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From Genesis to Revelation, with Daleks

There's a small but vocal contingent of people who absolutely hate the new Doctor Who. I am not talking about those who write that "Aliens of Londen" was a bit naff or that last Saturday's "Father's Day" was a bit too close to soap opera for them. Those are legitimate complaints to have even if I don't agree with them. I am talking about a group of fans of the old series who condemn the new series as a whole for Russell T. David's writing, Christopher Eccleston's interpretation of the title character or for the show's efforts to appeal to eight-year-old children. If you're, say, a Doctor Who fan living in, say the US or some other benighted hellhole where nobody can be bothered to broadcast the series, and you want to know if it's worth the effort in getting to see it by legit or illicit means, do not listen to these people. They are comparing the new series with something that exists only in their minds, and as a result, nothing they say makes any sense.

The most important thing that you could know about the Doctor Who series of the past is that there weren't really 8 Doctors before the new one. There were two. A few years ago, commenting on the BBC's First Doctor Box set, Andrew Rilstone cut through the existing classification as follows:

There are, in fact, two different programmes called Doctor Who: 'Doctor Who One' was a rather serious, magical programme about Time Travel and the wonders of the universe which existed in the collective memory of fans who had grown up with it. 'Doctor Who Two' was the sometimes fun but often silly kids TV show that the BBC had actually transmitted. It consisted, from a very early stage, of quarrelling alien races, hopeless companions, and chases along corridors. ('The Space Museum' involves chases along corridors and practically nothing else.) Naturally, our faith in Doctor Who One can't survive the widespread availability of videos of the original TV episodes.

Lucky, then, that only few of the episodes are currently available on the format that replaced video tape, and that those are hard to find in actually existing record stores. I've become enough of a fan these past months to actually order some old episodes through Amazon if I still can't find them here in the next couple of weeks, but in the meantime, I've been a bit naughty and got some old episodes through the magic that is Bittorrent. What I've done is look for episodes that were rated highly in places like the BBC's own episode guide and had Daleks in them. Daleks can be great if done right, but they can also be cheesy rubbish if done wrong. I haven't watched everything yet, but based on what I have seen I'll go out on a limb and say that the present-day series is more sophisticated in every respect, but especially the writing, than the "classic" Who.

Genesis of the Daleks

First on the menu was a Fourth Doctor story in which the Doctor and his companions are unceremoniously dropped on the Planet Skaro by the Timelords and sent on a mission to prevent the creation of the Dalek race. They quickly find themselves in the thick of the thousand-year war between the Kaleds and the Thals, and the Doctor is arrested with companion Harry by the fascistic Kaled Elite. You can tell they are fascistic because they wear Nazi-like uniforms, prattle on about the purity of their race and like to torture their prisoners. Meanwhile, the other companion, Sarah, is taken prisoner by the other site and put to work schlepping fuel for a new missile that is intended to destroy the dome under which the Kaleds live. There are conspiracies, betrayals, daring escape attempts and many, many deaths. It's an entertaining story, allright, but it's not subtle, the characters are very very flat, and there's quite a bit wrong with the scripting. Naturally, there are dated elements. The pacing is slow and the acting seems artificial by today's standards. But what strikes me most about the performance in comparison to the new series is that there is hardly any interaction between the Doctor and his companions. He basically tells them what to do and that's it. The enemy, likewise, is painted in broad strokes although some of the scientists who rebel against their military masters are made out to be more sympathetic. The story itself is fairly solid. However, there are entire subplots that could have been excised from the script: most noticeably Sarah's escape attempt from the Thals' prison: the attempt fails and changes exactly nothing about her situation. It might as well not have happened. The story's strong point is its moral core. Given the opportunity to strangle the Dalek race at birth, the Doctor asks, "Have I the right?" and weighs the positive consequences of exterminating the Daleks against the negative ones. There is little sense of any considerations other than utilitarian ones, but the approach works because by the time this happens, we have already seen the spiral of evil that has led to the creation of the Daleks. The Doctor hesitates, is initially prevented from doing the deed, and by the time he returns to it, it's too late. Genesis of the Daleks is well worth watching, but it's not particularly subtle or cerebral. It's simply a gripping, if slow, pre-watershed drama that also makes moral issues understandable to kids. It's far from faultless, and if it counts as a classic, then so, easily, does its counterpart in the new series.

Revelation of the Daleks

The Sixth Doctor story Revelation of the Daleks, on the other hand, is rubbish from beginning to end. There is very little about it that even comes close to redeeming it, and so much wrong with it that I can hardly tell where to begin. Characterisation by bickering, done as if the writers had watched Blake's 7 without any understanding of what made that series tick. Companion Peri's horrible fake American accent. Alexei Sayle's horrible fake American Accent when his character is DJ-ing to the dead on the planet Necross. The editing of Sayle's DJ sequences, as if the editors had watched The Young Ones without any understanding of what made that series tick, or indeed without any awareness of the difference between a raucous alternative comedy series and a nominally Science Fiction drama. Davros as a generic screaming arch-villain. The Daleks as generic arch-villain's minions. Comic relief that isn't (Sayle's DJ again, and the Knight/Assassin's hygienically challenged squire). Daleks that look like they wee made of Tupperware plastic. Awful make-up. Awful, garish costumes, especially the Doctor's but by no means limited to him. Cheesy pixelisation effects in lieu of explosions. And the plot... Davros's lure for the Doctor is as contrived as it gets, and is unnecessary because the Doctor already had a perfectly good reason to come to Necross. The subplot of funeral employee Tasambeker's unrequited love for her boss Jobel is unconvincing because it's impossible to tell what there is to like about Jobel, or indeed any of the characters except Sayle's DJ, who becomes quite charming when he's off the mic.
What's worst about the episode is the overall impression that the people involved didn't believe in the series as drama at all, but treated it instead as high camp. Instead of regarding the cheesy elements of series past as necessary compromises to the realities of the state of technology in 1985 and the BBC's budget, they embraced all the cheesiness and turned it up to eleven. So we get the Doctor's unlikable personality, his carnival costume, cornball knights, plastic Daleks and Davros's hackneyed archvillainy. Yuk.
There were some good things about the story, like the reveal of Davros's assassin-foiling method towards the end, the sight gag about Jobel's toupee and Alexei Sayle's character when not DJ-ing in stupid outfits (apart from being personable, he also gets to blast a couple of Daleks before being killed, which was probably the reason he agreed to doing this cameo), but it's not nearly enough to rescue the episode from being a waste of time. "Aliens of London" is genius compared to this.

I've got two more lined up. Well, two and a half: I've seen a quarter of the John Pertwee story Planet of the Daleks which promises to be middling, but I've been unable to get the third and fourth episodes. That first quarter also confirms my initial impression that the actually existing episodes of the older work aren't, taken as a whole, better than the new series, taken as a whole.


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