Body Count: Re-Evaluating Resurrection of the Daleks

Written by the incumbent script editor, Eric Saward to end the 20th anniversary season of Doctor Who, and planned as an Earthshock-style reinvention of an old foe, the story which eventually became Resurrection of the Daleks was hit by a BBC electrician’s strike and did not actually make it onto our screens until the following year.

Last seen in 1979’s Destiny of the Daleks, notwithstanding a brief cameo in The Five Doctors, the infamous foes had enjoyed a five-year long absence. This return leans heavily on the continuity of what has gone before, with the Daleks on a mission to rescue their duplicitous creator from imprisonment and harness his skills as a geneticist, as well as having other nefarious plans in mind.

Originally made as a standard four-parter, Winter Olympics scheduling altered the programme into a two x 50 minute format. Though this robbed us of two cliff-hangers, it did make for a special event feel that I still remember. For the purposes of this article, I have chosen to watch the story, as written, in its four part version – especially seeing as the Beeb was kind enough to resurrect it for the DVD release (as part of 2011’s Revisitations 2, which we’ll come back to).

Though the preceding tale, Frontios ended with the newly restored TARDIS dragged towards the centre of the universe, we begin the story in the Docklands area of London, pre-urban regeneration as a group of terrified futuristic refugees burst from a warehouse into the street. Not only they are promptly gunned down by what appear to be a trio of uniformed police officers, but an innocent tramp witness is also murdered for good measure. This really sets the tone for what is to come.

Given the story’s pre-publicity, and considering the title includes their name, it is a while before we meet any actual Daleks. Instead, we are introduced to Lytton (Maurice Colbourne), the commander of humanoid Dalek troopers, as he prepares for the invasion of a prison ship – a prison that contains only one inmate. Meanwhile, the TARDIS, once free of the time corridor, finds herself on Earth where the Doctor cannot resist investigating.

Soon, we are knee-deep in a whole host of situations; following the remaining crew of the prison ship post-Dalek attack, with the Doctor (Peter Davison), Tegan (Janet Fielding), and Turlough (Mark Strickson) as they hook up with the refugee, Stein (Rodney Bewes) and an Army Bomb disposal team and with Lytton as he deals with the troublesome prisoner, who is revealed to be the Dalek creator, Davros (Terry Molloy).

Instantly devious, no sooner than he is defrosted, Davros begins plotting and amassing a group of followers. Whereas in the past he operated a regime of fear, this time he resorts to mind control and bends an army of yes men, and Daleks, to his will.

So, there’s plenty of plot going on and it throws up so many questions. Davros seems to have been in a very strange and cruel form of cryogenic suspension that has frozen his body but allowed his mind to remain active. He also seems to have had the opportunity to create a chemical mind control drug of sorts. Given that he is referred to only as “The Prisoner” at first, it was fascinating to see him sat in the back of shot as characters in the foreground discuss his defrosting. I could not decide, however, whether this was a botched reveal or intended as an opportunity for those with long memories to spot him first.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Dalek’s plan seems to consist of despatching cloned TARDIS crew duplicates to assassinate the High Council on Gallifrey. While this would doubtless be an atrocity, there is no implication that the Time Lords and the Daleks are in open war, or indeed any indication of what the consequences would be other than a hastily arranged election. Impressively, they appear to have cloned both Tegan and Turlough already.

Back on Earth, there would appear to be no obvious explanation as to why the Daleks chose to store the canisters of the deadly Movellan virus down the end of a time tunnel, nor why it needs to lead to 20th Century Earth. On reflection, I’d imagine if you’re in the business of ensnaring a Doctor, that is as good a place to do it as any.

Another concern for me seemed to be the events happening in the ‘future’ time zone, where the Daleks have already installed duplicates in positions of power, which they boast are ready to seize the planet. To what end is uncertain, but it doesn’t seem to trouble the Doctor too much.

I did like the fact that the big Doctor/Davros confrontation is held off until Part Four, where the Doctor has the upper hand if only he was possessed of a killer instinct. Also, Davros doesn’t recognise him, which is a nice touch. The scenes where the Doctor is ‘fishing’ for information while strapped down are great too as he cleverly gets under the skin of Stein and irritates the Daleks. Davison plays it superbly and the moment when he realises there’s a chink in Stein’s armour, and that the term ‘choice’ is a weak spot, is wonderful.

Also enjoyable are the moments when you see the Daleks being sneaky, like sending Lytton to deal with Davros’ troops and then following up with Daleks to despatch him too. They reel the Doctor in by letting Turlough wander and endeavour to manipulate Davros, allowing him to believe he has the upper hand. This is when Daleks are at the best and shows them off as more than just “Monster of the Week”. I did find it amusing that most of the Daleks could do very little without seeking permission from the Supreme Dalek. They appear to spend a good deal of time popping off to consult him so he obviously runs a tight ship. In many ways, I think a face-to-face confrontation between the Supreme and Davros would have been exciting to see. Or indeed, a proper one between the Supreme and the Doctor.

The story showcases an impressive roster of guest stars, some of whom were relatively big names of the day. For me, the standout performer must be Maurice Colbourne, whose Lytton is a real piece of work. He fully inhabits the concept of mercenary by being generally untrustworthy, deceitful, and murderous. His apparent lack of fear when it comes to the Daleks, coupled with an agenda to look after number one and his obvious authority issues, make him a far more dangerous threat than the Daleks themselves. I can’t help but think that the writer was a little too pleased with this creation, so much, in fact, that Lytton literally walks away from the story at the end ready to cross swords with the Doctor another day.

This is Terry Molloy’s first outing as Davros, as Michael Wisher was once again unavailable to reprise the role. He really makes it his own and, with a redesigned and more flexible mask, he shines as the twisted genius and is far more impressive than his predecessor was, if perhaps still not quite matching the original.

Rodney Bewes is, by turns, entertaining and troubled as the cowardly and tortured stuttering Stein while Rula Lenska makes a formidable no-nonsense medical Doctor on the prison ship. A special mention ought to be made for former Playschool presenter Chloe Ashcroft as Laird, the army scientist who is rather cruelly shot in the back whilst trying to escape. The story is also notable for Leslie Grantham’s early work as Kiston, Davros’ technician before he found fame in EastEnders.

The companions do okay here, if not particularly well utilised. Turlough, accidentally stumbling up the time corridor, does some shifty lurking about the two docked spaceships and ends up teaming up with the remnants of the prison ship’s crew. Meanwhile, Tegan, despite being landed with the injured companion sub-plot, fares well enough and there’s some entertainment had to seeing her conspiring to escape with the aid of the army bomb squad’s scientist, the ill-fated Professor Laird.

Tegan’s departure at the end of the show is somewhat hurried. Despite being pretty gung-ho moments earlier, suddenly “it’s stopped being fun”. With a nice reference to her Auntie Vanessa, who was bumped off by the Master in her debut story Logopolis, she’s gone only to duck back for a “Brave Heart Tegan” once the ship has dematerialised. I do feel the need to question when exactly Tegan had ever been having fun? Despite being a feisty and forthright companion, she spent the better part of three years whinging and complaining – and was once left behind and chose to come back again. While not a bad exit and far stronger than some, it is a shame she was not afforded something a little more concrete or a theme hinted at earlier in the tale. Indeed, only two stories earlier she could have been left with family. I can only assume that this was a casualty of the story’s deferred scheduling and the impending departures of both Mark Strickson and Peter Davison.

I very much enjoyed the wonderfully suspenseful scene with the escaped Dalek mutant in the warehouse, though sadly it culminates with the Doctor using a handgun, which always takes the shine off somewhat. At the end of the story, I can’t help but wonder what happened next. The Doctor beats a hasty retreat to the TARDIS leaving troopers and army clones bodies strewn all around, plus the carcases of many a Dalek and some anachronistic weaponry. Another clean up job for the UNIT boys perhaps? Or even Torchwood perhaps – let’s not go there!

Lytton’s troopers are a great way to humanise the threat, just as their Ogron and Robomen forbears did. They minimise the overuse of the Dalek props and save us more than a few of those stilted inter-Dalek conversations that can slow the pace so. I wasn’t charmed with their Dalek-ish headgear and handguns though, which really do just look rather daft. Mind you, these days Character Options would have them in the shops for the following week and, as I young fan, I would have certainly been putting them on my Christmas list!

Technically, I think this is a great show to look at. Action scenes are performed with much aplomb and there are clever uses of noises off and extras to give it all a sense of scale. The opening Steadicam shot is daring for its time and director, Matthew Robinson certainly throws us into the heart of the action. Location wise, the docklands setting of Shad Thames really grounds the show in an urban reality and it’s great to see Tower Bridge in the back of shot as the TARDIS materialises.

At the time, I recall being delighted by the historical montage of Doctors and companions’ faces as the Doctor is hooked up to the Dalek’s ‘mind copier’. It was always a treat for the fans in the pre-home video era and perhaps the excitement is not so easy to grasp now. It was a shame that Leela was missing due to a post-production slip-up. This is where continuity belongs: in passing nods rather than integral to the storyline.

Though not apparently for any pre-determined reason, the transmission of the story as 2 x 50 minutes serves as an interesting forerunner to the format shift which came in the subsequent year. The restored cliffhangers provided are both reasonable, the first being when a Dalek appears from the time corridor into the warehouse. For story reasons, I can’t help but wishing that was the first reveal of the enemy. The Part 3 cliffhanger gives us a classic Davros rant and, while rather generic in threat, is nonetheless compelling as he spells out his evil scheme. Interestingly, the dramatic tension of the sequence with the Doctor attached to the Dalek machine is utterly spoilt by that Davros rant, so to my mind the longer combined Parts 3 and 4 does in fact do the story a favour.

Resurrection has been released on DVD in the UK a number of times; initially on its own, with a rubber ‘Dalek Bump’ slip cover, and subsequently on various occasions as part of Dalek collections, including as part of the Davros Boxset. The DVD is backed with commentary, interviews, and a feature returning to the Shad Thames location. In 2011, the story was given the ‘Special Edition’ treatment as part of the Revisitations 2 set. This comprises two versions of the story as discussed above and other features, most notably an additional commentary and the superb Come In Number Five documentary which is a frank retrospective on Peter Davison’s time on the show, hosted by David Tennant (never heard of him).

So, is Resurrection of the Daleks a great story?  While there are some impressive individual performances and action sequences, it is also a relentlessly bleak and bloodthirsty story which fails to live up to the sum of its considerable parts. Despite a few forgivable costume faux pas – we must remember this was made in 1983 – it still looks impressive today. The shock of seeing a prison ship crewmember smoking is a jolt that reminds you of the show’s age.

Setting Davros up against his creations and the formation of rival Dalek factions are themes that will be returned to again in Revelation and Remembrance. I am not really sure how, in story terms, this counts as a resurrection though; it is more a resurrection of five-year-old continuity than anything else, with the Daleks still apparently running scared from the Movellan threat. The story does not manage to re-establish them as a force to be reckoned with, but rather as a desperate bunch crawling back to their creator once again. Combining that with the seemingly ill-conceived assassination sub-plot, you end up with a bit of a mess. In essence, while it might look stylish and dramatic, the story itself is convoluted and misjudged in tone; and thus fundamentally flawed.

I think what troubles me more than anything else is the evident lack of joy throughout. The only humour present is black and sarcastic. While it is right and proper to have the Doctor and his companions challenged both morally and physically, surely Doctor Who at its heart is adventure and excitement and yet this leans more towards wartime drama or, dare say it, shades of Who’s former stable mate Blake’s 7. Tonally, I have to wonder who the show was being made for at this point; surely not the family audience, given its high mortality rate and elements of body horror? Perhaps this is symptomatic of Doctor Who losing its way and misunderstanding the core audience. In truth, I’m glad this tale did not run in its original spot as it would have been a hell of a dark way to end the celebratory season.