In loving remembrance

October 5th sees a notable Doctor Who anniversary: 35 years since the first episode of ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’. This classic story from 1988 itself marked a significant anniversary, being the opening serial of the show’s 25th season. From our perspective in 2023, it seems strange to think that this important milestone is now closer in time to the start of the series in 1963 than to us as we approach the programme’s eagerly anticipated 60th birthday.

Launching what would turn out to be the penultimate season of the original run, ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ is a pivotal Doctor Who story. Written by Ben Aaronovitch and directed by Andrew Morgan, the serial reintroduced the Daleks for the first time in over three years, in what would be their final appearance in the classic series. It marked the end of the ‘Dalek Civil War’ story arc which had begun four years earlier in ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’; and also saw a tonal shift in Sylvester McCoy’s portrayal of the Seventh Doctor, as script editor Andrew Cartmel began laying the groundwork for his mission to reintroduce a darker, more mysterious element to the character – the frequently cited ‘Cartmel Masterplan’.

To mark the show’s 25th anniversary and celebrate its rich history, the production team, led by producer John Nathan-Turner, aimed to create a story that paid homage to the show’s roots while also providing a fresh perspective to some of its familiar lore. To this end, Aaronovitch created a compelling storyline that took the Doctor back to November 1963 and the familiar settings of Coal Hill School and the junkyard at 76 Totter’s Lane where Doctor Who all began. ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ was rich in cultural and historical references, including nods to the 1960s London setting and the racial tensions of the time. These references added depth to the narrative, grounding the fantastical elements in a relatable reality.

Besides offering significant character development for the Seventh Doctor, highlighting his manipulative and strategic nature, Ace, the Doctor’s companion, also played a pivotal role, evolving into a strong and independent character. A fondly remembered key scene saw her wielding a baseball bat to defend herself against a marauding Dalek before leaping through a glass window.

‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ showcased some impressive special effects which still hold up well to this day. The effect of a human skeleton being briefly visible when people were shot by Daleks was remarkable given the technological limitations of the time, and remains the standard ‘extermination look’ in the modern series. The scene where the Dalek shuttle craft lands in the playground of Coal Hill School is equally eye-popping, due in no small part to the fact that model shots were eschewed in favour of building a full-sized prop which was suspended from a crane. And in one of the classic series’ most memorable cliffhangers, a Dalek finally proved on screen that, yes – they really could climb stairs!

In 2020, a poignant postscript to ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ arrived on our screens thanks to Russell T. Davies’s Channel 4 drama It’s A Sin, portraying the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS on a group of friends sharing a flat in 1980s London. The central character of actor Ritchie Tozer, played by Olly Alexander, was partly based on Dursley McLinden who played Mike Smith in ‘Remembrance’ and whom Davies met at a party in the early 1990s, not long before the actor’s death from AIDS-related illness. In episode 4 of It’s A Sin, Ritchie is seen playing a character named ‘Trooper Linden’ in a fictional Who story (which Davies has playfully referred to as ‘Regression of the Daleks’). It’s a wonderful nod to both an iconic TV show and a charismatic and much-missed actor.

‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ is discussed by members of the cast along with script editor Andrew Cartmel and director Andrew Morgan in Who Talk: Remembrance, available now from Fantom.