Having just finished my first ever foray into fanfic – a trilogy of Doctor Who novellas all based on one largely ill-remembered late-1970s serial – now seems like an opportune moment to look back on it …
Doctor Who, in its classic years (1963-89), tended to be at its best the closer it stuck to its roots, and said roots – as one will quickly realise when looking back at Season One – were quite astonishingly dark. The Doctor himself was initially presented as a selfish, amoral figure, essentially kidnapping his first set of companions and threatening, on more than one occasion, to leave them stranded and helpless. The Daleks, first appearing in the second story of Season One, were far from the ranting caricatures they would later often be depicted as, being paranoid and ruthless, yet also intelligent, devious, and not remotely comical. Even their final demise was shown in a subdued, almost tragic light, without victory celebrations or misplaced flippancy. Merely as the inevitably bloodthirsty end to a terrible war that should never have taken place.
1979’s “Destiny of the Daleks” – more or less co-written by Dalek creator Terry Nation and famed comedy SF writer Douglas Adams (editing heavily from the former’s script outline) – could hardly be more different in tone, and not for the better. At this stage in show history – after the very successful, intense, but controversial mid-Seventies tenure of producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes, under whose guidance the show had veered into very dark and violent subject matter – the current production team were still very mindful to keep the show “family friendly”. This is problematic when your most popular baddies are mutant-cyborg expies for the Third Reich, and unfortunately the solution chosen to lighten the subject matter is to make fun of said baddies. The most (in)famous moment of this story is probably the scene in which Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor, having rope-climbed to safety from the pursuing Daleks, turns back in order to fling them the taunt …
“If you’re supposed to be the superior race of the universe, why don’t you try climbing after us? Bye bye!”
Ouch. One gathers Terry Nation was less than enthused at his script editor’s approach, which sadly clouds the whole story. There are more intense moments – including one particularly ruthless mass execution scene lifted straight out of “Blakes Seven”, which is Terry Nation all over – but they jar most awkwardly with the general flippancy of the shooting script. The premise itself – that Daleks have now somehow evolved into purely robotic, logical beings, and become stuck in an unbreakable impasse with an opposing race of equally logical androids – feels very misguided, throwing away sixteen years’ worth of establishing the Daleks as anything but logical: in fact, as one character in their first story put it, they are “stupid and ridiculous” for harbouring their pathological “dislike for the unlike”. Since their racism, at any rate, seems entirely intact in “Destiny …” one has to question the quality of their much-vaunted logic.
The other thing this story is probably most remembered for are the Movellan androids – sometimes deemed as partially successful creations, often deemed as miserable failures, but at least memorable enough that they earned a small cameo in the 2017 season. On a purely aesthetic level – given the limitations of the show – they work quite well, exuding a graceful, blasé manner even under threat, and sending out just enough “uncanny valley” vibes to unsettle while still coming across as plausibly humanoid (They are, at least initially, attempting to obscure their AI nature, although the Doctor quickly catches on). There is a lovely, creepy moment when one of them politely and affably replies to a conversation he couldn’t possibly have heard, thus providing an early signal that they are not as human as they appear. On the whole, their characterisation is sparse – hindered in part by the fact it takes them so long to show their true colours – but they end up having some resemblance, whether intentional or not, to a prettier, colder, nastier version of the early 1970s “UNIT family”: the human military allies the Doctor was forced to work with during the 1970-73 seasons, having been exiled to Earth by the Time Lords.
The Movellan commander, Sharrel (Peter Straker), is courteous but utterly ruthless, not unlike the early depiction of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, and seemingly just as devoted to causing massive explosions. He is also just as limited in his personal imagination, but smart enough to recognise that having the right scientific advisor on his team would compensate for this … and thus he is keen to retain the services of a certain less-than-enthusiastic Time Lord. Below him, in the role of trusty stalwart, we have Movellan soldier Lan (Tony Osoba, pictured above): almost the android version of Sergeant Benton, always keen to volunteer and put himself in the way of danger for the sake of his comrades, but not very quick-witted, for which he pays dearly (Like his human predecessor, he is better-suited to standing around and looking pretty than trying to match wits with renegade Time lords). The final named Movellan, Agella (Suzanne Danielle), is not given a great deal to do, but her main notable action – sparing the Doctor’s companion from being incinerated in a trap Sharrel ordered her to set – marks her out as the closest thing to a moral centre in her unit, as Liz Shaw and Jo Grant had been during the UNIT years (Apparently, even among DW robots, it is the female models who are the nice(r) ones …). This also seriously muddies various attempts in the script to establish the Movellans as basically humanoid Daleks – just as single-minded and merciless – although perhaps we are meant to read Agella as a rare exception to the rule. She is, at any rate, accorded the dubious mercy of being reprogrammed to serve humans and thus surviving the story, while most of her comrades are deactivated.
The resemblance is probably coincidence, although at any rate it does make a neat bookend to the 1970s phase of the show. The Doctor, by this stage, had been AWOL from UNIT for three seasons, would not encounter them again for several more, and had firmly re-established his bohemian, anti-authoritarian personality. He had now installed a randomiser in his TARDIS, thus enforcing the same chaos and unpredictability on his future journeys as his first incarnation – through his sheer inability to pilot the TARDIS – had enjoyed (There was a plot reason for doing so – to shake off pursuit from a powerful being – but the Doctor’s smile at the close of the 1978 season strongly hinted he was quite looking forward to the mystery tour ahead …). Having finally shaken off the grim ties of military employment, of his Earth-bound exile, and of having to undertake penitential missions for the Time Lords and the White Guardian, the Doctor is now ready and eager to re-embrace his role of carefree spacetime rogue extraordinaire … only to be confronted by a bunch of uptight, pristine, militarised androids who want to force him right back into settled employment. In context, one cannot wonder that he takes such a grim delight in showing them where to stick it.
Indeed, it is in the performances of the leads that “Destiny of the Daleks” redeems itself a fair bit. While Douglas Adams’ witty stylings do not lend themselves terribly well to convincingly threatening Daleks, they do lend themselves to the barbed, sparkling chemistry between Tom Baker and Lalla Ward (At the time, a real-life couple). The very fact that this story introduces Lalla Ward’s version of Romana – albeit through the clumsiest regeneration scene ever devised – makes it well worth viewing for fans. Merit is also due for its dramatic location filming and – strange as it may seem – its special effects and miniature model work. The late ’70s shows somehow did quite well in these areas, in spite of a sharp decline in set and design quality (and “Destiny …” is no exception: be prepared to see some seriously tatty Daleks and costume recycling all over the shop).
As for the Movellans – in spite of being miserably trounced in this story – they somehow upped their game, as the next anyone heard of them (in 1984’s “Resurrection of the Daleks”) they had utterly defeated the Daleks with biological weapons. There is no canon word to this day, however, on why they apparently did not follow through with their stated plans of galactic conquest, or indeed what motivated said plans in the first place … or who created them, or why. Perhaps the revived show will eventually shed light on this, now that it has at least revisited the scene of their war … although I must admit, having now written three novellas’ worth of speculative answers to these enigmas, I kind of hope it never does. Even in the murky, lawless world of alt-canon, one would prefer not to be rendered obsolete too quickly. 😉