Doctor Who complete reviews: Death To The Daleks
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Hinchcliffe and Holmes begin the golden age of Who gothic...
The gothic horror era of Doctor Who is rightly touted as one of the best in the programme’s history. If you think that Doctor Who 2010-style is creepy, then try any of the stories that went out in the mid-1970s. Shrouded in dark gloom, with as much brutal death as you can get away with at teatime on Saturday night, the gothic horror stories met the main remit of scaring kids with considerable style and conviction.
It’s all thanks to producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes. Hinchcliffe’s desire to produce a more adult version of Who totally melded with Holmes’ rather cynical, hard-edged stories. However, Holmes had actually joined the show in 1973, when he was assigned to provide uncredited script editing duties for Pertwee’s last few stories. And given that the first one he worked on was Death To The Daleks, it’s no surprise that this story acts as a dummy run for what was to come the following year.
The first episode alone suggests that we’re not in the cosy world of Uncle Terrance-ville (actually, I’d pay good money to go to a theme park of Uncle Terrance’s, where there’s a special green ghost train for green monsters or a Grow Your Own Pertwee Bouffant stall). Instead, we’re plunged into a swirling, dark, doomy world that magically drains power of its own accord. Everything’s so dark – even the TARDIS interior becomes like your average power-cut-hit house in 1974. Very topical.
The first shot alone is of poor old stuntman Terry Walsh being on the receiving end of an Archery For Psychos arrow. Before you know it, there’s sacrifices aplenty, bloody lanterns and twisted skeletons. It’s all a stark contrast to most Pertwee stories, which at least had an elbow dipped in the real world – but Holmes’ influence can be seen in all the macabre imagery that Death To The Daleks possesses.
"Whimpering fans can at least take comfort that the story’s written by Terry Nation. Which means that there’s the comfort blanket that only Nation could provide in every story"
Still, whimpering fans can at least take comfort that the story’s written by Terry Nation. Which means that there’s the comfort blanket that only Nation could provide in every story. And what do you know? The Doctor and Sarah are apart for most of the first part. There’s a group of faceless clichés who are of little consequence to anyone. There’s a quest to reach the ultimate goal (in this case, an Adventure Game-style excursion to defeat the living City). And yet another person called Tarrant.
Seriously, what is it with Nation’s obsession with the name Tarrant? We have already had Taron in Planet Of The Daleks, a variant on the name. In Blake’s 7, we’ll get sneering turncoat Dev Tarrant in The Way Back and afro-headed posh boy Del Tarrant in seasons three and four. In Death To The Daleks, we get simpering wallflower Jill Tarrant, who’s about as memorable as an olive on a pizza. I wouldn’t be surprised if Chris Tarrant was actually grown in a Petri Dish in Nation’s secret laboratory as an experiment into The Ultimate Tarrant.
Anyways, Death To The Daleks does run, for the most part, on tried and tested lines. But it's still very enjoyable, and what’s more, does offer some interesting novelties. The dark atmosphere is the most striking, with some memorable set-pieces. Sarah’s lonely wanderings on Exxilon. The sacrificial scenes in the Exxilon temple with creepy singing (Murray’s Pompous Choir make an early uncredited appearance here, presumably). And the poor old Exxilons getting brutally cut down by trigger-happy Daleks.
Which leads to the second innovation. For once, the Daleks have to use their brains (or what pass for brains, at least), since they are in the same boat as The Doctor and the Earth team. What they do is to devise a new set of weapons, since the power drain from the City means that they can no longer reduce victims to photographic negatives. The old-fashioned guns are a disturbing twist, and the poor Exxilons’ screams as they are shot are enough to demonstrate their impact. It’s a refreshingly different tack on the usual “Exterminate” tack that Nation normally goes for. Although that said, we still get our fair share of gormless Daleks, including the Dalek that thinks that Jill Tarrant looks like a sack of sand, and then decides to self-destruct by pretending that it’s on a one-man Merry-Go-Round. Stupid doesn’t quite cover this sequence.
The Exxilons themselves are also quite interesting creatures. In common with other Pertwee-era races, they are divided into two separate factions: This time it’s the believers and the heretics. The believers are the grunting, hooded choir members, who believe that the City is a sacred deity and that anyone who goes near the structure is committing great heresy. On the other side of the tracks, we get the smaller group of Exxilons who are definitely not Living For The City. They are ancestors of the originals who, on realising that the City had been given a brain, want to destroy the building. Bellal, Gotal and the breakaway group are considered the enemy by the believers, simply on the grounds that they fear the City rather than worship it. It’s an interesting concept, and Bellal is especially well played by EastEnders scriptwriter Arnold Yarrow. He gives the character of Bellal an ethereal, childlike quality, and in keeping with many other Who races, is a classic case of “Don’t judge by appearances”. Ah, if only they’d kept Bellal on as a companion, that would have been funny – especially if The Doctor was trying to hide in the dark, he would have been a dead giveaway.
"The hero, in the end, is grizzled old goat Galloway, a man who’s in danger of scowling himself to death"
At least the Exxilons are far more interesting than the boring old space team. The usual stock clichés are present and incorrect. Jill, the Damsel In Distress I’ve already talked about. Stewart gets to do nothing but lie on a bed for most of the story. Hamilton is the stoic young hero, even if he’s not actually that heroic and has all the charisma of a ready salted potato crisp. The hero, in the end, is grizzled old goat Galloway, a man who’s in danger of scowling himself to death. Every scene he’s in, Galloway mopes around like a man who’s been subjected to a 72-hour non-stop loop of Ken Dodd’s greatest hits, growling and grunting like a cross between a starving bear and a slightly tidier Rab C Nesbitt. Galloway’s not averse to siding with the enemy, selling out The Doctor and Sarah to the Daleks, not to mention forcing the luckless Exxilons into slavery. Inevitably, he gets a hero’s death, as he miraculously has a change of heart and decides to use a bomb to blow both the Dalek ship and himself to kingdom come. Presumably, we’re meant to feel sorry for the bloke, but since he’s exuded all the likeability of a horde of wasps, it’s hard to do anything but sigh with relief. About the best actor out of the lot is John Abineri, but even then, he’s only in the thing for a part and a half.
The quest aspect, this time around, I actually quite like. It does result in the odd cliffhanger to Part Three – the floor mosaic of doom – but there are some great sequences to be had here. There’s the one in which Bellal is hypnotised by a flashing wall light and nearly shoots The Doctor. And the most memorable is that psychedelic whirligig in part four, when The Doctor and Bellal are subjected to the Mr Magoo version of Top Of The Pops. Be warned: You’ll need shades for this bit, the distorted video effects are so bright, they could toast bread from a million miles away.
What makes it so effective though is the great direction from Michael E Briant. Briant adds much to these sequences, with fast jump cuts, zoom ins, and video synthesiser distortion. He gives the scenes in the City a genuinely creepy edge, such as when the zombies materialise out of nowhere to attack The Doctor and Bellal. And there’s also that unsettling ending when the City melts and screams in agony (with thanks to Michael Wisher, who presumably went home that day with a complementary packet of throat lozenges). Briant’s location filming is also very well done. We may be back to the quarry again, but it looks suitably alien and eerie, especially in the dark, mist-shrouded sequences of part one. By and large, another fantastic contribution from one of the most prolific of the 1970s directors.
"The Daleks are supposedly meant to be the most evil force in the galaxy, and yet their every screen entrance is accompanied by a load of jaunty brass parping that sounds more like a theme tune for the main baddie of the week on Mr Benn"
About the only misfire, production-wise is the ridiculous Dalek theme. The Daleks are supposedly meant to be the most evil force in the galaxy, and yet their every screen entrance is accompanied by a load of jaunty brass parping that sounds more like a theme tune for the main baddie of the week on Mr Benn. Carey Blyton’s scores tend to be good enough, but when it comes to the main monster theme, he always tends to plump for the most inappropriate music cue possible. Just thank your lucky stars the Crumhorn didn’t make an unwelcome appearance. That said, though, I still prefer this theme to the OTT histrionics of Murray’s Pompous Choir who manage to render the Daleks inappropriately laughable, but for different reasons entirely.
Death To The Daleks is very much a mix of the old and new. If the usual Terry Nation elements are all in place, Death still points an ominous finger into the gothic future with its brutal signposts of sacrifice, darkness and violent murder. Taken on its own, it’s great fun, stylishly put together by Michael E. Briant, complete with the usual excellent performances from Jon Pertwee and Elisabeth Sladen. Death To The Daleks may not be one of the Seven Wonders Of The Whoniverse, but it's still a hugely entertaining excursion from traditional days gone by to a darker, more adult future.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.