On to the first Fourth Doctor story we’re watching. Moreover, the first of “my” Doctor’s stories.
I say “my”, as though this is the Doctor I’ve grown up with. And it kind of is, in the literal sense, but in truth I was very young when it was aired and I spent most of my viewing time stereotypically hiding behind various soft furnishings. So whilst through Rose-tinted specs I remember the Tom Baker era as being the ‘best’ Doctor, in truth I barely remember any it.
The opening premise is simple enough. The Time Lords hijack the Doctor in order to get him to intervene with goings-on on Skaro, to avoid a future Dalek-molested universe. Slight problem, they’ve landed in the middle of a warzone.
I’ve always “remembered” Tom Baker as having a degree of menace about him which was missing from other Doctors. I see now that perhaps I’ve done him a disservice all these years. What he really brings to the table is gravitas and otherworldliness; he’s the first Doctor that you can actually believe is from another planet. Indeed, it’s actually quite hard to believe that Tom Baker isn’t an alien.
Companions present here are a startlingly young-looking Sarah-Jane Smith, and an immediately forgettable Harry Somethingorother. Sarah-Jane actually makes a comparatively decent companion, striking a healthy balance between being a readily rescuable plot device and reasonably capable support crew. And Harry is, uh, a Harry.
Story wise, the clue is in the title; what we’ve got here is the Daleks’ origin story. Like most people perhaps, I already knew the basic tale; two planetary races at war, Davros creates the Dalek superficially as a life support / transport system for his people, but secretly designs them to be a survivalistic Master Race primed to take over the universe. As you do.
“Master race,” it seems, is a wholly appropriate description. The pre-mutation Kaleds are Gestapo in all but name, though I can’t help but see them less ‘Third Reich’ and more ‘Allo ‘Allo, complete with leads in the form of Lieutenant Gruber and Herr Flick. This association meant that perhaps they were a tad less menacing to me now than they might’ve been in the mid-70s.
Nevertheless, there’s malevolence aplenty to be had elsewhere. Davros is absolutely brilliant in design and execution, Michael Wisher putting in a stellar performance despite the obvious restrictions imposed on his acting. Smooth-talking politician one minute, passing through obsessed scientist into out-and-out psychotic nutcase the next. When he’s in full-on rant mode, it’s suddenly quite clear that the Dalek acorns didn’t fall so far from the tree.
Which brings me to the titular Daleks themselves. They’re early in their evolution sure, but even with 70s production values they’re still absolutely terrifying, badass psychopaths. And I say that with no degree of hyperbole. Having recently been watching the modern shows and some of the very earliest shows, it was hard to understand how Doctor Who ever gave generations of kids the willies; this, right here, is how. It’s dark, it’s tense, and it’s genuinely scary. With other Doctors at the helm it might’ve all been a bit too much, but the counterpoint to all this is the Fourth Doctor’s sometimes childlike irreverence and mischievous sense of humour, which prevents the whole thing from taking itself too seriously.
As we’ve seen before, all this would fall flat with a weak story, but thankfully it’s well scripted. There’s quite a lot of to-ing and fro-ing as befits a story of political intrigue, and being Who there’s never any shortage of people in peril requiring rescuing from one faction only to then need rescuing from their rescuers, which makes for a dynamic plot. In terms of padding it’s still not perfect but it’s considerably less bloated than some of its predecessors, and as a result it’s highly enjoyable viewing. Good stuff.