Doctor Who: Remembrance of the Daleks - Review

Even when your television series has time travel as its central premise, it isn't advisable to go around tampering with your own established mythos, especially when it could cause all kinds of continuity problems. So it with some sheer audacity that Remembrance of the Daleks does just that. The fact that it tries to place the Doctor in a time zone, literally down to the day he was there is nothing short of breath taking. And it is staggering when you realise what the writers are trying to do, change the reason why the Doctor fled Gallifrey in the first place and heavily implying he wasn't the sort of character you first thought he was.

Those are the kinds of factors which could wreck this show from the inside out and it is credit to writer Ben Aaronovich and script editor, Andrew Cartmel that the gamble works as well as it does. If it was a good idea to do it in the first place is slightly debatable but we'll come back to that later as there is a lot going on with this story and it would be remiss to get ahead of ourselves just yet.

Remembrance kicked off series 25 the second series for Sylvester McCoy's Doctor, which had begun two years before after the disastrous events of The Trial of a Time Lord under the script editor Eric Saward. Colin Baker had been forced to relinquish the title role and it all ended one of Doctor Who's most unwatchable eras. John Nathan Turner who surprisingly still had his job, brought in Sylvester McCoy to play the Time Lord and although his debut story, Time and the Rani was really rather stupid, the show did improve, though it did take all of series 24 for the show to finally find its feet again. Ratings however didn't really improve and the show was still cancelled two years later in 1989. But there can be no denying that in the final two years of the show, the quality of the writing and stories being told did vastly improve. Alright, the production team weren't always able to reach the heights they had wanted, but it wasn't from lack of trying. But even the show's failures were better than when it was at its worst in the previous few years.

All this started by refurbishing the Doctor himself. Even though Time and the Rani was a look at a Doctor who might be more clownish and foolish, Cartmel and McCoy successfully found more layers for his character. Cartmel immediately jettisoned Saward's belief that the Doctor had to be a failure waiting to happen and gave the Seventh Doctor a manipulative streak and a penchant for playing long games with his companions and enemies. There were also hints that he was far more powerful and ancient than he had first let on. McCoy deftly incorporated those factors into his character by giving him a seriousness and intelligence that clearly drove his actions but could easily be missed if you looked on the surface and not at the darker tones underneath. It would also cause his enemies to badly underestimate him, like Columbo and Patrick Troughton's Second Doctor before him. And like those characters, the Seventh Doctor was also funny and chaplinesque in an underdog-kind-of-way, something Doctor Who seriously needed to return too.

That isn't to say that I am a massive fan of the Seventh Doctor's era. Many believe The Curse of Fenric to be one Doctor Who's pinnacle stories but, while I like it, I found it slightly sloppy and felt unfinished. And this era hasn't aged visually very well. The soundtracks, the costumes and the special effects have dated so much it can take you out of the story and while I like them, the title end up looking like a graphic's student project. True, you do have to understand the B-Movieness of the show and look past it to really enjoy it, but the later eighties show have struck me as slightly tackier and uglier than older seasons in ways that is less easy to forgive. However, Cartmel and the production office proved that Doctor Who once more had life in it after the near apocalypse of the Sixth Doctor era. And in many ways their way of creating this show has been the most influencial on the modern series.

Remembrance of the Daleks sees the Seventh Doctor's era kicked off at its highest gear. Appropriately for a show about to celebrate its silver anniversary, it takes a nostalgia heavy tale set in Coal Hill School where Doctor Who began. It then goes to I.M. Foreman's junkyard where Ian and Barbara found the TARDIS. But the story isn't just about nostalgia as it draws elements of stories from the entire history of the show and weaves them into one cohesive whole and it tells the story in a way that won't confuse people who aren't diehard fans of the show. For example, we have Ace's confusion over the coins of the sixties which shows us how young and inexperienced she is as a time-traveller. Susan was just as confused about coinage in An Unearthly Child and that was our first hint that the sixties wasn't her native time. But you don't need to know about that to appreciate the scene with Ace.

Then we have Group Captain Gilmore and Professor Rachel Jenson, who feel like important side characters in the fight against the Daleks to the normal viewer. To diehard fans of the show, they are supposed to remind us of Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart and Liz Shaw and the whole part of the British army dedicated to strange incursions works as a prelude to UNIT, following WOTAN's attack with the War Machines, the Yeti in the underground and later, the Cybermen in London. And a more seasoned fan might have realised that this story is supposed to be set before all of those adventures. Chronologically, this is the Doctor's first meeting with military forces and thus, the events of this story could have formed UNIT later on. Indeed it does, in Marc Platt's novel, Downtime, released during the 1990s.

Remembrance of the Daleks encourages the kind of anorak-attention to detail because the Aaronovich and Cartmel where doing the same sort of thing themselves, only with the intention of interlacing this story around the events of An Unearthly Child in a way that doesn't ruin the history of the show. But it is way more than just a gimmick. They use this complex structure to springboard their new vision for a darker and more mysterious Doctor by revealing he had hidden a powerful and ancient Time Lord weapon in London since the First Doctor had arrived in 1963.

Aaronovich and Cartmel also take considerable care in setting up events and elements borrowed from old school UNIT Earth Invasion stories, because it allowed to sneak in a change to the as-of-then modus operandi of the show. Before the Doctor had just turned up wherever there was a problem. In this story he has deliberately landed at Coal Hill School to fix a problem he had created and solve the issue of the Daleks, seemingly forever. At first, it seems like the Time Lords have sent him on this mission for them but as the truth begins to come out it is shocking long before the implications of his actions have settled in.

But it is also important to remember that this story wouldn't be so watchable had there not been some real important changes behind the scenes in terms of production value. While the budget was still at the bare minimum, it looks fantastic. From Ace beating up the Dalek with a baseball bat to the Special Weapons Dalek rolling and decimated large abandoned buildings in London. There is a large sense of fun which forgives the story of its smaller sins, like the direction sometimes rushing through scenes that as a result, feel less important. And then there is episode one's cliffhanger which sees a Dalek fly for the first time, long before Dalek, which milked the word 'Elevate' for all it was worth.

There is also some great character moments for the Doctor's companion Ace, who carries the emotional weight of the tale in a way no companion had ever done before. Having a character who grew and changed as the events around her forced her to open her eyes and see the universe for the beautiful mess it was, was never something that had happened on the show before. But this changed with Cartmel and the direction he wanted to take Ace in. Never mind the Daleks, Remembrance of the Daleks is a story about Ace, she makes new friends, flirts with strange men and is betrayed in return. And if the companions before her didn't get these types of storylines, then the ones who followed her certainly did.

Remembrance of the Daleks would be an odd fit for any Doctor and companion team apart from the Seventh Doctor and Ace. With a little bit of rewriting it would have fitted well for the Tenth Doctor, with fewer baseball bats and more 3-D glasses. Remembrance of the Daleks stands at almost the half-point of the show's history which seems appropriate considering the way it plays with the mythos that had come before it. And it then looks to uncannily anticipate the future as much as it deliberate invoke the past.