Tuesday, 5 June 2012


A fight for life. Jon Pertwee tackles the Daleks once again in DEATH TO THE DALEKS. Images: BBC.


A four-part adventure by Terry Nation

Starring Jon Pertwee as the Doctor and Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith

Released on DVD from BBC HOME ENTERTAINMENT from 18th June 2012

Reviewed by Scott Weller

The first, and most successful, low price VHS tape of the original Classic DOCTOR WHO adventures releases from the mid-eighties, with everybody’s favourite iconic early seventies Doctor, as personified by dandy action man Jon Pertwee, taking on his most dreaded of nemeses, the 1974 transmitted adventure DEATH TO THE DALEKS is finally given the remastered and restored polish it deserves on DVD, as well as bringing the original series release of surviving, complete Dalek tales in the shiny disc format to an enjoyable and satisfying end.

Jon Pertwee prepares to bid adieu to the series.

Probably best known for the iconic art created by Roy Knipe for the cover of the 1978 TARGET adaptation book by Terrance Dicks- with its exciting and evocative imagery of an exploding Dalek’s head (effectively recreated for the photo composite cover of the new DVD release), DEATH TO THE DALEKS has, for the most part, been considered one of the classic series least remembered Dalek adventures. Thankfully, the cobwebs of time surrounding it are finally pushed away, alongside other earlier foggy history, to reveal a highly enjoyable action adventure yarn of lively invention and fast paced thrills from the penmanship of BOY’S OWN enthusiast Terry Nation, who weaves new and recycled ideas to continued success (c’mon, where would we be without a first episode cliff-hanger from Nation that doesn't have the obligatory Daleks have arrived mission statement!), within a particularly eerie and confident start for the opening episode, building well into the middle and then floundering ever so slightly in the fourth and final episodes last five minutes or so, where it all feels very rushed as everything is tidily wrapped up.

The Doctor negotiates with his old enemies.
Terror-firma! Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) is followed by the alien Exxilons

Jon Pertwee’s beaky nosed action hero Doctor may not have any defining character moments in this particular story of his final season, but he retains a fine and commanding presence. There is a noticeable air of sombreness about him in his performance, though, as the actor/personality mentally prepares himself to leave the series he’s made such a distinctive mark on over five years. And as one light begins to diminish, another shines ever brighter, as Elisabeth Sladen, rising above a basic character sketch in Nation’s script, continues to develop within the soon iconic Sarah Jane Smith role, of which it won’t be too long before the actress and her part becomes a well and truly established figure/personality with the arrival of Tom Baker’s incarnation, quickly becoming the companion we know, love and recognise all these years later…

Two of the aggressive alien Exxilons.

This final season-number eleven in WHO’s overall history- sees our worthy Time Lord’s third incarnation in his last, and Sarah in her first, encounter with the Skaroan war machines, as the TARDIS is forced down and power paralysed by what will soon be described by our velvet jacketed hero as one of the Seven Hundred Wonders of the Universe-the mighty living city and energy drainer of the mysterious and now primitive beings, the Exxilons, whose remaining atrophied civilisation treat it like a God. As a life and death mission by a human space crew arrives on their world in a race against time bid to stop an intergalactic plague ruining the outer colony worlds of mankind, their efforts, helped by our TV heroes, are hampered by the also arrived Daleks, on a mission of a similar life saving kind for their own infected species-the killers themselves now being killed (and a hint of the Movellan virus threat to come, which will be used against the war machine race by the time of the Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor era). From then on in, with both sides compromised by superior alien technology, there comes an uneasy but necessary mutual alliance pact between human and Daleks, so as to acquire the desperately needed Parrinium ore solution found in abundance within the planets hostile infrastructure.

In their last solo outing before being permanently saddled for the rest of their series career- for good and bad- with their humanoid creator, Davros, the following season onwards (played by Michael Wisher, who does a great job of voicing the Daleks in this particular story), our durable exterminators are once again seen as a clever, adaptive and formidable nemesis for the Doctor to vent his spleen at-something Jon Pertwee-who hated being upstaged by the creatures on his TV series platform-clearly relishes both on and off screen.

Humans and Daleks join forces on the Exxilon planet.

Resplendent in their new metallic silver and black paint jobs (back inside the Dalek casings to bring such on-screen scene stealing are the reliable talents of John Scott Martin, Cy Town and Murphy Grumbar. (What a brilliant surname the latter has, eh? Conjures up Cornwallian skulduggery doesn’t it!?), the scenes where the Daleks, now unable to use their energy weapons against their allies, imbue themselves with the power of control and threat once more by adapting machine gun weaponry to aid their cause are excellent realised, as the happy little psychos they are bloodthirstily turn on the Exxilon primitives in order to enslave them for their own doings, as well as thematically bringing them ever closer to Nation’s allegory to the creatures being outer space Nazi’s, a scenario taken up a considerable notch with Tom Baker next season all-time classic, GENESIS OF THE DALEKS.

Like their Mechanoids foes of old, the Daleks also come across another distinctly alien enemy, this time in the shape of the serpent-like energy tendrils of the Exxilon city, located across various parts of the planetary landscape, of which there’s several moments of crowd-pleasing conflict between the two parties resulting in several Dalek casualties. (And a fun state of affairs for the darker mindset of incoming series script editor Robert Holmes, who, loathing the popular villains, came up with the title of the story!)
The Doctor makes a new friend in Bellal (Arnold Yarrow).

Playing the stranded Earth team, DEATH TO THE DALEKS has a solid guest cast that includes John Abineri as the doomed Captain Railton and grizzled Scottish bear Duncan Lamont as the semi-traitorous Galloway as primary standouts. But our favourite performance in the story has to come from diminutive Arnold Yarrow in his role as the small but brave Exxilon cave dwelling rebel, Bellal, almost like a phosphorescent stone gargoyle, but with lovable Lemur-like eyes, who helps our heroes in the battle against the Skaroans. He’s almost like WHO’s equivalent of Galen from the American PLANET OF THE APES TV series, and works well in his scenes opposite Pertwee. It’s a shame he couldn’t have gone along for a few adventures with our TARDIS travellers, but it wouldn’t have worked out-heck, after all these years, the new series doesn’t have any alien companions, either!

Two of the rather nasty Exxilon guardians of the city.

Alongside the running, shouting and machine gun blasting, there’s some very ambitious and quite stylized work on show here within its 1973/74 origins, despite its small budget, though it’s a pity that the entire story couldn’t have been made on film rather than the bulk of it being shot on video tape-the curse of Classic DOCTOR WHO filming of the period, which, with its often jarring mixing, lets down some of the talent brought to the adventure by assigned designer Colin Green. Alongside some basic but inventive effects work (the Exxilon living city is an impressive model) there’s some great visuals from the always talented Michael E. Briant- a very safe, confident and interesting director who brings style and memorable imagery to the show, working to keep the Daleks as on-screen popular and menacing as possible. Thanks to Briant, the expansive Dorset quarry used for this story actually does look a little more alien than usual, and there are some good behind the sofa creepy moments for the little ones to be fearful of: the opening scene of actor/stuntman Terry Walsh’s astronaut traversing a darkened alien wilderness and then being arrow speared, falling to his death down into a watery ravine, sets a strong, mysterious and atmospheric start, quickly followed by the moment where Sarah is attacked by a primitive in the darkened main TARDIS console room. There are further eerie scenes in the Exxillon’s main sacrificial chamber and the catacombs (helped with alien masks effectively realized by the series then top prosthetics and appliances technician John Friedlander), followed by a dangerous trap filled stroll by the Doctor and his new alien buddy, Bellal, through the interior of the ominous living city where, as well as being pursued by Daleks, they are attacked by its quickly created anti-body killers: all of which are well handled.

The Daleks finish exterminating Carey Blyton for the appalling theme music they are given!

One vital element, though, which almost, but not quite, scuppers the story is the incidental music. Having previously contributed what many consider to be a noteworthy score for an earlier Pertwee story, DOCTOR WHO AND THE SILURANS, Carey Blyton’s compositions for DEATH TO THE DALEKS prove a mixed bag-all of the Exxillon related stuff, brought to life with the accompaniment of the London Saxophone Quartet, is often mysterious and spooky, but all this fine work falls down whenever the Daleks come on screen, as Blyton provides an arrangement for them which falters right out of the starting gate: a far too humorous and memorably awful piece that makes the viewing audience think of them as bumbling comedy stars rather than the onscreen heartless killing automatons they truly are…

On the extras side of this DVD release, DEATH TO THE DALEKS is well represented. Alongside an insightful and informative audio commentary (from actor Julian Fox, Michael Briant, Cy Town, sound designer Dick Mills, and others), there’s a basic but enjoyable making of documentary with surviving available cast and crew (including a contribution from the rarely seen Arnold Yarrow-kudos to the DVD team for getting hold of him) that’s taken up a notch by the enthusiasm of Dalek lover and modern series vocal contributor Nicholas Briggs, whose adoration for all things Dalek, and this particular story, shines through in a fun and nostalgic way. There’s also a look back at the cinematic Daleks, too, making their then successful sixties launch from black and white to the full colour cinema screens, alongside Peter Cushing’s popular Doctor, as rare behind the scenes footage from the making of the first AMICUS Dalek movie of the sixties is revealed, discussed by fan historian Marcus Hearn, alongside a warm and personal tribute/contribution from film and TV star Jason Flemyng, whose father, Gordon, would direct the ambitious production.

Flanked by Daleks, the Doctor confers with Galloway (Duncan Lamont) and Peter (Julian Fox) on their situation

Always nice to see is behind the scenes material from the time the original TV story was made, and DEATH has some intriguing footage, composed in an edited highlights form on the disc. You can clearly see a very good and hard working cast and crew at work, with a radiant Elisabeth Sladen standing out as an actress to watch out for: you can see that she has been genuinely well-cast in the role and a true professional. Star Jon Pertwee, however, seems ill at ease, showing slight annoyance and frustration, occasionally fluffing his lines and seemingly not quite being able to fully concentrate-perhaps sad because he was by that point leaving the role, and further narked because of the way that the episode filming structure had changed from this story onwards. This footage also includes a rare scene where the Daleks are conferring and conspiring in whispers-a first for the series and an interesting moment that ultimately doesn’t work. No wonder it was re-voiced.

A fun DOCTOR WHO STORIES tribute to some of the actors who have played Daleks in those early black and white years, with contributions from the late John Scott Martin and an enthusiastic Nicholas Evans, proves welcome, along with a great rare picture gallery (full of colour and B/W location stills), informative behind the scenes notes from stalwart Martin Wiggins, and a very effective trailer for the next DVD release, the Patrick Troughton starrer THE KROTONS, edited in such a fine way that one can almost forget that its quite a poorly regarded adventure! There are also the usual PDFs, subtitles, etc.
One of the story's most effective images, as the Exxilons destroy a Dalek.

I have only vague memories of DEATH TO THE DALEKS story from its original March 1974 transmission, but I enjoyed its aforementioned later VHS tape release, when the grainy, picture viewing format was at the height of its commercial selling powers. Seeing it again on DVD reminded me in general of my undiminished fondness for all things Daleks and Terry Nation in WHO. It may not be an all-time classic, but DEATH is under-rated, and certainly has its interesting merits. It’s well worth a purchase, alongside special features that are a much more enjoyable and pleasing affair than the gloomy and often miserable work presented in the previous Tom Baker released tale, NIGHTMARE OF EDEN.

KOOL TV OVERALL RATING (story and extras): 3.5 out of 5

With thanks to the BBC for all their help with the compiling of this feature review.

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