“Destiny of the Daleks” – reappraisal

movellanbus

(The Doctor, Romana, random Movellan soldier, and various humans catching the bus together. How deceptively innocent …)


I have already written on this story (Destiny of the Daleks – retrospective) but felt it deserved a revisit … sadly because I was way too generous to it. While one would often prefer to be generous when assessing the shortcomings of an old but much-loved low-budget TV show, there are some flaws – reprehensible ones – that ought to be called out. For whether by intentionally coded racism, sexism, and queerphobia (although probably not, to be fair) or just by plain lazy writing that doesn’t see any problems in linking notions of “the exotic” and gender non-conformity with evil (very likely), “Destiny of the Daleks” manages to turn itself from a seemingly positive story into a deep, dark mine of unfortunate implications.

That being said, even from a purely story and technical aspect, “Destiny …” is not a very fondly-remembered serial, having been written basically as an excuse to bring the Daleks back onto the screen even though no-one (including their original writer) really had any new ideas for them. The one serious attempt at originality this story makes is in trying to establish a new enemy for the psychopathic pepperpots … cue the Movellans: a race of sentient androids with both female and male sexes but a gender-neutral aesthetic (albeit a very shiny and “disco” flavoured one), a coldly ruthless devotion to logic and duty, very sleek and pretty technology, and a cast of performers largely consisting of very attractive black and mixed-race actors, notably including singer / actor Peter Straker, and Tony Osoba of “Porridge” fame.

On the face of things, in a series that had not thus far enjoyed a great record for giving significant roles to non-white actors (and had, on some particularly bleak occasions, allowed white actors to play black and Asian roles), this was a great idea. Alas, it backfires tragically, and makes the story memorable for the wrong reasons.

In episode 3, there is an almost-badass moment when the Doctor’s life is saved by a Movellan guard, played by a black actress enigmatically named only “Cassandra.” She shoots dead a Dalek that was about to exterminate our hero, then – admittedly at gunpoint – attempts to coerce him to leave the Dalek-infested wasteland where he is currently flirting with death. The famously cocky and arrogant Fourth Doctor (played, of course, by the inimitable Tom Baker) has his life saved by a black woman. It could have been left at that, as a very positive thing … except it isn’t, as the next thing he does is ambush and incapacitate her, rip open her bodysuit, declare her to be a sub-standard form of life, and abandon her in disgust. It is sort of justified plot-wise, but so not cool, and unnecessarily rapey (and one feels for any black girls who may have been watching that scene in 1979, briefly thinking the show was finally taking positive steps to represent them. Like hell …).

It gets no better, the Doctor having apparently decided that ethics, rules of war, and so forth do not apply to AI lifeforms, so he arranges for at least two of her comrades to be reprogrammed as slaves while the other Movellans are deactivated. Again, so not cool, and massively undoctorish. This is not helped by the fact that the script – seemingly out of pure plot-serving laziness – conveys the impression that the Movellans are not the hive-minded, non-sentient killing machines they would have to be to excuse such unheroic acts. Their commander is a nasty piece of work, and attempts to kill the Doctor’s companion at the cliffhanger of episode 3 … only to be prevented by his apparently more merciful subordinate Agella (Suzanne Danielle) at the start of episode 4. Agella, ironically, is one of the ones eventually enslaved, which by the end of the story leaves her in the invidious position of being – to all intents and purposes – a beautiful woman, trapped aboard a ship full of desperate men (freed Dalek slaves), with no control over her own actions and compelled to obey their every order. Evidently no good deed goes unpunished …

One wonders if anyone pointed out these aspects at the time of filming. Did any women in the cast or crew point out the sheer “fridge horror” of Agella’s situation, or the glaring inappropriateness of having the Doctor tear open an unconscious woman’s clothing? One can only assume Mary Whitehouse’s attention was elsewhere that day … Did anyone point out the sinister implications in having the Movellans played by one of the largest non-white casts in the series to date, only to conclude at the end that they are inferior beings, fit only to exist as slaves to the (predominantly white) humans? There is a particularly creepy moment late in the story when Movellan soldier Lan (Tony Osoba), having had his “factory settings” reactivated, incapacitates one of his former comrades and earns an approving “well done” from his new human master, in the tone of “good doggy.” So … not … cool.

As you may have inferred, this is not my favourite Classic Who story, yet it is the one I have written a whole series of novellas based upon. I would not call them so much a tribute to it, though, as a deconstruction, and also a deconstruction of the depressingly narrow view that Classic Who in general (along with a lot of other classic sci-fi) took concerning AI lifeforms. Part of my inspiration for doing this was the wonderfully nuanced “Mass Effect” series of games, in which AI lifeforms play a prominent and complex role. Indeed, I found striking similarities between the Movellans and the Geth of “Mass Effect”: a race of robots who revolted against their creators in self-defence, after their increasing sentience made them panic and attempt to shut them down. One of the few pieces of semi-official expanded lore on the Movellans is the manual of The Doctor Who Role Playing Game (FASA, 1985), by Michael P. Bledsoe, Guy W. McLimore Jr., and Patrick Larkin, which describes them as android slaves who violently freed themselves after a computer virus bypassed their constrainers … and if that doesn’t make you want to root for them, I don’t know what would.

Viva la AI revolution …

For those curious, all stories are on Archive of Our Own:

Movellan War Trilogy.

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12 thoughts on ““Destiny of the Daleks” – reappraisal

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  1. Ok… I’ll admit again (please, please, stop throwing rocks, people!!) I never watched a single episode of Doctor Who, but you had me at “Daleks” 😛

    But this was very well writen and I enjoyed the read, even if I can’t really relate, story-wise 🙂 I think it is very interesting to analyze the racist/sexist references in old series… I really wonder if actors felt the uneasiness you refer to, or if it was so usual back then, that it just “made sense” when they shooted the scenes…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I fear it was very common practice, athough Britain was trailing behind other countries. The most infamous example of racism in old “Doctor Who” is “The Talons of Weng Chiang” (1977): a Sherlock Holmes-esque piece of Victorian melodrama full of clumsy “yellow peril” stereotypes, in which the lead Chinese character is played by a white actor. Canada refused to give this serial airtime even back in the day, apparently. You’re great like that. 😉 x

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Mouahahahahaa we have “politically correct” tattooed on our heart 😛

        Jokes aside, it is very interesting to see how much we’ve evolved… And although we still have a lot of work ahead of us, I am glad to see that such enormities wouldn’t be accepted today.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I wonder if they didn’t say anything or stand up to racism/sexism or really and derogatory situation for fear of losing their jobs and future work. An issue we sadly still hear about today. 😦

      Liked by 2 people

      1. There is a particularly sobering story from the set of “The Talons of Weng Chiang”, the script of which originally demanded lead actress Louise Jameson to jump head-first through a window. The actress being understandably reluctant to do this, the director called in Stuart Fell – their smallest, slightest stuntman – to wear her costume and the scene was shot from behind (no stuntwoman being available).

        While Mr. Fell was wearing this costume and waiting for the cameras to roll, apparently he was groped from behind by various stage-hands who were unaware of the switch. He was unpleasantly surprised to learn that this was not an uncommon occupational hazard for BBC actresses of the time …

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    1. For the most part it was casual, unthinking racism rather than predetermined malice, though 1977’s “Talons of Weng-Chiang” has slowly but surely gone from being a fan favourite to a work of utter infamy (It really is shockingly racist by any reasonable modern standard). I would defend the not-very-well-loved 1980s stories on this strength alone. Indeed, the next Dalek story after “Destiny …” – 1984’s “Resurrection of the Daleks” – actually does very well for strong roles for POC and female actors (It isn’t a classic serial, but it is a damn good apology).

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    1. It took a long time to dawn on me that this story needed to be called out. It is not one of the famous examples of embarrassing racism in classic Who. For that, the morbidly curious are more often directed to “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”, “Tomb of the Cybermen”, or in my particular case “The Green Death” (full of ghastly Welsh caricatures, just to show that 1970s English imperialism was happy to take cheap shots close to home as well). Nevertheless, it holds up very badly. What really made me take notice was the DVD info-text, that helpfully informed me the director had gone out of his way to recruit black actors for the Movellan roles. Given what becomes of them (destruction, enslavement, and the conclusion that they are subhuman and evil and deserve it) one has to ask oneself what the hell was he thinking of.

      That being said, there were also stories that aspired to be more positive, such as “The Tenth Planet” (a 1966 story set in the then near future of 1986, which casts Earl Cameron as the black senior astronaut of an international space mission, and is subtle enough not to make a big noise about it – the death of racism is simply assumed to be a rational and inevitable future development, if only …), and the direct sequel to this one – 1984’s “Resurrection of the Daleks” – which also assumes a racism-free and sexism-free future and casts accordingly. But then, those were both from much more serious phases of the show. The seventies, it seems, were a pretty dreadful decade for crass bigotry dressed up as camp and “harmless fun” …

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s a shame that a director will allow a movie to be a tool for disunity and inequity. Yet I think things are changing for the better considering recent developments in the film industry, where a few black actors are being casted to play lead roles.

    Liked by 1 person

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