Doctor Who: Destiny of the Daleks

Doctor Who: Destiny of the Daleks March 4, 2019

This episode is an important precursor to the modern era, as well as a successor to the episode The War Games. In the latter, the time lords impose regeneration on the Doctor, but allow him to choose his appearance – although as he rejects every proposal, with the result that they eventually decide for him, which results in the change of appearance from Patrick Troughton to Jon Pertwee. In this episode, Romana decides to regenerate, adopting Princess Astra’s form from the previous episode. When the Doctor objects, she tries on other faces and forms, which the Doctor decides are even less satisfactory. And so Princess Astra it is – and the version of Romana that would become so iconic, not least because of the chemistry between the two actors, but also because of the great stories from that era of Doctor Who.

In the episode, the Doctor reads a book called The Origin of the Universe, and remarks that it gets it wrong from the first line. He asks why they author didn’t ask someone who saw it happen. The author of the book is shown to be Oolon Colluphid, a name offered by Douglas Adams and used also in conjunction with his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. This fictional author has been connected with a number of real-world prototypes, including Don Cupitt.

The episode’s action involves the Daleks and Skaro, and a race of androids called the Movellans, who are said to be “just another race of robots, no better than the Daleks.” There is quite a bit of focus on their robotic ineptitude, as the Doctor uses the game “rock paper scissors” to cause a robotic impasse of logic. The Movellans and the Daleks have both headed in this direction, one androids, the other cyborgs. Both have purportedly become slaves of logic. The Daleks, however, have sought Davros’s help to recover the organic element they had lost. That’s an interesting idea, although one that perhaps assumes that being basically mechanical or basically organic at one’s core makes an essential difference. Or perhaps that is not the point? If the Daleks could potentially recover what they had sacrificed in their effort to purge things like emotions even beyond the seminal vision of Davros, that suggests that even organisms can lose empathy and other characteristics that we tend to assume biological beings are capable of, and that mechanical beings are not. The episode is thus a good one for exploring questions about nature and nurture, logic and emotion, and what we might lose or gain if we begin tinkering with our own genetic code in the interest of making “improvements.” There is so much that could potentially go wrong…

If you’re inclined to reflect on how classic Doctor Who and the most recent episodes featuring Jodie Whittaker relate and compare to one another, take a look at the piece in Polygon about the moral wrestling – and purported lack of inner conflict – in the latest episodes. Do you agree with its assessment?

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  • Scurra

    (I will start by declaring that Moffat’s puzzleboxes are my idea of heaven. And I rate David Tennant very near the bottom of my Doctors list. So you can feel free to ignore anything I say now. 🙂

    One thing that is rarely said about the “classic” era of Who is that it had space to breathe. Even though the constraints of a 4x25m format ending with a traditional cliffhanger usually led to an awful lot of running though corridors, there was also often room to see an argument from multiple directions. Destiny of the Daleks is a good example of this; I always liked the notion that the Daleks needed Davros or they simply stagnated (this is also an important sequel/prequel to Evil of the Daleks, one of the lost Troughton stories, which is all about their search for the “human factor” – and, of course, is also related to the more recent Evolution of the Daleks which takes a slightly different approach to the same general idea*.)

    For me, the biggest flaw in the Whitaker season (which I enjoyed a lot but it doesn’t come close to making my “top ten seasons” list) was the almost entirely self-contained nature of every story, even to the point of repeating the same story elements week after week for fear that casual viewers would forget that Graham and Ryan had a touchy relationship, or even that the Doctor was now a woman. And the result was that there was vanishingly little room to actually talk about whatever it was the episode was trying to do. Rosa almost managed it but it felt trite. KaBoom! blew it completely in the last few minutes. Even the finale (with the long name) didn’t give you enough time with the two ‘immortal’ aliens to understand (a) what they could do and (b) why the arrival of Tim Shaw would thus be such a disaster for them because it had to resolve the entire thing in half the time that a ‘classic’ series story would take.

    * interestingly, Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution was a two-part story meaning that it had a running time closer to the original series. Which might explain why it did have a bit more room to explore the notions even if some of the more intriguing aspects like the implications of the pig-men were sidelined or forgotten.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. I am hoping to write more about “The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos” (including why on earth it has that name) and appreciate hearing someone else’s perspective on it and how it relates to the season and the franchise as a whole.