❉ The Sixth Doctor proves himself a past master at the double entry.
In 1985, the Sixth Doctor and His Not Very Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat said nothing to me about my life.
I was disillusioned with Doctor Who, and on the fringes of a campaign of fan dissent organised by some Doctor Who Appreciation Society members who didn’t like Colin Baker’s casting. A friend at the time printed up some flyers which, under a picture of the first five Doctors, boldly stated “Doesn’t 20 years of brilliance deserve better than this?” The unfortunate ‘this’ was a picture of Colin. Thus armed, my mate put the flyers up around the annual DWAS convention. The organisers made him take them down.
Too many years later, one thing I can say for certain is that I’m not an elitist Doctor Who fan. I’m not in touch with my old chum now, sadly, so I hope he eventually attained the sense of perspective I did.
This is at least partly why I’m at the BFI Southbank for a pre-Season 22 Blu-ray screening of Revelation of the Daleks. In light of what I’ve said, if you wanted to retitle the story Re-evaluation of the Daleks, you’d be right.
The story turned out to be a pleasant surprise. The top-notch cast, black comedy and inventive direction serve up what is easily Colin’s best Doctor Who by some distance, principally because script editor Eric Saward had clearly been taking his Robert Holmes pills when he wrote it. Indeed, Revelation looks like it’s set in the same universe as Holmes’ The Caves of Androzani (1984): there’s an ambitious oligarch scheming for economic control, as well as a certain continuity in some of the costume design. The two stories didn’t have the same costume designer, so that level of detail must have come from director Graeme Harper himself. In terms of world building, he’s a lot like his directing mentor, 1960s and 1970s auteur Douglas Camfield.
By now, Terry Molloy had settled in as Davros. The rather one dimensional maniac of 1984’s Resurrection of the Daleks here reacquires some of the cunning and guile of Michael Wisher’s original performance in Genesis of the Daleks (1975). He also gets a dry sense of humour, explaining to the Doctor that if the inhabitants of the galaxy found out they were eating the remains of their relatives, “there would be what I believe is called consumer resistance.”
Make no mistake, Revelation is a very funny story. Maliciously so in places, particularly in Clive Swift’s wonderfully narcissistic Mr Jobel. His line about preferring to “run away with my own mother” rather than flee with the infatuated Tasembeker (Jenny Tomasin) got the biggest audience laugh of the afternoon.
The story again flirts with breaking the invisible ‘fourth wall’ between the actors and the viewers, something of a feature of Colin’s tenure (c.f. Vengeance on Varos and The Trial of a Time Lord). Here the idea is at its most sophisticated: the staff of the funeral home Tranquil Repose are all under electronic surveillance, so Jobel thinks he’s being clever flattering Davros, his one man audience; Alexei Sayle’s DJ, meanwhile, is the drama’s Greek chorus. At one point the Doctor joins in the self aware fun by appearing to address the viewers directly; cue a cut to the same image of him on the DJ’s viewing screen, where we can see he’s talking to Peri. That sort of cleverness makes revisiting a Doctor Who story rewarding.
It was also a good afternoon for guests. First up to the stage was Gareth Kavanagh, publisher of the innovative Cutaway Comics. Their premise is simple but intriguing, as he explained: “What happens to the [guest characters] characters when the Doctor’s gone? They have a full life, they’re well formed, they’re a big part of the show… We thought ‘Let’s do some comics and see what happens.’”
The initial run, all funded by Kickstarter, fielded an impressive rogues gallery – Eric Saward’s Lytton: Intergalactic Freelance Soldier and Orcini, Stephen Wyatt’s street gangs in Paradise Towers: Paradise Found, as well as Bob Baker’s Eldrad Must Live! and Omega: Vengeance, “the sequel to Underworld you never realised you wanted.” The Cutaway project is going so well it’s already developing into, as Gareth put it, “Marvel Cinematic Universe-style adventures” set to include, among others, Omega and – whisper it – the return of the godlike Sutekh.
After episode one of Revelation, Roger Limb, the composer of its distinctive electronic score, joined Dick Fiddy for an engaging conversation about his life and career. The articulate and energetic Roger was a studio manager and a newsreader before he was employed by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop at the beginning of the 1970s. He considers himself “part of the change” that was happening, as synthesisers and multi-tracking were being developed by that time. When Roger worked on Revelation, he was using a DX7 synth.
He went on to describe the typical procedure for a Doctor Who story in the 1980s: “Script, casting, rehearsal, studio, then edit, which is where the Radiophonic Workshop came in. The director would arrive with a VHS machine and say – for example – ‘This is episode one. Let’s have a look through. I’ll tell you where I’d like some music, and where music can rescue a rather flabby scene.’ We had a morning to go through it, and then I was left to my own devices. The director would come back in a week, have a look at what I’d done and would usually say, ‘Yeah, I like all that.’
“There’d be a few changes, then we would go to the dub, where suddenly the face of producer John Nathan-Turner would appear above the horizon. We had to please John as well, and I’m happy to say that 99% of the time he was pleased and accommodating. He would occasionally – and perhaps just for the sake of it – change something, but it was never a big problem.”
Next up was Chris Chapman, who produces and directs most of the ‘making of’ documentaries for the DVDs and Blu-rays. Affable and approachable, he said the best part of his job was unearthing new details about old stories. “We did this wonderful thing on the Attack of the Cybermen shoot,” he revealed. “We took Colin and Nicola back to the alleyway they run down and are followed by two policemen. Jan Vincent-Rudzki allowed us to borrow a beautiful photograph he’d taken, which I’d never seen before, of Colin and Nicola at the bottom of that alleyway surrounded by ten year-old kids on BMX bikes, absolutely mobbed.
“What Colin realised, looking at that picture during filming, was that it was the first day he was on location in costume as the Doctor. Yes, he’d done location filming for The Twin Dilemma, but that was in a quarry, whereas this was the first time he’d met the public. That photo unlocked a different memory from Colin that we’d not heard before.”
After watching the compilation of clips from the box set’s special features, I want to see Timelash again (and that’s not something I ever thought I would say in public). Looking at some edited ‘highlights’, I now realise that everyone involved knew it was a crap story and treated it accordingly. Once you know that, you can enjoy it enormously.
Actor Colin Spaull came to the part of the violent Lilt by a happy accident. He explained, “I’d worked with Trevor [Cooper, who played Takis] before. We’d done a play called Schoolboy Blues above a pub in London and it was written by Graeme Harper’s PA, Michael Cameron.” The “Laurel and Hardyesque” duo were originally scheduled to appear in Revelation’s location filming but, not unusually for Doctor Who, the weather was so bad, “We turned round and went home.”
This is only the second time I’ve seen a live interview with Colin Baker or Nicola Bryant. The first was at a DWAS convention after The Twin Dilemma went out – in fact, it might have been the convention with the flyer incident – and I remember Colin arrived on stage in his full technicolor ensemble. Today, he’s far more soberly dressed and a little emotional over Nicola’s performance as a warrior Queen, that we’ve all just watched (as you can see from the photographs, it looks like she stopped getting older in 1986) in the trailer for the Season 22 Blu-rays: “You just made me cry watching that… It was magical. Absolutely magical.” He’s rewarded with a hug, and in that moment you know why Nicola and Colin’s friendship has lasted as long as it has.
With an awful lot of proverbial water under the proverbial bridge, I’ve learned that the artistic decisions in Doctor Who in the 1980s that I didn’t like were out of Colin and Nicola’s hands. Seeing them talk today, they obviously cared, and still care, deeply about the series. Colin’s a man of firm opinions – “I don’t think one person should ever have the power to control free speech” – and stands by his belief that if wit, reasoning and intelligence fail, the Doctor has the right to take violent action. Colin’s not wrong – it lends authenticity and a welcome touch of complexity to the character.
I now have a favourite Colin Baker story. I even feel some genuine empathy for the man himself and Nicola.
It’s nice to know I can still surprise myself. Equally, it’s good to know that Doctor Who still can too.
❉ ‘Doctor Who: Revelation Of The Daleks’ took place at BFI Southbank , Saturday 5 March, 2022. Photos © Robert Fairclough, 2021.
❉ Pre-order Doctor Who: The Collection – Season 22 from Amazon, Rarewaves and HMV in the UK, from Sanity and JB in Australia and Amazon in the US.
❉ Robert Fairclough writes on a variety of subjects, including mental health and popular culture (sometimes both at once). He has written six books, contributes to magazines and websites, and writes regular blogs about projects he’s involved in for The Restoration Trust. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org, and his website can be viewed at www.robfairclough.co.uk