Companion: Romana II
Written by: Terry Nation
Directed by: Ken Grieve
Background & Significance: With two years of Doctor Who under his belt, it's only fitting that producer Graham Williams would choose to bring in The Daleks for a turn. It's weird. There's not REALLY a producership or era that happens without eventually doing a Dalek story (the Troughton seasons are a notable exception, but then again, Troughton is more era than producer, methinks, and he did get two kick ass Dalek stories up front).
For a start, this is the last story Terry Nation wrote for Doctor Who, so that's something to look forward to. It's also the first of many, many returns for Davros and a great posterchild for all the Davros stories moving forward, teaching the people who do the stories a great number of things about how Davros should and should not function in a story. Perhaps the greatest mistake was replacing David Wisher with David Gooderson, and it's not that Gooderson is bad, it's just that his interpretation is impossibly way too Hitler-on-the-nose if you know what I mean. It's also the only Doctor Who story directed by Ken Grieve. So that's a thing.
Armageddon Factor") Mary Tamm stepped down and decided to pursue other interests, leaving Lalla Ward to step in and be the "real Romana" or rather, the Romana that we all know and love. And it's not that Tamm is bad, she just happened to get stuck in "one big story" that people can't ever seem to really parse out and examine as six separate stories. So people seem to remember her as in a whole lot less Doctor Who than she actually was. Ward had a season and a half. Tamm had "only one story". It's inaccurate, sure. But it does mean that we get a regeneration that is impossibly controversial and helped along by the ever so cheeky Douglas Adams, who has also taken over as script editor. So that happened.
To sum up: we have Douglas Adams and Lalla Ward and the return of Davros and Terry Nation. What could possibly go wrong?
So let's get to it!
According to numerous reports, Terry Nation did not write this script.
That’s not to say he didn’t have a fair hand in getting it made or getting it onto paper. On the contrary: what we have here are numerous Terry Nation staples (and several that are notably missing) that make it look like the it’s a Terry Nation script. We have The Doctor and his companion mucking about the countryside for what feels like an hour as they investigate a location that totally doesn’t have any Daleks anywhere near it no sir. We have weird intrigue and a whole lot of investigation and it really does feel extremely contained in the way that Terry Nation first episodes always do in that it only ever seems like there’s The Doctor and his Companion and no one else in the world. All the other people only ever seem to show up in the later episodes, once the Daleks arrive.
I’d list examples, but really I’d just be citing every single other Terry Nation story.
No, what we have here is more interesting: a claim by two separate people (script editor Douglas Adams and director Ken Grieve) that Terry Nation only did the basic structure outline and Adams laid a script over it.
That’s not terribly surprising, I think, and I can definitely see the overlap. The Doctor pulling out that “Origins of the Universe” book or whatever is straight out of Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide,” as is the bickering between The Doctor and Romana, which is presented with the humor of Adams' traditional power-dynamic between the fools and the self-righteous. It’s the sorta dynamic you see all the time in his work (especially in something like “Shada") and it definitely brings out the comedy and an interesting dynamic that works well between Doctor and Companion, especially this Doctor and this Companion.
But the thing that I gravitate to is the fact that Nation’s traditional first episode structure was never insanely interesting. I mean, it’s iconic and bold the first time, but the fact of the matter is this is his eleventh story and it’s far beyond being cute. In fact, it’s just hacky/derivative at this point. The only person who ever made it terribly interesting was Robert Holmes, and both times he script edited the Terry Nation first episode (once as a ghost-script-editor in “Death to the Daleks” and then again in “Genesis”) he came up with something Gothic and tonal to counterbalance the malaise of seeing nothing happen. Watching nothing happen is a lot more interesting and captivating when it’s breathtakingly spooky or dangerous.
Here we see the effect of Douglas Adams as script editor on Doctor Who, and it really just affirms my long-standing belief that regardless of how good Hitchhiker’s Guild to the Galaxy is, the fact remains that he was not very good during his time on Doctor Who.
Again, I’m biased. I don’t think Hitchhiker’s Guide is a fantastic piece of work. It’s funny, yes. But it’s all over the place. I might have enjoyed the book when I was in seventh grade, but as a guy who’s more interested in stories and structure I can’t say that Adams sticks out to me as a tremendous force of must-read material, and I really have no desire to go back and read it again. Ever. Again, this is partially because I did read Restaurant at the End of the Universe and thought it was enjoyable but Life, The Universe, and Everything is nothing short of a full-blown cluster fuck about nothing and I think it single-handedly turned me off of Adams for life.
So yeah. Bias.
Even still, the fact remains that Adams, burdened with following Terry Nation’s structure to the letter, still turns out a script that sucks. It’s boring and bland and uninteresting aside from the excellent first-use of steadicam to make things more kinetic and engaging. Nothing happens. It’s not terribly funny and the part that was written specifically to be funny (the Romana regeneration spoof which was a play on Tom Baker’s trying on various outfits in “Robot”) comes off angering fans and making them angry for not taking the show serious enough. Funny, that, especially considering that The Doctor is so impossibly invincible at this time that he is unthreatened by a beam that’s squishing him to death, opting to read a book instead and critique its validity.
So this is why the Adams tenure is uninteresting to me. If there’s a shit structure, the story’s a mess because Adams is notably bad at structure and pacing and can’t really do anything to fix it. Sure, he removes Nation’s traditional “cool TARDIS trick that’s only ever in this story and nothing else” but he replaces it with Romana’s regeneration which is famously derided. So too, his vision of The Doctor is the snarky, haughty, invincible dude that is completely unbeatable in any situation. We’ll see it worse later, but look at him here. There’s no peril. There’s no fear. The only person who’s ever really in any danger that you can at least empathize with is Romana. And even then that’s because there’s a mysterious, silent someone chasing after her and what could happen to her is anything.
Basically, fear of the unknown.
But there’s nothing unknown about this. Nothing. Even the Dalek twist at the end is visible from a mile away (as everyone else points out on every other Terry Nation story) and Douglas Adams can’t even make the appearance into anything remotely “oh sh*t”. He just has the Daleks say “do not move” three times and “you are our prisoner” twice. It’s nowhere near dramatic in terms of impact and any sort of excitement or thrill you might have gotten from their break-through-the-glass appearance is deflated before they can even properly finish the cliffhanger. If that doesn’t tell you how much of a failure this truly, actually is, I don’t know what to tell you.
Now that that’s out of the way, I hope I left myself something to discuss moving forward.
What’s sad about his part is that by the time I hit the cliffhanger, I could think of several different ways this story might be interesting, but few of them are how this story actually plays.
Structurally, what Nation does here is interesting. For better or worse, he turns the whole thing into a mystery he tries to sustain over twenty five minutes. And the problem here is not that he chooses the mystery he chooses or even that the mystery doesn’t come in until we’re a ways into the episode. No. The problem is that the suspense just isn’t there because what’s here isn’t captivating. It’s just too subtle until we get to the end and The Doctor’s racing to get to whatever it is the Daleks are looking for first. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the sequence in which Indy and the Nazis are digging for the Ark and there’s the race to see who can find it first.
Unfortunately, in Raiders the fact that we’re dealing with a search/race-quest storyline is bursting from just about minute one. Here, it’s practically nonexistent until it almost doesn’t matter any more.
Why? Because again, this is boring. Way boring. And even if the structure is Nation and the script editor is Adams, I would like to point out that “Genesis” is blatantly the same way, except Holmes infuses it with excitement and intrigue and double crosses whereas "Destiny" has next to nothing going on. The Doctor is walking around vaguely looking for Romana but it’s hardly at the top of his priorities (he’s more interested in the Dalek plot) and the “trying to find something out” is terribly un-fucking-dramatic. There’s no energy to just about anything and even the tricks that Grieve has to make the story that much more exciting (specifically the use of steadicam) are so completely devoid of excitement or energy that it’s mind-melting to think what this would be like if it was actually stilted and whatever.
Then again, it’s not quite his fault. This entire episode is literally a non-stop wheel spin to delay the revelation that this story isn’t really a Daleks story it’s actually a Davros story because that’s “the Ark” that I was talking about.
Now, they do some stuff really well in this. For one, it’s fascinating to watch The Doctor blatantly not trust The Movellans because they don’t seem right to him and to (as a result) keep his hunches and suspicions to himself, leaving the audience in the dark as to what, exactly is going on. It’s unsettling and intriguing to watch, because my god, “What does The Doctor know that I don’t” is always going to be a fantastic draw to pull you into the narrative. And as a kid I can’t even imagine what seeing Davros sitting there covered in cobwebs would do to my brain.
I mean, think about it: it’s a race to find Davros and see who can get him first. Will it be The Doctor? Or will it be The Daleks? And what happens if he wakes up? Isn’t that tremendously bad? In that respect the cliffhanger is massively “oh shit” because Davros is starting to wake up and who knows what might happen after that happens.
And yet I still think that this is boring and I’m fine with laying a lot of that blame on Adams. It’s just dull. The structure has NOTHING going for it. The stuff with Romana faking her death is boring and given no dramatic import because we just turn around and she’s dead with no ceremony and it doesn’t really surprise anyone when she comes back. It’s given tons of static, undramatic screentime. It’s dull. Likewise, watching The Doctor taunt The Daleks for not being able to go up a shaft is… It’s crossing the line.
Now this is something I struggle with when it comes to Doctor Who, because my gut reaction is to berate the show whenever the people who’re putting it on don’t seem to take the show itself too seriously. That’s never entirely fair (and I realize that) because we’re talking about a show with Daleks who are simultaneously deadly serious (what with the nonstop genocidal rage they’ll never escape) and completely ridiculous (upside down trash cans with a whisk and a plunger for arms) so it takes a happy medium for the show to really get it right, you know? It needs to be simultaneously impossibly cheeky and serious for things to be serious and dramatic and entertaining. Or at least, I think that’s what it should do.
But when you have Douglas “Master of Comedy” Adams in charge of life, the universe, and everything, things are always going to skew much farther in the “silly” direction than the “dramatic” direction. And that’s fine. Yay, silly in the right circumstances.
Where we hit a problem is when the show becomes so impossibly silly and ridiculous that it can’t even function as a proper narrative. And Douglas Adams’s vision of the Daleks is really emblematic of what my problems with Adams really are. Because they’re jokes. They’re nothing but massive massive punchlines and not to be taken seriously in any circumstances. They say “Exterminate” way more often than they do in any other story and are completely ineffectual at just about everything they do, turned into mindless drones who can’t do anything effectively.
And The Doctor calls them on it. That The Doctor has a key moment where he berates them for not even being able to climb up a simple shaft is just Douglas Adams ventriloquisting his own sentiments about how The Daleks are rubbish and how they aren’t credible villains.
At that point, the show has nowhere to go, or at least, it’s completely limited the directions it can go in. Sure, you can laugh at the Daleks, but the second you laugh at them and they become jokes, you can’t take seriously, and then you have nothing captivating or engaging about the story or really ever. No. Now they’re jokes rather than threats and to make a story reasonably compelling from a “I like Doctor Who and not in an ironic way” standpoint, you can’t be ironically dissecting Doctor Who. You just can’t. Sure there are people who probably like this and enjoy the way The Doctor really takes them down a peg, but they’re not the people who watch the show for the same reasons I do. I don’t come into Doctor Who to laugh at the silly conventions at the show. Sure, I do end up chuckling and giggling at the cardboard and the giant paper-mache snakes, but who doesn’t? But I also love watching The Doctor deal with a situation and tough it out with stakes and adventure and excitement.
Douglas Adams doesn’t, and he’s certainly not going to do that here with a Dalek story by Terry Nation (again, though, so did Holmes and again, look what he did with that one). In his defense, he’s working off a Terry Nation outline and the show has done almost a dozen Dalek stories by this point and they’ve been defeated every single time before this. In my defense: “Power of the Daleks” and “Evil of the Daleks,” which are miles more captivating than this story. One of those is six parts long, the other is seven, and are nothing short of engaging from minute one and stay that way all the way until you hit minute one fifty or one eighty (whichever comes first).
By the end of part two we’re barely fifty minutes in and this sucker can’t even keep my attention for two minutes, so I’m just going to let all of these things speak for themselves.
So coming into this, I find it hard to escape the comparisons between this and “Genesis.” Sure, they’re hardly fair (“Genesis” is just about unparalleled when it comes to Doctor Who stories), but it’s undeniable, especially given how Nation makes similar structural choices that echo his previous story.
This episode sees the return of “the great confrontation” between The Doctor and Davros. And why not? It’s always something remarkable to see The Doctor squaring off against a solitary nemesis. It’s why The Master’s still around and still popular and why a character called “The Celestial Toymaker” can be so tremendously successful in theory despite the fact that a) his lone television story sucks tremendous donkey ass and b) he’s remarkably racist in a “Minstrel Show” kinda way. Isn’t this all why we have Davros in the first place? To give the Daleks a face without resorting to a Dalek Emperor (which Nation famously HATED)?
And the Doctor/Davros confrontation in episode five of “Genesis” is the stuff of legend. Legend. Who doesn’t remember the speech about the virus? Who doesn’t consider that one of the best moments of the entire story (the other major moment being the “do I have the right?” scene).
Last time we had The Doctor and Davros sharing a serious, heartfelt scene, the show descended into the differences between the two men. It talked about their philosophies, their hopes, their desires. It was them as characters squaring off on a plane of ideas, about the larger mythological/philosophical questions about life and how to exist in a world of cause and effect and the choices they make. It’s like what [supposedly] Eleanor Roosevelt said: “Great minds discuss ideas." In “Genesis” we’re really just showing off what Holmes is interested in when he talks about The Doctor and a nemesis: Great minds.
When it comes to “Destiny”, though, the discussion between The Doctor and Davros is notably muted and much less weighty and meaty. Davros is obsessed with knowing what’s happened to The Daleks in the time he’s been asleep in the Kaled stronghold and The Doctor is more than happy to fill him in.
So really, they discuss events. And that’s not necessarily a problem, persay. It makes sense for the characters and it is quite comical, what with The Doctor telling him silly things like a sports report when all Davros wants to know about is how his Daleks have fared in battle. To bring it back to Eleanor Roosevelt, the reason this is so disappointing as a confrontation is because by playing out the conversation this way, Nation (or Adams, or both) have reduced The Doctor and Davros from “great minds” to “average minds” because in the Roosevelt quote above, “average minds discuss events.”
Now that this has become a Davros story, we’re left with that as the resounding notion: that this is unworthy of being a Davros story because it is perfectly average.
To get even weirder, we get a setup for what’s coming in the next episode when The Doctor pulls out a Kaled mutant (from a crevice no less; what was it doing? Sunbathing? Saunaing?) and contemplates it, realizing that the Daleks did at one point used to be organic. And now he thinks of them as machines, which is not exactly what they are, is it? Then again, these Daleks are tremendously silly and far from the vicious killers we see in every other Doctor Who story. The only scene that redeems them in my reading of them is the one in which they start exterminating laborers one by one. THAT is the Daleks I know and love.
But these… it’s just weird, because Nation very specifically made sure the Daleks weren’t robots and that’s what they’re reduced to here, isn’t it? Now The Doctor is whipping out Kaled mutants and squishing them into balls and throwing them into the dirt for sport?
My problem is that it’s vicious and malicious and for next to no reason. The Daleks here are hardly paragons of terror. It offput me when I saw it the first time, and here it’s just over the top and really feels like more Adams commentary on the Daleks themselves. Inside the suit they’re barely more than goop, but that doesn’t mean that they need the suits to be scary. Daleks are scary because that goop is scary when it’s unleashed upon the universe. Here, though, they’re reduced to putty and further reduced in terms of their effectiveness as creatures/monsters.
That shouldn’t be a surprise, though, especially once we’ve seen how they react to Davros. And yes. This is the problem. The thing about “Genesis” that was scary is that Davros created creatures that were far madder than he was, creatures that were, in fact, vastly superior in numerous, numerous ways. And they would have none of his inferiority, so they had him killed, usurped his leadership, and left him for dead. But now The Daleks need him (we’ll find out why in the next part) and suddenly he’s doing exactly what he was killed for doing: bossing them around. It’s unfortunate to watch and really begins the [extremely valid] criticism that when Davros is running amok, wreaking havoc and there’s Daleks around, they always turn to him for guidance. And it reduces the Daleks to an army/force for one man’s disposal and removes them of their agency.
It’s never more valid than it is here, especially in the moment when he zooms off in his wheelchair careening away comically fast while The Daleks all race after him to keep up.
None of this is helped by David Gooderson who does okay by the material but who is no Michael Wisher or Terry Molloy. I think the problem is that his voice is nowhere near the specific that it needs to be as Davros. Where Wisher and Molloy draw in based on silky, smooth voice manipulation, Gooderson seems to just give his best Hitleresque impression and it’s just a little too on the nose for me. I rather enjoy my Hitler comparisons much less… Hitlery. Couple that with the bit where his mask looks awful and it’s… it’s less than stellar. I know the mask was specifically designed for Wisher and they couldn’t afford a new one, but the way they stretch the mask over Gooderson’s face makes it look gaunt and cracked and unfortunate. So it’s a less than perfect great thing by them because not only is Davros crippled (LOL) by the writing, but he’s also given less than stellar material on the production side.
And while I’m loath to say it, I guess the best thing I can say about this is the way Tom Baker comically pushes Davros in his wheelchair around the Kaled stronghold like it’s some great summer comedy. Yay for jokes that manage to work within the context of the narrative.
So here’s something I wasn’t expecting: a genuinely excitingish climax.
Now, I’ll give most of the credit for it to Ken Grieve who takes what’s basically a massive crosscut and executes it effectively. A lot of that is the gritty realism of the aforementioned steadicam and the way being right up in the action really drags everything together and pulls you into the proceedings. But it’s effective. Watching the Daleks’ former labor force take the fight to the suicide Daleks is gripping and thrilling, regardless of the fact that it goes absolutely nowhere. So too, watching Romana wrestle with the single-minded Movellan as she attempts to stop him from blowing up the planet(?) is one of the best wrestling matches I think I’ve seen come out of Doctor Who (in this era anyways) (there’s even a dismemberment for god’s sake), and it’s fairly thrilling, I must say. Likewise, watching The Doctor trick his way out of the Dalek stronghold is entertaining, but I’d be mistaken if I said it was the most exciting of these options.
And really, it’s nice to see that Nation recognized the strength of the multiple-climax and attempted to use it effectively. But really, by this point it’s too late to say that came anywhere near saving this story.
For one thing, this part is predominated by Nation’s key idea for this story: the pulpy 50s-esque science fiction dilemma of two perfectly logical computers that cannot outthink each other because they’re perfectly logical. As an idea it is both silly and badass. It’s badass because super computers yay but silly because they can’t do a god damn thing and they’ve been locked in a stalemate for CENTURIES and neither side has fired a single shot. That’s quite a long time to have no one come up with a solution, especially when the solution is so impossibly simple.
What it does give us is the thing that no one was really asking for: minutes upon minutes of playing rock, paper, scissors. Over and over again. Here’s the thing about rock, paper, scissors: I love it. It’s a great game. Tons of fun. Great way to settle bets and arguments. What it’s NOT is a good dramatic device, especially when The Doctor and Romana spend several minutes in the middle of this episode playing the game but bored out of their minds. If The Doctor and Romana are bored, we’re going to be bored. It’s just dumb and foolish and uninteresting. Yes, it allows Adams to get in a few jokes and a few zingers, but I also find myself bored watching people play a game that’s fairly boring if you’re just watching people throw down over and over again.
It also completely reduces The Daleks to mindless drones like they’ve never been before. Here, they can’t do shit without Davros. In fact, they allow him to strap bombs onto them as he turns them into suicide bombers because… he can and needs to blow up the Movellan spaceship? It’s fine, I guess. But these are his precious creations, aren’t they? Doesn’t he not want to waste them? Apparently not, and now The Daleks have been turned into mindless drone weapons. Know what’s not scary? That. Know when The Daleks don’t work? When they’ve been reduced to that. It’s easily far and away the worst use of The Daleks I’ve ever seen in my entire life because they’re given nothing to do. To see them reduced to mindless computer robot things is bullshit. I’m sorry, but it is. And by this point, Terry Nation is so far away from his original vision (which was WAY about not having mindless computer robots) that it’s really just a display about how far he’s come in terms of his hackiness as a writer for Doctor Who.
So it’s an abject failure. And even the one element of this we want to see (Davros and The Doctor squaring off) is denied to us. Sure, the show could never afford to give us massive fleets and epic space battles, but at the end of the day you could easily have given us a small scale of that as The Doctor uses The Movellans to fight the Daleks while Davros counteracts with his Daleks. But the story can’t even give me that because god knows we can’t put Tom Baker or his Doctor into a place of vulnerability or underdoggedness. Dramatically, what I’m talking about is the ultimate endgame of where this story should have gone and instead they give me The Doctor and Davros in a room with The Doctor under barely lock and key or whatever and Davros just sitting and talking about nothing significant.
To pile onto that wasted opportunity, the Movellans are utter shit. No like, really. They’re bad. I know they’re robots, but they’re so incredibly boring and stilted that they’re not interesting. They just walk around all unmenacingly and talk in flat tones and don’t seem to want to accomplish anything.
It’s unfortunate because this is when you can really open up the Movellans and do something interesting with them. They just threatened Romana with almost-certain death and now they’re amoral, unfeeling asshole robot people who represent a legitimate threat to all of creation just like the Daleks do. But they’re not special. They have no personalities. You can do anything with them. Hell, maybe you could finally do something to create a worthy nemesis for the Daleks, something Nation tried and failed to do for all his life.
But he never did. And this certainly isn’t it. It’s a waste, even by Terry Nation standards.
Final Thoughts?: God this is bad.
Really, it's just a massive waste of time and opportunities. There's a lot of really potentially good things in here, but because of the people behind it all it ends up being a massive waste of ideas and concepts. There's probably a good way to make the "super battle computers lost in stalemate" idea interesting, but the idea is so intensely undramatic and its put on by people who cannot ever seem to capture much that's really dramatic that it never really stood a chance. Likewise, the return of Davros should be something dangerous and exciting, but it's really not, is it? No. We're left with a Davros who can't ever really accomplish anything, is only in the second half of the story, and played by an actor who I don't particularly enjoy in the role. His version of Davros is lots and lots of shouting, which is... not Davros if you ask me. Davros has dulcet moments of quiet faux-tendernees punctuated by shouting. Gooderson only seems to have one note.
And the main problem really comes down to Adams and Nation as writers. Nation has never been one to be terribly original, especially in terms of his structure, but you'd think Adams would be better at coaxing out the various elements that need punching up. Unfortunately, Adams is really not much better than a generic punch-up guy. I'm sorry. He's not. He's great for adding jokes (and the jokes that are in here are at the very least entertaining, but they're few and far between) but laying this script over this structure leaves a lot to be desired. And sure, it's hard. Nation's outline was probably extremely bland and extremely dated and extremely basic. But there's nothing interesting that Adams seems to do with it. It ends up feeling like an absolutely standard Terry Nation script, one worthy of his exit in that it's got a few vaguely interesting ideas but is nowhere near as good as what came before.
Unfortunately that's not enough. This story is still quite bad and easily my least favorite Dalek story ever simply because of the way it reduces them to mindless robot logic-slaves and turns Davros into a one-note ham show. Huge waste and a fitting note to both see Terry Nation out the door and welcome Douglas Adams onto the show for his less-than-stellar season.
Next Time!: 1st Doctor! Ben and Polly! Pirates! Hidden treasure! Dungeons! An evil governor! AND PIRATES! It's the original black spot as Cassandra steps in to take a look at "The Smugglers!" Coming Next Tuesday!