“Remembrance Of The Daleks” (season 25, episodes 1-4. Originally aired Oct. 5-26, 1988)
Even when a TV series has a plot device like time travel—perhaps especially when a TV series has a plot device like time travel—it’s awfully dangerous to go messing around with the established history that helps create its central premise, particularly when the show has built up 25 seasons’ worth of continuity baggage in the interim. So the sheer audacity of what “Remembrance Of The Daleks” tries to do by revisiting the time and place of the Doctor’s earliest-known adventure is little short of breathtaking once you realize what the writers are up to: Redefining the reason why the Doctor fled his home planet all those years ago, and thus implicitly suggesting that he’s never quite been the person we thought he was.
That’s the kind of thing that can completely wreck a series from within, and it’s a credit to writer Ben Aaronovich and script editor Andrew Cartmel that the gamble works as well as it does. Whether it was a good idea to have tried in the first place is, I think, debatable. But let’s come back to that later; there’s a lot happening in “Remembrance Of The Daleks,” and I shouldn’t jump too far ahead.
First, a little bit about where we are in the series right now: “Remembrance” kicks off season 25, the second year of Sylvester McCoy’s run as the Seventh Doctor, which began in the aftermath of the utterly disastrous “Trial Of A Time Lord” arc two years earlier when both script editor Eric Saward and star Colin Baker had both abruptly left or been forced out, ending Doctor Who’s most unwatchable era. Producer John Nathan-Turner (who somewhat surprisingly still had his job) brought in McCoy and a new script editor, Andrew Cartmel, to rejuvenate the series and find some new, more palatable direction. And although McCoy’s introduction, “Time And The Rani,” was unpromisingly silly and vapid, Doctor Who did improve, though it took the show the better part of the next season to find its feet. Ratings were still way down, and Doctor Who would wind up cancelled two years later anyway—but on the whole, the final two seasons were smarter, better-written, and more full of ambitious ideas than Doctor Who had been in years. They weren’t always able to actually achieve those high ambitions, hampered by Cartmel’s inexperience and the show’s low budget, but even the failures here are more compelling than the best stuff from the years immediately prior.
That started by refurbishing the Doctor himself. Though “Time And The Rani” gave a first impression that the Seventh Doctor was a foolish clown who’d be just as likely to win by dumb luck as skill, Cartmel and McCoy found deeper layers to the character. Cartmel jettisoned Saward’s strange insistence on an incompetent main character, and gave the Seventh Doctor a manipulative streak and a penchant for long-term strategic thinking worthy of a chess grandmaster, not to mention hints that he might be far older, more powerful, and mythic than he’d ever let on. McCoy deftly incorporated that into his performance by giving his character a seriousness and intelligence that clearly drove his actions, but which could easily be missed if you only paid attention to his surface eccentricities, and which would often cause his enemies to badly underestimate him—the tactic of Peter Falk’s Columbo and, of course, Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor. And like those characters, the Seventh Doctor was funny and likeable in a sort of Chaplinesque, perennial-underdog way, something Doctor Who badly needed to return to.
Which is not to say I’m an unabashed fan of this period. Season 26’s “The Curse Of Fenric,” for instance, is often hailed by McCoy partisans as one of the best Doctor Who stories ever made, but I find it sloppy and unfocused. And in general, this era hasn’t aged well to me on a visual level. The 1980s-ness of the synth-heavy soundtrack, the costumes, and the special effects often seem dated enough to take me out of the story entirely, and the opening credits in particular look embarrassingly like a first-year graphic-design student’s “Intro To TV Production” final project. True, you do have to learn to accept B-movie ricketiness to any era of Doctor Who if you’re going to enjoy the show at all, but 1980s Doctor Who has always struck me as tackier and uglier than older seasons in a way that's less easy to forgive. Nevertheless, Cartmel and McCoy proved that Doctor Who still had creative life in it after the near-apocalypse of the Sixth Doctor seasons, and in many ways the spirit of their era provided greater inspiration than any other pre-cancellation production team for how the current series approaches Doctor Who.
And “Remembrance Of The Daleks” is the Seventh Doctor era at its best. Appropriately for the kickoff to the show’s silver-anniversary season, it weaves together a nostalgia-heavy tale that literally takes Doctor Who back to where it all began, with much of the action set in the key locations of the series’ debut episode, “An Unearthly Child”—London’s Coal Hill School in 1963, where teachers Ian and Barbara first met the mysterious Susan, and I.M. Foreman’s junkyard at 76 Totters Lane, where an outmoded old police box once stood, probably only hours before. It’s filled with allusions and plot points drawn from past Doctor Who shows, almost all of which serve a story purpose beyond merely being nostalgic continuity references, skillfully and subtly enough that they won’t confuse people who don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of Doctor Who trivia but enhance the story for those who do. For example, take Ace’s confusion about how British coins worked in 1963—it serves the purpose of showing that she’s a young and inexperienced time-traveler a little out of her depth who’s discovering that the past is a foreign country where they do things differently. It’s also a reference to the fact that Susan’s confusion about coins in “Unearthly Child” was the first clue that she, too, was a time traveler—but you don’t need to know that to appreciate what the scene has to tell you about who Ace is.
“Remembrance Of The Daleks” encourages that kind of anorak-level attention to detail about old continuity because Aaronovich and Cartmel are doing the same kind of thing themselves, only with the intention of interlacing their story around “An Unearthly Child” in a way that doesn’t ruin the earlier story yet reveals that there was more going on here than anyone knew at the time—a Back To The Future II gambit, in other words. But it's not just a gimmick. They're using that complex structure as a springboard to showcase their new, more devious master-planner version of the Doctor, by revealing he’s been hiding a vastly powerful piece of Time Lord technology in London for a long time. Possibly since before the events of “An Unearthly Child,” meaning it’s possibly a reason why he ran away from Gallifrey in the first place. (I don’t think that idea works, mainly because the Doctor we meet in Doctor Who’s first few episodes is a short-sighted amateur who has clearly never met or even heard of the Daleks before, but “Remembrance” plants the idea just firmly enough that it’s fun to consider how it might be true and also just vaguely enough that it’s fun to consider how it might be false. I've worked out my own theory, which maybe I'll add down in the “Stray Observations” section if I can distill it into something short enough not to be boring.)
Aaronovich and Cartmel take such care to set up the expected elements of an old-school Doctor Who alien-invasion plot, from the pseudo-UNIT military squadron to the cryptofascist businessman who turns traitor to humanity in exchange for promises of power, because it helps them sneak in a major change to the usual modus operandi. Before this point in the series, the Doctor almost always travels around randomly, and just happens to get into whatever this week’s trouble is by coincidence, the only exceptions being if some higher authority like the Time Lords send him on a mission, which he inevitably complains about. He’s not a guy with a plan. He’s like a dog chasing cars. He just does things. Our default assumption as viewers is that revisiting Coal Hill School either wasn’t planned, or wasn’t planned by him. So when we find out what the Doctor is actually up to, it’s kind of a shock even before the larger implications sink in.
And there’s also some great character moments for Ace, who carries the emotional weight of the story here in a way that was, at the time, very unusual for Doctor Who. Having a companion who grew and changed and learned things about the world—well, it’s not that it wasn’t done at all, because that’s what drama is all about, but it’s the province more of long-form serialized storytelling than episodic TV, and that wasn’t a focus of Doctor Who until Cartmel made it so with Ace. A big part of “Remembrance Of The Daleks” is about Ace’s journey—making new friends, flirting, being betrayed—and if the companions before her didn’t get that kind of storyline, the ones after her certainly did.
“Remembrance Of The Daleks” would have been an odd fit for any Doctor before Sylvester McCoy, but with minor rewriting, it could have easily starred the Tenth Doctor and Rose. (Fewer baseball bats, more 3D glasses.) Given that we’re about a year from the show’s 50th anniversary, “Remembrance Of The Daleks” stands almost at the halfway point of Doctor Who’s total history, which seems appropriate considering the way it acts as a fulcrum of that history, uncannily anticipating the future as much as it deliberately invokes its past.
• One other in-joke worth pointing out: "Bernard of the British Rocket Group"? That would be Dr. Quatermass, a direct influence on Doctor Who.
• Quite a few veteran Doctor Who actors make reappearances in “Remembrance.” The mind-controlled Coal Hill School headmaster is Michael Sheard, who was in “Castrovalva" as well as about half a dozen other Doctor Whos, not to mention a pair of memorable small roles in much bigger movies: He was Hitler in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, and the ill-fated Admiral Ozzel in The Empire Strikes Back. The blind vicar is played by Peter Halliday, who was the hapless flunky villain Packer in “The Invasion,” the voice of all the reptile people in “The Silurians,” and a soldier at Leonardo da Vinci’s studio in “City Of Death.” Pamela Salem, who played the Liz Shaw-like Dr. Rachel Jensen here, was also in the Fourth Doctor’s “The Robots of Death.” And last but not least, one of the Dalek voice actors is John Leeson, better known as K9.
• Upcoming schedule:
Aug. 19: “Ghost Light”
Sept. 2: “The Seeds Of Doom”
Sept. 16: “The Romans”
Sept. 30: “The Three Doctors”
Oct. 14: “The Deadly Assassin”