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27 November 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 696: Remembrance of the Daleks, Episode One

Dear diary,

For the last fortnight, while I’ve not been enjoying Season Twenty-Four, Remembrance of the Daleks has been the light at the end of the tunnel. I could remember liking it from previous viewings (it’s one of the few stories I’d actually watched a few times before replacing it with the special edition), and the more I thought about little elements of the story, the more it seemed to be the absolute antithesis of everything that I perceived as being ‘wrong’ with Doctor Who as broadcast in 1987.

It’s nice, then, that this episode is pretty much everything that I wanted it to be. Let’s start with the thing that most relates to my complaints about areas of the last season - this story is set in the real world. When we join the Doctor and Ace in the adventure, they’re walking away from the TARDIS, which is parked down a side street. They’re out in real London streets, or in playgrounds, or junkyards. A large proportion of this serial is shot out on location - which helps - and everything feels much more solid than it did in Season Twenty-Four. These locations (and even the sets) don’t feels as ‘plastic’ or ‘comic book’, and it really does make a massive difference to things. By that same token, the fact that we see Ace go to get food in a regular cafe - as opposed to the version we saw in Dragonfire - grounds everything in reality much more. You can see where Russell T Davies was coming from when he chose to ground the 2005 revival in a council estate, with shops, and flats, and real people, because it has the same effect there that it does here, of making everything feel just that bit more natural.

Speaking of which, McCoy’s performance has jumped up tenfold from where it was last season, and he feels very natural here, too. He’s playing everything a little bit quieter, and even largely underplaying his lines, in a way that we didn’t really get to see a lot of in his first four adventures. I was trying yesterday to find a way of describing the differences in his performance, but it struck me almost instantly when he papered today - it simply is that everything is much calmer here - more calculated, and yet it comes across as less of a performance.

Take, for example, the moment when he stands with Ace, looking out over the scorch marks on the playground. He makes reference to both Terror of the Zygons and The Web of Fear, and plays the line beautifully. It’s the ultimate example of him underplaying a scene, when I know that his Season Twenty-Four performance would have gone to great lengths to really over-do the point. Having just come from two weeks of that style, I can picture exactly how that would have gone. I’m so glad, because I came to this period of the marathon knowing how much I like McCoy’s Doctor, but by the end of Dragonfire, I was almost beginning to doubt myself!

I discussed this with my friend Nick this evening. He acts as a nice counterbalance to me at this stage, because while he admits that Season Twenty-Four has its faults, he doesn’t dislike it to quite the extent that I do. He’s a bit more willing to accept that it’s the programme trying something different that doesn’t really work, but then it comes back this year and tries another direction. He’s right when he says that McCoy was pitching his performance last season to fit the ‘comic book’ style that they were going for - try to play the Doctor in Time and the Rani the way he does here and it would fall absolutely flat on its face.

That said, everything is pulling together here to help this new performance. Remember during Delta and the Bannermen, I complained that all the supporting characters just went along with the Doctor because the plot required them to do so, and it came across as rushed and false. Here, characters effectively do the same thing… but you get the sense that the Doctor has given them reason to go along with him. I think it’s in Silver Nemesis where he describes his usual tactic as simply acting like he owns the place, and it’s absolutely true of what happens here. When he climbs in to the van and Rachel questions his presence, he simply goes on with the rest of the conversation. Similarly, when they reach Totters’ Yard, he takes charge of the situation, and ends up being the one who takes out the Dalek, while the myriad of soldiers are largely ineffective against it. Here, even after one episode, I completely buy that everyone will go along with what he says, because he’s given me every reason to believe it. That’s much stronger scripting and performance than we’ve had before in this period.

While I’m on the subject, what’s the general thinking in terms of how long he’s been travelling with Ace at this point? There’s lots of little hints in this episode that seem to suggest they’ve spent a while together since Dragonfire (and I’d say that Sophie Aldred has been made up to look older than she was in that story), and that this pair are fairly comfortable together. Certainly, this isn’t the first place they’ve been to since Ice World. Equally, they’ve not been anywhere where Ace has needed to drive, because the Doctor has to ask if she can. I think I’m plumping for a period of maybe six months for them by now - long enough to go around and have several adventures, and to get comfortable together before they touch down here to sort out the Daleks (the Doctor is clearly here specifically for the Daleks, and I’d imagine he’d want to make sure Ace is up to the challenge before setting the coordinates). Does anyone else have a theory on how long they’ve been together already? 

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