Exhumation of the Daleks – Resurrection and Revelation of the Daleks reviewed

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Image Description: Resurrection of the Daleks cover

Matthew Kilburn reviews the two books by Eric Saward which complete at last the novelizations of twentieth-century Doctor Who

Observing with resolve the failure of a new series of Doctor Who to result from the 1996 TV Movie, the then Doctor Who Magazine editor, Gary Gillatt, remarked that Doctor Who fans were good at waiting. Reviewing Eric Saward’s novelizations of his two Dalek serials, Resurrection of the Daleks (1984) and Revelation of the Daleks (1985), finally translated from television into book form in 2019, it struck me that there are people who have died waiting for these to be published. Financial disputes bedevilled the writing and publication of these titles for decades. Now both are here, though for the moment as hardbacks with vaguely art deco covers relying mainly on typographic effects and utilising an ancient stock illustration of a Dalek, rather than as paperbacks in the Target format with artwork in that tradition. If the impact of the book jacket is divisive, then so is that of the prose within.

Saward makes occasional and distracting use of blocks of text isolated by composition and sometimes by font from the paragraph, comparable in some ways to early modern emblemata. In Doctor Who–Resurrection of the Daleks, one of these interruptions in visual continuity glibly responds to the crisis in which the Doctor, Tegan and Turlough find themselves with ‘The greatest of all the Time Lords was having a really bad day.’ Saward’s sarcastic valorization of the Doctor seems to view him as a dilettante who seeks problems to solve in order to boost a fragile ego. Saward is interested in people with whom his version of the Doctor doesn’t seem to have much immediate empathy, in particular Quartermaster-Sergeant Stien, a coward lucky enough to have found a niche in his army and who scolds combat soldier Galloway for not appreciating that others can’t afford to share his principles because they lack the skills to stand up for them. It’s a pessimism characteristic of the novel. The harmless–Mr Jones, a tramp who exchanges cleaning jobs for a hot breakfast at a cafe every morning–are killed by those unconcerned about their actions, kind or unkind.

It’s a largely amoral universe. The novel at least has a keenly felt sense of period. Saward mournfully and sympathetically sketches the decline of Shad Thames, a place which once spoke with many languages and thrived with goods from around the world, but which in 1984 had become hollowed-out, its broken bridges struggling to connect the gaping windows of empty warehouses as rainwater leaked from splintered drainpipes. It’s appropriate that Stien emerges there, a figure lost in time who seems to find a place as a worry-bound Digby to the multiskilled Dan Dare that is Saward’s Fifth Doctor. Once Stien’s Dalek programming has kicked in, he adopts the jargon of a middle-ranking Raj officer in his club, addressing Lytton as ‘old boy’ as if about to order a cocktail from a turbaned servant. This behaviour develops a minor feature of Stein’s behaviour on television, and might be read as comment on producer John Nathan-Turner’s view that Peter Davison’s Doctor should embody the virtues of the imperial late summer of the interwar period.

Given the post-imperial condition of both 1980s London and the weakened disease-ridden Daleks, Saward seems conflicted over the positioning of the Doctor and Doctor Who at this point, even though he was one of its principal authors. The future human empire which has imprisoned Davros is just as decayed. The prison craft Vipod Mor is crewed by lackadaisical marines, officers eyeing their next promotion, and a sex-obsessed secret agent. The Daleks are introduced as imaginative opportunists, having adapted a human battlecruiser with their own technology. The initiative is with them, and their acerbic Supreme Dalek. Viewers of Resurrection of the Daleks are already used to Saward paying particular attention to the mercenary Lytton, but now he is joined by Daleks with personality who almost render redundant Russell T Davies’s later innovation, the Cult of Skaro. There’s some promise here, but it’s not carried off well. The embellishment to the story doesn’t tighten it up but makes it flabbier, and while there is character crossover from the prison ship crew plotline to the Doctor’s which doesn’t happen on television, it only leads to there being extra people about with whom the Doctor can have unnecessary conversations. Giving Dr Styles a cat, Sir Runcible, feels purposeless. The pages of detailed description of the TARDIS interior, where we learn that the Doctor has a robot chef preparing a tasting menu of 33 dishes, only suggest that the Doctor is as decadent a Time Lord as any, a sensation-seeking bore who will entrap you in his private cinema if you are unlucky. We even learn that the TARDIS workshops are barely touched by the Doctor. Unlike those who initially conceived the character, Saward doesn’t appear to view the Doctor as ‘an engineer, a builder of things’ (The Aztecs [1964]), but as someone more often on the verge of taking action than actually doing anything. Soldiers and bystanders are killed while powers with one foot outside the world debate the rights and wrongs of events. Saward’s deployment of the phrase ‘So it goes’ (p 158) recalls Kurt Vonnegut’s anti-war novel Slaughterhouse 5 (1969), perhaps inviting the reader to draw other parallels, but that has to be a discussion for another day.

So while there is ambition, it’s badly directed and reveals preoccupations of the author which blunt rather than sharpen the edge of what should be and sometimes manages to be a thrilling race to prevent Davros taking control of the Daleks and leading this reinvigorated force to conquest. To cap it all, the threat of a world dominated by Dalek duplicates is removed (empty, as Doctor Who in 1984 would have difficulty in delivering on such a wide-ranging scenario nor bear the fatalism of a world completely infiltrated by Daleks), it’s succeeded by a sequel-hunting scene of a superpowered Tegan who can take on her enemies on her own terms and not the Doctor’s. Resurrection of the Daleks this might be, but just as the Daleks extract Davros from his icy living death but fail to manage the consequences, this novel too often feels like the work of a Burke and Hare robbing the grave of Doctor Who and mislabelling body parts during the anatomization.

One problematic adaptation is succeeded by another. More than its televised precursor, Doctor Who–Revelation of the Daleks is steeped in military analogy. There’s some sense to this and respect for origins. Saward’s story was inspired by Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One (1948), a novel which dealt with an English scriptwriter in the aftermath of the Second World War finding himself in the world of Hollywood funeral parlours where death’s realities were cosmetically obscured in every sense. The decision to build up the military backgrounds of Tranquil Repose morticians Takis and Lilt helps locate Revelation of the Daleks in a comparable world, reacting against horror by convincing itself it can cheat mortality. Where Resurrection of the Daleks depicts traumatised worlds which are unable to move on from their pasts until the very end, Revelation of the Daleks concerns itself with wrong directions taken, the desperation which leads people to find hope in false prophets. For Tasembeker this is Jobel, a passion more broadly told than that of Aimée Thanatogenos for Mr Joyboy, Saward’s Waughian models. For the wider universe, this is the Great Healer, Davros recast as provider of food to the masses and the promise of restored life. His primary ambition is stated as conquest rather than the perfection of the Daleks, sliding more than ever into the role of generic villain.

There might seem little sign of love in this tale of Loved Ones. The cycle of harm and self-harm displayed in the televised story has jarred with me more as time has gone by. In the book, everything is present and even intensified, from Lilt’s wish to “mark” grave-opening Natasha to her colleague Grigory’s alcoholism. Tasembeker’s sexual obsession with Jobel is even more detached than on television from any understanding of the man and of his environment, likewise seedier than visualized in 1985, where a young woman might ‘provocatively’ wander down a corridor to extract protestations of undying love–and what else?–from Jobel. Revelation of the Daleks might be inspired by a novel satirising Hollywood, but in Tranquil Repose everyone seems too complicit to inspire a #MeToo movement. However, there is a gradual shift. Takis and Lilt are steaadily rehumanized, one having a tattoo to remember his dead wife and child. These are unhappy survivors looking for a purpose. Grigory’s tolerance for alcohol might be so high that he can’t be made drunk, but in context–just after the bizarre cruelty of the Doctor’s mock death–it’s as if we’ve found the worst that can happen and that from now on the situation has the capability of improvement. Even Tasembeker’s eagerness to please Davros endears as much as it disturbs; she might be pathetic in the eyes of Jobel and Davros, but her failure to comprehend the nature of Davros’s schemes until it’s too late is a mark of her humanity. Perhaps she has rediscovered idealism too early, at a time when Tranquil Repose demands only compliance and survival.

Several devices in this novelisation fail to impress. The abbreviation of Tranquil Repose to ‘TR’ and Mr Jobel to ‘Mr J’ are pitched worryingly between inducting the reader into in-house jargon and a sense that the author failed to execute a find-and-replace. Revealing that the DJ’s name is ‘Derek Johnson’ is tiresome, undermining one of the most memorable characters of the story with a twee quasi-pun. The Doctor’s interest in agronomy is one thing, but his attending agronomists’ conventions too feels far too routine for him. There’s an unnecessary suicide towards the end of the book, of a character whom the gap of thirty-four years since broadcast might have allowed to survive. The addition of new character Alex Sagovski in the closing phase of the novel might be compensation for this, but he never proves that he is more than a spare wheel to give the Doctor someone to talk to, as if this was a television or (particularly) a radio script. Even more so than on television, Bostock’s observation that Kara and Vogel are “like a double act” suggests that Saward felt master of Doctor Who writers Robert Holmes, creator of famous pairings such as Jago and Litefoot in The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977) was going to mark his work.

Bostock flaunts authorial self-awareness, as he and Orcini are themselves a double act seeking admission to the school of Holmes. In the excommunicated grand master of the Order of Oberon, and his filthy squire, Saward finds both the characters to which he allows the greatest mutual empathy and trust, and those who connect the concerns of the 1980s with those of the 2010s. Orcini’s lament (p 87) for a lost age of honourable combat speaks as much to these days of cyber-attacks and manipulation by mass disinformation as it did to those of renewed cold war and mutually assured nuclear destruction. The echoes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Orcini’s name and order suggests Saward believes Orcini’s principles were always fantastical, yet here it’s his sense of abstract nobility which motivates the self-destructive act which destroys Davros’s Dalek-breeding plant. Both Resurrection of the Daleks and Revelation of the Daleks rely on a character ending their life in order to frustrate the Daleks or Davros, but compared to Stien, Orcini feels more part of deeper cultural traditions of self-sacrifice as he knows his own mind far better than Stien, whose fragile recovered humanity is manipulated by the Doctor to his own ends.

Neither novel is entirely successful on its own terms, partly because they are torn as to what those terms actually are. Revelation of the Daleks feels the more integrated of the two, an expanded version of the television script no longer subject to Graeme Harper’s directorial vision. Resurrection of the Daleks is part-reworking, part satire of a script with which Eric Saward has expressed his dissatisfaction in the past. The uncertain commercial location of the modern Doctor Who novelization is another complicating factor. Both need more consistency in argument and sense of purpose for one to be sure that they want to be taken seriously as books rather than simply as branded merchandise. There is nevertheless something compelling about both, sometimes as wry reflections on television storytelling past, otherwise as oblique insights into what one of Doctor Who’s most controversial figures thinks the programme and its lead character are about. Amidst what can seem an arid and cynical outlook there are moments of human warmth, such as the DJ’s asking Peri whether the Doctor is her dad (p 115). Perhaps in looking for the weaknesses of his retelling, I’ve forgotten that Eric Saward wrote Earthshock, and that such “small, beautiful events [are] what life is all about.” We should cherish them where we find them, rather than complain that there are not enough. The revival of Eric Saward’s Doctor Who is oddly appropriate for the ‘radical helplessness’ of Chris Chibnall’s.

Tides 44 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link

One comment

  1. Interesting. I actually like Revelation of the Daleks (TV version) a lot, but this review (I haven’t read the book) makes me wonder how much it was due to Graeme Harper and some inspired casting. Your last observation deserves elaboration in a fuller compare/contrast article.

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