It is probably fair to say that Death to the Daleks is not many people’s favourite Dalek story (except Nicholas Briggs!). However, it was good enough to turn me into a Doctor Who fan. No, I’m not that old, but one day I was home from school ill and my mum came home with a couple of VHS tapes for me: Death to the Daleks and The Five Doctors. The last time I had watched Doctor Who was the broadcast of the Pilot Episode, and before that Survival, and I had never really been that fussed about Doctor Who, but those two stories made me a fan. It may be irrational, but Death to the Daleks will always be my favourite Dalek story.
There are lots of examples of Doctor Who stories where the first episode is much better than what comes after. The Space Museum is probably the best-known example, because that one really collapses from a point of brilliance, but there are lots of other examples such as The Sensorites, The Android Invasion and Terminus. There’s a very good reason why this happens: it is much easier for a writer to come up with a strong vision of the opening of a story, which is setting up all the mysteries, than slogging through the troublesome business of resolving things. Death to the Daleks is far from being a story that collapses after the first episode, but the first is certainly far superior. In fact, it’s brilliant. The scenes set in and around the disabled TARDIS with its darkened console room are genuinely very frightening. Elisabeth Sladen portrays fear better than her predecessor, and is superb here, fighting desperately to open and close the heavy TARDIS doors on her own with a crank. It’s all magnificently creepy stuff. Then the Daleks arrive and things start to go a bit wrong with the first cliffhanger.
Death to the Daleks suffers from some uninspiring cliffhangers which could have easily been improved. At the end of Part One it is obvious that the Dalek guns are not working (solution: cut the scene earlier). Part Two ends with the unexciting reveal of the root (solution: show the root striking and cut to titles after the flames). Part Three ends with the reveal of the floor trap, but we don’t know that it is a trap yet (OK, I’m open to suggestions on this one). The whole story actually benefited from being edited into a compilation version for its original VHS release. There are other problems. The Daleks are at their most feeble here due to some odd choices from Terry Nation. One of them bursts into flames just because it is being hit with sticks. Later, another self-destructs because his prisoner has escaped. They are also at times extremely stupid, like when they fail to notice the very large bomb under Galloway’s jacket!
The music is mostly magnificent but occasionally inappropriate, such as the plink plonk theme which accompanies the Daleks. The distinctive sounds are achieved courtesy of Carey Blyton and the London Saxaphone Quartet, and overall add to the mood very well, although the comb-scraping gets a bit much at times. At least you can play along at home, re-enacting scenes with toy Daleks and a comb.
The Exxilons are wonderful creations, particularly the friendly Bellal who acts as a companion substitute to the Doctor in the third and fourth episodes so effectively. The star of this show, though, is the city. It is an exceptional model, absolutely enchanting, and so atmospheric when shot in the dark, illuminated by its beacon. Its screams as it melts away make for one of Doctor Who’s most haunting moments. Internally, it’s not so successful, although most of the scenes set inside are quite fun. Some of the usual criticisms the story receives are really pretty insignificant, such as how the Daleks manage to operate the wall maze with their sink plungers. That is quite easily explained away by their plungers changing shape (as per the 2005 episode “Dalek”) but that kind of effect was beyond the scope of technology at the time. My only big gripe is with the flashing lights for the ‘sanity test’ in Part Four, which are excessive and make for extremely uncomfortable viewing. Nowadays they surely would not be permitted for broadcast, except possibly with a warning before the episode. Thematically, the city is an interesting twist on the old computer-gone-mad story, with a whole city destroying its creators.
Lots of Dalek stories have very little going for them apart from the Daleks themselves. This is the opposite: a great story about a scary planet with a beautiful, mysterious city, with the Daleks just along for the ride. RP
The view from across the pond:
Death to the Daleks was one of those “gauntlet stories” that are fun to watch every now and again. Basically, the Doctor and companion have to go through a series of challenges to solve a puzzle. They’re fun sorts of stories, but they can’t be done frequently. Thankfully, this is an average story that rises to above average for three key reasons: an astoundingly captivating opening, a Living City and a temporary companion.
I most recently saw this story in December of 2014, with my kids on our marathon viewing of the show. Like we saw in The Edge of Destruction, casting the interior of the TARDIS into darkness creates an eerie effect. Landing on the planet Exxilon, the TARDIS loses power forcing the Doctor to use an oil lamp to see and a crank to open the TARDIS doors. This opening is outstanding. Like the Doctor and Sarah Jane, the audience is left in the dark about what is happening from the moment the story opens! There’s no slow buildup here, but rather an immediate sense of terror. But Doctor Who is prone to telling a griping story without always thinking through ramifications. For instance, Sarah Jane is attacked while The Doctor leaves her on her own in the TARDIS. She bludgeon’s her attacker who barely manages to crawl across the TARDIS floor to attack her again, when she beats him again, presumably to death. Why is this relevant? Because when the Doctor and Sarah Jane leave at the end of the story, one must assume there is a dead Exxilon in there that needs to be removed! I’d love to see the Doctor’s reaction to this! Surely it would affect their relationship? Or was the character not dead and crawled away later? Or is that poor Exxilon wandering about the hallways of the TARDIS…?
OK, ignoring that, let’s look at the episode. Chances are, the opening is what Nick Briggs loved about it. It’s immediately engaging. But most of the story is a typical one. Little differentiates it from so many others, most notably Planet of the Daleks only a season earlier. Are the Exxilons much different from the Visians of Planet of the Daleks? One race is invisible, one covers themselves in blankets; but they are essential a foil to go between Daleks and Humans/Thals. We also get a friendly Exxilon, and there’s a friendly Visian. There’s the requisite inhospitable planet in both, one with plants that attack and one with roots that attack – a root that looks suspiciously like a leftover laser from the Martian ships of the original War of the Worlds movie.
It’s not until we meet Bellal, one of the friendly Exxilons, who stands in as a companion while Sarah Jane is elsewhere, that the story sees a move to above average. Bellal is a great companion. His eyes look suspiciously like 1970’s sunglasses but he’s friendly, intelligent and most importantly, not human. How delightful would it be if we could get more non-human companions for the Doctor? The purpose of the companion is to be the audience; but that entails asking for explanations and being amazed by what the Doctor shows them. Bellal would have been an amazing companion! Then we get to the part where the Doctor and Bellal have to go into the living city (one of the 700 Wonders of the Universe, we hear) that the story really stands out from its predecessor. The city would be great for the challenges it offers, but we get another of those questionable moments in Who history. The Doctor has to use his finger to trace a maze to get out of one of the puzzles. How great would it have been if this was all it took to stump the plunger-armed Daleks, because there’s no way they should have been able to escape the room otherwise! No elaborate weapon, or trap, just a lack of an appendage. Those Daleks would be stuck! The fear of them chasing might still be valid for the Doctor and Bellal, but it could have been a humorous scene for the audience to realize they were trapped! That would have been different and unexpected.
There is also one scene in the City that I always liked. The Doctor and Bellal walk into the “final room” and there appears to be a person sitting at the controls… who then turns to dust before their eyes. The Doctor says that by entering the room, they created a current of air that broke the surface tension and the body crumbled. This was one of those “Wow” moments for me the first time I saw the episode and it still makes me happy when I see it! It has a chilling eeriness that is unique. No sudden movement, no attack… just a body crumbling to dust before the Doctor and Bellal.
When the Doctor finally defeats the City and it melts, it emits a sound best compared to a scream. This is another of those moments that make the episode special. It was established that the city was living, so why not give it a characteristic that would not be forgotten.
Most of Death to the Daleks is average, but it has enough moments to rise it above that make it enjoyable viewing. Far from perfect, but equally far from terrible. If one were to take a sampling of episodes to watch, this would probably get a higher score because it would not be “just another Dalek story”, but if one were to watch the whole series, it feels a little “been there, done that”. Very middle of the road from this long time fan.
Oh, one last thing… the Doctor claims in this story to know Venusian Hopscotch. What the devil would that look like? And just what kind of people are these Venusians that they taught him their martial arts… and hopscotch?
“Now the universe is down to only 699 wonders!” ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Monster of Peladon