Doctor Who: Death to the Daleks on DVD

Does Death really deserve its rep as the forgotten Dalek story?

 

4 stars

 

 

The Daemons on DVD

Say what you like about Terry Nation as a writer, but he knew how to make Doctor Who exciting for children. For the under tens, as I was when Death to the Daleks was first transmitted, it didn't matter that Nation's reach sometimes exceeded the grasp of the BBC visual effects department. Death had it all: an immobilised TARDIS, aliens that could merge into a planet's landscape, a living city with a lethal, serpent like root system – that blew up Daleks! – and, best of all, Daleks who behaved as cunningly and as ingeniously as the Doctor always claimed they did. I mean, Daleks with machine guns…!

 

Death was fortunate that it had an enthusiastic and innovative director in Michael E Briant and an ambitious first time Who costume designer in Roland Warne, who (within the technical constraints of the time) breathed consistent life into Nation's vision of a spectral, desolate world (of the type that would keep cropping up in the Dalek Annuals that began publication a couple of years later). The unsettling sight of the TARDIS out of action, and the Doctor and Sarah enveloped in an echoing blackness in its usually reassuring, brightly lit interior, heralded an adventure that pushed a few boundaries in the middle of a run of adventures that were otherwise playing safe until Jon Pertwee hung up his cloak for the last time.

 

Briant makes Exxilon appear a dangerous and hostile place through the use of hand-held camera work, filmic fades between scenes, voiceovers and point of view shots of the characters (and monsters), all of which give the production an experimental, cinematic quality. Together with the extensive location work – an awful lot for a four-parter – Nation's movie-for-TV ambitions mostly come off in way they curiously didn't in Planet of the Daleks. Particularly, the scene where a wide-eyed Sarah discovers the Exxilon city, backed by suitably elegiac incidental music, can't help but suggest scenes in those films that Nation must have seen in his youth like King Solomon's Mines, when intrepid explorers stumble on ancient relics for the first time.

 

Perhaps because Robert Holmes was trailing Terrance Dicks as script editor, there's an extra toughness to the story. Rather than patronising speeches from the Doctor about the nature of war as in 'Planet', here Galloway – the splendidly irritable Duncan Lamont – knows that some degree of ruthlessness is essential to get the cure for a space plague back to the outer planets. He sees the bigger picture, even though he's criticised for it, and doesn't really show any sign of being the "glory seeker" that Commander Stewart says he is. Conversely, that Galloway considers the Exxilons "savages", and the Daleks view the human astronauts they're forced into an alliance with as "inferior", anticipates the point Nation would develop in his next script that, if they don't retain their sense of morality, men can evolve into unfeeling monsters.

 

A point made on the commentary, justifiably, is that Nation wasn't (always) a great writer of dialogue, but for the most part the cast make the most of what they're given. Lamont and John Abineri are standouts among the humans, while Arnold Yarrow as the friendly, diminutive Exxilon Bellal is at once sympathetic, innocent and trusting. Arguably his best moment is one where he doesn't even speak; confronted by a Dalek, he cowers in Sarah's arms and she hugs him as one would a frightened child – a perfect example of reactive acting by both performers.

 

Liz Sladen in Death to the Daleks

The regular cast is at an interesting stage: Sarah is written here as a generic, whiny girl companion, although Elisabeth Sladen's studied, sensitive performance raises the stature of the female sidekick role, and her battering of an Exxilon with the TARDIS door handle hints at the stronger Sarah to emerge in the Tom Baker adventures. Considering there's so much at stake, with a powerless TARDIS and the Daleks on the loose again, it's just a bit of a shame that Jon Pertwee plays the Doctor as if he's taking a leisurely stroll in the park.

 

Less of a plod than 'Planet' and with more Dalek action than 'Day', Death to the Daleks is the DVD to buy if you want to see Jon Pertwee Dalekmania live again.

 

Extras

As befits the last 'classic series' Dalek DVD to be released, some extra effort seems to have gone into the, um, extras on this disc, all of which benefit from some excellent graphics that reflect the style of the TV21 Dalek strips and Frank Bellamy's Radio Times illustrations. The presence of the Daleks always seems to make people give that little bit more.

 

Beneath the City of The Exxilons is a nicely done making-of documentary, presented as a Dalek archive recording that's been decoded, allowing Nick Briggs to indulge his favourite professional voice commitment once again. In his interview, Briggs describes Bellal as sounding "like Derek Jacobi playing Bungle [from Rainbow]," a comparison that's both funny and, actually, spot on. It's heartening to see how lucid Arnold Yarrow is at 92, as well as rather sad to note the absence of any interviews with the regular cast, who aren't around to take part anymore.

 

Nick Briggs talks on Death to the Daleks

 

While the raw studio recording demonstrates how patient and committed all those involved were in making this story with resources stretched to their limit, Doctor Who Stories – Dalek Men focusses on operators John Scott Martin and Nicholas Evans, giving some unsung heroes of the show the spotlight, and deservedly so. A superb extra on this disk, though, is undoubtedly On The Set of Dr Who and the Daleks, an appropriate piece of scheduling as the Dalek films were first shown on BBC TV in the early 1970s. Seeing actor Jason Flemyng reminisce to heart-warmingly about his director father, who helmed both of the Daleks' big screen outings, is very touching, as are his admissions that he collects memorabilia from his father's films and looks forward to the day when his two twins can enjoy the big screen adventures of the Daleks. Of the footage recently discovered from the making of Dr Who and the Daleks, the most endearing has to be when Peter Cushing (the cinema Dr Who) and Roy Castle (Ian) are seen performing a song and dance routine, a scene interviewee Marcus Hearn find particularly delightful. He's not alone.

 

The commentary is one of Toby Hadoke's best, bringing together director Michael E Briant, actor Julian Fox, assistant floor manager Richard Leyland, costume designer Roland Warne, sound effects man Dick Mills and Dalek operator Cy Town.

 

Michael E Briant, Doctor Who director

Briant always sounds like he's constantly smiling, his enthusiasm is infectious, his memory is enviable and he's the glue that holds this commentary together, offering witty anecdotes and revealing insights at every turn. My favourite soundbites of his were the surprise that some BBC prop men stood in the TARDIS and shook it to make it wobble as it materialised (suggesting it was malfunctioning), and that he still has the Exxilon sacrificial chalice, which has a rather "grassy smel.l" Right on cue, Hadoke suggests the Doctor and his party were "in the cell wanting to eat flapjacks."

 

Elsewhere, it's interesting to hear of the friendships forged on the production, how Death to the Daleks was innovative as all the scenes required for one set were shot in one recording block and how Jon Pertwee was an actor who "didn't like change" and could be "very difficult to work with" if you were several rungs down the production team ladder.

 

All in all, the extras on this disc show why the 1963-96 Doctor Who DVDs continue to be the best produced archive TV releases on the market.

 

I'm gonna miss 'em.

 

Rob Fairclough

 

Death To The Daleks is out now!

 

 

Watch the trailer here, now.

 

 

 

Doctor Who: Death to the Daleks on DVD
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