Destiny Of The Daleks – Or Douglas Adams Was No Robert Holmes

While most people think of Doctor Who‘s different eras in terms of the different actors playing the Doctor – and this is how I’ve broken up my Doctor Who week this week – the show went through far more radical changes when the production team changed, especially the producer/script editor combination. Those two between them would have far more control over the feel of the show than any star could – even Tom Baker, who dominated the show for seven years.

Baker’s tenure as the Doctor was split into three very different eras. His first three years, with Philip Hinchcliffe producing and Robert Holmes as script editor, are widely regarded among the show’s fanbase as the best the series ever had – combining black humour with grand guignol violence, occasionally experimental storytelling, and ‘homages’ to classic adventure fiction from Frankenstein to Fu Manchu. The next few years, which were dominated by producer Graham Williams, were pure pantomime, veering at times closer to the feel of the 1960s Batman series than anything else (they were actually tremendous fun at times, and gained the show its highest ratings). And his final year, after John Nathan-Turner took over as producer, was an attempt to do gothic-tinged ‘mature’ SF, with an air of seriousness and decay over the show.

Baker is the most fondly-remembered of all the Doctors – and on a good day he’s my favourite – and i suspect part of the reason for this is the amount of inventiveness in the show during his period. In the seven years he was the Doctor, he only did two Dalek stories and one Cyberman one (and two of those three were in his first year and had been commissioned by the outgoing team) – the vast majority of his stories were one-off stories featuring new antagonists.

However, Baker’s two Dalek stories do provide a very good baseline for comparison between the relevant production teams. Both were nominally written by Terry Nation. Both were set on the planet of Skaro, featured Tom Baker as the Doctor, featured both Davros and the Daleks, and centred on a stalemated war in which the Doctor ends up embroiled. So comparing the two should put the differences between production teams into sharp relief.

The reason for the similarities is, of course, Terry Nation. Nation was one of the luckiest men ever to have lived – a hack writer who was lucky enough to have the monsters in his script for a new children’s TV show designed by Raymond Cusick with an inventive voice treatment by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, this meant that he had control over all the rights to the Daleks, and could essentially do whatever he wanted.

What he wanted, it seemed, was to essentially churn out the same script every time. Nation had half a dozen… motifs is probably not the best word for them… that he re-used in pretty much every single script he ever wrote. Nazis are bad; diseases that can destroy all life are also bad. Nuclear war, too, is bad. And women sometimes fall over and hurt their ankle. His first couple of Dalek scripts were genuinely good examples of their kind. The rest… weren’t.

Every year or two, Nation would turn in a four- or six-part story featuring the Daleks, usually with a very simple hook (“the one where the Daleks’ guns don’t work”) and featuring all his usual topics, always in the form of a very skimpy first draft, and it would be left to the script editor at the time to turn it into something watchable.

At the time of Tom Baker’s first series, the previous producer and script editor (Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks) had become quite sick of Nation doing this, and had required him to actually hand in a *new* story, which was then passed on to the incoming team of producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes to turn into Genesis Of The Daleks. It still featured every one of Nation’s usual themes, but it had a new plot (telling of the creation of the Daleks), and featured a very strong central character in Davros, the Kaled scientist who created the Daleks – a half-Mengele, half-Strangelove megalomaniac.

How much of the final script Nation can take credit for, and how much is the work of Dicks (who was the script editor most concerned with tight plotting and shared Nation’s obsession with Naziesque villains), Holmes (whose flair for dialogue, wild imagination, and taste for Gothic melodrama pervade the show) and actors Tom Baker and Michael Wisher (who apparently used to sit in the studio canteen together and rework their dialogue into a more pseudo-Shakesperean form) is unclear, but either way, Genesis managed to be a minor masterpiece – overlong and unnecessarily padded, but with many fine moments and some classic ideas.

Baker wouldn’t appear in another Dalek story until 1979 – Hinchcliffe and Holmes disliked the Daleks and didn’t want to rely on old monsters – and when he did, it was in the first story script-edited by a young writer called Douglas Adams. The story in this case was a rehashing of every single cliche Nation plot element, including all the ones mentioned above, with the addition of robotic rivals in a war with the Daleks (an idea Nation had first used in 1964). Apparently large chunks are *also* recycled from Nation’s then-current TV series Blake’s Seven, but having never seen the episodes in question I can’t really comment on that.

However, while Nation is credited as writer, and the plot is certainly Nation-by-numbers, he appears to have had little to do with the final script (as director Ken Grieve puts it on the DVD commentary “He didn’t quite get around to writing the dialogue”), which seems to be mostly the work of Adams and producer Graham Williams, with some contributions by Grieve. The result is a mess – while Adams was one of the finest comic dialogue writers of his generation, he couldn’t really do plot, as anyone who’s read much of his work knows. So what we get is a series of great one-liners, and some wonderful characterisation, laid like a cheap coat of paint on a half-baked plot that they just don’t fit

The performances of the leads help to sell the story – Baker is always watchable, just for the sheer joy he brings to the performance, and he also had the most consistently interesting set of companions (Sarah Jane and Leela both having had actual interesting personalities), but Romana , a fellow Time Lord and the Doctor’s intellectual equal, is the strongest of the lot. This story features the introduction of the second Romana, in a regeneration scene written by Adams, and the chemistry between Lalla Ward, the actress playing her, and Baker is apparent straight away (the two later married briefly, but divorced soon afterwards, and she is currently married to the egregious Richard Dawkins). Aided by some really strong dialogue, the two rise above the workmanlike performances of the rest of the cast (why David Gooderson, the second actor to play Davros, tried to impersonate Michael Wisher but with an added faint Scottish accent, is a question for the ages) and the frankly appaling effects (the Daleks are *very* clearly made of painted wood in this one, and on several occasions the Doctor has to drag Davros about) to make this into a fun romp, and a great piece of children’s TV, but something that really doesn’t even stand up to the slightest scrutiny.

Adams would do better work for the show (City Of Death in the same series, which he co-wrote with Williams, is generally regarded as one of the best stories the show ever had, though I’m not hugely impressed with it myself) but Destiny Of The Daleks shows up the difference between a good script editor and a good writer who was himself often in *need* of an editor – Adams was in the wrong job, and left after only one series.

Destiny Of The Daleks is available on a single DVD, but if you want to watch it you’re best off buying the Davros box set (which you can get for £40 from Big Finish’s website), which includes all four of Davros’ other TV appearances (all of which are better than this one) and all the audio adventures of the character (including the superb Davros and the pretty good The Juggernauts). In that context, it’s a nice little bonus, and an enjoyable brainless way to spend an hour and a half. But taken on its own merits, it’s just what it was meant to be – disposable entertainment that was never meant to be seen again after a one-off broadcast in 1979.

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4 Responses to Destiny Of The Daleks – Or Douglas Adams Was No Robert Holmes

  1. RAB says:

    Yes, now I see the logic of choosing this story to represent the fourth Doctor. Not having seen this one since it was first broadcast on a local PBS station here in the States, I have no idea how it would look today.

    One thing I can say with some confidence is that I hate Davros and every episode that includes Davros, including the inexplicably popular Genesis of the Daleks — though admittedly I’d consider it a moody and atmospheric story if it wasn’t a Dalek story and didn’t have Davros in it, the damage it did to the Dalek idea was just too extreme. I remember all those years ago being very irked to learn Davros was coming back in this story.

    Your larger point about the fourth Doctor and the change in production teams is a really important one. Is it possible that the enduring popularity of Tom Baker’s Doctor owes something to that very change in producers — i.e., we saw him in a much greater variety of styles and storytelling approaches than any other Doctor? If you liked the gothic horror homages you’ll remember the Hinchcliffe and Holmes era fondly and overlook the rest; if you liked the goofy clowning and broad winks at the audience (and many of my fellow Americans do, it sickens me to say) you’ll love the Williams years best, and consider what came before and after boring and humorless. So there was something for almost everyone to latch onto. By contrast, all subsequent Doctors have been much more homogenous in tone and approach within their tenures. (With a possible exception for that very difficult transition from Colin Baker to McCoy.)

    “…and she is currently married to the egregious Richard Dawkins” I can only assume this is some usage of the word “egregious” to mean “luckiest bastard in the world” of which I was previously unaware.

  2. I’m sure that is a substantial part of the reason for Baker’s popularity – though it doesn’t hurt that he was such a fine performer too.

    I think Davros and the Daleks both work best when apart, or when opposed to each other. Of the three Big Finish audios they’ve done with the character (not counting the four I, Davros stories that don’t feature the Doctor), the worst, by a long way, is Time Of The Daleks where Davros is leading the Daleks in his usual manner. The Juggernauts, where Davros is trying to build Dalek-killing robots, is better. And Davros, which doesn’t feature any Daleks at all, is truly excellent…

    And I do have some difficulty understanding how such a third-rate intellect as Dawkins has managed to marry someone so obviously more intelligent, wittier, more talented and better-looking than himself (but then my wife has all those qualities too, and she married me, so that kind of thing does happen…)

  3. (Oh, and I know you’re a fan of Dawkins. I’m not, even though I’d guess that I share at least 80% of his opinions, because he holds them for the wrong reasons and because he seems so *furious* at anyone who doesn’t hold the same ideas as himself. He seems like a bright eighteen-year-old who can’t understand why everyone doesn’t think the same way as him because everything’s so *obvious* so everyone else must be *stupid*, so there’e no point even listening to them…)

  4. RAB says:

    If it helps any, the term “Brights” causes me physical pain.

    Longer version: even as someone who admires his work, I can agree with those criticisms. My regard for Dawkins comes from his first three books, which I read when they were first published and long before Dawkins became such a media figure. I own a couple of his later books but haven’t actually read them; I get the impression they’re in the “let me dumb this down even further while I explain this yet again” mode, but I could be mistaken. It may also be that any outspoken, articulate atheist looks a bit different on this side of the Atlantic, where — you’ll no doubt have noticed — loudly proclaimed piety is considered mandatory in public and anyone who professes skepticism is regarded with deep hostility and suspicion. Even with his failings, Dawkins is a kind of voice we’re too often starved for. All the more so since Vonnegut and Carlin passed away.

    Not to let this thread be totally dominated by Dawkins…The Juggernauts is the one Big Finish audio I’ve heard, and I can see what you mean. I might have liked Davros better if he’d never been involved with the Daleks at all.

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