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Doctor Who (Classic): “Resurrection Of The Daleks”

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“Resurrection Of The Daleks” (season 21, episodes 11-14. Originally aired Feb. 8-15, 1984)


On most TV dramas nowadays, the head writer and the executive producer are usually the same person—which makes a lot of sense, because that way there’s one unifying vision of where the show is headed. It’s been true of Doctor Who since the 2005 relaunch, with Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffatt in turn holding the reins, but that wasn’t how it worked during the 1963-1989 era, which instead divided the job between a producer in overall charge of the series and a script editor who oversaw just the writing. The producer was the boss and guided the show on a broad scale, but script editors had day-to-day, hands-on control of the stories, arguably making them more important in creating the tone and personality of the series in any given period—and also more important than the actor playing the Doctor, who might have been the public face of the series but didn’t actually tell the stories.

And so it’s also often been true that when the script editor wrote a Doctor Who script himself, as opposed to reworking some other writer’s earlier draft, that story captured the pure spirit of that period of the show better than the others of its season. It’s certainly true of the current series, with both Davies and Moffatt handling the season finales and other crucial episodes themselves, and it was true in 1970s Doctor Who with shows like Robert Holmes’ “The Deadly Assassin” and Douglas Adams’ “City Of Death,” among the best the series ever did.


And then there’s “Resurrection Of The Daleks,” another script-editor’s script, which holds down the middle of Peter Davison’s final season as the Fifth Doctor. To be sure, it’s a pretty pure crystallization of what Eric Saward and his boss, John Nathan-Turner, were going for in season 21—the gritty and dark atmosphere, the attempt at complex plotting, the choice to forgo a heroic conception of the Doctor in favor of a fallible and even weak protagonist, and the wholehearted embrace of the show’s long history as a living part of the series. But it’s also a painfully clear example of how Saward and JNT consistently screwed up the potential of any of those elements to create great TV storytelling, and indeed often failed to demonstrate basic competence at anything beyond cheap spectacle. “Gritty and dark” too often meant merely that the characters were bitter and unpleasant, “complex plotting” that there were too many characters and subplots and no real idea of where any of them were going, a fallible hero often was merely a passive and kind of boring one, and embracing history meant merely rehashing iconic moments from older episodes without any particular understanding of how they worked or why they were so well remembered in the first place.

That’s a harsh assessment, but I have a kinder opinion of “Resurrection Of The Daleks” than Saward himself does: He once called it “the worst Doctor Who story ever written.” To my mind, it’s not even the second-worst of its season, considering that it shared the year with “Warriors Of The Deep” and “The Twin Dilemma,” two terrible stories that each did real damage to the viability of Doctor Who as an ongoing series. The flaws here are not so mortal, not that it makes it any easier to watch.

At its heart, “Resurrection Of The Daleks” is trying to recapture the success of Saward’s action-packed and nostalgia-laden season 19 hit “Earthshock,” with the Daleks taking over from the Cybermen as the old villains coming back for more. It’s  a direct sequel to the previous Dalek story, “Destiny Of The Daleks,” and if it had concentrated on that it might have worked. The war between the Daleks and Movellans from the previous story is over, and shockingly, the Daleks have lost, thanks to a genetically engineered virus they have no defense against. So they go to find their brilliant but megalomaniacal creator, Davros, and rescue him from the space-station prison he was locked away in after the events of “Destiny.” Once awakened, he agrees to find a cure, but secretly begins plotting to install himself as the new leader of the Daleks, even as the Daleks themselves distrust and dislike him, and secretly plan to discard him as soon as he’s no longer useful. A Dalek civil war is brewing. So far, so good: Throw the Doctor into that volatile mix and task him with protecting the innocent people caught in the crossfire, and this could have been a hell of a story.


One thing I like about this part of “Resurrection” is that it tackles head-on the inherent conflict between the Daleks and their creator which “Destiny” had missed, returning the Daleks to relevance as a driving force of the narrative and characters in and of themselves, rather than mere robots who are happy to be extensions of Davros’ will. Here, Saward gets them right—they’re brash, aggressive, and irredeemably hostile, but also sneaky, conniving, and prepared to backstab their allies whenever it suits them. They may look like robots on the outside, but they’re most certainly not just robots—and no Dalek appearance in the classic era of Doctor Who does a better job of showcasing that at the true core of a Dalek there is a twisted little horror piloting it, the tentacled and implacably violent heart of the Doctor’s greatest enemies.

But there’s too much other junk getting in the way. The Daleks seem to have three or four plots going on simultaneously, none of which are related to each other. Desperately trying to cure a deadly plague that threatens to wipe out your species would be ambitious enough for most people, but they’re also trying to conquer the Earth by installing loyal clones in key positions in human society, and to turn the Doctor into a weapon against the Time Lords by creating a duplicate who will be programmed to kill the High Council on Gallifrey. And those are all good goals, really, and strong enough to carry a story on their own, but taken together all at once, none get enough screen time to be developed into anything compelling. That third scheme in particular seems like a wasted opportunity: It could have been a lot of fun to see Peter Davison playing a dual role as an evil Dalek-controlled assassin, but the idea is dropped almost immediately after it’s presented.


And then there’s the Daleks’ time corridor between 1984 and the future. (Which is how the Doctor gets swept into the story: The TARDIS was caught in it at the end of the previous serial, “Frontios,” which is why that scene starts so abruptly here.) What do they need this for? If their primary purpose is to rescue Davros, he’s already in the future where they are. Instead, time travel seems to be just a checkbox ticked off on a list of things the Daleks had done in previous stories—the kind of needless continuity fetishism early-1980s Doctor Who relied on constantly. Daleks time-travel in “The Chase” and “Day Of The Daleks,” so they do it here. They mind-control humans in “Dalek Invasion Of Earth,” so they do it here. “Resurrection Of The Daleks” spends so much time stealing from past stories that it doesn’t bother to create a coherent story of its own. Not that it’s all about only ripping off old Dalek stories, either: Stien, the untrustworthy, stuttering cowardly traitor who works for the enemy but redeems himself at the cost of his own life, is a pale imitation of Fewsham in the Ice Warrior serial “The Seeds Of Death.”


And even if there weren’t already too many Dalek schemes in play, there’s a frustrating amount of time wasted on totally extraneous subplots  that go nowhere. Although a couple of people fall dead of some kind of wasting disease, implying that humans are also susceptible to the Dalek plague, nothing ever happens with that idea. The Doctor’s companions Tegan and Turlough spend the majority of their time on their own, with no particular goals or plans that advance the story. On the contrary, a lot of scenes seem designed to do nothing but eat up screen time, like when Turlough decides to get off the prison station and return to 1984 via the time corridor on the Dalek ship, then gets partway there, changes his mind, and goes back. Tegan wastes an entire scene setting up the old cliched “put an object under the blankets to make it look like you’re sleeping in your bed” routine, only to give up on it before her captors even come into the room. Guest star Rula Lenska (a fairly big star in Europe but most well known in America from her mid-1970s coffee commercials) has no interaction with the Doctor at all, and dies pointlessly in an agonizingly overstretched series of scenes in which she tries to get the station’s self-destruct mechanism to work, and fails. Sure, that sets up Stien to finish the job later and redeem himself, but you could have taken Lesnka out of the story completely and lost nothing. And while Davros slowly building his own army of hypnotized humans and Daleks does constitute a plot advancement, it mires down in scene after scene where all he does is convert new soldiers—the numbers of his minions increase, but he never does anything with them. It feels almost as if Saward had no idea where he wanted the story to go or how to prod events in that direction even if he did. It’s telling, I think, that Davros schemes to take over as ruler of the Daleks yet never has a scene with his chief rival, the black Supreme Dalek.

Davros’ one scene with the Doctor highlights another huge flaw in Saward’s approach in general, namely that he apparently saw his lead character as weak, ineffectual and somewhat contemptible just because he wasn’t eager to kill people. The characters Saward seemed to favor instead were the ones like Lenska’s unrelentingly bitchy and hostile prison-doctor, or the supposedly antiheroic Lytton, a mercenary and killer with no redeeming qualities who Saward loved enough to bring  back the following year and pass off as a misunderstood hero despite never doing anything that wasn’t for his own personal gain. Here, after agonizing over whether or not he should kill Davros and thus prevent any cure for the Dalek plague, the Doctor loses his nerve—for which Davros mocks him mercilessly, saying, “Action requires courage. Something you lack.” The Doctor has no response—and then Davros locks him out of the room, essentially winning the argument. It’s a sad attempt to recapitulate another famous older Doctor Who scene—the Doctor’s moral waffling in “Genesis Of The Daleks” over whether he had the right to commit genocide against the Daleks if it would prevent their own future acts of war—that fails to recognize that the whole point of the earlier hesitation was the Doctor’s essential decency, not weakness, because only psychopaths like Davros have no qualms about murdering people.


In the end, Saward himself provides the most succinct description of what’s wrong with his era in the lines he writes for Tegan at the end of this story, when she tells the Doctor she’s not coming back with him on board the TARDIS this time because she’s sick of the constant death and violence: “It's stopped being fun, Doctor,” she cries, and runs off in tears. The Doctor is chastened and humbled by this, and tells Turlough that “it seems I must mend my ways.” It’s hard not to see this as a self-critique of the series itself, but if it was, it was inadvertent. Doctor Who would only get grimmer, more violent, and less fun for the remainder of the time Saward was in charge of the scripts, and his view of the Doctor as a fundamentally flawed and ineffectual character only grew more entrenched with the debut of the arrogant and inept Sixth Doctor at the end of this season. That approach continued for the next two years, before the spectacular flameout of season 23’s “Trial of a Time Lord” that wound up causing a behind-the-scene body count more devastating than anything Saward ever came up with on screen.

Stray observations


• To be fair to Saward, some of the problems here aren’t script-related. Some of the acting is simply awful, especially Rodney Bewes as Stien, as bland as a roll of beige wallpaper. And director Matthew Robinson makes an odd decision to show Davros too early, in the background but clearly visible when the prison techicians are trying to shut off his life-support unit before the Daleks can rescue him, thus spoiling Saward’s carefully set-up scripted revelation of who this mysterious unnamed prisoner everyone’s been talking about for 30 minutes could possibly be.


• Lytton’s Dalek helmet: Is it unbearably lame, or weirdly awesome? I can’t decide.

• Which actor gives the worst “I’ve just been shot” performance? Is it Rodney Bewes, who grimaces in pain, then drops out of character so he can look behind him and find a wall to lean against, then goes back to grimacing in pain? Or is it Del Henney as Col. Archer, flailing like an electrocuted disco dancer?


• Upcoming schedule:
June 24: “The Ribos Operation”
July 8: “Revelation Of The Daleks”
July 22: “Black Orchid”
Aug. 5: “Remembrance Of The Daleks”
Aug. 19: “Ghost Light”
Sept. 2: “The Seeds Of Doom”
Sept. 16: “The Romans”