This is the point at which it’s widely claimed that Doctor Who got back on track after at least three, perhaps as many as ten seasons depending on what kind of fan you are. Even the people who never quite warmed to Sylvester McCoy tend to rate this one highly. It’s easy to see why: it’s a brisk action piece, it introduces the creative team’s new conception of the Doctor as a manipulative schemer with some secrets left in the bank, it revisits various nostalgic touchpoints (the UNITesque military group, I.M. Foreman’s scrapyard, Coal Hill School), and it’s devoid of any of the “fun” elements that characterize some of the more eccentric and divisive stories of the era.
Not for the first or last time we have two warring Dalek factions, which is as always confusing, but at least keeps the loyalties of various human players obscure until later on in the story. Most of the players have little to do but follow the Doctor around, even the military’s scientific advisor (played by the lovely Pamela “Toos” Salem with a Barbara Wright-esque hairdo) and her assistant (played by equally lovely Karen Gledhill), who lament their uselessness next to the Doctor in a way that suggests they might have a moment of glory, but are given no opportunity at all to be anything but pretty faces. Then there’s the Wise Black Man who gets to have a heart-to-heart with the Doctor in a cafe, though to be fair it’s quite a nice moment as the Doctor contemplates the ripples in time and space and population created by weighty decisions, and his interlocutor makes the relevant point that the option to take sugar in one’s tea was — on Earth, anyway — made possible by the slave trade. It’s nice to see more female scientists and people of color on the show, but when you realize they had more to do in the 70s, it doesn’t seem quite such a step forward.
This is a story that rewards a rewatch. Once you know that the entire situation is a plot on the Doctor’s part, you’ll probably need at least one more viewing to put it all together. I’m still not sure if I’ve got it all right, but I think it works like this: the Doctor brought the Hand of Omega with him from Gallifrey in his first incarnation, so presumably he stowed it in the TARDIS along with his granddaughter Susan when he initially ran away from home. Did he already know what he planned to do with it back then, or did he just figure he’d hide it in 1963 in a funeral home just in case? Either way, he must have somehow arranged for the Daleks to find out it was there and travel through time to steal it, and he buried it in order to trick them into thinking he didn’t want them to find it and try to use it, and so they wouldn’t suspect he’d programmed it to detonate Skaro’s sun instead of harnessing its energy.
It seems impossible that this scheme could have been in play from the beginning, since as far as we can tell the Doctor meets the Daleks for the first time in his second adventure after leaving 1963 Earth. So presumably it’s something he comes up with later on. What spurs him to destroy Skaro by detonating its sun, and when does he make that decision? After “Revelation of the Daleks”? After the Trial at which he’s accused of genocide and figures it can’t get any worse? How does he later bring the Master to trial on Skaro (in the execrable TV movie) if he’s destroyed it? And more importantly, is this really the same Doctor we’ve known for 24 years, the one who abhors violence, refused to blow up a room full of Daleks back at the time of their creation, and would have been horrified by this scheme if anyone else had tried it? Maybe he’s gotten more ruthless with age, but judging by their last few appearances the Daleks haven’t.
This Doctor’s an odd duck in smaller ways, too. Gone are the mangled proverbs (thankfully), but in their place is a fairly ugly patronizing manner, not only to his companion Ace but to everyone around. The Doctor disparages the military at every opportunity, but he doesn’t seem at all sorry to have their weaponry around, and even when you might assume he’s blowing up Daleks along the way as a last resort, he doesn’t pull any punches. He orders everyone around almost rudely, shoves it in their faces that they’re way out of their depth, and then scoffs at them when they don’t know what’s going on (because how could they?). The clownish voice and physicality mask his personality somewhat, but underneath it he’s in many ways less pleasant than the Sixth Doctor, and that’s saying something.
This is also where the so-called “Cartmel Masterplan” gets into full swing, starting with the clear implication (confirmed in a later novel that had been intended as a televised episode) that the Doctor was somehow a contemporary of Omega. This is a little intriguing but also irritating, as it sets the character on the path he’s still treading in the new series, where he’s practically a demigod (madman in a box, my foot).
All that said, this is the first story since “The Caves of Androzani” that’s a solid hit out of the park; there’ve been bright spots in between, often with subtler and worthier subtext, but nothing quite this well-executed overall. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it kicks off the first year in which Pip and Jane Baker are nowhere to be seen.
Bonus bullet points:
- Ace is never going to be my favorite companion. I appreciate that she’s a bit of an action hero, the first since Leela, but as charming as Sophie Aldred seems, as hard as we see her work, I’ve never really felt she was well cast as Ace. And what was the costume department thinking?
- Is this the first appearance of annoying “creepy” nursery rhymes in Doctor Who? Otherwise, the girl is pretty effective when she doesn’t have to speak.
- The Daleks are awful, awful shots. And those renegade Daleks are wobblier than Tom Servo or Crow.
- Since this is the first McCoy episode I’ve written about, I’ll note here that the credits sequence is the worst of the series by far, and the theme tune is even worse than that. Next to that arrangement, though, Keff McCulloch’s incidental music isn’t utterly unbearable, at least not till episode 3 when he starts going crazy on the “orchestra hit” synth preset.