Wednesday, March 7, 2007

DWM Review: Warhead of the Daleks!

Caught in a time corridor, the TARDIS is drawn to an abandoned warehouse in London 1984 where the Doctor, Tegan, Turlough and Kamelion encounter a UNIT investigation team. In 4593, the Daleks send the Charnel House Warriors to attack Cassius Four, a space station prison where Davros has been frozen for ninety years. Having lost their war with the Movellans, a virus has left the Daleks on the verge of extinction. They need Davros to provide a cure, but Davros has his own plans for his creations. As the Doctor fights to stop the Daleks from rebuilding their empire, not even the TARDIS crew can escape untouched by the tragic events unfolding around them...

The fourteenth Dalek story in twenty-one years was as near perfection as it is possible to get. Rula Lenska's Styles steals the show, despite stiff competition from three dimensional characters whose deaths are genuinely upsetting. Even Phin and Mellor, who barely get any dialogue, are mourned and their deaths treated as horrifying acts rather than simple "bang bang you are dead fifty bullets in your head".

If one had to fault on anything, it would have to be that it was too short - another tweny-five minutes might have helped, if only to find out what happened to Tegan and Lytton. The idea of them meeting each other and teaming up to survive 1980s Britain is almost too interesting to ignore. Might this be a spin-off?

Matthew Robinson's Doctor Who debut was stunning. He took full opportunity with his location work - the opening shots of the builders being mown down by Lytton's policemen was great, a marvellous opener. When first the Doctor, then Tegan and Kamelion, arrive and UNIT already investigating the mysterious communications blindspot, we entered into a terrible world of intrigue where everyone either was (or might end up being) a traitor: Daleks, humans, Kamelion androids, Davros' zombies and even companions turning against the Doctor. All these elements combined together to make four episodes of sheer drama, with degrees of excitement and tension not seen in the programme in a long time.

From the Dalek guard released into the warehouse to Mercer watching his men and women being blasted down in cold blood left, right and centre, right through to the last moments when Davros succumbs to the Movellan virus, Warhead of the Daleks glowed with style and class. Although the script showed the Daleks as weak-willed, paranoid and defeated creatures, they still came across as horribly dangerous and itching to join in with the mayhem being caused at their command. Any status lost with their last appearance is back in avengence, and the story cleverly leaves a final Dalek outpost intact for the new Doctor to hunt down next year - another thing to look forward to in 1985!

The return of Davros (looking like he really was ninety years older) was far more effective than the ranting looney of Destiny of the Daleks. This Davros was a lot older, a lot wiser and, above all, a lot more bitter - determined to unleash his pent up anger at enforced impotent-but-aware immobility on anyone that got in the way. Yet his cast iron control of his emotions made him more dangerous; ironically the scene where he has his Daleks torture the Doctor was more comfortable than his icy politeness to his "rescuers", the Dalek Task Force, most of whom would soon become his slaves. The first, Kiston, had very little to do though was clearly portrayed as an intimidating figure even among his own men. In the hands of an actor less powerful than Les Grantham, this could have been a disaster, and when Davros converts him to his side, it is hard not to worry about the good guys' chances of survival. It was sad that he was unceremoniously zapped at the end, but considering the ignoble end of the other main characters, perhaps it is a mercy?

Davros dominated the show from the moment he was thawed - treated as the real danger by the Doctor, Lytton and the Daleks. Although his handy brainwashing gun was contrived, the explanation for it was well thought out and the fact it didn't work on the Doctor, but instead allowed the plot to go in a very different direction, made up for it. Davros aims were simple: to make the Daleks the threat they should be, either by breeding a new species or changing history back to the massive empire we saw in the 1960s stories. But the idea of a new, disease-immune Daleks could only lead to civil war with the already endangered ones.

Although it only consists of the last twelve minutes of the story, the civil war is arguably the most memorable thing in the story as the fate of the universe is decided in an abandoned Wapping werehouse as two factions of Daleks created a crossfire that slaughtered almost every speaking part, good or bad, before the Movellan virus claimed what was left. The sight of the Daleks going mad and slumping dead was not quite as disturbing as when Davros himself was infected... but was he killed by it? The escape capsule Styles was so fixated on clearly escaped the conflaguration with Davros aboard, but was he a passenger or a corpse? I think it would be a shame if he did survive. Three stories are enough, we have seen all of Davros that can be seen, and his overwhelming presence is clearly to the detriment of his creations. Hopefully the next Dalek story will shown them a force to be reckoned with, without their scene-stealing creator.

And what of the Doctor? Davros told him exactly what he thought of him and the Doctor paid him back, losing his cool in a way Tom Baker's Doctor refused to, but this made the scenes all the more chilling when it appeared the Doctor was about to blow the mutant's head off. The Doctor's refusal to give into mindless violence is to be applauded, though it's hard to argue with his later volte-face. If cold blooded murder could have stopped the massacre in the final episode, would that have justified it?

With the intense amount of guest cast, the regulars suffered - Tegan and Turlough spent most of the story running around a warehouse or a space station dodging bullets. However, their brief heart to hearts showing that they have both grown tired of TARDIS travel made up for it. This, and Kamelion's ominous prediction that their destiny was about to curve unexpectedly, prove the next three adventures won't let up the pace. Kamelion's revelation of origins fitted well into the story, as did his struggle to regain free will echoed those of both Lytton and Kiston, and when he apparently betrayed the Doctor, Mel Smith gave the android a smugness that made it all the more convincing.

Tegan's departure has to go down as one of the most traumatic there is, especially her decision to leave after the chaos has ended and she is safe and sound in the TARDIS. The sight of the carnage pushed her to the brink, but her tragically misplaced belief in the Doctor being killer caused her to finally flip - and who could blame her? The Doctor's willingness to chase through London and bodily drag her back shows how much both he and us will miss Tegan. She'll be irreplaceable and hopefully that will be proved wrong when her replacement arrives...

Director Matthew Robinson deserves a medal (and perhaps counselling) for Warhead of the Daleks, all his fine work with the camera, the marvellous battle scenes, his building up of suspense: notable with the disappearing policemen and even the dream sequence (I was expecting a flashback in a Dalek story, and its ridiculous collage of images is something likely to be derided by just about anyone with taste), were all handled with consumate skill, and, it seemed, genuine enjoyment.

Whilst Warhead of the Daleks borrowed extensively from previous Dalek stories (Evil and Day being the most obvious), it never sank to sensationalism of Warriors of the Deep. Warhead of the Daleks ended like Frontios, dovetailing into the next story as the TARDIS heads for a holiday destination that gives Kamelion the heeby-geebies. But Lytton is still loose in London with his lethal android policement, the warehouse has exploded taking a UNIT team with it, and in the far future there is a chance that the last of the Daleks might find their own cure. It's an open ending which will no doubt be built on next year once the reformatting of the show - "the curve in destiny" - is complete.

- anonymous, Doctor Who Magazine # 89, June 1984

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