Doctor Who #508: Destiny of the Daleks Part 1

"No, no, no, the arms are just fine. They're just fine. It's just that, oh well, all right, have it your own way. But get rid of those silly clothes, eh?"
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD. First aired Sep.1 1979.

IN THIS ONE... Romana becomes Lalla Ward, the TARDIS lands on Skaro, and the Doctor meets the Movellans.

REVIEW: It's a Terry Nation script and it has all the signposts. A radioactive wasteland/quarry. The TARDIS gets blocked in. The Daleks. But incoming script editor Douglas Adams has his fingerprints all over it, and it's likely to be the funniest Dalek script ever (sorry, The Chase, you sucked). The situation is serious enough and even includes a funeral and a macabre grave-digging moment for the Doctor, but the two leads are written as all wit and banter, and it's sometimes like they come from another universe, strange clowns come to upset the natural balance. Perhaps because of its novelty, it WORKS. Without a human companion in the TARDIS, the show is free to make both the Doctor and Romana complete aliens, not just in their attitudes, but in the tone they evoke against the one written in the script. I have a theory that Doctor Who's absurdist comedy will start to break down when the worlds our heroes visit are as silly as they are. We'll see.

The characters' silliness is everywhere. The robotic K9 gets laryngitis. Romana changes bodies like you would change clothes, in contradiction with everything we've ever seen of regeneration (but see Theories). Each body less viable than the next, though one might well surmise she's trying to convince the Doctor that her original choice was the best, even if it's that of a guest character from the previous serial (Princess Astra). The Doctor reads and scoffs at the History of the Universe while trapped under a beam. Romana licks rocks to figure out their composition (a Time Lord ability, if we go by the 10th Doctor's frequent use of his sense of taste). And plenty of jokes besides. It works as well as it does because the two leads have such a great chemistry, and Lalla Ward as Romana is everything the Mary Tamm version should have evolved into after the loss of her initial mission and new status quo as a renegade Time Lady. Her new state of being calls for her to be less aristocratic and more of a Bohemian, like the Doctor, in dress as well as attitude. The costume choices are very much telling us something here. He accepts her when she comes in dressed like he is, and her real costume is a pink number with a long white scarf that feminizes his basic look. It's clear that this Romana is a female Doctor, just as quirky and just as smart as he is. The mentor-pupil relationship is over. They're now a couple in all but name (and a real one off-screen).

It's Romana's first meeting with the Daleks who haven't actually appeared since the fourth Doctor's first season in Genesis of the Daleks (4 years is a long time in Dalek years), and typically, they only appear in the final few minutes, shouting like madmen for her not to move. At least we're on Skaro, and it seems there are other aliens who have come there on a secret mission, pretty bronzed people who have recycled and bleached the Swampies' yarn wigs and who fly a neat ship that screws itself into the ground and becomes a little base. The Daleks themselves are apparently responsible for underground drilling that causes explosions (whatever) and tremors, and there are plenty of malnourished, pale-faced people stumbling about, likely their slaves. One of them is a creepy guy who comes after Romana and makes her fall down a shaft. That's the weakest part of the episode, seeing as it could all have been avoided if he'd, you know, SAID something.

THEORIES: Fans have long tried to justify Douglas Adams' joke about Romana's regeneration scene, and there are a couple of perfectly reasonable ones. What we see interacting with the Doctor initially could be a projection - holographic, psychic or block transfer computational - that allows her to "try" various looks before triggering her regeneration. Or it's possible she can keep changing as long as the regeneration isn't complete, kind of like how the 10th Doctor can still heal a hand in The Christmas Invasion. As for explaining how she can decide what she will look like, it could just be that all Time Lords have this ability IF they trigger their regenerations themselves. The Doctor is always waiting for some trauma to trigger it, by which point he would be too weak (or too unconscious) to do so. The War Games could offer corroborating evidence there, since he's given a choice of which face he'll get (and refuses it). The most resilient theory, however, is that female Time Lords have a lot more control than males do, something Let's Kill Hitler subtly confirms. There, Melody tweaks her appearance slightly and claims she can continue to do so across her incarnation's entire lifespan. There's one last question. WHY take Astra's appearance? Well if my Theory from yesterday is correct, and the Key's segment is transferred to some other person or thing in space-time, then Astra is the last person the Black Guardian should be looking for. The segment won't be there again. It's part of Romana's strategy to stay safe from the entity's wrath.

The DVD includes a CGI option that, in this episode, adds some glowing sparks to the Movellan spaceship's landing. Quite frankly, they're just as cheesy as the video effects they mean to replace.

REWATCHABILITY: High - A major first appearance, and you will barely notice Terry Nation's old clichés thanks to Douglas Adams' sparkling comedy.


Anonymous said...

You probably know that Lalla Ward is presently married to Richard Dawkins.

Here are Baker and Ward shilling for Prime Computers:

snell said...

For me, the Romana regeneration scene, while amusing, is (bootstrapping theories aside) emblematic of the worst traits of the Williams/Adams era: a preference for panto over storytelling, laying logic and rigor to the side in favor of a (hopefully, but sadly not always) good joke, an over-indulgence of the actors by giving them good bits in lieu of explaining the plot.

There is a very thin line between whimsey and not taking things seriously, the latter of which can be deadly for this kind of series. Perhaps my tolerance for the silliness is less than others; and certainly the era had its high points. But in a number of ways this season becomes my own personal nadir of Doctor Who.

Siskoid said...

Not just for you, but it opens with a couple of worthy stories before, y'know, CREATURE FROM THE PIT and all that.

I some ways, I think the show gets worse when JNT takes over (next season) and tries to do away with the silliness. Leisure Hive, Meglos, e-space... Ugh.

LiamKav said...

I would describe that as a whole "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" reaction to this season.

Siskoid said...

Are you talking about Snell, me, or JNT?

On the latter, JNT should never have been allowed even close to any creative decisions. His strength was marketing, not story, tone or design. And all the missteps of his extremely long tenure are in those departments.

snell said...

Well, I will admit to sounding overly harsh, as there were many good moments in the season...heck, City Of Death was my first Doctor Who story, and I love it to death. However, by the time Horns Of The Nimon rolled around (shudder), by my tastes the humor rolled too far over into camp, and much of the discipline in the storytelling had been lost. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I'm hardly throwing out the whole season, bathwater or otherwise.

Siskoid--I am higher on the JNT era than you, but I readily confess that it's probably because the 5th Doctor was my "first", at least in the "saw a large run of episodes" sense.We will discuss me when we get there next month....

Bill D. said...

I always sort of assumed that Romana had more control over her regeneration because it happened by choice, not under life-or-death duress like the Doctor's mostly have.

As for the JNT era... I have mixed feelings. It was when I discovered the show and saw as it would come to the states, so I have a certain fondness for it, but yeah, it's harsh and garish and generally tries WAY too hard to get away from the silliness of this stretch of stories you're in now, much the way that a middle school kid will try too hard to convince everyone he's "grown up" (especially once we hit the Colin Baker era, what with all the shootings and maimings and leather daddy mercenaries squeezing the Doctor out of screen time).

Jeff R. said...

My own version of the theory here is that the Doctor is uniquely bad at regeneration, possibly because he feels it as part of him dying in a way that most other timelords don't. (This may, in turn, make him better at interacting with past selves than other timelords.)

I'm pretty sure we're meant to believe that the Master regenerated several times, into the exact same face, during the Delgado years, which harms the male/female theory...

Siskoid said...

Interesting notion about the Master. The one Time Lord I worry about it Borusa, who keeps regenerating into old men, eventually ending up as unstable. Does he have the same problem the Doctor does? Or something even worse? (He seems to bang his head a lot; why is he regenerating every couple years?)


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