I will say that these characters are interesting. Sure, it’s problematic (especially considering that Saward can’t think of anything to do with The Doctor and so doesn’t), but I will say that between Saward’s writing and Harper’s casting, these characters are genius.

Take, for instance, the character of Orcini. Within the span of two scenes Orcini becomes the most interesting character in this whole piece, and it makes sense. I mean, Saward’s been doing merceneries and badasses with guns since “Earthshock” (or “The Visitation” really, if you wanna talk Richard Mace) and now he finally gets the ultimate badassest mercenary in the history of mercenaries. Orcini is not the man Lytton was. Not at all. Sure, Lytton was close, but Orcini is funny, witty, smart, and ruthless. Not only that, but his focus on “honor” over all gives him a certain Robert-Holmes-hero quality that is at the very least welcome (that is to say: Orcini is not motivated by greed).

It’s also cool that Orcini is paired with Bostok because Bostok is also cool but in a completely different way. I love that their relationship is strong without needing to be explained (although if I remember right it will be explained later but not in a way that makes me roll my eyes).

And Bostok and Orcini are really just the best that Saward has in this script because the whole thing is almost built as an homage to the way Robert Holmes built double-acts into all of his scripts. And he pairs off all his characters. There’s Bostok and Orcini (the Mercenaries). There’s Natasha and Grigory (The Army). There’s Kara and Vogel (The Administrator and her Secretary). There’s Jobel and Tasambeker (the Chief Embalmer and his underling). There’s Takis and Lilt (the Security). And there’s The Doctor and Peri (our heroes).

So everyone has their role to play, and within the course of the narrative everyone remains memorable and interesting. A lot of this is down to Saward’s writing (with Orcini and Bostock specifically, but everyone else really) and enhanced by Graeme Harper’s spectacular casting.

This shouldn’t be a surprise really, especially after the mad genius across-the-board casting he did in “Caves of Androzani” (which, to be honest, is probably the best cast out of any Doctor Who story ever, but we’ll get there eventually) and his cast here is exceptionally strong, with the only weak links being Natasha and Grigory, if for no other reasons than because they’re not given a whole hell of a lot to do here besides lots of action beats. And really, they don’t compare to anyone else, who are given some pretty great dialogue and solid emotional beats to play all through this.

I’ll also say that Harper’s direction here is strong but not nearly the strength of something like “Androzani”, but that’s not really a surprise, I don’t think. First off, this script is nowhere near the strength of Androzani and it really is (for lack of better terminology) predominantly sequence after sequence of people just standing around talking and there’s only so many ways to make that interesting. The most interesting, I think, is the first scene in the funeral home, where Harper starts in tight on the person he’s just finished embalming, and pulls out and out and out in one extended shot as he brings the scope of what’s happening into full effect. As far as sustained shots in Doctor Who go, this is one of the best, and both times I watched it the sheer technical elegance of seeing the screen just get busier and busier as they kept pushing out and out and out impressed me all the more.

There’s other things, but they’re small. The energy is totally different here as Harper’s direction really takes a back seat to Saward’s script (whereas his direction in “Androzani” was so good you can barely see the script underneath it (which is not unwelcome, I’ll admit).

If it sounds like I’m slamming Harper, I’m not. His choices are good. Great even. In lesser hands, this story is not as interesting or enthralling. Harper’s distinct penchant for visuals is extremely welcome in the it-can-often-be-flat world of Doctor Who. You can also tell that he’s pulling more out of these actors because they’re so much better (and across the board) than you typically get on Doctor Who. There’s really not people doing bad work and if it seems like they are, it’s important to note that they’re up against really stiff competition from EVERYONE ELSE IN THIS STORY.

And yet. And yet. Saward’s choices to remove The Doctor from the action is inexcusable in my eyes, ESPECIALLY when you consider that he wasn’t a fan of Colin Baker, thought he was a rubbish Doctor and would thusly spend vast stretches of Baker’s first season keeping him as removed from the story as possible. I’ve already said that this is Bush League and analogous to the way that the writers on Star Trek: Voyager (a poster child for how to do bad writing in television, but that’s a WHOLE different story) would write their own personal feelings on the cast into their scripts. Example: at one point they thought Garrett Wang was gaining too much weight, so the writers had Robert Duncan McNeill’s character ask Wang’s character if he’s gaining weight.

So pardon me when I say that writing like this is bullshit.

It’s inexcusable to have The Doctor removed from the first HALF of your story simply because you don’t like him and think that he’s a rubbish Doctor. It’s like Saward isn’t even interested in writing Doctor Who, more interested in playing with its universe and coming up with his own toys than playing with The Doctor, his companion, or the TARDIS. Everything The Doctor and Peri do in this is a rehash of things we’ve seen before. The Doctor worrying about his impending death and regeneration (or lack thereof) are almost direct lifts from “Vengeance on Varos” and as far as Peri and The Doctor wandering around the story without getting involved while everyone else is is basically the first part of “Attack of the Cybermen.”

Here’s a trick to writing good drama: don’t do things we’ve seen before. How many stories have The Doctor and Peri bickering? How many have The Doctor being overly melodramatic because that’s what Saward thinks of this Doctor?

And like… I’m sorry, but that’s pretty insane and unprofessional and this is like… ugh. It’s fine while watching but once you step away from it for two seconds and realize how much of a fucking waste it is it becomes… total bullshit. Like total total bullshit. For all his interest in the military and mercenaries and such Saward has no business writing Doctor Who. And to realize that despite the fact that Colin Baker is still quite good in this episode (as he is in all of the episodes he’s in), we’re still getting an episode of him hardly being The Doctor in it. And his episodes are limited! He doesn’t have that many to be The Doctor. And he’s stuck outside while everyone else in the story gets to go have all the other fun inside?

I don’t see how anyone can defend that. And sure, it’s nice to see someone doing something interesting with the Doctor Who format. I for one am all about anthology stories within larger narratives; that is to say, stories that have little to do with the main narrative thrust of the story as a whole. “Doctor-lite” episodes are good examples of this (“Love & Monsters” in particular) but a better example is probably LOST’s “Across the Sea”, which is a story that takes place in the LOST universe but (except for the bit at the end that COMPLETELY RUINS THE EPISODE) features “none” of its characters. And yeah, you could argue that this is a Doctor Who anthology episode because the entire narrative has nothing to do with The Doctor. And sure, if you do that I can’t really complain. In fact, I’ll applaud you because it means you’re trying something new and different in the way “Mission to the Unknown” was new and different.

But if you’re going to do that, at least have the decency to stop pretending you care about The Doctor when you clearly don’t. Why not just cut out the fat from what is otherwise a FANTASTIC episode and eliminate The Doctor altogether? Because otherwise you’re wasting a lot of talent to “make a point” (I suppose) that this Doctor is a good for nothing waste of space who can’t even get involved with a story. The only problem with that is having decided to write the story and write it this way, it’s the writer’s prerogative to structure the story in such a way that he can best show off why he thinks this Doctor in particular is a waste of time/space. So that doesn’t really work now does it?

So really in the end this episode ends up working, but not as an episode of Doctor Who. Not yet anyways. At least it works better than the DJ works. Because that DJ? Come on. That’s a waste of my and everyone’s time. Fuck that guy.

Part 2:

Okay. I’m about to say a sequence of words I never ever thought I would say, but first: a preamble.

The thing that strikes me first and foremost is that this episode is kinda awesome. Kinda a lot. I mean, you have to take that whole thing with several pinches of salt, but the point still stands. It’s clear from this episode what Saward was trying to do over the course of his time on Doctor Who. And because the season after this one is tainted by a variety of factors (not the least of which is Saward giving the finger to Nathan-Turner on at least two different occasions) this really is Saward’s last attempt to show us what he’s got as a writer.

And it’s really… it’s kinda awesome.

I know. Just typing that made me dizzy. No really. It did.

Of course, the most pressing reason for why this is awesome is because Saward spent the first forty five minutes setting up all the pieces into place so that this stretch of forty five minutes is nothing but bam bam bam payoff payoff payoff. Within the first ten minutes, things are happening and happening quickly and all of the storylines start criss-crossing in and out of each other in quick and rapid succession in such a way that it reminds me of episode seven of Game of Thrones. Up till then, things are going and going well and then out of nowhere EVERYTHING starts happening. The king dies. Ned and Cersei make their plays for the throne. There’s two coups at once. Jon’s direwolf brings back a dismembered hand. Khal Drogo declares that he will take his Dothraki across the narrow sea and conquer the whole of Westeros for his beloved Khaleesi.

It’s the same here. The Doctor is brought into the catacombs beneath the funeral home at the same time that Orcini and Bostok infiltrate the area. Tasambeker assassinates Jobel and is executed in turn for her loyal service. Orcini and Bostok move against Davros and get their asses handed to them. Vogel is killed by Daleks. So is the DJ. Kara is killed by Orcini. The Daleks are on their way to take Davros into Dalek custody. It just flies along as a breakneck pace in such a completely satisfying manner it’s… it’s hard to describe. And it’s got some great action and adventure and dashing badassness… Hell, there’s shit that’s in other stories and I HATE it there, but it works here…

Part of this is the fact that Saward has managed to make something that completely fits the perfect aesthetic tone he’s been going for for the past several stories, and the one story that really reminds me of this one in terms of tone and what it’s going for is another story I happen to hate: “Vengeance on Varos.”

Now I hate “Vengeance on Varos.” Can’t stand it. I think it’s rubbish and I loathe it. It inspires actual anger in me whenever I think about it or talk about it or watch it. Part of that is the fact that it’s so completely nightmarish in the most gleefully sadistic way I’ve ever seen in Doctor Who. Saward once called it “very comic”, which makes NO sense to me. It feels like I’m watching a disaster unfold right in front of my eyes. Something that relishes in the violence it has. And “Revelation” does the same thing, but by not even beginning to pretend it’s a Doctor Who story, it manages to make the whole thing rather work.

Because, let’s be honest, this isn’t a Doctor Who story. The Doctor’s not really in it and he hardly does anything and that which he DOES do is among the most questionable of actions (but I’ll get there in a bit). At best, this is a critique of a Doctor Who story and proof that Saward never should be writing them.

The best defining moment for this is when The Doctor meets Orcini for the first time, attempting to subdue him by grabbing his arm or whatever. And then Orcini subdues him with barely three moves, knocking The Doctor to the ground. So The Doctor has absolutely no effect on this Knight of the Grand Order of Oberon. And first off, I mean, yeah. Orcini is cool. He’s the epitome of cool. He’s the ultimate Sawardian character. But isn’t it weird that Orcini is the ONE person in the entire story to take violence against The Doctor? And isn’t it weird that he takes The Doctor out in two seconds? I dunno, it seems like a critique of The Doctor if you ask me.

And really, isn’t Orcini the one who does all the stuff in this? At least Saward gets it right by having an extended scene in which The Doctor and Davros talk it out like the intellectuals there are. But really, doesn’t that just slow down all the action that’s been going on. And don’t we just want the action? Hell, don’t we instead wanna watch what Orcini’s doing while The Doctor’s off gabbing away endlessly about whatever. This is an action show! There is no time for talking! And isn’t Orcini the one who’s obsessed with honor and getting the job done? The Doctor is inconsequential and ineffective in his methods, and as Saward has made a point of saying over and over again over the course of this, Colin Baker’s first season, the world sometimes requires violence to take down violence, doesn’t it?

That’s why The Doctor’s solitary memorable contribution to the narrative of this episode is the turn-around-and-shoot-the-machine-gun moment when the Dalek enters Davros’s  lab.

But let’s not pretend about this. Regardless of what Saward thinks, is not Doctor Who. It’s awesome, but it’s not Doctor Who. Doctor Who is about a mad man with a box who travels through the universe getting into tangles and thinking his way out of his problems. It’s not a world populated by endless dudes with guns and The Doctor shooting them. The only part of this story that’s Doctor Who is when The Doctor has that extended conversation with Davros. That’s how The Doctor deals with problems. He talks his way through them. He deals with them by using his brain and intellect. Not with guns or violence. I’m sorry, that’s just not how it’s done.

If you ask me, that’s all the proof in the world that Eric Saward is writing for the wrong show. What he does here with badasses and violence and action is fun and well and good. But this isn’t the show we all know and love.

To complicate things, this is a great Davros story. Possibly one of the best ever.

I mean, the best way to illustrate this is with the case of Tasambeker, the lovelorn assistant to the skeevy Chief Embalmer Jobel. Watching Davros slowly turn her to being his minion is… epic. Truly epic. It’s very reminiscent of watching someone fall to the Dark Side in a sort of epic corruption from the inside out. Davros makes it clear in the first episode that he has his sights set on Jobel and that Jobel is not long for this world.

But to make Tasambeker go out and do it is not just cruel but outright sadistic. It’s also totally Davros. Davros is the guy who manipulates other people into doing his nefarious bidding and this is no exception. And it’s one thing to watch Davros slowly corrupt her down in his dungeon, but another thing entirely to watch it happen when Davros is not there, when he’s the invisible devil on her shoulder, whispering all her insecurities to her and revealing all the truths that she had previously ignored in sight of her love. It’s insane. To see the look on her face when Jobel insists he spend time with Peri is revelatory. To watch her fight with both him and herself after Davros orders her to kill him is… incredible. There’s just not a word for it. Watching Davros break her love for him (and her along with it) is one of the best things I’ve ever seen Davros do. It’s right up there with watching him sell out the Kaleds to the Thals so he can continue his research. There’s nothing like it.

And for her loyal service he has her killed. Jesus. What a bastard.

There’s also something to be said about the sheer level of carnage Saward throws into this story. Vogel is the first to go, fifteen minutes in. And then Jobel and Tasambeker in rapid succession halfway through. And then everyone else: Bostok, Orcini, Kara, Natasha, Grigory, the DJ. And it’s grizzly to watch. A bloodbath even. Kara’s death by stabbing is probably the most gruesome. It was shocking to me when I first saw it, but it’s… I dunno. There’s something poetic about it now. It’s the other stuff I have problems with. Like watching Orcini getting his bad leg get shot off or Bostok blowing up Davros’s hand that really just get to me as excessive. That’s the stuff that’s here “because it’s cool” and not because it gets to the core of some sorta character thing. At least Orcini stabbing Kara to death is cathartic and intimate in ways only a stabbing could be.
  
Sorry. I’m probably freaking you out now. APOLOGIES.

The final thing I have to mention is, of course, The Doctor at the end and the fact that we never get to hear him say the word “Blackpool”. It’s an edit that happened at the late stages of the game, but it’s… it’s perverse. Watching The Doctor not even get the last word in is…. Heartbreaking. Especially when you consider that (like I said before) Colin Baker’s Doctor never got to have any “proper” adventures on television after this. Everything after this is all in a courtroom so it’s hardly the same. That last beat is just one final reminder of how unjust everything that happened to him was. It’s not even the decency of a proper last line. How unfortunate. How completely unfair.


Final Thoughts?: This is the best 6th Doctor story, but that seems like a bit of a misnomer considering how untrue that kinda is.

More than anything, this story really shows me Eric Saward's potential as a writer and how good he was/is/could be/could have been if only he wasn't writing for Doctor Who.

As a story, it's a thrilling action adventure story that's loaded with tons of clever, perversely wonderful ideas. Saward's idea to put Davros in a funeral home is particularly inspired, especially that bit where Davros managed to solve galactic hunger by feeding the people of the universe their deceased relatives is... kinda awesome in a dark dark Soylent Green humor sorta way. Even the DJ with all the fact him as a device is trying way, way too hard (also a little Varos'y what with the character removed from society who comments on it in a Greek Chorus sorta way) is at the very least an interesting concept... But he doesn't really serve a purpose other than to split up The Doctor and Peri for the majority of the story. Also to die. BUT REGARDLESS. The stuff with Orcini and the Knights of the Grand Order of Oberon is at the very least super interesting and Davros creating Daleks from humans and having white and gold Daleks is just preamble for the next Dalek story in the pipeline. Jesus. The whole conceit of Davros as a head in a jar is outstanding.

You could even argue that this story is pushing Doctor Who into new and different territory, what with The Doctor being a side character in his own show... And yet...

I'm left scratching my head as to Saward's narrative choices. Now I know that this isn't the best thing to say when it comes to Saward, but it's worth pointing out. Other than giving characters people to bounce off of, what's the point of giving everyone a double-act? Sure, it works pretty great at certain points like with Orcini and Bostok or Jobel and Tasambeker... But when it comes to Kara did you really need Vogel? I'm sure he coulda done without Takis or Lilt (he needs one of them, but the other can go). And that's.. that's the problem. It's just a thing to have and doesn't quite serve any sort of narrative purpose. That's a problem, especially when a character doesn't end up serving any sort of function or whatever.

And then there's the issue where Saward finally figures out how to remove The Doctor from Doctor Who and the show gets better but stops being Doctor Who. For all its goodness, it's hard to argue that the show is better off for this. For one thing, it's a huge slap in the face for Colin Baker and for another it's just proof positive that Saward really didn't have any business being on Doctor Who. I mean, he didn't. If the guy liked the show and wrote the show then he liked it and wrote it. But this isn't... This is not what the show should be doing. Sidelining The Doctor is not the way you get to good Doctor Who stories. It's just not, especially when The Doctor spends the first half of the story COMPLETELY OUTSIDE THE NARRATIVE and then spends half of the next half aimlessly wandering through corridors looking for the bad guy.

I mean, you know it's a problem when The Doctor's companion has more success getting into a narrative than the titular character does.

And really, despite the fact that this story is quite good and quite enjoyable and quite awesome and easily the best thing Eric Saward ever did for the show, it doesn't discount the point that this is basically one big ol' diatribe about how Doctor Who isn't nearly as cool or interesting as whatever mercenaries and badass Space Knights show he could have come up with if only someone would ever only please give him another show. But the thing about it is like... the thing that Saward really didn't like about Doctor Who (the way The Doctor talked his way out of situations; how it was stupid he didn't use guns) are all the things I happen to love about The Doctor and Doctor Who. They're what keep me coming back week to week. And sure, this is fun. It's nice to do something different in Doctor Who whenever Doctor Who wants to do something a little different.

But what it really boils down to is the fact that "Earthshock" is not my favorite story and while I do quite enjoy "Earthshock" I have to admit that even I don't want "Earthshock" or stories like it every week.

So while this is fun and a blast to watch and it proves that Eric Saward wasn't just some mad man with a pen who didn't have some sort of executable vision within the scope of Doctor Who, I have to admit that this is about the extent to which I want this sorta thing.

What's most unfortunate is that it's the best Colin Baker story and it's not even his. Much like the rest of this season, it belongs to almost everyone who isn't him. And isn't that just the pits? All I'll say in response to the infinite sadness I always feel while talking Colin Baker is thank god for Big Finish and their bringing him to the forefront. Especially that one that pitted him against Davros and really pushed both him and Terry Molloy to their respective limits. Oh, and then when they did it again. Gotta love them. Seriously.

Next Time!: 4th Doctor! Sarah Jane! A Thing sendup! TONS of Action! Guns! A neck snappin! Evil plants! Madness! And tons of awesome. We're wrapping up our month-long anniversary celebration with a look at the wonderful "Seeds of Doom"! Coming Next Tuesday!

1 comment:

  1. Great review dude. I like this story overall, too, and it does have some epic win in it, but I found myself thinking the Doctor may as well not have even been in it... I dunno, maybe there's a place for that in spin-off media but you're right, it's not how the TV show should go.

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