When I’ve come up to one of the all-time classics as I’m watching the series through episode by episode it’s always obvious how the great stories aren’t flukes, but the show in whichever form it’s currently in getting everything it’s currently doing right. Genesis of the Daleks was veteran Terry Nation’s third script in as many years, heavily reworked by the script editor and shot by an experienced director. The Brain of Morbius and The Talons of Weng-Chiang: similar stories. And City of Death is similar again: David Fisher’s fourth script, reworked by Douglas Adams, and directed by Michael Hayes. It is serendipitous that this is also the one chosen for the show’s first overseas filming, but it’s no accident that this works.
I’ve found this one of the most frustrating stories in this pilgrimage. It’s got a level of competence and polish that continues the upward trajectory of Season 16, and the script, I imagine thanks to Douglas Adams’ builds, is more straightforwardly fun than anything Terry Nation’s contributed since the 1960s. I like that it doesn’t just replay the greatest hits from Genesis of the Daleks, but subverts them (the Doctor refusing to entertain Davros’ delusions, or to engage with him intellectually; the Daleks deferring to Davros rather than conspiring against him; the “beautiful people” turning out to be as bad as the Daleks, in a way Genesis toyed with).
Both Philip Hinchcliffe and Graham Williams preferred to invent new baddies rather than rely on old ones, and Davros is the first monster/villain to debut during Tom Baker’s run to get a return appearance. Fittingly, it’s in one of those “Hitler resurrected” type stories beloved of pretty much all 1970s telefantasy, where it turns out he’s been frozen in the bunker for years only to rise again to wreak vengeance.
This, inexorably, is becoming the show I remember from my childhood. It’s started to look like Peter Davison Doctor Who – the pretty, desolate location filming; the interiors a mix of brightly-lit white spaceships and gloomy, cluttered dark ones. I get a frisson from this that I’ve not really noticed before. And this is even starting to sound like 1980s Doctor Who. The Daleks’ slave worker Veldan says things like, ‘They keep their captives in a prison ship in space. Once you’re there, your life expectancy tends to be on the short side’ and ‘Anyone attempting to escape and the Daleks kill five of those remaining. Escape plans are not as popular as they were.’ Perhaps it’s the pervasive influence of Blake’s 7, or maybe it’s just a coincidence, but this is like Eric Saward dialogue.
Where’s Romana? Where’s K9’s voice? What happened to Anthony Read? By all accounts, the making of Season 16 was an ordeal behind the scenes, even if a lot less of the turmoil was obvious on screen. But the turnover of regular cast and production crew, and various stories of Tom Baker’s increasingly demanding behaviour suggests the show wasn’t necessarily the happiest place to work at the end of 1978. Once again, then, Graham Williams has to start a season with problems to solve (even if, as this was made third, these are largely in-story fixes for things that had already been sorted).
Douglas Adams, who reworked the conclusion to the story, and the season, immediately spots that the Doctor, when presented with ultimate power, must reject it, otherwise he stops being 100% rebel Time Lord and becomes an authority figure. The way this riffs on ideas raised in Part Five (where the Shadow dismissed the Doctor’s interest in the irrelevant side-show of the Atrios/Zeos War), with the Doctor rejecting the idea of sacrificing one life for the universe, is perfect. Having Astra be the sixth segment is a great idea; having the Doctor decide her life is more important than the Guardians’ endless cosmic to-and-fro is sublime.
And now, a very special episode of Doctor Who: the one broadcast on the day I was born. It’s not, to be brutally honest, one of the classics. It’s not even the best episode of The Armageddon Factor. After two episodes on Atrios and two on Zeos, this moves the focus to the Shadow planet but largely puts off anything that might be construed as a climax until next time. Romana gets captured and tortured, and the Doctor is shunted into a bizarre side plot that, even more bizarrely, casually answers the first question: Doctor who?
I love it when the title of something makes it into dialogue (best of all is ‘I must have scared THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS out of her’). Here, it turns out that ‘the Armageddon factor’ is mutually-assured destruction, and there’s a sort of vague theme that the nuclear war between Atrios and Zeos is a reflection of the cosmic Armageddon factor between the Black and White Guardians. Certainly, this episode focuses more on that conflict and the power of the Key of Time than any since The Ribos Operation – Part One.
I was expecting to find this one a chore, so I’m delighted that it’s very tolerable. The Shadow is a brilliant villain. He lacks the verve of Count Grendel or Vivien Fay, but makes up for it with a gloriously moist and menacing voice, and a very poetic turn of phrase: ‘Your jackdaw meanderings’; ‘there is a want of patience in your nature’. His willingness to sit and wait for a thousand years for the Doctor to eventually make a mistake makes his monstrousness a cut above anything we’ve seen since Sutekh. His torture of Astra is cruel in a way the show rarely is in this iteration. And he looks pretty grisly as well – although I’m not sure why they didn’t just bring back the Master to be the Doctor’s dark mirror (I’m much more convinced this is the crispy Master in a mask than I am the War Chief is actually a pre-Delgado regeneration).
As a follow up to a surprisingly good opener, this is a bit of a mess. On the one hand, the Atrios/Zeos War works: the Marshal is a recognisable type of Doctor Who villain, the “victory at any cost” warmonger, and Merak’s search for the peacemaker Princess Astra has a touch of the Star Wars about it (it also results in one of the greatest moments in Doctor Who as he declares ‘I love her’ and Romana and the Doctor look a bit embarrassed).