“Frightening, isn’t it, to find there are others better versed in death than human beings?” – The Doctor
Now this, this is good Doctor Who. In many ways better than it has ever been. Watching in order, the remarkable contrast definitely stands out. We get a subtle cold open—a view of the earth with 1960s TV signals echoing just as a large looming spacecraft in passes in space above—which sets an ominous mood followed suddenly by a hearkening back to nostalgia as we find ourselves at Coal Hill School where the show started. We then get our first view of the interplay of the new TARDIS team and it’s wonderful—the Doctor and Ace tease and banter with a comfort and familiarity and cleverness. They’ve obviously come a long way together since Ice World. Ace ends up at a café where we see her struggle with pre-decimal currency (an understated nod back as Susan had this same unfamiliarity) while the Doctor immediately starts Doctoring—investigating worrisome anomalies that only he notices—in an odd random way that is purely the Seventh Doctor. Then out of nowhere the great scene where the little girl that we thought was simply playing hopscotch suddenly reappears eerily finishing the famous children’s chant “5-6-7-8-there’s a Doctor at the gate” and we suddenly realize there is something very, very wrong with her. And all this is just the first 5 minutes of the episode!
The pace continues quickly from there and we enter a story of warring Dalek factions and the Doctor’s game of double bluff in the midst of it. It’s hard to list every interesting scene or hugely significant moment as the story is so chock full of them. Aspects of note include:
- Nostalgic touches of the pass – Some are obvious like the settings of Coal Hill School and Totter’s Lane or direct references to past adventures (“I rigged up something like it on Spiridon”); some are more subtle homage like the appearance of the special counter-measures group (an obvious pre-cursor to UNIT—I love when the Doctor accidently calls the group Captain “Brigadier”); others still are tongue-in-cheek (“The time is a quarter past five and Saturday viewing continues with an adventure in the new science fiction series, Doct—”)
- Dalek advances – Past hints of Dalek racial purity and internecine violence are brought to a head in full scale battle here as Ace breaks it down into simple terms (“So, one lot of Daleks reckon the other lot of blobs are too different. They’re mutants. Not pure in their blobbiness…They hate each other’s chromosomes.”) I like how they give each faction very distinct operational differences and make note of their mutative divergences. The initial sight of the Special Weapons Dalek is not quite as dramatic as I had remembered but when it fires with a gigantic explosion that leaves two rebel Daleks as nothing but smoldering spots on the ground, it is absolutely amazing. And yes we finally get to see that stairs are no problem.
- New Time Lord lore – The scale and power of the Hand of Omega is great scifi, especially as we get hints of its nature (“Is it alive?”) and the Time Lord history behind it. And then there is of course the Doctor’s Freudian slip—that ‘we’ rather than ‘they’ had trouble with the prototype.
- Ace – We finally get to see Ace become the badass we all adore. It’s an incredibly impressive scene and stunt when she uses the Doctor’s souped up baseball bat to literally beat a Dalek to death and bounds across chemistry room tables with explosions and glass shards flying all around as she shatters through a window. Ace! It’s also great piece of characterization when she takes out the Dalek with a rocket launcher. She intuitively handles the weapon—her affinity for explosives giving her no fear—and aims almost unconsciously on advice that she overheard the Doctor giving long before, surprising not only herself but even the Doctor when she destroys it. Not only this but she gets a heavy emotional arc as well, dealing with the betrayal of the first charmer of a guy she ever meets and falls for.
- The Doctor as a game master – We finally see the Seventh Doctor become the mysterious figure that would define his era—laying plans of a bigger game all his own. Tying it all back to the First Doctor makes him seem even more mysterious than we ever thought. It’s also fun just to get to see him boldly assert his authority in the midst of the chaos and have everyone fall in line.
- Great dialogue and direction – There is so much packed in from the start to finish—the pacing and direction of the siege scene in the Totter’s Lane junkyard is wonderfully tense as the army waits for the “it” inside to show itself and the Doctor’s confrontation with Davros is grand. The script sparkles with tons of great lines, from the army science crew muttering about their utter inability to keep up with the Doctor to the affectionate interplay between the Doctor and Ace (“Give me some of that nitro nine you are not carrying.”)
- Weighty scenes – There are many moments when the pace slackens for a minute to give a character a chance to feel the weight of circumstances or make fateful decisions. Above all these is the hugely contemplative scene where the Doctor has a simple conversation with a shop owner about destiny and free will and the effects of every decision.
- Surprise twists – Friendly school masters who turn under Dalek control, betrayal by seeming colleagues, the true nature of the Emporer Dalek, the Doctor’s master plan. There are plenty of surprises in the story but there is probably no greater shock in this story than having the controller sitting at the battle computer not turn out to be Davros as expected but instead the mysterious little girl.
- Social commentary – Whilst the Daleks are always a caricature of the evils of Nazi ideology, this story brings it home by juxtaposing this with actual earthbound discrimination and white supremacy. Ace’s uncomfortable encounter with institutionalized racism in the hostel presents the problem of how to reconcile hate coming from the kindest people. Meanwhile, the Doctor gets to disparage the military mindset as always. (“Weapons. Always useless in the end.”)
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
The creepy little girl’s scene in the schoolyard definitely leaves you with the feeling of wondering “What the heck is going on?”
I, and most others, assumed that the Doctor’s continuation of the plans with the Omega device stem from things he put in place in his first incarnation. This flies in the face of his established history, however, since he doesn’t even know of the Daleks until later. I was therefore surprised to note that there is nothing in the story that explicitly says that his interrupted plans to hide the Hand of Omega had to do with the Daleks initially. Instead, he states that he knows they are following him now—which means his whole plot could have been conceived later upon learning that. It also explains why he only just now gets around to dealing with this hugely important device that he left behind.
Also, as many have noted out, the magnitude of what the Doctor does in destroying Skaro is huge. Was it the start of the Time War?
Not many regrets about the story itself, but the fact that many of the Daleks seem of shoddy construction as they teeter and totter on camera is a shame. It’s also too bad that there is not a way to convey as much personality for the Omega Device and the Special Weapons Dalek as can be found in the novelization of the story.