Doctor Doctor Who Guide

Reviews


List:
03 Jul 2003Death to the Daleks, by James Gent
31 Dec 2003Death to the Daleks, by Paul Clarke
29 Oct 2005Death to the Daleks, by Adam Kintopf
04 Apr 2016Death To The Daleks (Audio Book), by Martin Hudecek

If you want to see a good Dalek story, don't bother watching Death To The Daleks. If, however, you want to see a good example of a late-era Jon Pertwee story, then Death To The Daleks is a good, underrated, one to watch.

Death To The Daleks features one of my favourite opening episodes of a Doctor Who story. You would hardly guess that Elisabeth Sladen is a relative newcomer, as she is already the Sarah Jane Smith that we know and love, full of fun and enthusiasm ("I can float anywhere!"), and the 'death' of the TARDIS is very atmospheric and mysterious. The planet Exxilon is clearly yet another quarry, but the murky fogginess gives it a creepy, dangerous feel, compounded by the sudden murder of an astronaut. The outdoor scenes are also well integrated with the studio scenes, as Sarah fends off a mysterious cowled attacker and wanders off to discover the Doctor's oil lamp covered in blood. It really is a sinister introduction.

Death To The Daleks shares many qualities with the following season's Revenge Of The Cybermen. Both stories feature the same director and composer, and both see the series' two most indomitable regular villains rendered impotent by a planet's forces. In the case of Death To The Daleks, the forbidden city's beacon has drained the Daleks of their weaponry power (although not their ability to move, one of those inconsistencies it's polite to gloss over when considering a Doctor Who serial!). Potentially, this could render the Daleks pathetic – something viewers would become used to in successive Dalek stories, and a tradition introduced in The Chase – but we see the Daleks having to rely on their wits and resources, enslaving the astronauts and the Exxilons and creating new guns. Their improvised weaponry leads to a great moment where we see Daleks performing target practise on model police boxes, which just goes to show how much the Doctor has become their public enemy number one!

Another similarity with the later Revenge Of The Cybermen is the use of an isolated team of humans to represent the various qualities of humanity. In Revenge, the loose cannon was the icy Kellman, here it is Galloway who is the dark horse – from the start he is pitched as the troublemaker of the set, resembling nothing so much as the kind of left-wing trade union leaders common in the British newspapers of the time; which makes his ultimate sacrifice all the more striking when he stays on board the rigged Dalek saucer. Galloway is the most outstanding of the humans, as the rest are just so bland, particularly Jill Tarrant (Terry Nation using one of his favourite surnames again) who must share the prize for 'wettest female' with Della in Nightmare Of Eden!

One of the most-mentioned aspects of this story is the 'root' that defends the city and the catacombs. Admittedly it is rather comical – one of my friends-in-Who described is a 'metal cock' – but it's explosive attack on a Dalek by the parrinium mine is spectacular, and the Doctor's commentary on its battle with the Daleks is highly amusing. "A palpable hit!"

One of the other highlights of Death To The Daleks is the Exxilon civilisation. The idea of an advanced civilisation retreating to primitivism after being expelled from their city is an interesting one, and they are quite creepy with their cowls and skeletal faces. The scenes of Sarah about to be ritually sacrificed are almost like a fast-forward to the 'gothic horror' of The Brain Of Morbius – the hypnotic chanting, Carey Blyton's drone-like soundtrack and the swathes of incense combine to create a hallucinogenic effect.

With Sarah separated from the Doctor for much of the story, we are given a superb stand-in companion in the form of Bellal, an Exxilon who does not share his people's techno-fear. Bellal is a charming, curious character that I have always found intriguing – Arnold Yarrow conveys much character with his voice and movements, and he is a very noble character. The detail on his skin that causes it to glimmer is also a nice effect. It would have been good to see Bellal developed more, and even possibly as a companion, although he might have become limited. Nevertheless, he is a very memorable character.

It would be foolish of me not to admit that Death To The Daleks does not have more than its fair share of flaws. The Daleks are particularly ill served by their appearance in this story. Their silver and black makeover looks fantastic, and would have brightened up Destiny Of The Daleks no end, but their casings seem to have been neglected since their last appearance – their shoulder slats are wonky, and their domes wobble alarmingly. In their favour their voices are very good, and the device of showing scenes from their eyepieces' point of view is a good one, although basic in its realisation.

The Daleks' spaceship is one of the crappest we have seen in the series, even worse than the 'flying lampshades' in their previous appearance, Planet Of The Daleks. Clearly, Daleks do not go in for aesthetics, and they still seem keen on using those 'pie chart' dials from The Chase.

Carey Blyton's score is also a problem. As mentioned before, the sound design during the sacrifice creates a good atmosphere, and there are some sinister musical motifs during the first episode, but the comedy fanfare he employs for the Daleks from their first appearance does much to diminish their impact – if I'm not mistaken, this annoying tune was also used in Doctor Who And The Silurians.

A bit more explanation as to the circumstances of the Exxilons' ejection from the intelligent city would be welcome, and indeed why it tries to keep certain people out. Its puzzles are rudimentary to say the least, and hardly a test of intelligence. Clearly someone at the BBC liked the idea, as Episodes Three and Four are not unlike a particularly boring edition of the early '80s BBC kids show "The Adventure Game" and elements of the 'quest' were recycled in "Pyramids Of Mars" (as admitted by Sarah Jane's continuity-gaffe comment in that particular serial) and "The Five Doctors". The cliffhanger to Episode Three is often pointed out as being particularly undramatic, but in all fairness, this was not originally conceived as the cliffhanger. Nevertheless, the journey to the centre of the city does give rise to two memorable images in the serial – no, not the rather poor 'psychedelic' mind battle with the giveaway shot of Pertwee facing a mirror to create the distortion effect; but the revelation of the figure studying the Doctor and Bellal's movements being a corpse, and the appearance of the city's rather gruesome looking 'antibodies' materialising as the Doctor attempts to affect a 'mental breakdown' on the city's mind.

Despite these flaws, Death To The Daleks is a rather charming story, which makes for undemanding fun on a Sunday afternoon. Pertwee is as masterful as ever, Lis Sladen is as good as ever, Bellal is different, Galloway is a TUC-style rogue, Jill Tarrant is hilariously ineffectual, and the hysteria-ridden metallic Daleks look great, wobbly heads notwithstanding. Self-deluding fans often talk of classics such as The Caves Of Androzani, The Talons Of Weng-Chiang but it is stories such as Death To The Daleks that more accurately sum up 'meat and two veg' typical Doctor Who fare, with the aforementioned epics as the rare exceptions, and as such is to be enjoyed.

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Death to the Daleks' has a fairly poor reputation, but I've never quite understood why. It may not be a classic, and indeed has several flaws, but it's still an entertaining, fast paced little story that generally works rather well on several fronts. 

Firstly, I said when I reviewed 'Colony in Space' that I'm a sucker for ancient races, super weapons and mysterious powerful alien races. Whilst the City isn't a super-weapon as such, the principle remains the same, and like the Uxariens, the fruits of their once mighty technology have slowly destroyed the Exxilons. I'm also a sucker for B-movie plots involving quests through labyrinths riddled with traps, so all in all 'Death to the Daleks' has a certain appeal for me thanks to the Exxilons and their City alone. The City works very well; it looks effective, and lives up to the threat that Bellal insists it poses; not only is it capable of draining power from the TARDIS in addition to the other ships on Exxilon, it also proves able to defend itself and has regenerative capabilities. The roots are surprisingly effective, despite the occasional glimpse of a wire holding them up, and the screeching noise they make as they attack is suitably chilling. The seeming ease (relatively speaking) with which the Doctor and Bellal reach the heart (or rather, the brain) of the City seems suspicious until they actually get there, when the Doctor realizes that the traps are designed to let intelligent visitors through so that it can add their knowledge to its own; having proved a threat to it, the City responds with the Antibodies, which are fairly creepy, especially as they are seemingly indestructible. The Exxilons themselves are a fairly basic primitive tribal society, which are rife throughout science fiction in general and Doctor Who in particular, but they look quite good and Bellal makes for a pleasing pseudo-companion (he doesn't actually do much besides allow the Doctor to explain the plot to the viewers, but he's quite likeable). The notion of the two Exxilon factions isn't really exploited, but then again there isn't really time to show them at odds; in plot terms, Bellal's breakaway group exists to explain the origins of the City and they do little else. The religious divide between the groups is plausible enough, although personally I suspect that Bellal's group is persecuted because they insist on walking around stark bollock naked. 

Considering how utterly ghastly their last outing was the Daleks are used well here. In many respects, they benefit from the plot, which sees them landing on Exxilon after the humans have been dithering and getting nowhere for some time, and quickly taking charge of the situation. After briefly panicking when they discover that their guns don't work, they make a bargain with the Exxilons to secure the parrineum, and to buy them time whilst they devise alternative weaponry, which is a least a nod in the direction of their old cunning and intelligence. It also speaks volumes about the Daleks that they quickly come up with a substitute weapon; this is understandable considering their helplessness when unarmed (note the Dalek that glides at the attacking Exxilons in Episode Two screeching "Exterminate!" almost instinctively and thus gets destroyed), but it also showcases their technical brilliance. Incidentally, their ability to move about on Exxilon is interesting; the script explains it away by stating that they move by psychokinesis, which is a rather startling new development, and one which suggests that Terry Nation suddenly noticed a plot-hole whilst he was writing and decided to hurriedly gloss over it. However, an upshot of this is that it also makes the Daleks look good, since however they do it, the fact remains that they retain motive power when even the TARDIS has been incapacitated. The irony of the Dalek involvement in 'Death to the Daleks' is that it is crucial to the success of the Earth mission; it is the Daleks who organize the mining (admittedly through their usual unpleasant tactics), and it is the Daleks who provide the explosives to destroy the beacon and end the power-drain. In addition, whilst we only see the two Daleks in the City tackling two of the five tests faced by the Doctor and Bellal, they don't seem to have much trouble with any them. In short, 'Death to the Daleks' makes the Daleks look pretty good. Having said that, the self-destructing Dalek in Episode Four is just annoying; it may be standard Dalek policy not to allow failure, but on an important mission to a dangerous planet on which three Daleks have already been destroyed it would surely make more sense for it to try and recapture its prisoner! 

The human characters are less effective, with only the unpleasant Galloway (Duncan Lamont, who played doomed astronaut Victor Caroon in The Quatermass Experiment) standing out. John Abineri is wasted as Railton, and Julian Fox is rather dreadful as Hamilton. Joy Harrison has to suffer with being the token female, which is one of my main criticisms of 'Death to the Daleks'; Jill Tarrant is a member of a military expedition, and yet she spends a great deal of time panicking, or on the verge of tears, or asking a journalist with no military training what to do. It's utterly ridiculous; she's like the embodiment of passive sexism. 

The Doctor and Sarah are there usual reliable selves. Sarah gets sidelined for much of the story, but Liz Sladen does what she can with her limited scenes; her clobbering of the Exxilon in the TARDIS is a great scene, in part because it's rather claustrophobic, Sarah frantically trying to open the door of what should be a safe haven whilst her attacker starts to recover on the floor behind her. Pertwee isn't at his best or worst here, he simply puts in an average performance, although I do like his "a hit Sir, a palpable hit!" routine when the root attacks the Dalek. 

Production wise, the story is mixed. The model work of the city looks good, as does its final destruction. There are moments of impressive direction, including shots of the expedition's photographs of the City superimposed over Sarah approaching the edifice, and the surreal final test in the City. Showing us the attacking Exxilons from the point of view of a Dalek in Episode Two also works well, conveying the unarmed Dalek's panic at being unable to defend itself. Serves it right. However, as in 'Planet of the Daleks', the contrast between location footage and studio footage is rather jarring, especially as the extensive rocky sets look decidedly plastic. This is doubly unfortunate, since the location work is very atmospheric. I also wish that they hadn't used the static Dalek to bulk up numbers; I'm not sure why, but I actually find it far more distracting than photographic cardboard cut-outs used in the black and white Dalek stories. There is unfortunately some crap editing; it is obvious before the end credits role in Episode One that the Dalek guns don't work, and the cliff-hanger to Episode Three is beyond belief, consisting as it does of a shot of a tiled floor. There's also a pointless frame of Galloway screaming after he detonates the bomb at the end, which isn't remotely convincing. My strongest criticism of the story however, is the stupid incidental music, which robs several scenes of any dramatic tension that they might have had. A very silly musical sting for example, accompanies the first sight of the Daleks as they glide from their ship.

Despite these criticisms however, 'Death to the Daleks' is well paced and entertaining, and makes effective use of its eponymous villains.

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‘Death to the Daleks’ hasn’t got the best reputation. ‘The Discontinuity Guide’ pans it outright, and in ‘Pocket Essentials’ Mark Campbell damns it with faint praise, saying, “There really is little to say about this story, except that it is rather dull.” Add to these ominous opinions the knowledge that the Daleks were shoehorned into this story at the last minute, in a blatant ratings ploy, and we really can’t approach it with much hope.

It is quite surprising, then, that ‘Death to the Daleks’ turns out to be one of the best ever Dalek stories, and also one of the most entertaining stories from the Pertwee years. Terry Nation’s script, while unambitious, is straightforward and economical, and its various character groupings (space marines, Daleks, Exxilons, mutants) are well-characterized and effectively played off each other. But the real star of the show, unusually for ‘Doctor Who,’ is the direction. Michael Briant keeps this story moving at a brisk pace, and keeps the CSO, so often overused in the Pertwee days, to a merciful minimum. (I’ll take a 1970s wobbly-set story over a 1970s psychedelic-FX one any day.) Of course there are still inventive visual ideas – the ‘Dalek’s-eye view’ camera angle, while obviously thrown together on the cheap, is still effective, especially when the Daleks are under attack – and Briant may be the *only* ‘Doctor Who’ director to successfully elicit a kind of sly comedy from the Daleks. I love the black humor when the Daleks test out their new pellet guns on the Exxilons; the Exxilons may die instantly, and in hideous pain, but it’s still not quite good enough for the Daleks, who coldly comment, “PRIMITIVE WEAPONS, MODERATELY EFFICIENT.” And when the Dalek is destroyed by the ‘root’ at the lake, the reactions of the Daleks on the beach may be wordless, but they are as expressive as any depiction of the creatures in series history. (The thought expressed seems to be something along the lines of “HOLY SHIT!!! DID YOU SEE THAT???” A masterful accomplishment!)

Of this story, ‘The Discontinuity Guide’ says that “there really doesn’t seem any reason to have the Daleks in it at all.” I must respectfully but forcefully disagree; in fact, I would argue the success of the story absolutely hinges on their inclusion. Certainly, the Doctor would still have been able to destroy the ancient Exxilon city without them, but it should be pointed out that the Daleks are actually the ones who overcome the mysterious power drain, well before he makes it out of the city (albeit through brute force rather than intelligence). And not only do they make the Doctor’s adventures in the mazelike city somewhat redundant, they also *rescue* him on several occasions, however accidentally! Indeed, the Daleks here are (unusually) shown to be masters of their environment; despite having no weapons or bargaining power, they immediately take control of their situation, conning the humans, negotiating with the Exxilons to ensure exclusive rights to the parrinium, and of course developing new guns in extremely short order. They are presented as scheming and intelligent, scientific in their methods and ruthless in the extreme. And they are even made almost, *almost* sympathetic – there’s a kind of horrifying pathos when the unarmed Dalek charges the group of Exxilons shrieking “EXTERMINATE!”; it’s pitifully obvious that it’s the only thing the big bully knows how to do. And the ‘I HAVE FAILED! – SELF-DESTRUCT!” scene, while often ridiculed by fans, seems completely in character here – the Daleks, despite their reputation for rational behavior in the program’s later years, are extremely emotional creatures, psychotic and driven by a totally *irrational* hatred for the world and sense of their own superiority. Is it any wonder that one should have a nervous breakdown upon failure?

Aesthetically, the physical Dalek machines are good here too. The new paint job looks nice, and they seem to move faster and more fluidly here than they do in many later stories. The unusual decision to keep them in near-constant motion – moving back and forth as if to generate electricity through friction, and swiveling their eyestalks restlessly – makes them seem dangerous and alive, and not nearly as static and tank-like as they have so often appeared in the series. (If only the production team didn’t have to use that damned dummy casing in Episode One . . . but I suppose you can’t have everything.) They speak faster, too, and Michael Wisher’s voice characterizations, while they may not match the rawness and sheer power of Roy Skelton’s, project a cold intelligence and impatience that Skelton usually cannot match. (I remember reading someone describe the Dalek voices in this story as ‘bitchy,’ and they really are – Wisher’s “YOUR ADVICE IS NOT REQUIRED!” and the five-times-repeated “YOU WILL OBEY!” make it easy to see how frustrating and exhausting cooperating with Daleks would be.)

Some of the major faults pointed out by this story’s detractors also seem to me to be severely exaggerated. The Earth marines are frequently targeted for bad acting, but I fail to see how they’re much worse than the bulk of DW supporting casts over the series’ history, and I would go so far as to say Duncan Lamont is excellent, completely believable as the amoral (rather than evil) Galloway. And I’ll even go out on a limb and say that I think Carey Blyton’s saxophone score works beautifully. I’ll say up front that I’m not a huge fan of typical ‘Doctor Who’ music; Dudley Simpson’s scores are sometimes very effective, true, but they’re also sometimes so understated and tuneless that there might as well not be any music at all. Blyton’s ‘Death to the Daleks’ score is different – the music almost takes on the role of the storyteller. Yes, the tootling ‘Dalek March’ is a (major) misstep, but overall the music does everything an incidental score should – building tension in the suspense scenes, and setting the ethereal tone in the ones involving the giant city. (And the muttering, howling Exxilon chorus in the sacrifice scenes is simply terrifying.)

As for the other elements, both the regulars come off well (especially Lis Sladen), and Arnold Yarrow’s Bellal is a truly wonderful little figure, kind of a better fleshed out take on Wester, the friendly alien from the previous Dalek story. The gravel-pit locations for once work perfectly, giving the impression of a blasted landscape perfectly matched with the ruined civilization described in the script. Perhaps the weakest element is the ‘intelligence’ tests the Doctor and Bellal face in the city, which really are so elementary as to be obnoxious. But all in all ‘Death to the Daleks’ is a fine story, much better than is commonly thought.

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Death to the Daleks (Credit: BBC Audio)

Written By Terrance Dicks (based on a TV story by Terry Nation)

Performed By: Jon Culshaw

Dalek Voices By: Nicholas Briggs

Duration - 2 hours 30 minutes approx.

Released: 3rd March 2016

 

The Third Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith are marooned on the harsh planet of Exxilon when the TARDIS loses all its core power. This is thanks to an ancient living city that acts as a remorseless energy parasite, and also has reduced a once fully-fledged society to one that heads backwards into sheer barbarism.

Before long, Sarah is captured by the main faction of native Exxilons and faces a deadly and brutal sacrifice. Meanwhile, the Doctor allies himself with a team of humans who are trying to recover invaluable parrinium from this desolate world, so as to cure a deadly space plague that threatens all human life across the cosmos.

Interrupting any attempts to save Sarah are the Doctor's oldest enemy from the planet Skaro. They too are officially charged with recovering resource, so as to save their own forces. But despite attempting to wipe out their mortal enemy, and the humans he has just befriended, the energy drain has managed to render the Daleks quite literally harmless. But not for long.

The Doctor eventually allies himself with the kind-hearted Bellal, who is one of the few Exxilons to retain awareness of how his species has been laid low by the City. Together they must conquer the different logic, willpower and physical challenges that the uniquely sentient 'wonder of the Universe' tries to throw at them. If they succeed, then they can destroy the corrupted entity once and for all. Meanwhile Sarah and the surviving humans must try and play a cat-and-mouse game of placating the now in-charge Daleks, but also securing enough parrinium covertly to have any hope of preventing the extinction of all humanity.

 

Once again, I can emphasise what a pleasure it was to experience a confident audio book reading of a long-established TARGET novelisation. But whereas the previous The Massacre was a radical reworking of the actual TV show, so as to be in favour of what the original writer intended, this 1974 Jon Pertwee story has been far more closely adhered to. This is no surprise, as Terrance Dicks had much of a final say in the outcome of stories that he script-edited during this period of the show's history. Dicks is well-known for being gregarious and witty, but the man is also savvy enough to realise when the production of a story he oversaw at the script stage had its problems in the final edit.
 

Despite being released comparatively early on, when Doctor Who was becoming a home video attraction in the 1980s, Death to The Daleks attracted a considerable share of criticism from various parties. It sat in the middle of what was generally regarded as Pertwee's weakest season. Despite efforts from (then-equivalent-to showrunners) Barry Letts and Dicks it has a host of rehashed Terry Nation clichĂ©s, some of which can be found in the previous year's Planet of the Daleks.

Director Michael Briant was one of the show's more unpredictable director, being capable of greatness with The Robots of Death, or banality with Revenge of the Cyberman (which also had a Carey Blyton score of rather uneven quality). This actual story perhaps exuded a run-of-the-mill tick-box-exercise from Briant's camera work and actor direction, and so reinforced how watered-down the Daleks came across in the Seventies, despite the program being made in colour. At least that was so, until a certain gem from both Nation's and Robert Holmes' creative skill sets that completely reinvigorated the story of these psychotic warmongers.

Finally, when one really stops to think about the plot, there is much to ponder over why it is just the Daleks' lethal weaponry that is immobilised, and not also the overall shell that they rely upon.
 

When writing his novelisation in 1978, Dicks made a good effort to embellish on what did work well in the original teleplay, and to minimise the weaknesses. Some well-done exposition on why and how Exxilon became a lifeless rock makes the overall proceedings convey more depth. The Daleks are played straight, and have none of the cosy musical cues or self-destructive silliness in prose form. Some good back-story and characterisation for both Dan Galloway, and the unfortunate crewman killed in the opening of the story fits in so silkily that one would almost have thought this was part of the original work done by Nation at the early stage of the writing process.

Due to this being an audio release that relies principally on one skilful performer, there is none of the acting consistency that marred Death on-screen. Some of the better performances came from the Dalek voice artists, and indeed from Arnold Yarrow as Bellal; one of many successful one-off 'companions' over the course of Doctor Who's considerable lifespan. There also was a very heartfelt performance from gifted character actor John Abineri, but his character met a gratuitously thankless end, barely a third of the way into the second episode. Thus, apart from the series regulars, the only half-decent humanoid performance over the course of the entire story came from Duncan Lamont as the shifty, self-serving Galloway. The less said about the remaining human performers, and the savage Exxilons that dominate early proceedings, the better.

This see-saw in acting quality is quashed thanks to the hiring of Jon Culshaw. He manages to make the listener care for virtually every participant in the story, and also conveys just how much enjoyment he is getting from lending his vocal expertise. Previously he had been involved in Death Comes to Time, as well as several Big Finish stories. Having virtually full responsibility for a three CD product, this well-respected comedian and impressionist acquits himself handsomely well. The production really springs to life, and so makes the most of the original Terrance Dicks text.

Nicholas Briggs provides (what are by now to many familiar) voices for the various Daleks, and they perhaps are marginally better than the originals, depending on the listener's inclination. The soundtrack semi-evokes recent Twelfth Doctor TV stories, and so this production feels somewhat more contemporary than one would expect, given the source material being from the mid 1970s. There are some very good sound effects, such as the deadly Exxilon arrows that thud into the bodies of those unfortunate enough to be standing in the wrong place.

This story is ultimately a much more assured and effective entity in this newly worked version, and the listener's auditory experience is one where the clock ticks away almost unnoticed. Ideal either for a couple of days' listening, or one full-length session, barely any effort is needed in experiencing a rare Third Doctor story that is set entirely away from the planet Earth. Whatever generation of fandom one belongs to, and thus may have negative presumptions on this story's worthiness, this is nonetheless one release to track down and enjoy whole-heartedly.

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