CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: Death to the Daleks / DVD Review

Transmitted in February 1974, Terry Nation's Death to the Daleks followed hot on the heels of Malcolm Hulke's Invasion of the Dinosaurs. A mid-season story, over four weeks it bore the stamp of its writer and his narrative concerns within Doctor Who's ever flexible format. However, there is a sense of transition within the production of the series itself as Robert Holmes, the incoming script-editor, was already trailing the current incumbent Terrance Dicks after Dicks had already announced he was bowing out at the end of the season. Producer Barry Letts signalled his departure during the production of Death to the Daleks and Jon Pertwee, having played the lead role for five years and 128 episodes, was also leaving after an announcement made to the press on 8 February 1974 just before episode five of Dinosaurs went out. 

Nation had agreed with the production team that he would have first shout to write any proposed Dalek stories for the series, unhappy about how his creations had been treated after giving permission for their inclusion in Louis Marks' Day of the Daleks in 1972. After contributing Planet of the Daleks the previous year, Nation discussed his commission, offered in March 1973, for Death to Daleks over a long champagne fuelled lunch with Dicks in July that same year. As noted by Jonathan Bignell and Andrew O'Day in Terry Nation, a post-lunch letter outlined Dicks' concern for Nation not to repeat himself (pun also intended about the author's digestion): "The main necessity is to avoid any resemblance to your previous show, i.e., a group of fugitives hunted through the jungle by Daleks. Instead of jungle, think of bleak, rocky, foggy quarry."
... familiar Nation-isms 
Presumably, Daleks hunting human fugitives in a Dorset quarry was considered enough of a contrast by the time Nation delivered his scripts in November 1973. Dicks also advised Nation to make the female roles stronger in the scripts, including those of Sarah Jane Smith and what would eventually turn out to be the guest character of Jill Tarrant (Joy Harrison), a member of the Marine Space Corps expedition featured in the story.

The story, originally titled The Exilons and then The Exxilons, was sans Daleks and Nation was asked by Dicks and Letts to include them within his outline about the quest to find a cure for a space pandemic, an elixir located on a world where the once technological Exxilon society had been reduced to barbarism. It was Robert Holmes who felt the connection between the elixir and the the title of the story was too obvious and suggested Nation change the story to feature the possession of the mineral parrinium, rather than an elixir, as the objective of the human expedition.

Once further changes had been made, particularly to the final episode which originally saw the Daleks leave with the mineral and the expedition assist the Exxilons in the rebuilding of their society, production commenced. Location filming took place in November at the ARC Sand Pits at Gallows Hill, Dorset with director Michael E. Briant returning to the series after The Green Death. Briant's recently published memoir and his commentary on this DVD both cover the trials and tribulations of filming. This included out of control Daleks using dolly tracks to negotiate the quarry's sandy surface; a cherry-picker almost overturning as it tried to lift one of the Exxilon city's roots into the air after being submerged in a pond and missing Exxilon extras, camouflaged by L Rowland Warne's costumes, nodding off in the sand dunes undetected. 

Location and studio recording continued to be something of a learning curve for Lis Sladen too as she and Pertwee were still working out the nature of their professional relationship. In her autobiography she recalled being "steered" by Pertwee, his hand on her neck, after she arrived at the Dorset quarry and he made to introduce her to other members of the cast. She rationalised this as Pertwee's need to dominate physically over smaller people. She also recalled that make-up supervisor Magdalen Gaffney's assistant was of the opinion that as Doctor Who was "a space programme" then everyone had to have silver make-up and, briefly, Sarah Jane Smith's face was "luminous" before Gaffney took charge again. Regarding faces, there's a nice little anecdote from the autobiography where, on location, she recalls being asked by Briant to slap Pertwee's face because he'd gone blue with the cold.

For the studio recording at TC4 in December, Briant had persuaded Barry Letts to allow him to tape the story in set-by-set order over two days rather than using the usual schedule of completing all scenes from a single episode per day. As the production notes attest, this experiment caused some confusion with a number of props and pieces of set delivered to the wrong studio and actors becoming somewhat anxious and feeling the pressure with their scenes for two episodes being recorded out of order and in a single day. The DVD offers some behind the scenes studio recording footage from those sessions in December and the strain is often evident on Pertwee as he makes several attempts to get a number of scenes in the can. Sladen also recalled the intense workload of making two episodes in one day as something of an "ordeal" that "knocked him for six" and ultimately led to his decision to leave.

During the December studio sessions Nation also discovered, via Dicks' invitation to these recordings, that his scripts had been "amended" because of worries from Head of Serials about their violent content. As noted by Bignell and O'Day in Terry Nation, caution had been advised over a number of sequences in episode one where Exxilons "rained down blows" on their victims and in episode two in which Sarah becomes their sacrifice and where the scene "must not show her being restrained by ropes" and the inhaling of a drug should "not show it being forcibly held under her nose."

What emerges is a story that betrays its lack of budget somewhat more keenly than some of the other stories in Pertwee's final season and yet contains its fair share of visually arresting moments and impressive sequences. The location filming for the most part is excellent and, despite the ubiquitous quarry standing in for the surface of Exxilon, Briant manages to make the most of it. His opening to episode one, where stuntman Terry Walsh takes an arrow and ends up in a pool, is suitably bleak, shot day for night, lit dramatically and wreathed in smoke. The TARDIS losing power and making a forced landing on Exxilon maintains this mood and perhaps offers, as many have observed, a wry comment on the oil crisis and power cuts of October and December 1973.

It also ushers in a storyline in which Nation sets out his stall for the two dramas he would subsequently make at the BBC, Survivors (1975-1977) and Blake's 7 (1978-1981). Nation's themes about the struggle to survive in a world devastated by a virulent plague, the reliance of advanced societies on technology which then proves to be their downfall, and the shades of grey within the exercise of power and its moral consequences find their counterpart in the battles and uneasy alliance between the Marine Space Corps and the Daleks as well as the back history of the Exxilon race and their city. Nation's exploration of totalitarianism and dystopia in both dramas, and through his 1970s Dalek stories, certainly chimed with the feeling that by 1974, when Labour returned to power in that year's second election, Britain was lurching towards a hard-left dominated socialism that would eventually lead to a Communist-led government.

It is Galloway (a great guest role for Duncan Lamont) that Nation uses to explore the hard moral decisions needed to survive in such a harsh environment. As Alan Stevens has pointed out, Galloway is "a violent, bitter and self-serving type" who sells out his fellow crew, the Exxilons and the Doctor and Sarah to the Daleks and condones murder in order to get hold of the parrinium at any cost, but at the end of the story "still performs an almost incomprehensible act of self-sacrifice" by ensuring the bomb planted on the Dalek ship explodes. The character of Galloway is an attempt to defy certain heroic conventions but it is very hard to have much sympathy for him in the end.

As well as a curtain raiser to dramas that would explore those themes in a more sophisticated and in-depth manner, the story also returns to some familiar Nation-isms: the quest story structure (epitomised by the Exxilon city and its various tests and traps) and the notion of 'epic' action drama (there's a flavour of the Western and King Solomon's Mines about Death to the Daleks) that featured as early as The Keys of Marinus and The Chase and the exploration of his anti-totalitarian liberal agenda within groups of disparate individuals who take political positions in order to survive. There is also a dose of the then in-vogue Von Däniken theory of ancient civilisations influenced by alien visitors to Earth when the Doctor and Bellal discuss the origins of the city. Oh, and the use of the name Tarrant.
Daleks viciously gunning down all and sundry with machine guns
Director Briant, well versed in the larger scale, more action orientated Who stories such as The Sea Devils, is a good match for the adventure elements of Nation's script and he adds his own visual signature to the story - with a penchant for point of view shots from the Exxilons, the Daleks and the human characters as well as an appetite for action set pieces that feature various Daleks under attack from the living city's roots and bands of Exxilons - that makes up for some of the inadequacies of the production.

While the location work still just about passes muster, some of the studio-bound work struggles against the limitations of the multi-camera, low budget staging. It is also painfully obvious that there are only three operational Daleks, lovely as they are in their silver and black frocks, setting out to subjugate the planet Exxilon. There's an additional one but it tends to sulk quite a bit in the background and refuses to join in.

Designer Colin Green does his best to replicate the sand dunes of Dorset in the studios but the fake rockery is never that convincing under the glare of the studio lights. Yet, as is pointed out on the commentary, the studio lighting by Derek Slee really comes into its own in the atmospheric scenes set at night as the Exxilons and humans rest after mining the parrinium for the Daleks, during the Exxilons attempt to sacrifice Sarah and her subsequent escape in the tunnels of the Exxilon city.

There are also more of Briant's exotic, often psychedelic visual touches in the scene where the Exxilons attempt to drug her and later when the Doctor is 'attacked', via the joys of Mirrorlon, in the Exxilon city. These touches do lead to some unintentionally funny moments, including the Daleks' target practice using a miniature TARDIS (they must really hate that Doctor) and Michael Wisher, voicing the Daleks, 'giving it large' as one of them gets in a tizzy and has something approaching a nervous breakdown after failing to spot the sand bag masquerading as his prisoner. Mind you, not many of us could tell the difference between a sand bag and the character of Jill Tarrant.

Adding to the mix is an unconventional score from Carey Blyton and if you couldn't get on with his krumhorn dominated incidentals for Doctor Who and the Silurians then prepare for more atonal doodlings from the London Saxophone Quartet that may or may not be to your taste. He combines saxes, clarinets and horns with some Radiophonic trickery to provide an atypical musical lexicon for the Daleks and the startlingly effective primitive chants of the Exxilons which, according to Hilton Gough in the British Federation of Film Societies' monthly magazine, are "an imposing edifice of choral sound built up entirely from a solo voice."

Performance wise, the aforementioned Duncan Lamont and Arnold Yarrow, as the glowing, Bungle voiced subterranean Exxilon Bellal, win this hands down. Yarrow has a great rapport with Pertwee and has a physical investment in the role that has a child-like charm and attraction. Pertwee is rather subdued, perhaps an indication of his growing desire to move on, but the interplay with Yarrow is a highlight. Despite Dicks' attempts to get Nation to strengthen the female roles, Lis Sladen tries to make as much as she can out of a Sarah Jane Smith that hasn't quite fully formed on the page and Joy Harrison is left to deal with the somewhat ineffectual Jill Tarrant. The rest of the human characters don't fare much better and even the ubiquitously brilliant John Abineri only gets a cough and a spit as Railton. There are also some editing and timing issues, as indicated by Briant in his book and on the commentary, that reduce the cliffhanger of episode three to the Doctor and Bellal seemingly threatened by nothing more sinister than a bit of 70s flooring.

Overall, Briant's directorial flair, some of the performances and the Daleks viciously gunning down all and sundry with machine guns should ensure you'll enjoy what is a moderately interesting Pertwee serial. It is darker in tone - plenty of actual violence, implied sacrifice and moral ambiguity - and that hints at the Hinchcliffe and Holmes double act waiting in the wings and, under their auspices, Nation's rewriting of early Dalek history in Genesis of the Daleks.

Special features
Commentary with actors Julian Fox (Peter Hamilton), Dalek operator Cy Town, director Michael E Briant, assistant floor manager Richard Leyland, costume designer L Rowland Warne and special sounds maestro Dick Mills. Moderated by Toby Hadoke.
Beneath the City of the Exxilons (27mins)
Cast and crew look back on the making of this story with Nick 'the world's biggest Death to the Daleks fan' Briggs. Featuring interviews with director Michael E Briant, actors Arnold Yarrow and Julian Fox, AFM Richard Leyland and costume designer L Rowland Warne.
Death to the Daleks Studio Recording (24mins)
A rare and fascinating glimpse into the production of the story, this selection of material is from the 4th December recording blocks and covers the attempts to get a number of scenes in the can while managing complex visual effects and stunt sequences in the studio. The whispering Daleks are an hilarious highlight.
On the Set of Dr. Who and the Daleks (8mins)
Noted Hammer historian Marcus Hearn takes us briefly behind the scenes on the first Dalek film in 1965 with the help of ITV's Movie Magazine. Although the original programme no longer exists in the archive, mute film trims have survived and these brief but delightful sequences are woven throughout a series of interviews including actor Jason Flemyng (son of the film's director Gordon), first assistant director Anthony Waye and Dalek operator Bryan Hands.
Doctor Who Stories: Dalek Men (13 mins)
Another edition of extended interviews used in The Story of Doctor Who documentary from 2005. This time the spotlight falls on Dalek operators Nick Evans and the late, great John Scott Martin who both discuss how they brought the Daleks to life by "sitting in a wooden bath chair" where they "peddled away like mad". Evans dominates and regales us with some lovely anecdotes about working on the early days of the series including how he managed a discreet comfort break inside a Dalek on location for The Dalek Invasion of Earth.
Production information subtitles
A fact-filled set of notes and trivia from Martin Wiggins
Photo gallery
Good selection of colour and black and white images from the story.
Radio Times listings
Coming soon trailer for The Krotons.

Doctor Who: Death to the Daleks
BBC Worldwide / Released 18 June 2012 / BBCDVD3483 / Cert: PG
BBC 1974
4 episodes / Broadcast: 23rd February - 16th March 1974 / Running time: 97:49

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One Response to “CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: Death to the Daleks / DVD Review”
  1. KAOS says:

    I hadn't really thought about the Survivors link before, oddly...

    Excellent critique - and wonderful to have you back.

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