Death to the Daleks

DVDBack! Back! Back! On a bit of a drive to increase my freelance output, I asked Tom and Peter if DWM had any work going for me. Much of this review was written on a train journey, returning from Glasgow to London. Until that point, I’d been struggling to join up the metaphorical dots in the piece, but then – mainly because I had little else to occupy my time – I kind of cracked it. 

Tom, upon receiving it, told me, “I’m very happy with that one!” (which, I always think, implies he’s not so keen on my other stuff) while Peter said it was the best review I’d written for them. That was nice.

When DWM #449 was published, online someone opined: “I thought the Graham Kibble White review of Death to the Daleks was dreadful. It felt like it was cut and pasted from a larger article and ended up in the magazine as disjointed paragraphs , it seemed very odd.”

Here it is…

DWM #449Pay close attention to Death to the Daleks and you might just spot the moment when Jon Pertwee became so cheesed off, he ended up quitting Doctor Who.

We know this happened at some point during the story’s studio days, so it’s the VT we must inspect. DWM reckons this epiphany likely took place at the start of Part Three. Here, the Doctor’s been knocked onto his coccyx by a giant root. Jon’s coccyx – always tricky. Giant roots – well, who would have thought? As he lies there, the actor’s gaze momentarily drifts upwards in contemplation. This has been but the latest indignity! Location shooting at a pit in Dorset saw Pertwee not only jumped on by an Exxilon hoodie and showered in sand, but, most damning of all, forced into some not-very-natty boots. Now, back at TC4, stripling director Michael Briant has elected to shoot this thing out of story sequence, throwing all into confusion. Enough. It’s up to the sixth floor to ask, nay, demand, a pay rise.

As Tom Baker can attest, that didn’t quite work out, and thus the Third Doctor gave notice.

All this came in the wake of producer Barry Letts’ own announcement – made during Death’s read-through – that he was also leaving the show. Moments of portent seem to cling doggedly to Death to the Daleks, like an Exxilon city Antibody giving the standard Doctor Who hands-on-shoulders death grip to poor Bellal. Don’t worry, we’ll keep you abreast of the unfolding events as we go along.

In the meantime, this is an adventure short on such revelation. True, there is a neat conceit that pops up in Part Two, and we’ll get to it in a bit, but in terms of Terry Nation’s script, it’s workaday Doctor Who. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Modish Dalek voiceman Nick Briggs puts it neatly in the documentary accompanying the release, “There’s nothing that tastes so much of Doctor Who to me as Death to the Daleks,” so we should probably savour what we’ve got, particularly as this would be the last time Nation would get to play out his familiar story beats with such vigour.

Some of his quirks still work well, such as mysterious hands clutching at bits of scenery in the front of shot while the Doctor and/or companion slouch past obliviously. Others, however, feel almost perverse. Sarah’s plea to the Doctor, “You won’t go away, will you?” plays like a tacit admission that, at this juncture, we know he will do precisely that. Then there are those bits of business which, due to sheer repetition, just feel eccentric. Mining. Why are the Daleks so fixated on that? Wherever they arrive, by Part Three they’ve got the locals digging. Maybe it speaks of something locked in the subterranean layers of their psyche. They’re unconsciously excavating their way back to halcyon days in their underground base on Skaro, where they once frolicked naked in incubation vats, laughing when Caan – he was a nutter, he was! – attached himself to that chap’s neck. But now here they are, trapped inside dingy travel machines. It’s the notion of ‘bunker mentality’ taken to its apotheosis.

Point of order – isn’t it fun how Nation treats the TARDIS? Much as he did during the previous year’s Planet of the Daleks, he just fills the place with whatever bits and bobs he needs to tell his story – items we’ve never seen before and will never see again. That means there’s suddenly a brand new light hanging portentously above the console, its sole function to conspicuously conk out when required. This approach also means the Third Doctor, the most David Dickinson of all incarnations, suddenly acquires a rather chintzy sideboard. Cheap as (Cyril) Shaps!

While Nation never feels hugely committed to this production, others are grafting hard. Firstly, there’s outgoing script editor Terrance Dicks, who from time to time gently nudges his writer to switch off autopilot and try a new route. Rather than making Exxilon one giant petrified forest, why not have it as a desert world? The folks from Earth – let’s not make them on the run, let’s have them as an established presence with a base camp and everything. And a woman! Who’s second-in-command. As Martin Wiggins’ info text reveals, that last suggestion… well, Nation wasn’t keen. Too fantastical, probably.

The Marine Space Corps (it thrills to see how long the writer kept faith with the notion of sticking ‘Space’ into a thing to jazz it up) are a funny bunch. “We’re down to our last pack of sulfagen tablets, Richard,” says Jill, inadvertently highlighting the way names in Doctor Who can sometimes run counter to the drama. Because what of note could conceivably happen to a Richard? Or, indeed, a Jill? One could potentially avoid this problem by taking the Saward option and have characters swaggeringly address each other by their surnames. But you run the risk of making it sound like we’re in a room of ex-public school fags. Alternatively, maybe opt for futuristic monikers. Hmm, that just adds a further layer of artifice, particularly if they don’t have the right feel. Sabalom Glitz sounds more like a sparkly balm, while The Dominators’ Senex, Bovem, Tensa and Etnin are a vet’s medicine shelf.Here, our core trio are the aforementioned Jill and Richard, plus Peter – the nicest names there are. The connotation is of a ruddy good group of people, actually. The middle-class at large, they’ve come to Exxilon seeking the mineral to cure a plague, but if you look around their camp, you’ll see that despite these testing times there’s no way they were leaving Earth until they’d got their Space Ocado delivery of purified water and fresh greens. As a result, this reviewer was heart-broken when the Exxilons subsequently broke in to nobble Commander Stewart and ended up with peas all over the floor.

It’s notable that this trio all speak in that peculiarly Tom and Barbara Good fashion; wonderful enunciation, well projected and very enthused. “Pass me the vis-you-all file, will you Jill?” says Richard, just back from a briefing with the BBC Pronunciation Department. But then there’s the fourth member, Galloway. ‘Dan Galloway’ it says in the credits, but he’s too working class for anyone to concern themselves with that. There are signs Peter might be the one to turn rogue (“My father was killed in the last Dalek war” he says, hinting at some sort of grudge), but, to be honest, it was never going to be anyone other than Galloway. He’s Scottish, for goodness sake. Laying it on really thick, Commander Stewart – having fulfilled his slim contribution to the plot – uses his final breath to upbraid the no-better-than-he-ought-to-be subordinate: “You’re not fit to command… you’re a glory hunter”. And you don’t speak nicely like Peter or Richard, is the further bit of justification that goes unsaid.

Enough of the class war. Outside on Exxilon we find another of Death to the Daleks’ heroes hard at work. Michael Briant’s direction, particularly in the early scenes, is superb. His cameras rove around that Dorset quarry in a wonderful half-light, with rising mist completing the allure. POV shots of an Exxilon pouncing on the Doctor, and another being brained by Sarah in the TARDIS, indicate here’s someone determined to subvert the show’s often pedestrian house style. A further instance sees the action cross-fade from the marines espousing plot points about the sacred city, to Sarah picking her way towards it. As alluded to earlier, Briant’s entirely sensible decision to order studio filming around the use of sets, rather than story, caused some consternation, but it’s a further testament to someone who would be damned if he wasn’t going to wring everything he could out of the production. Even the root, which emerges from a pond to put the skunk-eye on the Daleks, has an unusual sense of dynamism. Most of the time we can see it’s suspended by chicken wire like some silly Goodies prop, but its speed and the sheer height it attains – coupled with some very special sounds from Dick Mills – makes this another sequence that, in the hands of someone else, could have been risible. As a whole, Season 11 isn’t one of Doctor Who’s liveliest, but despite the saggy script, there’s energy in this story. During its best bits, it positively shines out like the Exxilon city beacon, pulsating majestically to the accompaniment of some fantastic radiophonic farts (again, excellent work, Dick).

When Part One originally aired on BBC1 in 1974, it was followed by another flaxen-haired ‘children’s hero who adults adore’ – Jimmy Savile. On his show Clunk, Click (which that week featured, if you will lovely ladies and gentlemen – wow! – “bean bag guest” Mr Bill Cotton) Jim assigned Britain the task of entering into a postal vote to select what Olivia-Newton John should sing as our entry into the Eurovision Song Contest. However, there was an even bigger decision facing us the following week, as the United Kingdom went to the polls. The CON LAB LIB conundrum, however, wouldn’t be resolved yet, as a hung parliament was called and Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath set about trying to talk up an alliance with The Green Death’s Jeremy Thorpe and his Liberal Party. It was in these uncertain times Death to the Daleks Part Two played, making it the most politically acute episode of Doctor Who ever, with its depiction of an uneasy DAL-HUM coalition between Skarosians and the doughty lads and lady of the Marine Space Corps.

Here is where we reach Death’s big idea – a big idea suggested by Dicks, as it happens. The notion of the Daleks losing their ability to exterminate is very neat. It begins with a lovely reversal when, upon realising those bubbling lumps of hate are in every sense armless, the Doctor pads towards them. “KEEP-AWAY! KEEP-AWAY” they screech, backing off. Alas, the story doesn’t do much more than that to explore the idea. How wonderful it would have been to see neutered Daleks still presenting a threat with their talent for politicking. Had David Whitaker been writing this, they would have had a high old time pretending to be supplicant to the Exxilons, while secretly seeding civil war. Nation’s Daleks, however, are just too darn thick. Witness one of them trolleying into a gang of glassy-eyed aliens, hopelessly looking for a ruck and getting a comprehensive kicking in the process. Or that one who pathetically hits its own reset switch when it realises Jill’s escaped from the internment camp.

Unable to make much of anything out of the concept, 15 minutes or so after finding themselves in this predicament the Daleks are tooled back up again, each packing machine guns that not only shoot the galaxy’s most ricocheting bullets (PTAW! PTAW!), but are so alarming they make the picture strobe fearfully whenever they’re fired.

Let’s cut to Death to the Daleks’ third star player. Of course, that’s Arnold Yarrow as Bellal. He’s part of a rebel faction of Exxilons whose most obvious point of difference with the main group seems to be their desire to run around without any clothes on. Perhaps they could have rebranded as XXXilons, eh readers? There’s such love in Yarrow’s performances, he’s almost too good for the role. While most of his alien compatriots spend their time hulking around, sucking their faces in, he’s either cowering or cavorting. The bit in Part Four when he and the Doctor have completed their trot through the Exxilon city’s puzzle suites, and he rounds the corner to find two teleporting booths, is just marvellous. Yarrow pirouettes and peeps, desperate to exhibit his character’s thought process in movement. Every step he makes is to underscore that he is of a different species – more meerkat than man.

That journey into the city, then. It’s here the whole this’ll-do-ness of the script finally emerges, untempered by good sense or inventiveness. Nick Briggs, again, stomps all over our shtick by pointing out elsewhere on the DVD the intelligence test facing the Doctor and Bellal could very well have been ripped out of that year’s Dr Who Annual. The only thing that suggests otherwise is they’re never once drilled on the subject of Greek myths and legends. Nonetheless, faced with the traditional endpaper thrill of a maze, our hero seems like a prize plum as he attempts to grapple with the very concept. “There’s a point of entry here…” he surmises. Go on, Doctor. You can do this! “An exit…” he continues, “down here.” Smart work!

The Floor Tiles of Death merit a similar bout of mystification, with the Time Lord laboriously counselling his new pal in how to cross safely, step by step, rather than simply instructing him not to touch the red ones. Jim Bowen on Bullseye managed to tackle aspects of game play far more nuanced than this. And in verse too. From there it’s onto a room where an attempt is made on Bellal’s mental faculties, and then another room where another attempt is made, albeit now on both. It’s entirely fitting that at the points we see the Daleks following in the duo’s stead they’re absolutely unengaged by the challenges, and trundle straight over those tiles. Some tricks, though, are missed. It would have been fascinating to see from whence their maze-tracing appendage emerged, and who wouldn’t have enjoyed watching one Dalek talk another out of a mental breakdown: “ZEG? ZEG! ZEG! DO-NOT-FIRE-YOUR-EXTER-MIN-A-TOR! ZEG! LOOK-AT-ME!”

When Death to the Daleks ends, it does so abruptly – Daleks blown to bits, space plague under control, city melted and humans ready to go home. The speed by which it’s all wrapped up reinforces suspicions there was never really a whole lot of story in the first place. But what about those other tales that surround it? How did they end up?

Well, of course, we know that Jon Pertwee would go on to record two more adventures and then leave the show. He’d murmur something about perhaps coming back once the next fella left, but that would never really bear fruit. Barry Letts, meanwhile, did return for a funny old stint at the start of the 1980s.

And the United Kingdom? Edward Heath fails to cut a deal with Jeremy Thorpe meaning that by Part Three of Death, Harold Wilson returns for a second stint as Labour prime minster, the lights come back on all over the country and the Dalek story enjoys a hike of a million viewers. Meanwhile, Olivia Newton-John travels to Brighton to perform our chosen track in competition with Sweden’s Abba. Although our hopes were pinned to the lacklustre but life-affirming Long Live Love, Olivia sadly met her Waterloo… as did those messed up kids from the Kalid bunker, of course, in the conversely named Death to the Daleks. But that wouldn’t be the end of either of them. Each would put poor shows behind them and find greater glories around the corner. Because soon the time would be right for them to re-emerge and take their rightful places as the supreme powers in the universe…

DVD extras

Beneath the City of the Exxilons is a handsome making-of piece, with lovely Daleky fonts and graphics, plus a terrific Dalek voiceover. Nicholas Briggs, as we’ve already mentioned, is a real cheerleader and thus billed as the ‘world’s biggest Death to the Daleks fan’. Although, in truth, it’s clear he’s well aware of the story’s inadequacies, chortling about its “one or two eccentric moments”. Meanwhile, Michael Briant concedes “it’s only four episodes long, which is relief”. Where everyone is in total agreement, however, is that Arnold Yarrow is terrific. “Like Derek Jacobi playing Bungle,” reckons Briggs. “[He] almost steals it from the Daleks,” says Julian Fox (who played Peter). “I was surprised to see how well it stands up,” admits man-of-the-hour Yarrow, “particularly the bits involving myself”.

On the Set of Dr. Who and the Daleks is slight, but lovely. Using silent film trims from a 1965 edition of the TV show Movie Magazine, it features more behind-the-scenes sequences, this time from the first Peter Cushing Dalek film. While he and Roy Castle mess about with a song and dance routine, actor Jason Flemyng – son of director, Gordon – explains why the footage means so much. “To see my dad there is very, very moving.”
Culled from 2003’s Doctor Who Night, Doctor Who Stories presents extended interviews with Dalek operators John Scott Martin and Nicholas Evans. The latter enjoys the best anecdote, which involved manoeuvring his casing over a pavement grill during The Dalek Invasion of Earth so he could sneakily perform a variant of the metal meanies’ usual function and UR-IN-ATE!

In the commentary booth, Toby Hadoke, is joined by Julian Fox plus Dalek operator Cy Town, Michael Briant, assistant floor manager Richard Leyland, costume designer L Rowland Warne and special sounds maestro Dick Mills. Things to note: Town is in that small but perfectly formed club of people who pronounce the Third Doctor’s surname ‘P’twee’, Mills seems to liken his approach for layering sound to the opening titles of Are You Being Served? (“[It’s] ladies’ underwear, then down to kitchens”), Briant cried when he first watched back their footage of Root vs Dalek, and adds that, back in the 1970s, doors that opened vertically were “new and exciting”.

Finally, we venture onto the story’s set in Studio Recording. It’s December 1973. Christmas is coming, but the atmosphere is not so merry. There’s very little banter between takes – the best it gets is an aborted attempt at having Daleks whisper conspiratorially, which is hilarious. Instead, the most prominent sound is the buzz of fierce carpentry a little in the distance. This sombre mood has been set by Jon Pertwee who’s thoroughly discomfited. “It’s very hard to pick up there like that,” he says, struggling to get going from a cue. “It’s very hard to pick up from that point?” parrots production assistant Chris D’Oyly-John. “Well,” huffs Pertwee, “it’s not easy.” A later sequence sees him confiding in his co-stars playing the human party: “I’ve been sitting here for an hour not doing anything, and then suddenly… ‘Boom, boom, you’re into it’.” That’s how you know the Third Doctor’s in real trouble. He tells it to the marines.


2 thoughts on “Death to the Daleks

  1. Well I enjoyed it, especially the #tvcream splattered broadcast information; with this distance its rare that these episodes are put into the context of when they were broadcast, especially now that we all watch them in one burst without the weekly gaps with all the other contemporary experiences in between.

  2. Pingback: A Big Idea Unfulfilled — Death to the Daleks → | Geekdom Nation

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