Doctor Who Series 9: Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Skaro and the End of the Acid Reign

Doctor Who Series 9 The Magician's Apprentice
“Guys! Guys! I think I’ve landed a walk on part…”

The first of a series of essays inspired by the stories of Doctor Who Series Nine, starting with a trip to a mysterious planet in The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar.

HOW WILL HISTORY RECORD THE MOFFAT ERA? THAT’S NOT A QUESTION FOR NOW OF COURSE, AND ONE UNLIKELY TO BE ANSWERED FOR A LONG TIME. WHEN THE SONIC GLASSES HAVE GATHERED DUST, WHEN THE TWELFTH DOCTOR’S MYSTERIOUS, HAWKISH, STRANGELY FAMILIAR FACE IS LONG GONE. Steven Moffat has written for more Doctors than anyone else, and you can’t even say with any confidence that he’s on his final one as showrunner… Having crossed confidentially onto his second Doctor and nearing the end of his second major companion, it’s not clear Who will go down as Moffat’s ‘definitive’ Doctor. And that joyfully creative mess sets out a simple stall…

Thanks for all the fish

Douglas Adams was surely Graham Williams’ ideal ally…

Moffat’s remarked on his regard for one time script editor Douglas Adams, not just for his small but extraordinary body of personal work (who doesn’t?), but for the legendary writer’s rather more divisive tenure on Doctor Who. In the mid-1970s, Adams had made a living out from writing comedy for radio, even forming a writing partnership with Monty Python’s Graham Chapman and being only one of two people outside the troupe to gain a writing credit on a sketch for the Flying Circus. Not fully on board with the likes of deadlines and delivery, it’s still surprising that he took the script editing seat for Season 17 in 1979 alongside producer Graham Williams. It didn’t help that the laws of the universe ensured that his little radio series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was commissioned for broadcast at the same time. Still, for the producer unlucky to follow Philip Hinchcliffe, tasked with fencing the show off from the heavy criticism that met his predecessor while retaining the viewing figures, Adams was surely an ideal ally.

The result is one of Who’s real mixed bags. Sadly, having already contributed a mind-bogglingly budget-straining script to the show the year before, Adams generally takes the credit for the highs of that time, while the lows are rather unfairly brushed under Graham Williams’ production seat. Adam’s The Pirate Planet from Season 16 is seen as a doughty attempt push ambition onto a screen that can barely contain it, The City of Death (co-written by a strained Williams and Adams from David Fisher’s idea under the David Agnew pseudonym) is a beautiful mess of sharp scripting, superb casting, foreign location and hard science fiction that managed to claim the classic show’s highest ratings. Shada had the foresight to never complete its production and shot swiftly for mythical status.

The rest of season 17 retains a fair few detractors, although there remains a few ardent fans for that loose and difficult time before the strident science of script editor Christopher H. Bidmead swept in, while Tom Baker took an arbitrary approach to whether the material bored him of filled him with sizzling physical comedy. If you like your Who served as comedy this is the place to find it.

Don’t Blink

To paraphrase 10cc, it’s just a phase Who’s going through.

Of the many talents and nearly-talents that have scripted the show, Steven Moffat is no doubt the nearest to Adams, offering up scintillating dialogue and stretching the imagination of the show at all times (although needing to balance it with a bit more care and consideration than his predecessor). This writer can’t tell you how pleased he was that a pit of vampire monkeys made it into the show at last. His is no doubt a difficult task and it’s not surprising that some things have to get dropped along the way. With Moffat that primarily appears to be a regard for logic, as story elements disregard the Who canon and sometimes even the logic laid down by his own stories. Perhaps it’s purposeful, perhaps it’s a necessary evil or perhaps an inevitability when one writer pens so many key episodes. Whether confusion creeps in at the script or editing level, what it really isn’t is a problem. It simply doesn’t have to be. Like the gothic homage of the Hinchcliffe era under the pen of script editor Robert Holmes, or the shameless comedy of Williams and Adams, to paraphrase 10cc, it’s just a phase Who’s going through. And it will go through again.

As proved by that comparison to former creative teams, the show simply doesn’t allow any era to be sustainable. It’s more a time and space choice, a universe that contradicts itself and makes impossible leaps, that asks us to accept madness: that’s what the Moffat tenure is. And, as with every other facet of the show you can always find a precedent; Russell T Davies’ tenure was may have been a more solid bar of soap, higher emotion and less timey-wimey, but it still had the magical resolution to The Last of the Time Lords. And Moffat’s approach, using the deliberately loose structure of the show to jump logic for emotion and adventure (it’s a show about time travel, about a mad man in a box, as he says) cannot be imprudent.

Still, there’s criticism in store for every showrunner, and much of Moffat’s comes from viewers’ struggle to reconcile this Moffat who puts drama and surprise above hermetic plotting and the writer of tightly coiled stories like The Empty Child and Blink. In any event, with a record run on the show it’s set into the fabric, ready to be confronted, ignored or twisted by showrunners of the future as they see fit. That Moffat’s work often references continuity issues in classic Who, like The Magician’s Apprentice’s dismissal of the Master’s easy escapes in the 1980s (to the cliff-hanger’s detriment) and the jokey aside of three possible Atlantises, might suggest that he’s readying his defence against his successors inevitably doing the same to him.

“I was a little inconsistent back then. And had big eyebrows” will intone Mark Gatiss’ Fifteenth Doctor in 2021.

The Solar System

All that merely served to dish up the real planetical question halfway through the story…

But yes, back to the big ideas in the grand Adams tradition. Always intergalactic, always with some crafty planet at the core, Earth, Pirate, prison… That hasn’t stopped, in fact Moffat’s production team are getting better at their staging. If Series Nine doesn’t have the most bombastic, over the top ball-throwing beginnings of the new era it’s a close run thing.

There are a multitude of delicious hooks at the front of the series, hanging ripe just above the serene, toxic water left by the rather bleak close to Series Eight and wonderfully melancholy Christmas special. And it works far better than the sketch based start to Series Six’s The Impossible Astronaut. Amid the frozen planes, a re-establishing of the Doctor and Master’s ‘difficult’ relationship, Clara’s Day job and UNIT’s irrepressible panic (surely not helped by their notably cold offices) there were the three big draws. The loss of the Doctor, the imminent death of Davros (and the walking snake colony sent to track the Doctor down for him) and then the catch-up on some of sites and planets of the Whoniverse, old and new.

There was Moffat’s own Maldovarium, sadly still missing its ebullient blue-head of an owner. Then, The Shadow Proclamation, with a nice mention of suicide moons as the show looked back to the Davies era. Then there was Karn, reaching back to the days of Robert Holmes, a planet Moffat brought back to the Who universe with his symbolic and generous regeneration of Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor. Yes, nods to different eras. This was big stuff. So it was little surprise to hear a big name, even that early.

But all that merely served to dish up the real planetical question halfway through the story, when all protagonists had reached the real backdrop for the adventure: What the Dark Lord of Skaro happened to the Dalek’s home planet?

A genesis of an idea

When the oncoming storm first broke…

Part of the show’s ‘greatest ever season’™, The Genesis of the Daleks was at the heart of Series Nine’s two-part opener. A certified classic, it’s been central to Doctor Who for forty years, and was wisely chosen as the root of Russell T Davies’ Great Time War. The picture forms: it’s integral. And not just structurally, visually or horrifically. It stretched the moral canvas of Doctor Who, provided an incredible chance for the show’s most famous monsters to chillingly reboot and Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor to reach for the Empyrean. But although those events were later cited as the first act of the Time War, that ignores the first skirmish. In a neat piece of history, that needed less retconning than popular support, it was the show’s first trip from Planet Earth that set up the show’s future.

The Daleks, or The Mutants, or The Dead Planet (it gets more ominous with each renaming) kicked everything off. This was likely when the Doctor was persuaded to become the force for change that defines the show, when the legend began, when the oncoming storm first broke. It was also when the Daleks first realised that they weren’t alone in the universe.

That first alien world of the Who universe, Skaro was a chillingly dead planet, with its petrified forests (and inhabitants), making way for the gleaming Dalek city that the TARDIS crew couldn’t resist. In what must surely be the first act of the Time War in Time Lord chronology, the Doctor incited the Kaled/Dalek’s age old enemies, the Thals, to strike back at the pepper pots. Leaving them apparently dormant and literally powerless, they inadvertently set the incubated militant race out of their metal floored confines to conquer the universe. We wouldn’t have to return to Skaro for some time. They’d come to us.

Enter Davros

With Genesis a decade later and Terry Nation returned to grapple control of his creations back. By giving them a creator.

They had burned bright during the early and mid-1960s, on British television and two Peter Cushing-starring film adaptations. But in 1967, the Second Doctor looked to have retired them during the first of the Dalek civil wars before they made three curious appearances opposite Jon Pertwee in the early 1970s. Tackling ontological paradox, invisible Spiridons, cryogenic suspension and even EMPS, soft spots aside, none of those (no, not even Day of the Daleks) were classics. And none took us back to Skaro, reduced now to a mere mention. And so, mildly cajoled back to write for his most famous creations, Nation took his chance to return to their home planet and set about showing us the as yet untold origin of Who’s greatest villains. It’s a starchy tale, owing much to the ‘60s adventures rather than looking forward to what would come in the 1970s. Although from the clams (nodded to by the “clam drones” of The Magician’s Apprentice) to the guerrilla warfare of the wasteland mutants much of that serves a purpose. And among the filler, there were scenes that would shine brightly for decades. The ominous Time Lord deception of the mist veiled opening, the heavy Nazi parallels, the brilliant design of Davros and his chilling portrayal by series regular Michael Wisher. And then, the moral conundrum at the heart. The wonderful scripting that pitted the deformed, mad scientist against the desperate and suddenly so important Time Lord. The great adversity that would stand the test of time, beyond the Great Time War. Untouched by opportunistic friendship until The Witch’s Familiar, by the time of the Twelfth Doctor he considers Davros to be his arch-enemy (albeit knowingly within earshot of the other contender).

From that point on, when the Fourth Doctor hesitated and merely delayed Dalek development, the Skaro time line reset. The Classic Series now dwelt on Davros just as much as the Daleks during their sparse appearances. On the back of such a resounding success it’s not surprising that Terry Nation returned again some five years later to provide a sequel. Unfortunately this time, it wasn’t under the auspices of instinctive and shrewd script editor Robert Holmes, but the gifted, mercurial and furiously funny Douglas Adams.

Reserving the Daleks

In fact, Destiny even failed as a sequel…

Destiny of the Daleks failed to live up to the promise of its perfectly self-contained and well regarded predecessor on almost every level. The production design was horrid, with the well buried Davros found in what seems to be a forerunner of Ikea, basement level two. Skaro has aged badly, giving up much of its ethereal and time-fixed horror and even its gleaming city towers to resemble a quarry under a bright sky. Laughably trapped in a logical stalemate with the robot Movellans, Nation even apparently forgot that his creations aren’t robots themselves but cyborgs, or perhaps that simply fell in the scripting editing. Adams must at least take responsibility for the unforgiveable slip in letting the Doctor infamously taunt a Dalek’s about its inability to climb. Even amid the ‘horrors’ of that season’s Horns of Nimon and The Creature from the Pit, once you’re laughing at the monster…

In fact, Destiny even failed as a sequel, coming chronologically many years after the First Doctor’s arrival on the planet in The Daleks.

Still, Destiny has as much a role to play in The Magician’s Apprentice as Genesis. Series Nine started with a startling return to the captivating horror of Skaro’s Thousand Year War, where technology was forced in attrition to run backwards. A war where bi-planes mix with arrows and now the iconic hand mines. It’s Davros’ first appearance that provides the moral fibre and debate that runs through The Witch’s Familiar. But while the interior nods to The Daleks (including the wonderful internal architecture and slanted doors above Clara’s key, and rather flawed impersonation of a Dalek), the exterior recalls Destiny more than any other. When the gorgeous blue and silver original Daleks and their Classic series cousins take to the air it’s easy to imagine it’s yet another attempt to confront that misplayed scene in Destiny of the Daleks.

A put upon planet

The Time War was brought closer to fruition when a double-bluff saw the Seventh Doctor destroy Skaro once and for all…

But the setting lets two very important and conflicting questions rise from the pen of Moffat. How could they possibly be on Skaro and also why on Skaro should they not be on Skaro? It’s a further conundrum posed by Doctor Who’s original alien planet. Seldom in science fiction has a dead world returned from eternal repose so often, like a celestial Brigadoon (or yes, Star Trek fans, Meridian). It’s not helped by the myriad appearances Daleks and their home planet make in the dubious canonicity of novelizations, comics and audio adventures.

In the series, pre-Genesis shake-up, Terry Nation’s Planet of the Daleks suggested that the indomitable Thals had reclaimed Skaro from their enemies while the egomaniac pepper pots made do with a space empire. That situation was reversed by the time of Destiny of the Daleks probably some two thousand years later – starting a splattering of episodes filled with vendetta and civil war that takes the Daleks to London’s docklands, Necros (while the ‘renegade’ Daleks seem to have taken full control of Skaro) and back to the beginning of East End London 1963. The superb Remembrance of the Daleks looks to end the game, bringing the Time War closer to fruition, when a double-bluff saw the Seventh Doctor destroy Skaro once and for all. Much to Davros’ horror. But that wasn’t the case for long, as that same incarnation took one final journey from Skaro after retrieving the remains of the executed Master during the TV Movie. Not only did that suggest Davros wasn’t on Skaro at the time, as the eye-poking Missy introduces herself to him in Series Nine, but that Skaro was not totally destroyed and rather left in a horrid state. In the freedom of the book ranges, writer John Peel subsequently dedicated much time to explaining away deception and decoy Skaros, although that was more about syncing up the idea of creator and Dalek Emperor. Certainly on screen, if you look at its appearance in the movie, it was a whole lot more red.

A planet deceased

As a race happy to tunnel out planet cores in their infancy, perhaps the idea of building and rebuilding planets can’t be put past them.

Speed forward and through the Time War, countless references are made to Skaro’s destruction (hear Dalek Caan’s lament in Daleks in Manhattan). Although for a race happy to tunnel out planet cores in their infancy, perhaps the idea of building and rebuilding planets can’t be put past them. For at the start of Series Seven, with some horror, the Eleventh Doctor plonks his TARDIS into a trap on Skaro in Asylum of the Daleks.

The Dalek city Kalaan is seen there, just as it is in the canonical BBC videogame City of the Daleks, the tall edifices, roundel sense spheres and Dalek statues splattered by perpetual acid rain. Skaro exists, and it’s not a very pleasant place to be at all in Steven Moffat’s world. And nor should it be, we’d all heard that decimated by the neutron bombs of its warring races the planet was rendered as inhospitable as its most famous residents.

Until Series Nine.

In The Magician’s Apprentice, Missy is clearly shocked to state, “They’ve built it again. They’ve brought it back. No. No. No!” Explaining to Clara that it’s the “beginning. Where it all started” is a nice nod to the show and the perfect cue for a classic Dalek to offer immediate croaking confirmation. It’s an all too quick cut, but glorious against the bright sky and rocky terrain of… Destiny of the Daleks. The reign of acid is over, if it ever began.

It’s good practise with a Moffat-era piece to pinpoint a previous universe-threatening plot point that could have altered reality allowing for dramatic license further down the line, not that his episodes particularly ask you to. However, it’s a strain to think of anything since The Wedding of River Song and before that The Big Bang that could have altered the established time line. You can discount the Doctor jumping his own time line in Asylum of the Daleks, even the Eleventh, and although the events of Trenzalore in the Name of the Doctor and Time of the Doctor could have shaken things up a stretch (Clara of the rebel alliance stealing the Death Star plans…) that’s reaching a bit too far.

While it may be unsurprising that this incarnation of the Master is unaware of Skaro’s return, although she seems very well travelled. The Eleventh Doctor didn’t blink on his previous trips there after all, just sulked. Could it be the same planet? Well no. The Thousand Year War was possible thanks to the planet’s geological simplicity. One continent, with a range separating the Thals from the Kaleds, so it’s unlikely we’ve seen two different cities in the last few years, one drenched in acid, the other bone dry. So, we can only presume that this is a different Skaro. The reanimation of pre-Time War Daleks and even the dying predecessors may seem a bit over the top, unless they really paid attention and retained memory of the Doctor’s trick in The Big Bang. But like the current who trajectory, logic isn’t necessarily one of the Daleks’ strong suits. While the Time War is a good deal more unlocked than it was a few years ago, they most certainly didn’t jump that event horizon of that with their mini lights and piebald bodywork.

For yes, there’s the real delight, away from the 1970s nods. The opener’s many wholesome references to the Dalek’s first appearance in 1963. There, the architecture of the Dalek’s city was as important as it was distinctive. And in The Witch’s Familiar the slightly obtrusive splitting of Missy and Clara from the Doctor introduces us to Dalek death, or lack of it. Designed to forever survive and gelatinously mass under the city in what one word of the Dalek language describes both as sewers and graveyards. While fitting into Moffat’s trickery very well, that’s also a nice homage to the Kaled translation of Skaro as ‘Home’ – the need for a planetary distinction is irrelevant to the young Davros and his creations until the Doctor shows the sceptical world that they are not alone in Genesis of the Daleks.

The two-parter is also packed with neat throwbacks to the gamut of Dalek history of course, through its many years of civil war. And it’s the latest of these that brings everything back to the beginning. Davros and the Daleks’ plot ended as we witness an assault on the Dalek city just as we did 52 years before. From this Davros and his creations gain a new beginning, only this time an acid-free Skaro remains intact.

Planet of the Undead

Moffat and Adams’ view of Skaro fused just that little bit closer

Perhaps the only logical solution, and not contrary to Doctor Who, is that there are many versions of the planet Skaro, each left temporally scattered in different states following its inhabitant’s self-destruction. Indeed, you wouldn’t put it past the Daleks to have scattered failed experiments at Skaro creation across the cosmos, and not just the Seventh Galaxy. If there’s one shred of hope to be gained from that it’s for the much missed race who were also present at the very beginning.

We may have seen one of their laser bi-planes, but the Thals haven’t appeared in Doctor Who since their greatest appearance in 1973’s Planet of the Daleks. Even at the start of Series Nine, where we spend more time on Skaro than for many decades, there’s no mention of those other efficient, blond inhabitants of the planet. While we wait for their comeback, there’s the prospect that they also have a little planet they call “home” – albeit one they still talk about in the language of their sworn enemies.

While the moral argument of Genesis of the Daleks, and a reversal of it, provides the backbone to The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar its nods to the confused past of the Dalek’s planet are admirable. Especially that by defying recent history it takes some time to reprieve one of the notoriously lame Dalek stories, fusing Moffat and Adams’ Skaro view just that little bit closer together once again.

For all the body horror of the undead slime Daleks and their Time Lord boosted attack strategy there’s still surely a group of Daleks left. I can hear them now, the Doctor having defied the laws of time to head back and teach their creator a valuable concept…

They now sing: “Skaro, Skaro, Skaro, Skaro, Skaro, lovely Skaro, wonderful Skaro. Lovely Skaro, wonderful Skaro …”

Because you can have any amount of planetary destruction as you want. Just don’t say you don’t want any Skaro in your Doctor Who.

Jokerside’s Series Nine’s essays will continue on 12 October, after the flood…

3 thoughts on “Doctor Who Series 9: Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Skaro and the End of the Acid Reign”

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