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Doctor Who: Death to the Daleks (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Death to the Daleks originally aired in 1974.

Keep away! Keep away!

– the Daleks have an understandable reaction to appearing in another Terry Nation script

I’ve remarked a bit that Pertwee’s final year feels a little like a victory lap, a clear attempt to revisit familiar, sometimes to provide a sense of closer. For example, Invasion of the Dinosaurs feels like the last true U.N.I.T. story, with betrayal and disillusionment closing that narrative strand. Similarly, Planet of the Spiders closes out the recurring New Age Buddhist iconography that the Barry Letts has been injecting into the show. However, some of these decisions to return to familiar concepts feel a little superfluous. Did we need an extended sequel to Curse of Peladon, for example?

And did we really need another throwback Terry Nation Dalek story, only a year after the last throwback Terry Nation Dalek story?

The clue is in the title...

The clue is in the title…

Death to the Daleks is the last Dalek story before the introduction of Davros. Once their creator was introduced in Genesis of the Daleks, the iconic monsters would have to share their televised stories with him until the show was cancelled. While Death to the Daleks makes a strong case that the Daleks are in desperate need of a shake-up, I’m not necessarily convinced that you needed to add Davros to the mix. Maybe you just needed to remove Terry Nation.

In fact, Death to the Daleks really feels more like a Terry Nation story than a Dalek story. It’s a collection of familiar Terry Nation high concepts thrown together into a mercifully short four-episode adventure. There’s an ancient and abandoned futuristic city, the threat of biological warfare, the use of logic puzzles to test intelligence, the idea of social collapse after an apocalyptic event, the concept that technology might at some point in the future destroy civilisation.

It's a-mazing what they can do...

It’s a-mazing what they can do…

The Daleks just happen to be the most high-profile of Nation’s favourite tropes and ideas included here, so they get title billing. Nation even holds back their reveal until the cliffhanger of the first episode, which is itself a favoured Terry Nation gimmick. There is just one problem with this. There’s really no need for the Daleks to be in this story. They are easily the serial’s most extraneous element. In fact, if you remove the Daleks, the story works a bit more fluidly.

Like a lot of Terry Nation’s stories for the show, the basic ideas are compelling. The idea of a society that built a self-aware city that then drove its inhabitants out is a fascinating one. The suggestion that the universe is slowly dying is a powerful piece of background information that informs the drama. That said, ten million deaths seems a relatively meagre number for a plague that’s supposedly ravaging the cosmos. The image of a once advanced and enlightened culture regressing to a primal state is quite compelling. It’s all decidedly pulpy material, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

A dusty old Nation adventure...

A dusty old Nation adventure…

The problem is that Nation isn’t quite so good on the execution of those concepts. There’s a wealth of great ideas here, but none of them really connect in any meaningful way. For example, Nation hits upon the New Age idea of ancient astronauts visiting Earth, something that would drive quite a few of the popular Hinchcliffe era stories, but he disregards it almost instantly. Apparently the Exxilons visited Peru, but it’s only fleetingly mentioned.

The idea of the Doctor having to face a variety of careful organised death traps within the city feels like it might make for an exciting adventure. Unfortunately, it feels more like the Doctor has to work his way through the “adventure” page of that year’s Doctor Who annual. Solve the maze! Don’t step on the red bits! These are puzzles that wouldn’t give an eight-year-old too difficult a time, and Jon Pertwee makes it clear that the Doctor is hardly challenged.

A beacon of light...

A beacon of light…

Pertwee provides exposition in a decidedly flat manner, as if talking to a particularly slow companion. He seems so ridiculously bored while jumping through these plot-mandated hoops that you can see Jon Pertwee counting down the days until he finishes up. The third episode’s cliffhanger is based around the Doctor yelling “Stop, don’t move!” before finding “another test”, which turns out to be as generic and routine as all the others. It’s not compelling stuff.

It’s very easy to attack Nation’s writing as bland, and I really think he’s a writer who works well when he has a gripping image or idea to hook his stories around. The Daleks worked because it introduced the concept of “the monster” to Doctor Who. The Dalek Invasion of Earth was based around the idea of Nazi alien pepper pots roaming around a deserted London. Death to the Daleks lacks a similar sort of hook, and so the relatively generic nature of Nation’s plotting shines through.

Things are looking dark...

Things are looking dark…

The first episode even gives us a rather surreal piece of padding where Sarah Jane flees into the TARDIS, proceeds to wind the door shut behind her. She is ambushed, and beats her opponent to the ground. Then she has to wind the door to open it again. It’s the kind of nonsense you’d see in a parody of Doctor Who mocking all the pointless running and awkward attempts to help an episode meet its running time. It’s not the kind of thing that you should be seeing in the show itself.

I am not the biggest fan of Planet of the Daleks, but I’ll concede that it had been a while since we’d seen that sort of Dalek story told. Producing a colour remake of The Daleks for the show’s tenth year was at least a defensible decision. However, Death to the Daleks has no such excuse for its decision to borrow so many familiar elements. The show even opens with a hook that feels familiar to the start of Planet of the Daleks – the TARDIS powerless.

All that remains...

All that remains…

To be fair, Death to the Daleks does have one interesting hook to the monsters. We discover that their weapons don’t work here, which is a fascinating premise. What is a Dalek that can’t kill, after all? Indeed, you get a sense that Death to the Daleks is making a concerted effort to play down the threat of the monsters so that they can pull a surprise reversal later on – sort of how Dalek began with the eponymous creature as a tortured captive before revealing its true power. Galloway even dismissively refers to the Daleks as “the wee salt-shakers.”

Unfortunately, that’s very clearly not where Nation was going with Death to the Daleks. Rather than starting weak and growing considerably in threat, the capabilities of the Daleks vary greatly throughout the adventure. They are basically as menacing or as ineffective at a given point as the plot requires them to be. So, almost as soon as the plot reveals that their weapons are useless, they fit themselves with “substitute weaponry.” They subjugate the humans and the Exxilons, but they are consistently humiliated by the city itself.

Not a career high point...

Not a career high point…

There’s no real consistency to the characterisation. Are these meant to be awe-inspiring monsters? Or are these scheming creatures only projecting the illusion of power? These Daleks are plotting to manufacture and unleash their own plague on the universe, but they’re also high-strung and just as easily manipulated as ever. In a moment that has perhaps come to characterise the Daleks, one solider has a what could be described as a mental breakdown and commits suicide because a prisoner escapes:

Human female has escaped. I have failed! Female prisoner has escaped! I have failed! I have failed! Self destruct! I have failed! Destruct! I have failed! Destruct! Failed! Failed! Failed! I, I, I, I, I–

This doesn’t make the Daleks scary. it doesn’t affirm their devotion to a higher cause or their rigid adherence to their own ideals. After all, the Doctor makes a habit of escaping from the Daleks. If they all self-destructed each time… well…

A Dalek story I can't get behind...

A Dalek story I can’t get behind…

To be fair, Nation’s script isn’t the only problem with the Daleks. The production as a whole doesn’t seem too bothered with them. Carey Blyton’s soundtrack, performed by the London Saxophone Quartet, feels a bit weird for a Dalek story. While nowhere near as obvious as the toy Daleks used to portray a Dalek army in Planet of the Daleks, it’s quite clear that there’s a dead Dalek model just inside the door of the ship. It looks like the sentry is snoozing or something.

Jon Pertwee hardly helps matters. Pertwee apparently didn’t like the Daleks, admitting that he “squirmed through each and every one” of his encounters with them. I actually quite like Day of the Daleks, even if the Daleks feel a bit… incidental to the whole thing. Here, however, Pertwee is very clearly relaxed about the whole thing. Even when he advises the humans not to trust to the Daleks, it’s as if he’s standing on the sidelines and not directly engaging with the episode. Later on, he even stands by commentating on fight between a Dalek and the root of the city. “Oh, good shot, sir. A hit! Yes, a palpable hit!”

The cracks are starting to show...

The cracks are starting to show…

Pertwee could be incredibly charming, but he could also operate on something approaching auto-pilot. Death to the Daleks is Jon Pertwee unable to muster up any enthusiasm, and it’s hard to blame him. The Daleks had been absent for quite some time before they reappeared in Day of the Daleks. However, they’d racked up annual appearances since then. Death to the Daleks felt more like a mandated Dalek story than a flash of inspiration. In a way, it foreshadows that the Daleks became an annual occurrence under producer Russell T. Davies.

However, all that would be averted the following year, when Terry Nation scripted Genesis of the Daleks. It was a story that actually did something with the Daleks, and – in doing so – demonstrated a lot of what was wrong with the use of the creatures in Death to the DaleksGenesis of the Daleks used the Daleks because it had a story to tell with them, it presented them in a manner that was logical and structured, it made sure that they were essential to the story unfolding on screen. In contrast, Death to the Daleks feels generic, soulless and asinine.

Not a smooth landing...

Not a smooth landing…

I can’t help but wonder if Genesis of the Daleks was a result of the heavy influence of script editor Robert Holmes. To be fair, it has a host of familiar Nation elements (reliance on capture and escape, monsters for the sake of monsters). However, Death to the Daleks feels more representative of Nation’s work on the show. I can’t help but feel that the thing holding the Daleks back and diminishing them wasn’t necessarily the lack of a figurehead like Davros, but instead the fact that Terry Nation had been writing their adventures. The problems with Death to the Daleks aren’t inherently Dalek problems, their the types of problems that recur throughout Terry Nation’s work.

Still, I guess we’ll never know. Instead, we just have to settle for a relatively bland adventure in Pertwee’s final season featuring the Daleks. The fact that this year can’t make a four-episode Dalek serial exciting doesn’t bode well for the next adventure, a six-episode trip to Peladon.

You might be interested in our reviews of the eleventh season of the classic television show:

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