Saturday, July 18, 2009

 

DVD Detail: Remembrance of the Daleks

With even the Today Programme – which often sneers at science – excited by the rapidly-approaching fortieth anniversary of humans first landing on our Moon, I’m ranging from a big grin that we did it to a sigh that we stopped bothering. For me, the first Moon landing was one of the greatest achievements in human history, and I hope all the attention on 1969 rekindles a space programme. In the meantime, Monday’s Doctor Who DVD release opens with a look back at the ’60s from space…

That Golden Moment
“Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air…”
Deliberately echoing those extraordinary pictures of the Earth seen from space – pictures impossible before the 1960s – and evoking both the period and the many peoples of humanity with overlapping speeches by John F Kennedy, Charles de Gaulle, Martin Luther King and others, the pre-credits teaser that opens Remembrance of the Daleks is a beautiful moment… That changes to evoking Star Wars as, above the Earth, an enormous spacecraft slowly hoves into view. Though most stories use them these days, back in 1988 this was only the third use of a pre-titles sequence in Doctor Who, and blimey, it looks good.

The whole first episode is a superb piece of Doctor Who, easily the most successful twenty-five minutes for Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor up to that point, packed with ideas, characters and thrilling special effects, but its two finest moments bookend it. First that attention-grabbing introduction – then the surprise cliffhanger in which the Doctor, having just sabotaged Dalek machinery to destroy one incoming Dalek, abruptly becomes less pleased with himself when another comes round the corner. “Stairs!” he barks at his friend Ace, and they leg it… Only for the Dalek to float up the stairs after him, his panic-stricken face seen in close-up on the Dalek’s computer-enhanced view as the end music screams in. Flying Daleks are something else that Twenty-first Century Doctor Who does all the time; this was the first time that a Dalek did just that on TV, unaided and unequivocally. And I cheered.
“You are the Doctor! You are the enemy of the Daleks! You will be exterminated! Exterminate! Exterminate! Exterminate! Exterminate! Exterminate!”
Something Else To Look Out For

I’ve spoilered the first episode ending, but the third cliffhanger is almost as arresting – and in some ways beats even today’s Doctor Who for sheer ambition. If you haven’t seen this story before, don’t look at all the online trailers; they tend to show off some of the thrilling Dalek vs Dalek battle scenes, the most action-packed special effects the series had ever delivered to that point, but give away some of the twists and tricks along the way that are best appreciated as you watch it.

If you’ve seen the story already, though, I’ve written a piece before now looking at the Doctor Who by its brilliant but occasionally morally dubious author, which explains just why, as the first episode of this story was for me easily the best episode Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor had had by 1988, the final episode was the most deplorable. So this is a terrific story, but along the way I have more than a few problems, and its climax is one of the ones I’ll most harshly criticise in the series’ forty-six years.

Despite that – and, you never know, you might take a different view of the ending to mine – there’s still a freshness and excitement about this story, and it takes a firm stand against racism, most importantly in threading that through the Dalek psyche and in taking a sympathetic character and gradually making you feel queasier and queasier about them as you realise their complicity in the Doctor Who original sin of fascism. Sylvester McCoy is very physical and inventive as the Doctor, while Sophie Aldred’s Ace really comes into her own. There’s a superb guest cast, from major parts being played by the likes of Simon Williams and Pamela Salem to even minor characters being cast with actors like Michael Sheard and Peter Halliday. And you might recognise the undertaker as someone horribly murdered in Doctor Who in 2005, too.

Remembrance of the Daleks was in fact one of the first Doctor Who stories released on DVD, back in 2001, but this new release is a Special Edition with far more in it – which you’ll already have, too, if you picked up The Davros Collection box set in the last couple of years, but here it’s available on its own – and a significantly improved picture transfer. Thankfully, it also adds the key special effects accidentally left out of the previous release, as well as (thanks to a new copyright deal) the Beatles’ proper Do You Want To Know A Secret playing in the background of one scene.

Special features still include an amiable commentary, but now have twelve minutes of extended and deleted scenes and intros (presented in a great wodge), two excellent new half-hour documentaries, with depth, enthusiasm, and attention to script, direction and acting all knocking most Doctor Who Confidentials into a Dalek dome. Highlights include writer Ben Aaronovitch, who’s a great interviewee (enthusiastic, informative and perceptive), Sylvester making the same point I always make about the Daleks – that they’re scary because they’re one-person tanks – and that not just Simon Williams but the two women in the cast who fancied him have all aged very well. There’s a 5.1 stereo mix, an isolated score (not one of the series’ best, but not bad, and probably the best by that composer), full text notes throughout and, on a second disc, a detailed documentary about the creator of the Daleks and all the stories that feature him, Davros Connections.

The best anecdote in the package is still the hilariously terrifying story, presented with video footage, of just what happened when they set off an enormous explosion in Central London on an infelicitous date.

And finally, back to the rockets. Although the British space programme never quite reached the heights in real life that it did in fiction, today is the 56th anniversary of the beginning of The Quatermass Experiment, one of the BBC’s greatest and most influential dramas. Appropriately, like more than one story in Twenty-first Century Doctor Who, this one has a direct reference to Quatermass, amid all the other touches looking back to 1963:
“I wish Bernard was here.”
“British Rocket Group’s got its own problems.”
Remembrance of the Daleks Special Edition is released on DVD on Monday the 20th of July. Which is in itself, as many Who fans know, the forty-third anniversary of the day that a computer developed sentience, invented the Internet and attempted to conquer the world (an event that has a curious crossover with Remembrance of the Daleks in Simon Guerrier’s first novel).


Update: This was originally called a “DVD Taster”, as I started off trying to write these short – by my standards – and just to pick out a few things to interest you. But they got longer, and longer, and by late 2011 I gave in and renamed them all “DVD Details”. Even though, compared to the ones I wrote later, this isn’t that detailed.

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Comments:
Remembrance of the Daleks is one of my all time favourites; I remember watching it going out at the time, and the sheer excitement of Ace smashing a Dalek up all by herself... Rewatching it on video years later, it still engrossed me, though the eggbox space ship is unfortunate. You need to look past these things though!
 
Ah, happy memories! Though the eggbox spaceship might not look so impressive flying, as I alluded to above, when it lands, for me it’s an amazing moment. And if it’s an eggbox then… They must be some eggs.
 
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