‘They’re like a double act.’ Eric Saward’s best script so far shows his respect for Robert Holmes’ writing, and his lack of interest in the Doctor and Peri (who spend most of this literally on the periphery, looking for a way into the story). It’s constructed as a series of double acts, which keeps things moving at pace at the risk of making this fragmented. That it hangs together is largely due to Davros and the DJ fulfilling the old Arak and Etta roles of observers, commenting on the action rather than playing a part in it. And they work better than Arak and Etta because – at least in Darvos’ case – his existence is the catalyst for events, linking together Kara and Vogel’s assassination scheme; Natasha and Grigory’s graverobbing; Jobel and Tasambeker’s The Loved One pastiche, and Takis and Lilt’s administration of Tranquil Repose. This largely fixes the issue in Saward’s previous scripts of disconnected B-plots: it doesn’t matter if the characters don’t all meet if there’s a clear and common thread between them.
The Robert Holmes influences are worn heavily: Saward has always had a taste for baroque dialogue, but it’s particularly pungent here: the President’s late wife has ‘already started to froth’; ‘I don’t know whether my hand shakes from fear or the delirium tremens’; ‘The seed of the Daleks must be supreme’ (echoing Dastari’s choice of words in The Two Doctors). The focus on vaguely realistic economics feels very Holmesian too: we’ve never previously considered how Davros manages to fund his genetic experiments, and it’s quite fun to see him have to talk to the accountants and come up with creative ways to procure financial and human resources. I particularly like Takis’ admission that the idea of Tranquil Repose doesn’t work – no-one really wants the frozen dead to rise again and usurp the living, which, in any case, they outnumber.
It’s good, too, to see Saward present us with characters that like each other: Kara and Vogel, Orcini and Bostock and Takis and Lilt all seem to be quite pally rather than being pointlessly belligerent towards each other (in that respect Grigory and Natasha are much more typical of Saward’s previous pairings – two people that apparently hate each other forced into a team).
Graeme Harper’s direction is, again, a season best. He pulls out even more stops than Androzani, with scrolling scenes of characters wandering the corridors of Necros, implying the scale of the facility. There’s a dramatic crash zoom of Davros watching the mortuary and promising Jobel, ‘You will join their number!’ The location filming seems a conscious contrast to the barren sands of Androzani. Instead, this is snow and frozen lakes, and is about as striking as any “alien planet” the show’s attempted. Maybe controversially, I don’t think it’s quite as good as Androzani: there are a couple of notable weaknesses in the cast, the Dalek voices are weedy, and I think the joke of the Doctor’s broken watch falls flat because it’s all done in medium shot: it’s not obvious how Peri knows she’s broken it, and the double entendre dialogue is nearly baffling as a result. We needed to hear rather than see this exchange for it to work.
Overall, though, this is very polished with great sets and some striking new Dalek designs (both the white and gold versions, and the glass Dalek). Where the casting is good, it’s very, very good. William Gaunt and Eleanor Bron sizzle in their scenes, and whether he likes it or not Clive Swift is perfect as the vain and pompous Jobel. It’s just a shame Saward couldn’t think of anything for the Doctor and Peri to do.
Next episode: Revelation of the Daleks – Part Two