Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between. But recently I decided to spend some of my 50th birthday spending money on some of these adventures, and enjoy them with one or two of my nerdier daughters.
Remembrance of the Daleks
Starring Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor.
Companion: Sophie Aldred as Ace
Written by Ben Aaronovitch. Directed by Andrew Morgan.
Format: 4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired: October 1988. (Episodes 1-4 of Season 25)
Remembrance of the Daleks represents a small new beginning for Doctor Who, with debuting a shift in tone for the Seventh Doctor’s stories and an emergence of his more scheming and manipulative personality. Ben Aaronovitch was a writer brought in by script editor Andrew Cartmel and his story reflected Cartmel’s desire to seed elements of mystery into the Doctor’s backstory.
Remembrance of the Daleks is not Doctor Who‘s 25th anniversary story, but it probably should have been. It is a solid, action packed adventure with great character work, some deep themes, with a plot that is built on a healthy layer of the show’s history while still taking things to a place that’s new. In that sense, it’s probably the closest thing the old show ever got to making something a bit like Day of the Doctor (the later 50th anniversary story), except without the returning Doctors & companions, of course.
The story builds on plotlines that had been established in other Dalek stories from previous few seasons, which involved the machinations of the Dalek’s creator Davros, a civil war amongst different Dalek factions, and a brewing conflict between the Daleks and the Time Lords. Indeed the title of this story, Remembrance of the Daleks, only makes sense in the light of this run of serials. The drama sees the Doctor destroying Skaro, and apparently defeating the Daleks once and for all (something that according to future showrunner Russell T. Davies was a pivotal step in the forthcoming Time War). Of course we know they’ll be back someday, but for the time being it all feels very historic and momentous.
On this backdrop the show serves as a re-introduction to the Seventh Doctor, who shifts from being a largely buffonish figure to more scheming and cunning than we’ve ever seen the Doctor before. Throughout the whole drama, he is pretty confident he has the Daleks defeated via his long-standing strategy involving the Hand of Omega–it’s only the presence of a second Dalek faction that prevents him from carrying out his plan immediately. It is, frankly, a welcome transition for the Seventh Doctor, and one which essentially came to define his character. Sylvester McCoy has some great moments to play, especially the story’s climax. The scene where the Doctor faces down Davros and allows Skaro to be destroyed is the first real display the show has given us of the “crazy-prepared ultra-intelligent unbeatable” Doctor that we often got with the likes of David Tennant and Matt Smith.
Also used well is Sophie Aldred’s Ace, who gets to be angry and disillusioned at the racism she sees, particularly from a guy who was set up to be a potential love-interest. Her indignation is well-played, and the subplot helps to establish the show’s themes. Ace is a great character and probably the best developed companion of the classic era. Plus, she gets to memorably jump through windows and smash Daleks with a souped-up baseball bat, which is, you probably know, completely awesome.
The guest cast is strong as well. Simon Williams, Pamela Salem, and Rachel Gledhill play a fun trio of characters (Group Captain Gilmore, Professor Rachel Jensen and Allison Williams) who all survive the story and went on to feature extensively in Doctor Who spin-off material, including their own series of Big Finish audio dramas under the banner Counter-Measures. They are sort of a proto-UNIT type group, helping the Doctor with military and scientific resources, but earlier in history than Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and his comrades.
As mentioned above, Remembrance of the Daleks was part of a new deliberate attempt by the production to create an air of mystery around the character of the Doctor. As such, it appears to represent a significant adjustment to the show’s internal continuity. I’ve read that it appears to imply that when the First Doctor was on earth in the show’s first episode, An Unearthly Child, that he already had the Hand of Omega with him, having taken it from Gallifrey with a plan to use it as part of a trap to destroy the Daleks. This of course contradicts the fact that the Doctor does not recognize the Daleks when he meets them in the series’ second serial, from 1963-1964.
But on further scrutiny, there is nothing in Remembrance of Daleks to say that the Doctor’s original intention with the Hand of Omega had anything to do with the Daleks. So it’s possible to interpret these events as saying that the First Doctor did take and hide the Hand of Omega during his time that Susan was at Coal Hill School, but that he still didn’t recognize the Daleks shortly afterward.
(Having said that, it’s still a bit strange to imagine that the First Doctor was up to anything so sneaky, and similarly that he had never heard of the Daleks before, given how important they’ve been revealed to be in the history of the universe. I’ve got other fan-theories about that which I’ll share another time).
The Seventh Doctor is not always remembered by fans with the greatest fondness, and certainly there are legitimate criticisms to be leveled against the portrayal and the era. But I think when people who are making such criticisms are usually not talking about Remembrance of the Daleks. It’s a strong and fun story, and probably the best set of episodes that the show had produced for three or four years.