or “Lytton must be exterminated when it is convenient

… being a show-by-show TARDIS-esque (ie in effect random) exploration of Doctor Who Soup to Nuts, begun at LJ’s diggerdydum community, and crossposted at FT.

degaullekIn which 5IVE and disgruntled chums help a revenant but unrepentent DAVROS to infect his multitudinous metal brood with MORGELLONS the MORVELLAN DISCO VIRUS, as a reward for getting him out of jail. Or something.

[11.10.13: commentary updated below]

A notoriously very-hard-to-follow DO-YOU-SEE allegory for the utter lack of honour among the galactically villainous. Doesn’t help that from the off it’s a switchback of mistaken identity via doubles: meaning that coppers and soldiers and even daleks are not who you immediately think they are. Doesn’t help that I watched it more than a year ago, before various distractions intervened and derailed me, and haven’t revisited (bcz my “method” does not allow me to). So instead of discussing the plot I’m going to bore on abt the Daleks, turning the tables you might say hohoho *sigh*

The setting: two places and two time (Butler’s Wharf and a prison ship in space; 1984 and THE UNSPECIFIED FUTURE ) have been superglued together by a time-corridor. The prison ship is under attack by a space cruiser.

The upshot: a four-or-more sided battle where everyone can seemingly suborn everyone else, no one knows whose masterplan is what, or why anyone is doing anything.

The cast: it is STIFF with cameos from the famous of face — at least one (Leslie Grantham) misleadingly, since Den was not yet Dirty. Plus an ex-Likely Lad battling wildly against typecasting (and losing). And RULA LENSKA.

dalek-clockworkThe story: experts informed me this story was literally incomprehensible. It is certainly very easy to get muddled (in fact some of the characters do). Actually the real problem is an interestingly grown-up one, not that common in pulp SF. Plenty of SF — and plenty of Who — takes the bodysnatcher form: in a threatening us vs them situation, are you still US or are you now THEM? But this is a four-way war: as well as the Doctor, there are two kinds of dalek, and FOUR kinds of human = defenders, attackers, Tegan and Turlough. You absolutely can’t recognise someone’s allegience from their face or uniform (or pimply metal carapace). It’s a fog of doubles: the daleks are busy making zombie-replicas of humans for their purposes; Davros has a kind of USB bodkin clip that converts you (human or dalek) into his bellowing slave. Defender humans disguise themselves as attacker humans to sneak through the lines. And — this became canon but was I think in this ep still something of an emergent surprise? — the Daleks and Davros are really not NOT ON THE SAME SIDE . Anyway, several minor reveals depend on characters not knowing which side someone (human or dalek) is on; problem being, we the viewer often don’t either (I think there are always visual or contextual clues but they are VERY EASY TO MISS).

(Turlough: what can you say about Turlough? He mooches around in a sinister gingerly way, to no apparent purpose. Hurrah!)

dalek-rolykinsThe Daleks: unlike many reading, I am actually older than the doctor, and so for a while lived in a world in which Daleks were unknown. I cannot of course recall this world: I was 3 when they first went on telly, and their cultural omnipresence and readability was instant (cf the “De Gaullek”, from the Daily Mail, Dec 1964). Always when I visited little friends or relatives as a tiny, they would have some little plastic or clockwork dalek that I coveted: my cousins had a magnificently elaborate bath sponge in yellow and blue layered sponge, real Claes Oldenberg stuff. So what so what you ask? This: I love them like anyone my age — in the sense that they are utterly indelibly there in my affective system — but I AM SO OVER THEM AS PRIMARY STORY FUEL. What made them so tremendous so quickly actually cements in tremendous limitations and inflexibility, tactical and strategic, logistical and logical.

The consequence of this is a shifting effect. Because they cannot get more insanely unbendingly genocidal, the only way to make them more “interesting” is to “humanise” them. So you vary the stories by giving them allies, and viewer-interest switches to where the uncertainly — meaning the thrilling peril — lies: the non-Dalek baddies. There’ve been attempts to in-build complexity: Genesis was fascinating anyway, as a “Childhood of the…” type story, but it also brought in two new modes of less-Daleky Dalekdom. Davros was an insane human (ok ok Kaled) who built them as he himself desires to be: a becoming-Dalek, if you like. And (as part of the same plot) we got in under the metal shells to view the organic mutant-Kaled Dalek-baby residue that drives them, all squiggly and yucky and spiteful, but not terribly threatening. Which was a twinned reveal, exciting and intriguing as a variant — and (if anything) even MORE of a tiresome, terrible burden for unboring plot-devisement since. (So much of it DNA-related as well: as in “let me just alter your DNA by standing near you…”)

dalek-adBy Destiny = second series-appearance of Davros, the shine was off the new trick. If you wanted intriguing nuance, deft cunning or conflict-of-passions complexity in or near Dalekdom, or the allure of a character changing his or her mind (except as a transparent ruse), you were certainly looking past him. If anything, his triple-trump trick — UTTER EVIL, UTTER SELFISHNESS, UTTER SCIENTIFIC GENIUS — actually works to make the Daleks en masse slightly more interesting (potentially). They know they have to approach DaddyDavros at tongs-and-plunger length, to use him best — they always seem smarter than him, which suggests they’ve evolved a faint sense of irony. (Dalek-irony: “Davros is an malicious untrustworthy anti-Dalek idiot because he’s EXACTLY LIKE US EXCEPT MORE SO. SELF-EXTERMINATE?”)

Written out, this actually suggests ways the Daleks needn’t be such a colossal bore: if they were treated more as a feature of the landscape than a primary (evil) character. (The way THEY treat Davros!) Our attention anyway wanders towards those non-Daleks palling up to them by choice — such as Commander Lytton here. Assuming he’s not himself a programmed zombie, he must be a mercenary or other villain of independently cynical motive, and MOAR PLZ, such people are watchable and fascinating. (We don’t get much more: he appears in one later story, battling the Cybermen, and dies — bravely enough for the Doctor in question to admit he wasn’t a mere one-note baddie.)

(Actually real name Gustave Lytton, so the internet tells me).

dalek gunAt the heart of all this is the balance of RELIABLE DARK THRILL-POWER (eg cliffhanger reveal of Dalek entering room bellowing exterminate) vs SUSTAINABLE WATCHABILITY. Daleks can’t be allowed to plot-explosition at one another: never exciting (Daleks shout quite slowly). And Dalek-Irony, surely far more scarily fruitful a tool of future mass-death than legless spongy naked unshelled squiggliness, is just way outside canon. Actually — The Master aside — very few Who-villains have any kind of a sense of humour. It’s one way (possibly the main way) that we know it’s OK to watch all these on-screen kids-tv DEATHS: most of them happen to people (or creatures) who are resolutely, programmedly charmless. With — of course — the occasional stark and shocking exception, a companion-death, or a recently encountered and likeable “our side” character. If not Dirty Den, then Rodney Bewes (whose comedy was less in the script than in his resume).

Jokiness — in various modes — has gradually become the default in-TARDIS sensibility. It’s a way of coping (it’s also a wise-ass trope that’s gradually — since Bond in the 60s — eaten into any genre which also features guns and explosions and serial plight). It’s a way — as I’ve just argued — of codedly pre-sorting the deserving-of-death from the rest…


And it isn’t always enough. Probably the thing this show is best remembered for is the leaving of Tegan, exhausted, fed up of endless violence, and no longer able by camaraderie and banter to hide from her feelings the snuffing out of so many, so many, so many


Vaguely feeling I’d undersold this above, I just rewatched it (without rereading the above first — so I kindasorta have maintained my “method”). Some notes:

i: it isn’t actually incomprehensible. Davros is kept (literally on ice) in an underfunded prison ship, its sole prisoner; the Daleks (and their mercenary human allies) have arrived to get him out, because in all the universe only he can tackle the Morgellon Virus, which is devastating them. The virus they are keeping on Earth at a different date (1984), in tumbledown buildings of a deserted Butler’s Wharf, accessed via Time Tunnel, guarded by “duplicated” human slaves mainly dressed as London coppers, so as not attract attention. This does of course attract the Tardis. The attack on the prison succeeds, but — as Davros immediately throws a colossal tantrum, bcz he wants to PUT ON THE SHOW RIGHT HERE, and then begins mindslaving humans AND Daleks for his own entirely (nay psychotically) selfish purposes — the never-exactly patient Daleks are getting ill-tempered at tremendous speed, and their human mercenary allies are getting hinky about the prison ship (which sent out SOSes) being attacked by arriving rescuers. So this alliance is breaking down, and Davros is very evidently not playing along with his Dalek rescuers: more than just a crackle of murderous intra-baddy hostility can be discerned.

ii: The fact that the Daleks have captured the Doctor and are trying to “duplicate” him goes exactly as well as you’d imagine: after a lot of writhing and wiggly shots on the memory machine of old companions and old doctors, he simply turns his turner (Rodney Bewes: whose character is called Stein). The Daleks kidnap the companions to bring on-board and use them against the Doctor — well, Tegan, Turlough was already slinking around on his own mysterious recognisance — but don’t even bother with a welcoming committee once on-board, so that they immediately and inevitably escape. Possibly the duplicate pod-bodies the Daleks have ready for them have confused them: they forgot they hadn’t actually delivered the non-pod bodies to the right office. (Since basically all Dalek defeats to this point in the tale have entailed Doctor and companions let loose inside Dalek headquarters, this doesn’t seem a good move — but they are like bobbled metal Seinfeld in this respect, no hugs no learning…

iii: no less than two massive-destruct weapons are to hand (and get deployed) — the Morgellon Virus and the prison’s BIG RED SPLOSIONBUTTON (tho the dwindling prison guard crew take roughly 3 of 4 eps to work out how to press it, and end up dead, leaving it there for Stein to sacrifice himself pressing). The Virus that the Daleks have stored — for Davros to render inert — is of course used by Davros against the Daleks (and inadvertently himself: his final scene is a tantrum as he denies that he is himself a mere Dalek, which fact the Virus naturally ignores). Meanwhile various human/dalek squads confusedly and confusingly wipe one another out — and Lytton shoots his own sidekick and escapes to be unprincipled another day (except this is never made as much of as it deserves). (Most the name-actor characters are rather wasted in fact.)

iv: intriguing mirror-qualities of Butlers’ Wharf and the prisonship, that both are run-down, shabby, forgotten and therefore wide-open to Dalek exploitation or attack.

v: The multiculturalism of crew and mercenaries? “Gustav” Lytton, Stein — the fact that a lot of the prison security detail are Asian — and of course Rula Lenska? Don’t think (iv) or (v) are deep or anything, though the fact that the Dalek poison gas they use on the prison causes their faces to dissolve with a horrible stench is a um piquant touch.

vi: HUMANITARIAN INTERVENTION KLAXON — Davros does actually give the Doctor pause, when the latter’s made up his mind to assassinate this charmlessly stupid and annoying mass murderer, by implying that he’s going to programme out ruthlessness and repalce it with awareness of the military value of compassion. Davros is of course probably lying (about hugs) rather than learning (about hugs) — but the fact that he’s guessed this lie might work is the key. And possibly why this story has the name it does, which otherwise makes no sense (Davros is defrosted, but no Daleks are resurrected). All this feeds into my little essay above, though: any reboot has to threaten to dilute the Dalek USP, without actually tackling the vast containership full of problems that Dalek culture and Dalek technology have accrued.

vii: No really great quotes. But — just to ram the manifest uselessness point boringly home — when soldiers fending off dalek attack shoot them in the eyestalk, and they spin round repeatedly bellowing “My vision is impaired”, well, you already did the math, long ago. The future-ep teaser is that they have planted left dalek-slaved duplicates all over 1984’s earth, in positions of power, starting with the killer cops, who at story’s end march off into the London distance. Which threat: yes, humans are actually dangerous to humans, in form and mind.