Between seasons 24 and 25, the Doctor regenerated but didn’t change his face. Between them, script editor Andrew Cartmel and lead actor Sylvester McCoy sought to change the seventh Doctor from the fun and frothy version we met in his opening year, to the more serious, thoughtful and mysterious version that makes his debut in Remembrance of the Daleks. Prior to this, Doctors had gradually evolved, not made sudden character u-turns. Never before had there been such a tacit admission that a Doctor’s performance was, for whatever reason, not what the show needed and that a major re-think was required.
McCoy is no passive participant here; he embraces this new approach. In his first year, he looked for and accentuated any opportunity for comedy. Here, he looks for and relishes the quiet, pensive moments, the lines where he harshly points out unpalatable truths and where he can hint at his character’s hidden motives. It’s a distinctly different performance to the one he gave previously. A renewal, we might say.
For Cartmel’s part, he pulls off a corresponding renovation of the Doctor’s character in the scripted word. Remembrance is the first story where the Doctor is positioned as a planner and a manipulator of people and events, in order to gain the outcome he wants. For the 24 years prior to this, the Doctor had simply bumbled into events and made things up as he went along. Now, the Doctor has an agenda. And goddess help you if you happen to be on the wrong side of it.
Appropriately enough, this new Doctor comes with a new companion. The previous one, frankly, wouldn’t fit with this secretive schemer. Bright and sensible Mel, as played by Bonnie Langford, was too much of an organiser. She’d want to infiltrate the Doctor’s plans, make them more efficient, plot them on a spreadsheet. It would never have worked.
Instead, we have teenage tearaway Ace (Sophie Aldred). Mel was all reason, but Ace is all instinct. She works with this Doctor because she’s someone who simply reacts to whatever he’s planned. They are opposites in this regard: grand planner alongside gut instinct. She also comes looking for trouble. Like previous companions Jamie and Leela, she carries weapons. But unlike them, she’s packing home made bombs and a baseball bat. Which makes sense, because a grand planner wouldn’t walk into a situation unarmed.
Watching Ace join the series when Dragonfire was broadcast, I remember wondering how this new companion was going to work out. She was so different to companions past, I couldn’t quite envisage how her relationship with the Doctor would play out. When Remembrance screened, it was instantly clear. She was as truculent and bolshie and emotionally fragile as you’d expect a teenager to be. Although fiercely loyal, she wasn’t going to go quietly along with what the Doctor wanted. The Doctor’s relationship with Ace was vibrant and stimulating in exactly the way that the Doctor and Mel’s wasn’t.
Looking back on Ace now though, there is something inherently false about her. She’s altogether too polished and perfect to be a kid from the wrong side of the tracks. And the Eliza Doolittle aspect of her relationship with the Doctor seems a tad patronising. But on the other hand, here’s a companion allowed to fire an anti-tank rockets, leap through windows and bash up Daleks. A compelling, though unconvincing mix she might be, but she’s an important element in Remembrance‘s campaign to do nothing less but reinvent Doctor Who.
The Daleks are as old as Doctor Who itself and as I’ve mentioned before, it’s hard to find new things for them to do. Writer Ben Aaronovitch’s solution is to set two factions of them at each other, and have them fighting over an ancient Time Lord artefact. We’ve seen Dalek vs Dalek before, in the recently randomed The Evil of the Daleks, but there it was because some had learned to question their orders, since being injected with the Human Factor. Here, they’re not just ideologically different, but biologically different. As Ace puts it, one set of blobs hate the others for being bionic blobs with bits added.
It’s the genetically modified imperial Daleks, who have decided to experiment with their species’ very form. They’ve created a Special Weapons Dalek, basically a cannon on casters. And when the Emperor Dalek turns up not only is it a big TV Comic style bauble, it springs open to reveal Davros (Terry Malloy) who is sporting many coils of wires and is descending into complete mechanisation. When compared to the traditionally shelled Renegade Daleks, we have a clear contest between conservatives and disrupters.
Tinkering with Dalek design is dangerous territory, as Victory of the Daleks proved. No-one had dared do it since Dalek creator Terry Nation breathed life into Davros in Genesis of the Daleks, and before that when Dalek midwife David Whitaker gave us the original Emperor in Evil. Remembrance gives us no less than three new takes on the Daleks, but while staying faithful to the original design.
So with all this new stuff going on, what exactly are we meant to be remembering?
There’s no story reason why this story’s called Remembrance of the Daleks. (That’s hardly the worst crime – there’s no strong reason why the last three Dalek stories were called Destiny, Resurrection or Revelation of the Daleks.) Like so much in this story, the title is self-referential. The remembrance in question is not within the fiction of story, but commenting on the story itself.
It’s about remembering television. Not just remembering Doctor Who‘s past, although there’s loads of that on offer, far outweighing that often derided continuity-fest Attack of the Cybermen. It’s not just the many links to An Unearthly Child, and numerous Dalek stories. The presence of a kind of proto-UNIT with a faux Brigadier, his scientific adviser and a sneaky officer called Mike, brings to mind the days when the Doctor would regularly hang out with the military. “Do you remember the Zygon gambit with the Loch Ness Monster? Or the Yetis in the Underground?,” sighs the Doctor at one point. “No,” the casual audience member says, but “yes and yes” say his loyal fans. (The Doctor only ever wants to remember the classics. He never says, “Do you remember when London was invaded by unconvincing dinosaurs? Or when the Master stole Concorde?”)
Alongside these references sit shoutouts to Quatermass and Grange Hill. Ace talks about watching TV in the future and sits down to watch vintage BBC programming and just misses watching a new science fiction serial. The army has a surveillance rig disguised as a TV detector van and when the Doctor confronts Davros at the story’s climax, he does it via an old television. Not to mention that when that Dalek glides totteringly up those stairs at the end of Part One, it’s putting to rest an old joke perpetrated by years of television tradition, from sketch shows and comedians’ bits of yore.
What this story beautifully evokes is our memories of watching classic TV. That’s where the remembrance lies – in the viewer’s own experience. It’s an odd but exhilarating mix of brave innovations and pure nostalgia.
LINK TO In the Forest of the Night: both are harking back to An Unearthly Child.
NEXT TIME: You intellectual microbe! You asinine cretin! It’s something devious and overcomplicated in The Mark of the Rani.