Aired 1 – 22 September 1979
‘Destiny of the Daleks’ is the final season opener under producer Graham Williams tenure, an era marked by somewhat unsteady serials and tone as it tried to rediscover itself after public pressure to curtail the horror of the Philip Hinchcliffe productions while still being afforded only a very modest budget to tell its grand ideas. Playing to Tom Baker’s comedic strength, the serials began shifting to a more comedic tone, a change not universally accepted by fans nor even successfully incorporated by the writers of the time, though one that can work quite well with stories like ‘The Ribos Operation’ and the unfinished ‘Shada’ being standout successes.
With the reliable creator of the Daleks themselves, Terry Nation, once more on scripting duty, ‘Destiny of the Daleks’ likewise falls victim to an unsteady tone as the story tries to present Davros and the Daleks as credible menaces while also trying to maintain a lighter undercurrent. Accordingly, the Doctor mocking the Daleks for not being able to handle a flight of stairs while also manically running Davros around corridors when he steals his wheelchair, while humorous, take away from what the story is actually trying to build. Truly, Davros turning his creations into kamikaze machines as well as the Daleks executing hostages to force the Doctor’s surrender when he has Davros hostage are incredibly dark moments and bring a terrifying new edge to these classic adversaries. Of course, the Daleks do seem to be becoming more robotic than organic in their portrayal, but all of the elements for a very disturbing story to recapture the early glory of the Daleks are there beneath the shroud of humor.
Indeed, the urge to veer towards comedy even manifests in Romana’s regeneration from Mary Tamm to Lalla Ward, the reason for which is never explained on screen. While it’s quite surreal to see Romana casually trying on different appearances as if she were trying on clothing, it defies everything that has been shown and stated about regeneration in earlier stories. Granted, the reason for Romana’s regeneration is not discussed, but this sequence certainly lessens the dramatic impact and seeming personal toll that has always been suggested when going through the process. This could speak to the Doctor’s personal circumstances or physiology, but it’s an intriguing alternative from how regeneration has been portrayed so far even if it doesn’t quite make sense.
On a deeper level, though, the seeming loss of the Dalek’s organic aspect in storytelling is quite fascinating, especially as Davros- referring to himself in godlike terms- assumes total control over them. While still ruthless, these are not the same Daleks written in the early stories, and it’s quite telling that their inability to understand the Doctor’s willingness to kill himself alongside Davros is overwritten as Davros later orders them to kill themselves for maximum impact against thire foes. This is a race certainly not at the height of its power and one looking for new leadership, and Davros fills that mantle well even if he’s not used to the best effect here. At the same time, the robotic Movellans who have achieved a stalemate with the Daleks, while not completely necessary to the plot, are an intriguingly amoral menace that presents another unique aspect to the plot.
‘Destiny of the Daleks’ is neither terrible nor a classic, but it’s very much a classic Terry Nation script in a time when the programme was still trying to redefine itself. There are some very interesting notions in play that never quite get fleshed out enough, and the pairing of Tom Baker and Lalla Ward is instantly enjoyable, but there is simply far too much padding and gaps in logic to sustain the tale for its entire running time.