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Doctor Who: Death to the Daleks

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
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Directed by: 
Michael Briant
Jon Pertwee
Elisabeth Sladen
Duncan Lamont
Arnold Yarrow
Michael Wisher (Dalek voices)
Bottom Line: 

En route in the TARDIS to the planet Florana for a much-needed holiday after their recent adventures in Dinosaur-infested 1970s London, the Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) find themselves stranded instead on the barren, rocky planet of Exxilon – plunged into darkness inside a TARDIS that’s completely drained of power. While exploring the misty, petrified surface of this hostile environment looking for the source of the power drain, the two become separated in the murk: Sarah is attacked and captured by lurching bow and arrow wielding quarry dwellers swaddled in dirty robes, who worship as a god an ancient but gleaming advanced city which has become sentient. These primitive Exxilons plan to sacrifice her to their city god for trespassing on a site they consider sacred. Meanwhile, the Doctor runs into a beleaguered Earth party stranded on the surface, sent by the Marine Space Corps in search of the mineral Parrinium – a substance rare and priceless on Earth but which is needed urgently to combat a space plague that threatens the lives of millions of people on ‘the outer planets’.

Thinking it a relief ship sent to rescue them from the hostile Exxilons who have injured their commander, the Marines, now accompanied by the Doctor, rush to meet a small saucer-shaped craft as it, too, loses its power and is forced to make an emergency landing on the surface, only for a scouting party of the most evil, feared and ruthless creatures in the Universe to emerge threateningly from it – the Daleks! After finding their laser weapons no longer work due to the same mysterious power drain affecting both the TARDIS and the Earth Marines alike, the powerless Daleks reluctantly agree to a truce with their oldest enemy the Doctor, in order to combat the violent Exxilons and help each other locate the source of the energy drain.

But can the Daleks be trusted? And can the Doctor discover the secret of the Exxilon city and save Sarah before the ingrained duplicity of his greatest enemies leads to the death of everyone on the entire planet?

“Death to the Daleks” was yet another of Terry Nation’s Dalek stories that rejigged a lot of familiar plot ideas which had been seen several times before in his earlier DOCTOR WHO scripts. Apparently, Nation was completely unaware he was always doing this until informed of it by script editor Terrence Dicks after his first outline for this 1974 story ended up involving yet another jungle planet. Even so, “Death …” feels familiar in many instances to previous sixties Dalek adventures dating from the William Hartnell era.

The big idea here is supposed to be that of the Daleks being forced to make an alliance with their enemies on a planet where their weapons do not work. Instead, the shiny pepper pots manipulate one of the weaker members of the Earth Marine party, someone called Galloway (Duncan Lamont), into betraying his colleagues, giving up the Doctor and Sarah to be sacrificed by the Exxilons and overseeing the enslavement of the primitive indigenous Exxilon creatures while they’re forced into mining the precious Parrinium. Naturally, the Daleks plan to betray their human collaborator and make off with the chemical so that they can hold the Universe to ransom with it, and gain yet more influence and power for the Dalek race.

The intriguing idea of the Doctor teaming up with the Daleks doesn’t really ever get off the ground though. It’s only ever the vainglorious Scotsman Galloway who falls for their transparent ruse; indeed, the metallic creatures (all of them voiced here by Michael Wisher) quickly glide back to their saucer and arm up with conventional machine guns! They even spend some time in a Dalek armoury, practicing their firing skills on a miniature toy TARDIS (it’s quite touching to imagine Dalek saucers all across the fleet supplied with miniature TARDIS replicas for target practice!), then resume their usual menacing ways, ruthlessly gunning down the camouflaged indigenous aliens. It must be said, this is not one of the best ever Dalek stories then, and it tends to drift along for four episodes with no real ultimate aim in mind. The story is a weak one, but nonetheless is made up of tantalisingly interesting ideas which are simply never explored or developed to their fullest potential. Terrence Dicks was occupied with re-writes of “The Monster of Peladon” during the development of the story, and so left the task of overseeing Nation’s script to incoming scrip editor Robert Holmes, who seems to have struggled to make much out of it other than to come up with a title to replace Nation’s sorely uninspired placeholder moniker “Dalek Story”.

The central idea of it involves the concept of a technologically sophisticated city built eons ago by the once-advanced Exxilon inhabitants, which takes on a life of its own and becomes far more intelligent than its creators, ejecting them to live among the rocks of the surrounding desert until they devolve into primitive beings that then end up worshiping it. The city is treated in the story as being analogous to a living body, with defensive, snake-like robot-tentacle ‘probes’ that patrol the caverns beneath it to keep out and destroy potential intruders; warrens of gleaming corridors within, full of booby traps; and ‘anti-bodies’, conjured out of the walls in the shape of robotic mummy-like zombie defenders, designed to protect the central control room ’brain’ of the city from attack.

We learn at one point that the earlier, sophisticated race of Exxilons who built the city, once travelled to Earth and helped to build the Pyramids of Peru (a typical bit of voguish 1970s pseudo-historical Von Daniken nonsense), but this never gets developed beyond a throwaway reference after the Doctor recognises the glowing symbols on the city walls are the same as those he’s seen before on the Peruvian constructions back on Earth. But despite the essential shallowness of the core story, each episode manages to hold the attention sufficiently to stave off boredom by providing a string of engaging action set-pieces. Nation was an instinctive action writer and fills each of the four episodes here with enough incident to make one temporarily forget that there really is not an awful lot of momentum driving the story forward besides the prospect of Galloway’s last-minute redemption (which comes in a form that now feels problematic to a post- 9/11 viewership). The story’s successes can largely be laid at the door of director Michael Briant and a particularly strong production team who brought a lot of originality to what could have been a fairly limp-looking exercise in mediocrity. Briant had obviously remembered his unhappy experiences the last time he ventured into a quarry for location work on “Colony in Space” a few years previously, and knowing that this time he would have the added difficulty to contend with of manoeuvring his three Dalek props (and one unmanned “goon” Dalek for the background shots) around a sandy quarry pit, came prepared with the clever idea of positioning them on sand-coloured dolly tracks -- which alleviates the potential embarrassment of useless Dalek props being left mired in sand.  

Episode one is particularly successful in conjuring a suspenseful, dread atmosphere inside a ominously darkened TARDIS control room (Nation was perhaps inspired by the fact that power cuts and blackouts were a common occurrence in Britain of the early 1970s, where a three-day-week state of emergency had been declared to combat fuel shortages brought about by a Miners’ strike in 1973) and on a planet surface that’s dominated by petrified stone obelisks, some of which turn out to be not what they at first appear to be. Costume designer L Rowland Warne played an important role in making the hostile Exxilon inhabitants a visually menacing spectacle thanks to his amazingly successful camouflage robe costumes, which really are hard to spot amongst the natural rocky outcrops and formations of the Dorset filming location. John Friedlander also came up with some effective masks for the two races of Exxilon which appear during the course of the story; and Dick Mills, as ever, provides unsettling ambient noises to augment the creepy visuals.

In episode two, the bizarre ancient Gregorian-style chanting of the Exxilons as they prepare to sacrifice Sarah amid much incense wafting and cavern-dwelling ceremony adds a great deal of character and tenseness to the build-up. But the main thing that a modern viewer, raised on DOCTOR WHO of the current era, will immediately pick up on, is just how incredibly violent and scary this all is: the first episode has Sarah menaced by a shadowy Exxilon that slips into the darkened TARDIS control room (we never ever see him leave, so perhaps he’s still there somewhere): the whole thing is shot like a horror movie, with Briant ladling on scary subjective camera shots of the assailant advancing on Sarah from behind (he also makes frequent and effective use of some POV Dalek eye shots later on, as well). Sarah then proceeds to defend herself by violently clumping the hooded creature about the head with the metal TARDIS door crank in a lengthy scene of violence that would probably never make it onto the screen these days. We see members of the Marine Corps being shot and killed violently with arrows that thwack into their bodies (this is essentially a cowboys & Indians story with Daleks, if only Nation had realised it!) and when the Daleks switch to primitive machine gun technology, their tendency to gun down their enemies en masse becomes even more disturbing than it usually is, with the abstract negative image laser blast effect that usually accompanies their mass killing replaced by a kinetic hail of ‘live’ bullet hits which drum home their murderous disregard for all life even more forcefully.

Jon Pertwee’s stunt man Terry Walsh gets to die more times on screen during the course of this story than perhaps anyone ever has in the series before or since while playing nearly all the different characters who variously get either pierced by arrows, machine gunned to death or even turned into a human torch by the city’s snake probe defender. The original incidental music score by Carey Blyton should be mentioned at this point too: it’s one of the most unusual in 1970s WHO; performed by the London Saxophone Quartet it’s a sometimes-jarring-sometimes-whimsical set of cues that doesn’t always work too convincingly (the Dalek theme becomes particularly irritating after a while) but which combines well with Dick Mills’ weird sound effects and creates a unique feel to an adventure that is often in risk of becoming, around episode three, an extended run-around in a sand quarry and a few underground tunnels.

Nation’s small group of stranded Earth people aren’t particularly compelling as written characters, although actors John Abineri, Julian Fox and Joy Harrison acquit themselves as well as might be expected with the thinly written, generic material they are given. Once again, costume designer L Rowland Warne helps bring more nuance to these roles thanks to the expedient of the muddied, tatty uniforms he provides the actors with (their insignia badges  look similar to the Federation symbol used in Terry Nation’s “Blake’s 7”, and one wonders if the writer actually specified the design); Briant indicated that the male actors should all grow several days’ worth of chin stubble to accentuate the group’s disarray, although Joy Harrison’s Jill Tarrent must have had a decent sized spare supply of red hair dye hidden away somewhere.

Over the years since “Death to the Daleks” became the first story to be released on budget VHS in 1987, by far the most notable and well-liked support character in it has been the friendly tunnel-dwelling Exxilon called Bellal, played by Arnold Yarrow. Once again kitted out with an effective costume that merges with the shading of the rock walls of the tunnels in which his particular sub-race of Exxilons live, and which makes use of veiny seams pulsing rhythmically with light (from incorporating the same luminous, light-reflecting material used to make road signs and High Vis jackets), Bellal is beautifully brought to life by the diminutive actor (both the underground Exxilons were played by shorter, dainty performers to highlight the race’s adaptation to its darkened cavernous surroundings), who plays him like an alert, nocturnal, large-eyed primate such as a bush baby or a lemur. The relationship which develops between the Doctor and Bellal when they both venture out on a mission to destroy the control centre of the city (Bellal’s race have retained their inquisitive nature and are still aware of the city’s origins, unlike their surface dwelling kin) -- which has been draining the surrounding power to maintain itself at the expense of all other inhabitants -- is communicated through a heap of features-obscuring latex in the form of a glued-down mask, once again supplied by Friedlander, entirely through body movement and Bellal’s softly-spoken intonations. So compelling is the relationship that is struck up between Time Lord and humanoid thanks to Pertwee’s protective demeanour and in Yarrow’s acting out of a spiky jointed, eager-to-learn attitude, that many viewers half expected Bellal to become yet another companion travelling on-board the TARDIS at the story’s finish!

The sequence in question involves the Doctor and Bellal racing the Daleks to the centre of the Exxilon city, and both groups having to pass the same series of intelligence tests set by the city’s self-sufficient brain hub, as they move through numerous rooms and corridors designed to either trap them or kill them. It’s really Nation’s way of stopping the plot dead in its tracks to fill up half an episode’s air time and it plays like a sequence in anticipation of the 1990s BBC game show “The Crystal Maze” (one of the tests which has apparently defeated countless other aliens whose skeletal corpses litter the environs, involves the Doctor and Bellal having to play a game of hop scotch on a patterned floor!?). It also typifies what is both right and wrong with the story as a whole: on the one hand this lengthy episode four excursion gives Yarrow and Pertwee ample time to develop a believable relationship and a likeable fond friendship between their two very different alien characters; but at the same time, the plot is never really developed with a view as to what the point of these puzzle-solving tasks ultimately are. The city could kill the invaders at any time, but instead it sets numerous tests of intellect as though it plans to make use in some way of whoever manages to get through them; but all it does in the end is allow the Doctor and Bellal to get right to the heart of its control centre, and so therefore it leaves itself vulnerable to an unnecessary attack (which it then has to defend itself against using its zombie ‘antibodies’). The other problematic thing in this scenario is that since the city has been established as a living intelligence, surely the Doctor should have moral objections to killing it simply so he, the Daleks and the Earth Marines can restore the power to their respective ships? The city is never provided with any malignant motive which might justify having to ‘deactivate it’, after all. But the Doctor seems no more troubled by the thought of destroying the city than the Daleks are about killing everyone else who stands in their way. As though to highlight the problem, the city is heard crying out in pain at the end as it disintegrates thanks to the Doctor’s control room tinkering and the Daleks’ destruction of its energy-sapping mast.

”Death to the Daleks” then, ultimately feels like a string of mildly impressive set-pieces, realised often with a great deal of flair by Briant and the BBC crew, even if some scenes (such as those involving the tentacle probe -- which had to be strung up on visible piano wires in broad daylight) don’t always convince today, but none of which come together satisfactorily to form a cohesive, believable story. While Elisabeth Sladen shines in only her third ever story as Sarah Jane Smith, Jon Pertwee is starting to look distinctly tired of running around quarries having arrows fired at him in the middle of an English winter while coping with a bad back, and was doubtless looking forward to his last two adventures before retiring from the role in favour of Tom Baker. He was never overly fond of the Daleks as an adversary anyway, but their enduring popularity ensured that they returned in every one of the series made during his last three years in the role. The story’s denouement, in which Galloway defeats the Dalek plan by stowing away on-board their ship with one of their own bombs, works dramatically to redeem the one character in the story who has betrayed everyone around him in the name of acquiring the Parrinium, even though the Daleks’ untrustworthiness becomes more than obvious early on -- but it involves him becoming a hero by turning himself into a suicide bomber, a plot development which might feel like a dubious one to a modern-day audience.

With Nation and producer Barry Letts having of course passed away, and script editor Terrence Dicks handing the baton for this one on to his successor Robert Holmes, who has also departed, the extras material on this DVD release of “Death to the Daleks” revolves around the lower ranking cast and crew members, who nevertheless helped inject some originality into a fairly standard story. Moderator Toby Hadoke is joined by six people essential to the character of this adventure for what is a fairly interesting commentary track. Actor Julian Fox recalls how his one appearance in a Dalek story has made him popular with the neighbours’ children, and his own grandchildren -- who can’t believe that that thin young man on the screen is their grandad, and he recalls that it was he who came up with the idea of having the city scream out when it disintegrates at the end of the story. Assistant floor manager Richard Leyland remembers Jon Pertwee being very difficult to work with, while director Michael Briant thinks the opposite. Costume designer L Rowland Warne explains how he made those Exxilon camouflage costumes so effective – so much so, in fact, that several extras fell asleep wearing them and couldn’t be found against the rocky landscape. Cye Town recalls life inside a Dalek during the location shoot and can’t believe that Michael Briant didn’t get a props man to poke the dummy Dalek planted in the background with a stick occasionally to make it a bit less visibly immobile. Briant recalls Pertwee taking advantage of the fact that the Daleks were mounted on special camera dolly track, giving one of them such a hefty push to get it to move down a slight incline that it shot off the end of the track and toppled over in a heap, followed by its two comrades! Special effects man Dick Mills remembers creating his beloved atmosphere ‘hums’ and working around Carey Blyton’s distinctive score.

Many of the same anecdotes are repeated during the course of the accompanying 26 minute documentary “Beneath the City of the Exxilons” in which all of the above are joined by Arnold Yarrow, who remembers playing his much loved character Bellal alongside a helpful Jon Pertwee. The documentary covers the making of the serial with the help of Dalek narration by Nick Briggs, who also appears on camera to explain why he loves this Dalek story in particular, despite its flaws, while also delighting in some of the more absurd Dalek behaviour seen during the story, such as the self-destructing Dalek who has a nervous breakdown when his prisoners escape – not the most efficient reaction to a set-back by a member of what is supposed to be the most feared race in the Universe. With this story, Michael Briant chose to shoot on a set-by-set basis rather than episode-by-episode as was the norm, but it becomes more apparent on the documentary than it was on the commentary, that this produced a few difficulties for the production crew, especially when numerous sets and props went missing before and during the intensive days’ recording which followed the previous day of rehearsal.

This informative documentary is augmented by 23 minutes of surviving studio recording footage showing the CSO’d Dalek saucer being lined up and the dummy Dalek being pushed into position. There’s stunt footage of Terry Walsh being 'killed' by Dalek Machine-gun fire and some fascinating shots of Pertwee and Sladen working out how to approach a dialogue scene that Pertwee’s been struggling with.

More recently discovered on-set material is the centrepiece of a lovely 7 minute feature, but this time it’s the Peter Cushing film version in “On the set of Doctor Who and the Daleks”, which was produced by Max J Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky in 1965, and directed by Gordon Flemyng. The black and white behind-the-scenes footage comes from mute film trims from a feature (sadly now no longer existent) for ITV show Movie Magazine, shot in 1965. This little featurette includes film historian Marcus Hearn setting the material in context; son of director Gordon Flemyng, actor Jason Flemyng, remembering his father’s work and recalling his own visit to the set as a boy; first assistant director Anthony Waye talking about his recollections of the shoot at Shepperton studios; and Bryan Hands talking about being a Dalek operator on the film. In between we get to see the very small amount of silent footage that’s been recently discovered, including a delightful scene in which Peter Cushing and co-star Roy Castle perform a jokey song and dance routine behind the scenes.

“Doctor Who Stories: Dalek Men” is a 13 minute featurette in which Dalek operators the late John Scott Martin (who seems to be sporting a William Hartnell hairstyle in this 2003 interview) and Nicholas Evans regale us with numerous amusing Dalek-related anecdotes from their time spent on the inside of the famous Dalek props ,particularly during the 1960s period.

A photo gallery, extensive text production notes, PDF files of Radio Times listings, a hidden easter egg and a coming soon trailer for “The Krotons” round off another fascinating look back at what is a minor Dalek story given a fair and enjoyable chance to shine amongst some worth-while extras.

Read more from Black Gloves at Nothing But The Night

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