Sunday, 14 February 2010

"If you ever loved me – kill me!"

Written by Eric Saward, directed by Graeme Harper, 1985

During DWM’s Time Team viewing of this story, Clayton Hickman described it as ‘funky’. Now, while I’d dispute the choice of word, I know what he means. This is a rare example of a Doctor Who story that is cool. Not as a catch-all positive, but in the sense of a timeless attitude and style – like, I don’t know, nouvelle vague movies, or the Velvet Underground, or Toshiro Mifune.

It’s hard to pin down why, but let’s put it down to a combination of Eric Saward’s unrestrained writing (compare and contrast with the relatively controlled – and less interesting – Visitation), coupled with Graeme Harper’s stylistic verve.

Things are often cool for unexpected reasons – for example, Orcini, the gun-toting, black-leather-clad mercenary, should be really lame. What redeems him (aside from the weary nobility of William Gaunt’s performance) is his unexpected age, dignity, and faulty leg. There are lots of similar little twists in this story – the mutant’s gentility, Davros’ smoothness and persuasion, or the disquieting acceptance of the Daleks gliding around Tranquil Repose (recalling their "We are your ser-vants!" routine from Power of the Daleks).

Then there’s the DJ, who – whether you like him or not – forms an intriguingly arch and self-aware Greek chorus figure. The focus on any music beyond the incidental is also interestingly atypical for Doctor Who – and could have been taken a lot further; its incongruity in the stock futuristic setting is unexpectedly effective.

Revelation belongs to Davros, boasting his best portrayal – as a real character, rather than stock nutter. His scenes with Tasambeker are electric; it’s chilling hearing him talk about love and obsession rather than race hate and world domination. "If someone had treated me the way he has treated you… I think I would have killed them." And that Dalek eyestalk pushing into view. Genius. (Tasambeker’s great too, precisely for being so rubbish – but you still feel for her because Jobel’s such a bastard: "This one thinks with her knuckles.")

Davros certainly gets all the best lines:
• “Watch him… Then tell me if your hate doesn’t grow!”
• “His infidelity is bad enough, but his treason is unforgivable!”
• “It is an offer that must be fulfilled through blood!”

(Eleanor Bron does give him a run for his money though, with Kara’s, “It’s a bomb! A GREAT BIG BOMB!”)

Incidentally – I love, love, love Davros’ Daleks. They don’t look as spiffy as in Remembrance, but I appreciate the iconoclastic ditching of gunmetal grey for white and gold. Like much of Revelation, its appeal is that it seems kind of wrong.

It’s these little inspired touches that make Revelation a bit… awesome, really. Above-par touches in the set design, like the bodhisattvas and religious iconography in Davros’ lair, are wonderful too because there’s no particular reason for them. Even the snow outside lends the story an additional interesting visual element.

Some stylish violence also helps this story enormously: Kara’s on-screen stabbing with a flick-knife; the hypodermic incident (!); Lilt beating up Natasha and threatening to mark her face; Stengos’ mutated head in the glass Dalek... Body horror is all to the good.

In fact, the energy, violence and unpredictability of season twenty-two (despite its flaws) is such a relief after the Davison era. I just watched The Visitation, Black Orchid, and Enlightenment back to back – all stories I like, but what a slog. Beige is the word. By comparison, every time I watch this, I get so involved, curling up on the sofa, and grinning all the way through.

It’s interesting, directly comparing the Sixth Doctor to the Fifth: here we have a Doctor who, unlike his predecessor, takes the brutal ‘Sawardian’ universe on at its own game, rather than submitting to it. And, despite all the grumbling about the sidetracking of the Doctor (and Daleks), the Sixth Doctor is great here. Though it’s annoying we can’t just accept something without there being a convenient label to slap on it, in light of the new series’ official Doctor-lite stories, his limited involvement doesn’t really matter, does it? Plus, Colin looks fab in his cloak. There aren’t enough cloaks on our screens these days.

Admittedly, there are slightly too many crappy eighties elements for the story to be perfect – Natasha and Grigory are a bit wet and mannered; the funerary pyjamas are too flimsy to convince, and while unconvincing visual effects normally don’t bother me, the weedy lasers are a let-down because everything else is so assured. But criticising these things feels churlish when such an odd melange of darkness, humour, and intrigue works without feeling disjointed (or rather, its disjointedness is part of the appeal).

I can’t help feel how bizarre it is that all this sprung from An Unearthly Child; in fact, it does make me wonder, can we really pretend this is even the same series? On the one hand, of course it is an ongoing story, albeit with natural tonal and visual changes. But at the same time – apart from the regenerations running together and the occasional back-references, only the presence of the Daleks and the TARDIS links this story to the original season! But, ultimately, I enjoy that disparity: no-one could have predicted such an unorthodox mishmash as this – but that’s why it’s so effective.

I always gripe about the new series in relation to old classics, but I can’t help wishing this risk-taking, irreverent approach was more evident in 'the Russell T Davies era'. No new series story is this cool – not that they haven’t tried (Daleks versus Cybermen! The Master becomes prime minister!), but that’s the problem: trying too hard. With its lazy Daleks in Manhattans and Sontaran Stratagems and Doctor’s Daughters, the outgoing Davies era has nothing on this; thus far, twenty-first century Doctor Who has been too safe to achieve anything with such idiosyncratic flair.

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