Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Death to the Daleks written by Terry Nation and directed by Michael E. Briant

This story in a nutshell: The Daleks are forced to work with the Doctor...

Good Grief: The Doctor always comes back from Florana feeling a hundred years younger, this is another of the Doctor’s mystical unseen pleasure worlds that we never get to visit. This is how he coaxes these young slips into the TARDIS, isn't it? He knows they will always end up somewhere cold and miserable but instead he promises seas of warm milk (ugh!). A much forgotten team, once again there are some lovely moments between the third Doctor and Sarah. He finally loses it when another companion complains about his poor piloting skills, although in his defence the TARDIS has been drawn to Florana and drained of power. It is the first time he has had the chance to taunt the Daleks without the fear of them blasting the crap out of him and he really looks as though he is enjoying the experience.  I love the cold logic of this statement - ‘The only alternative to living is dying’ - it feels as though they are introducing the possibility that the Doctor could die and accept the inevitable before it actually takes place in Planet of the Spiders. Leaping into a religious ceremony, the Doctor risks execution to save Sarah’s life. I love the scenes of the Doctor and Sarah creeping through the catacombs trying to convince each other that the growling up ahead is just a subterranean wind effect (‘Next time you have an idea…keep it to yourself.’). Watch out for the gorgeous moment when the Doctor tells Sarah that he might not be coming back from the city and strokes her face intimately and looks for all the world as though he is going to kill her. There is far more going on here than is in the script, Pertwee and Sladen suggesting a depth of intimacy that goes beyond anything even the Doctor and Jo experienced. Pertwee’s Doctor is so casually arrogant you have to admire his audacity: ‘The city defies all attempts to interfere with it’ ‘I think I know a way.’ The universe is now down to 699 wonders, which makes the Doctor sad.

Juicy Journalist: Sarah can sink anywhere, apparently. I love her sense of humour in adversity (‘hooray for old fashioned oil!’) and at this stage of the game I've long forgotten all about Jo Grant (Who fans are fickle like that). She’s smart enough to head back into the TARDIS when she is wearing inappropriate clothing for the climate, more in tune with the new series companions in that respect (or more specifically, Donna). The Doctor admits that Sarah is rather headstrong and is probably out looking for him rather than remaining in the safety of the TARDIS. He's got the measure of her alright. She's not afraid to get into something of a scrap either, roughing up Bellal when he tries to drag her away from the Doctor and hysterically attacking the Doctor with questions when he manages to escape the Dalek. The Doctor needs an assistant who can think on her feet and the way Sarah gets Jill to fill the bags full of sand and sneak the perrinum away from them proves she is made of the right stuff.

The Good Stuff: I've heard an awful lot of criticism about Death to the Daleks in the past but I really cannot see what its detractors are going on about. It might be because this is one of the very first 'old' Doctor Who stories that I ever watched. I remember getting my hands on the edited together video version (I can still hum the BBC Video music with the star logo) and watching it over and over as a lad, thrust into a world of dangerous primitives, devious Daleks, roots which burst from underground to set folk on fire and a whole bunch of arrows shooting through the air. To my twelve year old eyes it was the most exciting thing I had ever seen. The Doctor was stalwart and true, Sarah Jane was brave and beautiful and the Daleks were both helpless and awesomely powerful. Exxilon was the most exciting world in the universe, with creepy underground caverns, misty quarries and a beautiful city that shone with brilliance. I loved it then and when I stick on now it still excites me greatly now, and not just for nostalgic reasons. Michael E. Briant was one of the more innovative directors and he goes to some lengths to ensure this story is executed in as unusual and atmospheric a way as possible. The opening scenes look gorgeous, a man runs through the misty half-light and is shot in the stomach with a arrow, falling to his death into muddy water. How could you not get excited by a dark and mysterious opening sequence like that? Now the TARDIS is back in action, Nation can be relied on to give the ship a new spin (just like he did in Planet of the Daleks with the fungus shooting plants removing all of the ships oxygen) and it is fascinating to watch the old girl lose her juice and fall dead and silent. Suddenly the ship becomes a frightening place full of shadows and silence, almost sepulchral. Watch carefully for Exxilon hands groping at the sand and rocks as the Doctor and Sarah explore the landscape, very subtle and creepy. This might be one of the creepiest worlds the Doctor has visited yet, or at least certainly in the first episode. The atmosphere is genuinely frightening - check out Sarah running through the misty moonlit fog back to the apparent safety of the TARDIS. Briant uses fades to suggest the passing of time and POV shots to put the audience in the uncomfortable position of being the monster that is attacking Sarah in the TARDIS. Don't get this Doctor or companion frightened, they both deck the crap out of the Exxilon's that they encounter. I tend to applaud successful effects more than I criticize ones that haven't worked because the budget that supported Doctor Who was miniscule and so when something as glorious as the Exxilon city is created it is genuinely worth celebrating for all the effort that has gone into making it work. A story that features stereotypes such as Stone Age tribes, a sacred city, rock monsters and stock SF uniformed characters really shouldn’t work but everybody is treating the story with such gravity that it transcends its cliches into something quite absorbing. Nation is testing out his fresh idea of a plague that devastates the population (which would later go on to power his series Survivors) and for once it is nice to have the stakes this high, with the lives of ten million people hanging in the balance over the consequences of this story. Candle lit, incence laced sacrifice scenes manage to generate an atmosphere all of their own that suggests a genuine society outside of the confines of this story, especially with the (very catchy) chanting. Even though the Daleks are powerless (probably the best idea in a story bubbling with innovation) you just know the devious buggers will find a way to overcome their impotence and turn on their allies eventually. Much of the underlying tension comes in waiting for them to make their move, whilst pretending to co-operate. It is no secret to say that Carey Blyton's score for Death to the Daleks has come in for some flack in the past but I personally think that it is his most accomplished soundtrack for the series. I loved it as a child with its simple, catchy tunes and to this day I can join in with most of the cues. The Dalek theme has been bashed for being slightly comedic but cannot you imagine those scenes of them wobbly along the sand dunes without it? Sacrilege. The most interesting of the human characters is Galloway, so it is a good thing that he gets the most screen time. He's a character painted in shades of grey, never quite a hero or a villain and his death bed conversation with Stewart suggests a tense back story between the two of them that is never explore further. It's a story that isn't afraid to promote some powerful imagery and the Dalek whose head blows off after coming under attack by the Exxilons and their subsequent use of its burning shell as a totem pole made for quite the video cover when this story was first released. Can you honestly look me in the eye and tell me you don't find the idea of Daleks fitted with machines the most exciting idea of all time? When they blast away in the inner sanctum with casual abandon it is total carnage that would make Eric Saward smile. I remember thinking that I wished Bellal would step into the TARDIS with the Doctor and Sarah at the end of this adventure when I was younger, although looking at the story as an adult it is hard to imagine him fitting in with any of the subsequent stories (maybe Monster of Peladon with its menagerie of aliens). Arnold Yarrow takes what is usually a standard role (the friendly alien that aids the Doctor) and turns it into something much more memorable, creating a very likable ally and wonderfully sweet-tempered character in Bellal. I have recently come to the conclusion (thanks to a marathon viewing of Blake's 7 and Survivors) that Terry Nation is a much better ideas man than I ever gave him credit and looking through his catalogue of Doctor Who stories they are littered with exciting, engaging concepts. The back story of Exxilon can be added to that list, a people who created their own downfall by building a city that can protect, repair and maintain itself. A structure with a brain that turned on its creators that leeches off the power of passing ships, that also gives a clever explanation for the energy problems in the first episode. Have you ever screamed so hard at the TV so hard that your voice has gone hoarse? Imagine my 12 year old self deploring the Exxilon that is set alight by the root to fall backwards in the water! Nowadays I can see the strings holding the hoover pipe up but back then it was just the most rivetting thing I had ever seen. A building full of puzzles and games that kill you in you lose - what is this Knightmare? The maze on the wall, the deadly IKEA flooring, the hypno room and Daleks in hot pursuit…how could kids fail to love this? How could adults resist either? The Daleks are right hard nuts, gliding across the flooring of death and blasting the crap out of it when it only gives them a mild headache. I can think of few moments in Doctor Who as psychedelic and and freakish as the sanity assault, Briant deploys simple but mind numbing effects to drive the Doctor out of his mind. The story keeps coming up with fun ideas; the city creating antibodies to protect itself is a lovely touch of zombie horror in a story that has already thrown some pretty scary moments at the young'uns. The Doctor and Bellal run through the city whilst it has a nervous breakdown which translates into doors having a paddy and the lights dimming but the effect is quite disorientating. The Daleks are like big kids; once they have taken the Perineum they want to scorch the planet so nobody else can have any. Galloway’s suicide is a lovely touch of ambiguity at the end of the tale because he isn't the sort of character you would imagine would be capable of self sacrifice.

The Bad Stuff: If Galloway is the most interesting of the human characters, Jill Tarrant (what is it with Nation and that name?) is the most irritating and played with robotic incredulity. Why we need a character this goofy who states the obvious all the time baffles me...isn't that what the companion is for? The Dalek saucer once again looks remarkably like a bottle top…did they learn nothing from Planet of the Daleks? The root sequences might feature some explosive Dalek action but hanging a hoover pipe from a string is precisely the sort of nonsense that non-fans are expecting when they tune in. The chatter between the Daleks is as banal as ever and in the least subtle plotting ever witnessed they scream their underhanded plan aloud metres from their new allies. The editing of the third cliffhanger is bizarre, showing the Doctor's horrified reaction to...flooring! Is this the first time we have seen a Dalek have a nervous breakdown because it has failed one task? Michael Wisher is having a field day with the voice work but it really does seem that these creatures fall to pieces at the slightest possibility of failure. It’s a shame the death of the city is so clearly model work although the melting walls and screaming are both great touches.

Result: I got this story for my twelfth birthday and can still remember trembling with excitement as I inserted the video into the machine and sat down by my mums feet in the near dark of the living and watched Death to the Daleks from beginning to end. It had it all as far as I was concerned; the Doctor doing aikido, Sarah Jane being menaced in the TARDIS, a creepy foggy planet to explore, aliens, fights, sacrifices, hidden secrets, sentient buildings, puzzles...and Daleks! To this twelve year old boy there was never going to be a Doctor Who story that topped this one. Unfortunately jaded adult eyes have since viewed Death to the Daleks and spotted strings holding up the root, dodgy CSO and bottle cap Dalek saucers and so it has lost a little of its edge but when I slip in the shiny DVD version I still get that buzz of excitement when watching. I wish I could turn off my critical faculties sometimes and simply enjoy something for what it is (Simon has this ability and I would love to be able to adopt it at times) but Death to the Daleks still works for me for the most part.At four parts this story has a fantastic pace and there’s always half a dozen things to overcome that keeps the momentum going. The new look Daleks are pretty snazzy, looking for all the world as though they have stepped off an assembling line rather than tatty BBC props. It's little but a stack of really groovy set pieces but each of them work to a greater or lesser extent and Michael Briant keeps the story visually arresting throughout. Nowhere near as tired and worn as people will lead you to believe, this is an inventive and snazzy little piece with plenty of atmosphere: 8/10


Richard S said...

Excellent review for an underrated tale. Word I heard is that Tarrant was an old nickname of Terry Nation's - if that's the case, why did he insist on giving the name to such drippy characters?

dark said...

Well I can say one thing, it's not just nostalgia that makes this one awesome, sinse I watched it for the first time yesterday with my dad and also for the most part loved it.
I have to disagree about the Daleks however. We've been told so many times that the Daleks are the ultimate evil bad arse evilness of all creation, however it's stories like this that actually make you believe it, not bye having massive fleets of Daleks wiping out a hole planet, just by having a few daleks starting in a distinctly powerless position and still able to be menacing.

The Dalek manic emotions here I really loved, from the panicking dalek that can't exterminate to the one that has a nurvous break down at prisoner escape. It made them feel extremely alien and also have far more personality (sinse the Daleks are not the emotionless cybermen), it reminded me of Mr. Croup's quote in Neverwhere "You think us funny, but what is funny may also be dangerous!"

I love the Dalek air guns, and their little tardis model target (they're really vindictive suckers).

The city I fully agree is awesome, as is the world and I actually did appreciate the exploration of Galloway.

My two major bugs with this story are firstly Sarah's sacrifice, and secondly Bellal.
Primatives whowere once an advanced species who worship their own creation is a lovely idea, but why do we have to go down the tired old girl gets captured by cave men and sacrificed route? particularly with the tough, independent and generally much more compitant Sarah, when she was dragged into that chanting ring with it's torches and when the Doctor stormed in to save her with his awesome fighting skills I wondered if I'd tuned into one of those rather naff sixties jungle adventure films.

It actually would've been more fun to have the Doctor rescued by Sarah and setup their dynamic much better, particularly with how Sarah gets her own plot later and actually is the one to bring the plague antidote to the millions who need it.

Galloway was a character I liked from the off, including Stewart's scene, and he continued to surprise me sinse just as I'd written him off as the usual Dalek dupe, he changes tack entirely.

The only other issue I had was Bellal. REally with his toothy voice, waving hands and pawing of Sarah I was expecting this guy to start quoting Firengi rules of acquisition! why is it whenever we see a resistance group, they only have one member, ---- oh, two in this case.
i never really got the point of this character other than being there to go into the city with The Doctor, where he was singularly useless, indeed it might have gived Jill Tarrant a little more personality if she went.

The city however was brilliant, and again I loved the fact that you can work out why the Doctor's logic works, it's not just magic. I'm a real sucker for the idea of a deadly obstacle coure, and this was a particularly brilliant execution, I also liked the fact that the city never got a voice or to make a huge vilain monologue, it's intelligence and what it wanted theDoctor for remained mysterious and inscrutable which only emphasized it's power.

The score I admit took some getting used to. On the one hand, very catchy indeed. On the other, it did feel a little too commic much of the time for awesome events,s ort of more like the muppets do outerspace than a confrontation with primatives, daleks, a galactic plague and an awesome ancient city.

All around though a pretty awesome story with lots i liked.

David Pirtle said...

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about this one. It's not a great outing for Sarah Jane, in my opinion. She's usually made of sterner stuff than this, though I try to chalk it up to her being on an alien world for the first time. It's also got not one but two of the worst cliffhangers in the show's history, the aforementioned floor tile of death and the Daleks popping out to that ridiculous soundtrack, firing their weapons entirely ineffectually upon the humans. I'm not entirely immune to the story's charms, but I'd never give it higher than a 6/10.