“Until the Dalek’s universal supremacy is accomplished, I cannot allow myself the luxury of death.” – Davros
This is where I came in…That is to say, this is what I remember as my earliest awareness of Doctor Who. I caught this story presumably in the middle somewhere and was fascinated by the strange aliens and the pace of the Doctor and Romana working together. (I also have memories of Romana’s regeneration and thinking it didn’t seem quite right for what a Time Lord should do so I must have caught it on repeat again later.) I was forever hooked after that.
Many fans don’t like this story but I actually don’t think it’s that bad—and not just for sentimental reasons. The biggest complaint seems to be the shoddiness in the Daleks (they used some cheaply made new ones for this) which I find easy to overlook and, more importantly, that it characterizes them as robots. I agree this reference is a bit grating because we know it’s not true to what the Daleks are. On the other hand, though this aspect is highlighted, they also reference several times in the story about the mutated humanoid nature of the Daleks as well. I would also argue that they do make it clear it is the battle computer, and not the Daleks themselves, that is operating on robotic logic. Part of the problem is that they are absolutely tied to it. (The robotic part of them is thus in their programming to follow the orders of the computer. I already referenced this when it is mentioned in Genesis of the Daleks.)
All that aside, I think this story is brilliant for thinking to resurrect the character of Davros. Even having not seen his previous appearance, I understood right away as a child that it was a big deal that the Daleks would put all this effort to search for him and that he must therefore be a very dangerous enemy. His description of his regeneration while clinging to life is nice and gruesome and he gets a ton of good lines. (“So, the long darkness has ended and the eternity of waiting is over. The resurrection has come, as I always knew it would.”) The Daleks continue in much the same vein as before—the parallels to callous Nazis being highlighted by them ruthlessly executing innocent prisoners to weigh on the conscience of their enemy. The Movellans are also a totally unique foe with a striking appearance to say the least. (The very easy way to defeat them at the end is a bit of a letdown of course.) The idea of the two sides being locked in eternal battle without ever getting advantage because of over dependence on logic was fairly cool.
Ignoring the continuity issue brought by her process of her regeneration, Romana suddenly becomes much more playful in this persona which makes for a fun dynamic in her interactions with the Doctor. More interestingly, she’s a lot bolder physically as well. The first Romana always seemed a bit too aloof to be rough and tumble but this Romana has no problem tackling a Movellan in the mud, wrestling him down, and even ripping its arm off! Once he encounters Davros, the Doctor suddenly becomes rather aggressive in this story; this suits well his regret over having not stopped the Daleks and Davros before.
So while there are a lot of other little problems—some horrible acting by the extras, a rather muted performance in the portrayal of Davros (though he is written well), and lots of Styrofoam rocks–there are also a lot of little nice additions in this story that balance them in my mind. The use of location with rocks, sand pits, and the destroyed remains of buildings sets a nice grim atmosphere. Some nice direction like when we are below the vantage of the Doctor hiding along the cliffs and the Daleks move along the ground above him. And I also just really appreciate that they reuse the original pulsing sound effects of the Daleks headquarters, tying it right back to the original story.
Best (or worst) unsettling moments:
I found the sight of the body being buried under rocks (and that Romana seemed to be too) rather disturbing as a child. As an adult, though I know the initial cliffhanger of the Daleks breaking through the black mirror wall is utterly pointless, I find it very effective, especially before they arrive as Romana obviously anticipates something coming as her reflection shakes and shimmers in pulse of the mirror. I also find her utter terror at the arrival of the Daleks very well played—as a Time Lord she would have immediately realized the severe danger they represented.
The opening regeneration scene is admittedly farcical and utterly wrong for what we know of the Time Lords. The idea of Romana ‘trying on’ various bodies can only be reconciled by saying that these are just “mental projections” as she was going through the actual physical process of change in the back. How and why Romana could so blithely give up a regeneration (effectively dying once) has been debated a lot. I guess the explanation I’m landing on is that they had already discussed and decided that the only way that Romana could avoid detection by the Black Guardian was to regenerate to a new body.
If a few of the elements that fans hate could have been tidied up a bit, I think people might have really liked this story.