What’s It About?
The Doctor and Peri arrive on Necros to visit Professor Stengos, an old friend of the Doctor. Necros is also the home of the Great Healer, a savior who found a solution to a galaxy-wide food shortage. But what the Doctor doesn’t know is that the Great Healer is Davros, and this old enemy has been recreating Daleks in secret.
By all accounts, I’m not sure “Revelation of the Daleks” should work. But after three or so seasons of watching Eric Saward attempt to capture that Robert Holmes magic, he has done it and put his own spin on it. And all he had to do was write a story in which the Doctor and Peri were largely irrelevant. Most of the story involves the leads wandering around, failing to do anything of importance while other people progress the plot and reveal the secrets. In a way, it is fascinating. And while the Doctor and Peri are hardly significant to the plot, the story is actually compelling and darkly entertaining.
It is the irrelevance that interests me about this story. It is somewhat subversive in that it sidelines the Doctor and Peri, but I almost think it reflects the attitude at the time, namely that Saward and JNT are not entirely sure what this show is about anymore. I read much of the Davison era as a conflict between Bidmead’s vision and Saward’s vision. In the end Saward won out. His vision looked at past successes of the show with particular emphasis on the Robert Holmes approach (specifically a Fourth Doctor approach). With “Revelation” he has nailed it with the dark humor (almost out doing Holmes in this area); the story is overflowing with double acts. Saward and Graeme Harper (who brilliantly directed this story) even play with meta-commentary via the DJ, who flips back and forth between the different plotlines, which are almost different genres in themselves. In this story, the TARDIS doesn’t take us anywhere in time and space, it is the DJ and his cameras that do this. In some ways the central conceit of Doctor Who is laid bare, the idea that Doctor Who is entirely about television. (A box that is bigger on the inside which takes you anywhere in time and space . . . if you substitute TARDIS for television, the metaphor becomes obvious.) We are watching the DJ watching the Doctor. The show has been increasingly self-referential in recent stories, but now it handles this brilliantly and does something interesting with this rather than just patting itself on the back.
“Revelation of the Daleks” is, for me, the story where Saward finally got it all right. He finally wove his voice and ideas into a compelling story. It would have been the perfect story to go out on. But somewhat troubling about this story, and it has been growing throughout this era, is the realization that the best moments of Doctor Who have become less and less about the Doctor. The Doctor and Peri are the least interesting things to watch in this and many other stories of the era. And so the question must be asked, especially given what the next season holds, just how important is Doctor Who to television if the most compelling story we have had in a while sidelines him? And given that this story takes place on a planet of the dead, a planet of corpses, a place where the Doctor has a monument representing his death, I can’t help but wonder if the death of Doctor Who was an unconscious theme of this season.