“Destiny of the Daleks” – reappraisal


(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.