Doctor Who #368: Death to the Daleks Part 1

"I was close to becoming petrified myself!"
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD. First aired Feb.23 1974.

IN THIS ONE... A power drain makes the TARDIS, the Marine Space Corps and the Daleks land on the Exxilon planet. Sarah Jane goes too near a sacred city.

REVIEW: Ok, plenty of Terry Nationisms here... cliched Space Marines who crashed on the planet; a mysterious and seemingly deserted city; PLAGUE; a new feature on the TARDIS that makes it seem more like a low-tech spaceship (the hand crank, and allowing itself to be drained of powers as if it actually "flew" by Exxilon); natives dressed in tarps; petrified life-forms; and of course, the Daleks appearing in the last scene even though their name is right there in the title. If it seems at all fresh, it's because of Michael Briant's direction (maybe), the design (at times) and the regulars' performance (when the writing doesn't make them look silly). Occasionally, the design team chips in as well.

Most unusually,Briant drops the lights out in the TARDIS, which always make it look more interesting and makes me wonder why they didn't do it more often, or at least find a reason to dim them a little bit. Here, the TARDIS loses power, and we see its overhead lights for the first time, but we're never in complete darkness. Lighting the set with very few spotlights creates an atmospheric environment that contrasts with the beach equipment amusingly strewn about, and most crucially, provides a scary experience for Sarah Jane who hasn't yet decided if this time travel lark is for her. It certainly helps the scene where she returns to the TARDIS later and gets attacked by an Exxilon creeping within. Outside, the planet is spooky too. There's a wonderful green filter over everything, and Exxilon becomes a magical, smoky place. It's looking like the show is going Gothic a year or two before schedule. Sadly, it loses all that atmosphere in the light of day, reverting to just another gray quarry, even though they find some nice crevices to explore. The City of the Exxilons looks like an unfinished model, but it's striking enough, and up close, allows Sarah to indulge her sense of wonder as big glyphs light up at her touch. The natives themselves look like coffee-stained, rumpled brown paper bags, and for the first 20 minutes, might as well be invisible Spiridons, but they do have faces under there, and the large eyes nocturnal creatures would have. I don't dislike the look, and they get a nice chanting cue for Sarah's sacrifice too.

The regulars give their best effort under Nation's movie serial logic, with the Doctor wandering off while Sarah Jane changes out of her bathing suit. I'm not sure if it's meant to be a twist on the usual "companion wanders off" cliché, or if it's bad writing, but it comes at the heels of the program making the point that the TARDIS is so dark one needs an oil lamp to walk around the console room, yet the Doctor keeping the lamp when he sends Sarah back in. A similar dissonance between script and visuals occurs when the Dalek saucer lands and the Marines all think it's an Earth ship until it's actually landed, but... it was really obvious, wasn't it? Same thing when the Daleks fire on the group in the cliffhanger. It goes on so long and so uselessly, you have time to realize they've been drained of power too. Briant's given us atmosphere, but he doesn't seem to care about the plot. Sound's not his forte either. The fights are sapped of any excitement because hits are silent or very low. Look down at your dinner and you won't even know they're happening. And the Daleks' entrance! The music plays it as comedy! What the hell.

- As a beginning, it's got qualities. It looks quite good, great lighting effects, fair-to-good effects, and the Doctor and Sarah are always watchable. But it's messy and not particularly original. Even if fan wisdom didn't tell me Death to the Daleks was one of the Daleks' weaker outings, I'd still get the feeling things were going south after this initial set-up.


Toby'c said...

"Same thing when the Daleks fire on the group in the cliffhanger. It goes on so long and so uselessly, you have time to realize they've been drained of power too."

What's said is that this isn't the worst cliffhanger of the serial.

Siskoid said...

It really isn't. Check back Monday for Part 3's!

Tommy Krasker said...

No, no, Mr. Siskoid, do not listen to "fan wisdom": I have learned over the years that the term is an oxymoron. "Death to the Daleks" is my favorite Third Doctor Dalek story. OK, that's saying nothing, so let me try again: "Death to the Daleks" is my favorite Terry Nation story up to this point. All right, still saying nothing, but it's about the only Terry Nation story up to this point that doesn't bore me to death. First off, as you said, Michael Briant really does give it nice mood and variety: almost like he says, "Oh, geez, another Terry Nation Dalek story: I guess it's up to me." Second, it's four parts, so it's less Terry Nation, which is always a good thing. There are lots of things wrong with "Death to the Daleks," but a Terry Nation Dalek that moves quickly, and has an astute director at the helm, is a minor cause for celebration.


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