The Sixth Doctor’s sole confrontation with the Daleks was broadcast at a time when I wasn’t watching Doctor Who – sulking after Davison, my Doctor, had been replaced by a new Doctor I did not care for at all. Without a novelisation or VHS release – and in the days before the internet – it remained a mystery to me until a repeat on BBC2 in 1993. At that point all I knew of the Colin Baker era had been gleaned from whatever tapes I’d bothered to buy and The Colin Baker Years, a VHS where Colin gamely tried not to write off most of the stories in his run as a load of old shit.
Unable to watch it live, I’d taped it and rushed back to watch this story which, to all intents and purposes, was brand new. And I loved it. It was funny, violent, sick, weird and operating on a level I hadn’t previously noticed in the series. I think what struck me the most was how rich Revelation of the Daleks was. The concept of Daleks roaming the catacombs of a necropolis, harvesting the best of the specimens held in suspended animation to turn them into Daleks and converting the rest into soup for an expanding galaxy, is irresistible. An ensemble of grotesques – variously vainglorious, smelly, preening, greedy, obsequious and violent – fits the bill perfectly. Rather like Androzani, there are no redeeming characters here, and the comparison is telling.
Saward was clearly indebted to Robert Holmes, with florid double acts everywhere. The thing is, Saward doesn’t quite have Holmes’ skill and the dialogue simply isn’t up to it on occasion, though Jobel’s horrible brush-off to Tasambeker – “I would rather run away… with my own mother than a fawning little creep like you” – is worth a chortle. But it reveals something that is at once a strength in the script and something utterly unsuitable for Doctor Who.
As unremittingly nasty, nihilistic and blackly comic as Doctor Who gets, Revelation of the Daleks doesn’t really belong in the series at all. Doctor Who has been violent – even vicious – before, but it’s never ladled it on with such glee. To recap, Eric Saward’s crowning achievement on the series sees Davros get his hand blown off, several scenes of torture – “I must mark her!” – genetic experimentation, a semi-converted human begging his own daughter to kill him, embalming fluid injected directly into a man’s heart, the most violent, screaming, writhing exterminations of the series and perhaps the most horrible murder.
The upside to all of this is that it allows Colin Baker to show some empathy, disgust and outrage – finally lending the Sixth Doctor some sympathetic traits. Saward famously wrote Orcini to show up how little he thought of the Sixth Doctor, which seems a bit like blowing up your car because you don’t like the colour – and the Doctor contributes literally nothing to the progression of the script.
But as a mood piece Revelation of The Daleks works fantastically. How much this is due to Graeme Harper’s direction – again wonderful – and the bleakness of Roger Limb’s minimalistic score, designed seemingly to ratchet up the unpleasantness and send children scuttling to the safety of the sofa’s backside, is debatable. Once again Harper makes the most of what he has: shooting the Daleks in such a way that they reacquire some of their threat; attempting a few tricks such as scrolling through the floors of Tranquil Repose and attempting to show Daleks and Davros levitating, that are generally a qualified success. He also creates some stunning visuals with the series’ last ever film location shooting and assembles a superb cast (if you ignore Jenny Tomasin as Tasambeker and any of the bits that involve Alexei Saye’s DJ).
Terry Molloy is arguably the star of Revelation of the Daleks. It’s become a received wisdom in fandom that Michael Wisher is unassailable in being the definitive Davros, but Molloy’s Davros is wheedling and even a little humourous here. He switches between sibilant and psychotic as he attempts to build a business empire parallel to his Dalek army – the template here allows for Lance Parkin’s quite excellent Davros play for Big Finish 20 years later – as the self-styled Great Healer, a nice Orwellian touch; it’s as if Davros relishes in the sly irony. There are inflections of other works and writers here too. The Loved One and Soylent Green are most obviously quoted with regard to Revelation, but Saward is good at mining sources and inspirations to flesh out his characters; their drives and motivations.
Clive Swift is the other performance of note and clearly receives most of Saward’s attention – the little vulgar asides that pepper his dialogue, all nose-picking, insinuations of necrophilia and corpses ‘beginning to froth’ – are quite horrible and it’s hardly a leap to imagine what Jobel might like to do to Peri. It’s hard to think of many other moments in the series that require such an effort, for such little payoff, as the mortuary chief’s wig falling of as he expires.
William Gaunt, John Ogwen, Eleanor Bron and Hugh Walters are all quite excellent, though Takis and Lilt don’t really come off – absurdly we’re expected to view them starting to rebuild Necros as a farm as a happy ending, an episode after we saw them torturing Natasha and Grigory. And once again, you’re forced to wonder what exactly JN-T was on at the idea that Laurence Olivier might have been interested in playing the mutant, who has a fight in the snow with the Sixth Doctor before being beaten to death by Peri over about 90 seconds.
As a whole Revelation of The Daleks is rather grand guignol: bleak, gory, slightly hysterical and building towards a massacre that kills off virtually every character we’ve been introduced to, bar the regulars. It’s ironic that it hit the screen around the time that video nasties were the centre of a debate in Britain; watching it back it’s hard not to agree with Michael Grade’s assessment that the series had lost its way. Still, it remains an impressive, stylish outlier in the series’ canon.
Saward’s Doctor Whos get progressively more unpleasant, as if reflecting the man’s descent into a sort of private Hell. As a sign-off to Doctor Who it may not have been perfect, but it surely reveals the inner torment and ambivalence towards the programme that Doctor Who’s script editor was going through at the time. But it did deliver us his best script and one of Doctor Who’s most nasty-minded and horribly enjoyable stories. Spiteful, cruel, twisted, lascivious, empty, ultimately pointless and unabashedly hate-filled – Revelation of the Daleks is Saward’s portrait in the attic.