This STORY TAKES PLACE BETWEEN THE TV STORIES "INVASION OF THE DINOSAURS" AND "THE FIVE DOCTORS."
'DEATH TO THE DALEKS' DVD (BBCDVD3483) RELEASED IN JUNE 2012.
A power failure in the TARDIS draws it off course, and the Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith end up stranded on the bleak planet of Exxilon. They soon meet members of an Earth expedition in a similar situation.
23RD FEBRUARY 1974 - 16TH MARCH 1974
After the Dalek drought of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Death to the Daleks saw Terry Nation’s untouchable creations make their third appearance in Doctor Who in as many years. Nation’s script for Planet of the Daleks the year before had been analogous to a ‘best of’ compilation in how it had borrowed some of the most successful elements from his Hartnell-era stories and presented them with a little more finesse and a lot more colour. His script for Death to the Daleks, however, threatened to be much more innovative, only to descend into circular plotting and absolute farce.
This four-parter’s problems are encapsulated by its evolving title. Originally pitched as The Exilons, Nation’s story focused on the seven hundredth wonder of the universe - an ancient gleaming city that, even after aeons, still appears brand new – and its incongruously primitive inhabitants. Somewhere along the way though, the eponymous Exxilons gained an additional ‘x’ before being excised from their story’s title and replaced by the Daleks, who would defy convention by proving to be the ruin of a story, rather than the making of it.
At times, Death to the Daleks seems to be actively trying to do what its title claims. Far from being the lethal force that they once were (and would be again), the deleterious Daleks of this story are so utterly feeble that they are liable to be destroyed by a horde of primitive Exxilons or a dodgy lamp on a coil. One of their number is so fabulously weak-minded that, upon registering that his prisoners have escaped, he promptly decides to commit suicide in what would prove to be Doctor Who’s least volatile depiction of a Dalek’s demise. Even the first episode’s cliffhanger, which had the potential to be rather good, was rendered devoid of any semblance of menace thanks to Carey Blyton and the London Saxophone Quartet’s playful, jocular music. It’s ironic that the Dalek that was infamously pushed too hard by Jon Pertwee never made the final cut - amongst such pathetic peers, panicked cries of “help!” emanating from a Dalek’s innards wouldn’t have been out of place.
This is terribly frustrating as the script is littered with flashes of inspiration. Despite being plagiarised from David Whitaker’s Power of the Daleks, having the Daleks robbed of their ability to kill could have made for a fascinating story here, but unfortunately it only takes the Daleks about quarter of an hour to work out how to fire bullets in place of their malfunctioning death rays. Having the Daleks test their new weapons on a miniature TARDIS model only adds insult to the injury – as if they had such an absurd object to hand! We’re fortunate that the serial’s director, Michael E Briant, didn’t take us deeper into the Dalek saucer; had he done, we’d probably have found thirteen dart boards hanging on the walls, each bearing a different face of the Doctor’s.
Fortunately the serial is saved from total calamity by the Exxilons. L Rowland Warne’s crusty camouflage design is striking for its time, and buoyed by Briant’s shadowy direction. Even Blyton takes great strides towards redemption through his hauntingly sparse and distinctive sound design that underscores the more ritualistic scenes in the Exxilons’ city. Best of all though, as Nation’s traditional plotting sees the Doctor and Sarah Jane separated, the Doctor inadvertently inherits a quirky makeshift companion in the form of Arnold Yallow’s affable Exxilon, Bellal, who’s “like Derek Jacobi playing Bungle” according to contemporary Dalek voice artist Nicholas Briggs.
Above: Nick Briggs discusses the serial that inspired his Dalek Empire in
the DVD's flagship documentary, Beneath the City of the Exxilons
Briggs is on hand not just to share his fond memories of the Doctor Who serial that inspired his peerless Dalek Empire series of audio dramas, but also to play the Dalek who narrates the DVD’s flagship feature – a half hour foray Beneath the City of the Exxilons. The concept of an ostensibly Dalek-produced documentary is a novel one, and one so flagrantly bizarre that it sits happily on the Death to the Daleks disc. But despite all of its grating mechanical bells and whistles, it doesn’t forget to do what its viewers want it to – provide an irreverent account of the serial’s production and reception.
The disc’s insightful commentary track elaborates a little upon the themes and anecdotes housed in the main documentary. I wasn’t expecting an awful lot from it, given the dearth of ‘big names’ on hand to comment, but the motley crew of supporting actors; Dalek operators; and designers actually offer an interesting new perspective. It’s fun to count along with them as stuntman Terry Walsh dies more times than South Park’s Kenny, and thought-provoking to hear them contrast the gallant sacrifice of Duncan Lamont’s character, human space marine Dan Galloway, with those of a contemporary terrorist. Another anomalous aspect of Death to the Daleks borne out in the commentary is the manner in which it was shot. Mindful of the rigorously-enforced time limits imposed on a BBC director back in the day, the serial’s young director elected to shoot the production on a set by set basis, rather than in chronological order. This DVD presents almost twenty-five minutes of unedited studio footage, offering us unprecedented insight into this then-revolutionary process and the challenges that it posed.
The disc contains two further features of note. Continuing the recent trend of presenting interviews shot for 2003’s Story of Doctor Who documentary in full (or at least thereabouts), Dalek Men offers us thirteen minutes of the Dalek operators’ most edifying musings. Thereafter, we are treated to a peculiar little seven-minute feature that sees Hammer Films historian Marcus Hearn examine the surviving film trims from an ITV documentary that visited the set of the 1965 Peter Cushing movie, Dr Who and the Daleks. It’s a little out of place alongside Death to the Daleks, which was broadcast on television almost a decade after the movie’s cinematic release, but it’s nonetheless worth watching, particularly if you’re an admirer of that multi-coloured movie or its sequel.
Save for the inevitable future revisitations, Death to the Daleks marks the classic series’ Daleks’ final DVD appearance. I’d love to be able to say that Skaro’s finest have gone out with a bang befitting them, but even when accompanied by some fascinating bonus material and a robust recommendation from Nick Briggs (who feels that this serial “epitomises the series”), the release of Death to the Daleks on DVD is more akin to its suicidal Dalek’s introverted demise than it is to any great explosion. Indeed, were it not for the alluring reboot offered by the following season’s Genesis of the Daleks, this story could well have proven death to the Daleks.
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