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20 March 2014 @ 07:53 pm
Revelation of the Daleks  
I don't much like Revelation of the Daleks and never have. I can see that it is, arguably, as good as the Colin Baker era gets and even that its probably the most unadulterated example of Eric Saward's vision for the show. But I still can't find it in me to like it much.

So, what don't I like about it.

  1. To be honest I think its biggest crime is that it isn't funny. This may seem an odd observation since Saward's style is best known for its violence and machismo, but I honestly think Saward wanted to be funny as well. This is more obvious in his novelisations which are written in a style that can best be described as wannabe-Douglas Adams. Alongside the violence, torture and pointless deaths Revelation of the Daleks serves us up a selection of grotesques instead of characters and a basic situation which is pushed to the edge of the absurd. I'm convinced it is intended to be a black farce but I didn't find any of it funny not even at a vague smile level.

  2. None of the characters are likeable. This isn't strictly true, the DJ (disappointingly badly played by Alexei Sayle) is a sweet character, but since his main purpose seems to be to act as an irritating chorus to the main events it's hard to for him to really carry the audience for the story. Natasha and Grigory, fulfilling Doctor Who's helpful rebels roles are also more-or-less sympathetic but the story emphasises her ruthlessness and his cowardice again making it hard for them to carry the story. Moreover Natasha and Grigory aren't really characters, as such, they exist purely, I think, for plot exposition purposes - first they discover (along with the audience) the secret of Tranquil Repose and then they tell the Doctor about it. I don't think Saward was interested in them at all, they are just a clumsy attempt at show don't tell.

    Frankly, the character I think I was most engaged with was William Gaunt's ageing assassin.

  3. The story isn't really about the Doctor and Peri. It is always a struggle for a Who story to work if the Doctor isn't central to the plot because the audience is really there to watch the Doctor. I think the unlikable grotesque characters would have worked better if the Doctor had had more to do, and I think the Doctor's minor role could maybe have worked if the characters were more engaging. The Doctor is required for the final confrontation with Davros but nearly everything else that happens to him up until that moment is basically a delay to make sure he doesn't get there until all the other pieces are in place. As it is therefore, most of the story seems to involve unpleasant people being unpleasant to each other which is never a genre I've been fond of.

  4. Though talking of unpleasant people - some of the Doctor's interactions with Peri are distinctly off. There is a lot of discussion of her being over-weight which, um, well, it's hard to know where to start on that one but it seems oddly unnecessary. I suspect it is just filler in an attempt to disguise the fact that the Doctor and Peri spend the first half of the story walking towards action which is happening elsewhere and they have to say something to each other en route. However conversations which prominently feature the Doctor criticising his companion's weight are not that enjoyable to watch. It's probably supposed to be banter.

    There is also the really odd bit of by-play when they climb over a wall and Peri breaks the Doctor's pocket watch by standing on it. The only sense I can make of the dialogue there is that its supposed to be a double-entendre and make us think they are discussing the Doctor's penis but then my mind just blanks that even Eric Saward would have thought sleight-of-hand dick jokes were appropriate for Doctor Who - and its not funny anyway (see point 1).

  5. I know pointless death is one of Saward's things, but they've always irritated me. I think his default, when a character has served its story function, is to kill them off. Hence Natasha and Grigory's pointless death once they've fulfilled their plot role in explaining to the Doctor what is going on. I don't even really know what Jobel and Tasambeker are doing in the story beyond playing out a small interpersonal tragedy - once that's done Jobel is dead and Tasambeker is dispatched forthwith as now surplus to requirements. The DJ's death is the most pointless of all since he manages to get killed by leaving his Dalek-killing rock-and-roll gun behind and ambling towards the Daleks which then shoot him. (Peri then meekly allows herself to be captured rather than seizing said Dalek-killing rock-and-roll gun and using it herself because… I don't know).

    It isn't just the pointless deaths though, it is that many of the characters and plot lines seem entirely divorced from each other. You could strip out all the staff at the funeral home and probably Natasha and Grigory as well and still leave the central plot line (the defeat of Davros' plan) more or less intact. Obviously I don't require everything in a story to have a purely functional existence but an awful lot of what we see on screen seems, on reflection, a bit pointless. I begin to wonder now if, as well as aspiring to write a black comedy, Saward wanted to write a kind of anthology tale (like Quentin Tarantino was later to do with Pulp Fiction) - there is the politics of Tranquil Repose, the tragedies of Tasambeker's doomed love and Orcini's doomed quest, and Davros sitting like a cancerous spider at the heart of place, manipulating all the other stories. Ultimately Saward wants us to be there for the ride not the destination so the fact that these stories don't have a great deal to do with each other isn't really relevant. If this was his intent then he's undone by my lack of engagement with the characters. I mostly wasn't that interested in what they were trying to achieve nor that invested in their success (just as well, really, since they mostly died once their story was over).

Does anything work? Well, as I said I was most engaged with William Gaunt's assassin, Orcini, and I think his storyline does work. It is played seriously by the actors involved, particularly Gaunt and Eleanor Bron, and proceeds as a proper tragedy in that characters with believable flaws are undone by them. Orcini, in particular, is a nicely complex mix of callousness, tarnished honour, disillusionment and naiveté all of which combine to place him at Davros' mercy. Meanwhile Bron has a more straightforward role which she nevertheless manages to invest with depths that aren't immediately obvious: "It is so difficult to find a good secretary" is delivered with a restrained grief that speaks volumes about what she is really feeling. Maybe I found myself more interested in this tragedy than in Jobel and Tasambeker because Gaunt and Bron deliver reasonably understated performances while Clive Swift and Jenny Tomasin never miss an opportunity to chew the scenery, but I think it also benefits from being the storyline that eventually intersects with the Doctor and so plays some role in the defeat of Davros' plan.

I think many people think Revelation is one of the successes of the Colin Baker era, but I honestly don't think I'd rate it as more than a very interesting but not particularly likeable failure.

"That was very odd," tame layman said at the end.

Yes, yes it is.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/112725.html.
 
 
 
daniel_saunders: Leekleydaniel_saunders on March 20th, 2014 11:07 pm (UTC)
I actually like Revelation a lot. It's easily my favourite Colin Baker story. I think, as you say, it is a comedy, and whether you like it depends on whether you find it funny - I do. I don't have a problem with Doctor-lite stories, here or elsewhere, although I agree it doesn't work as well here as, say, A Good Man Goes to War (which is about the Doctor even when he isn't present) or The Ribos Operation (where the Doctor does very little, but it's so well-written you don't notice until it's pointed out to you). Thinking about it, Saward (in)famously thought that Colin was horribly miscast as the Doctor, so minimizing the Doctor's role here (and indeed throughout the season) may have been a deliberate policy on his part.

I agree about the lack of likeable characters, though. It's particularly a problem at the end, when all the even vaguely pleasant people are dead and we're supposed to think that the thugs Takis and Lilt becoming farmers is a happy ending. Also agree about the Doctor-Peri 'banter', but that applies to every story in that season.

but then my mind just blanks that even Eric Saward would have thought sleight-of-hand dick jokes were appropriate for Doctor Who

This would not exactly be the first time that what Saward thought was appropriate for Doctor Who was not what most other people thought!

Edited at 2014-03-20 11:08 pm (UTC)
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on March 21st, 2014 09:53 am (UTC)
I can see that if the humour works it would make a big difference to the story.

The survival of Takis and Lilt is very odd, though in part that is because culture has conditioned us to expect the deserving to survive (or more perniciously that the surviving must be deserving). Davies does something very similar at the end of Voyage of the Damned but at least he fairly clearly signals that the message is that the deserving do not always survive. Here it isn't clear whether Saward is deliberately saying something to that effect, whether he actually thinks Takis and Lilt are deserving in some way, or whether he simply doesn't care and had been told he couldn't kill everyone off and so picked a couple of characters at random to survive.
daniel_saunders: Leekleydaniel_saunders on March 21st, 2014 01:02 pm (UTC)
Indeed. Much as I like the story, I do wonder what on Earth Saward was thinking at the end. It does feel like the story ended and, to his surprise, there were still some characters left alive.

I didn't mention Graeme Harper's direction, which is a highlight of the story to me - artistic and thoughtful, though I can see that some might find elements of it gimmicky and intrusive.
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on March 21st, 2014 03:08 pm (UTC)
I actually think the direction is mostly excellent (with some caveats about the extent to which the more grotesque characters are allowed to ham it up - though given the script it is probably a valid artistic choice) and then forgot. There are a couple of dodgy moments - particularly the special effect of Davros flying is rather poorly done. Obviously that is probably partly a technical issue but the perspective relationship between Davros and Orcini is odd… Orcini's leg seems to disappear into Davros and it makes the whole sequence somewhat confusing which I think is a directorial problem. However, overall, I think the quality of the direction is one of the things that makes this story so well appreciated.
londonkds on March 21st, 2014 07:40 am (UTC)
I'm pretty sure that was meant to be an intentional dick joke, yes.

Part of the reason why Jobel and Tasambeker are there is because Saward wanted to write a story based on the film The Loved One (based on a novel by Waugh, although "Revelation" has more in common with the film), and they're based on two major characters.
louisedennis: bookslouisedennis on March 21st, 2014 09:56 am (UTC)
The only Waugh I've read is Brideshead, but even so I'm struggling here to imagine Jobel and Tasambeker, as played in Revelation, being remotely similar to anyone in a Waugh novel - of course if its gone by way of a film I can imagine that some of the over-the-topness of the characterisation has arrived via that route.