The last few years of Doctor Who’s original run weren’t exactly the best period of the show’s history.
The rot set in with the arrival of Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor. Everything the actor wanted to bring to the role got canned straight off the bat, from characterisation to his choice of costume – Col wanted a dark coat akin to the Ninth Doctor’s leather jacket; the Beeb gave him a truly woeful multicolour affair that looked like he’d got dressed in the dark. His first storyline, the awful The Twin Dilemma, is probably best remembered for the contrast it has with the preceding story. The Caves of Androzani is rightly remembered as one of classic Who’s best stories and its juxtaposition with the one that was voted Doctor Who Magazine’s worst story ever makes the transition between Doctors all the more jarring.
The next season was filled with nonsensical plots, the worst Cyberman story ever, and Kate O’Mara’s awful Time Lady the Rani. Then BBC 1 controller Michael Grade, who hated the show, put it on hiatus with a view to cancellation. The show did get recommissioned, albeit with episodes of half the length of the previous two seasons. Trial of a Time Lord, an overarching plot running through Series 23, was better received but dropped Nicola Bryant’s companion Peri in favour of Bonnie Langford’s excruciatingly awful Mel. To make things worse, at the end of the season Baker was fired on orders from Grade, who then elected to bury the show in a Monday night slot opposite Coronation Street in order to kill it off for good. Season 24 thus started badly, with the Sixth Doctor regenerating after bumping his head on the TARDIS console when the Rani (yep, her again) shot it down. The scripts were bad, Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy played the role as an amnesia-struck clown, Mel was a screamy little cow crying out for extermination… Fortunately things looked up with the last serial, Dragonfire. Mel departed, to be replaced by Sophie Aldred’s rather middle-class teenage tearaway Ace, and the Doctor finally seemed to get over his post-regeneration blues and start becoming serious.
And so Doctor Who approached its 25th anniversary in 1988 with problems. Fortunately, there was one thing running in its favour: new talent. Script editor Andrew Cartmel had plans to add more mystery and menace to the Doctor’s character and explore his past reasons for leaving Gallifrey, bringing in new writers like Ben Aaronovitch and Rona Munro to produce edgier scripts. And it was Aaronovitch’s first script that would set the tone.
Remembrance of the Daleks was as much a tribute to the series’ beginnings as it was a new direction. It took place in 1963, a few weeks after the setting of the first episode of An Unearthly Child, the show’s first serial. It featured the Daleks, Doctor Who’s first and arguably best alien foe. But in addition it showed that the Seventh Doctor was finally willing to take the decisions necessary to eliminate several of his main foes and confront his past. This was one reason for his visiting Shoreditch in 1963, the place and time when he first came to Earth. It turns out that the First Doctor didn’t just steal a TARDIS when he left Gallifrey, but also an ancient Time Lord artefact called the Hand of Omega. Now, the Daleks want the Hand to use it in replicating the Time Lords’ advanced time travel technology.
So what makes Remembrance a standout serial, compared to other Dalek stories? Firstly, we see the Dalek civil war, hinted at in the utterly confusing Revelation of the Daleks in the Sixth Doctor era when Davros, escaping his creations, began building his own Dalek army. Secondly, the story is unabashedly political. The rise of neo-fascist elements in the late 50s on the back of the Red Scare is shown plain here, with racism rife in London and an ultra-right wing organisation playing a prominent role in the story. Finally, it begins to show the Doctor as the arch-manipulator he would later become, getting others to do his grunt work rather than dirty his own hands and even actively pursuing genocide against his old enemies in the name of the greater good.
Ace starts to come into her own, destroying one Dalek with an anti-tank rocket and attacking two more with a baseball bat in what Sophie Aldred still classes as her crowning moment of awesomeness. But the stars of the show are by far and away the Daleks themselves. Finally equipped with some decent firepower, the two cyborg armies square up to capture the Hand of Omega. There’s some great effects for possibly the first time in Who’s history, and although the pre-CGI optical effects are poor even for the 1980s the practical effects outshine many of those in new-Who. One scene blew up a Dalek prop with such gusto that it set off car and burglar alarms around it and brought out a police armed response squad looking for terrorists.
Finally, there’s the confrontation between the Seventh Doctor and Davros. While it may seem at first that the Doctor is just making fun of his old enemy, it eventually transpires that everything that happened was part of the Doctor’s Machiavellian scheme to destroy Skaro and the majority of the Dalek fleet. Unfortunately he didn’t take everything into account and seems genuinely upset at the loss of human life. This juxtaposes nicely with his disgust when the Supreme Dalek, its home destroyed and armies dead, self-destructs rather than face defeat.
So yeah, still great. Everything great outweighs the bad visual effects and provides us with a rip-roaring adventure. This marks the start of the Seventh Doctor’s journey that would ultimately end with him confronting the Master and the disembodied eternal evil Fenric in the 26th series. Definitely full marks for one of classic Who’s top five serials.