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Doctor Who: Death to the Daleks DVD review


They're back. They're angry. They're unarmed.

Death To The Daleks DVD

I can only concur with Shadowlocked colleague John Bensalhia as regards the Jon Pertwee 1973 Doctor Who outing Death To The Daleks; in his review he says..

"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."

Chief among which novelties are Daleks that can't exterminate. Well, not initially, anyway. When The Doctor and Sarah Jane (ah Liz, how empty the commentary room is without you!) get pulled into the energy-draining field of a savage planet that displays the remnants of an apparently dead but illustrious ex-civilisation, they find themselves far from lonely. Dodging mysterious bands of archers, our heroes are separated almost immediately for a first episode that, as the commentary notes, is extraordinarily light on dialogue and dark of picture.

Before too long it's clear that a huge and strangely pristine Aztec-style city is diverting a number of spaceships off-course in its search for enough energy to keep itself in pristine condition - a basic set-up which would repeat in a later Philip Hinchcliffe Gothic Who story, The Brain Of Morbius. Still, if it ain't broke...

Among the other reluctant guests of the planet is a military expedition comprised of power-deprived astronauts Duncan Lamont, John Abineri, Joy Harrison, Julian Fox and Neil Seiler - waylaid here during a desperate search for the only substance in the galaxy that can cure a disease which is laying waste to millions.

Amazingly, the Daleks have the same problem; an envoy of the murderous pepperpots find themselves frustratingly unable to exterminate and having to join forces with their old arch-enemy - and 'inferior' humans - to see what they can do about restoring power, getting off the planet and curing the folks back home.

A new era of Dalek/Human cooperation? (Death To The Daleks)

Meanwhile the mysterious arrow-shooters turn out to be the surface-dwelling majority of what's left of the race that built the great city,; they fall upon our Sarah with great vengeance and furious anger when they find her trespassing. Happily for the hapless assistant, there's a rather more benign strain of Exxilon in the city's sewers, willing to lend a hand and looking for peace. The trouble is what's down there along with them...

Death To The Daleks begins the Philip Hinchcliffe reign in the spirit in which it was to continue - with lots of great Gothic gloom and a joyful literary heist from Dalek-creator Terry Nation, who plunders the likes of Forbidden Planet , War Of The Worlds and Hell In The Pacific (or Enemy Mine, if you prefer), amongst many other sources, in order to come up with the last slightly 'phoned-in' Dalek story before the Beeb got tired of the 'Nation Formula' and wrested the immortal Genesis Of The Daleks out of him.

Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith (Death To The Daleks)But any familiarity of story-style is at least outweighed by the novelty of seeing the Daleks temporarily disabled and having to use other resources than their zapper/plunger combo in order to gain their ends. Pertwee is - well, Pertwee: classic, dashing and as full of himself as ever, whilst Elisabeth Sladen reliably reminds us yet again that no actress can blame the apparent shallowness of the 'assistant' role for a bad turn. Sladen is simply the best Doctor Who assistant ever - and by a country mile the best actor ever to grace the position.

There's not much that the beleaguered-expedition actors can do with their parts; Terry Nation is criticised in the commentary track for not having the capacity to write good interaction between characters, favouring action. From that point of view, I wonder if the Beeb's rejection of the script that was to return transformed as Genesis Of The Daleks didn't prove a wake-up call to Nation, who went on to re-use Death's excellent John Abineri in three seasons of Survivors, only to develop some of Brit sci-fi's strongest characters in four seasons of Blake's 7.

But yes, at this stage, one feels that Nation is just filling in the pages as best he can, and frequently running out of ideas - as when he turns the story into The Crystal Maze, with Pertwee and company having to solve a series of puzzles to get deeper into the ancient city. And, of course, this was itself shamelessly plundered for 1983's The Five Doctors.

So it's all fairly familiar DNA in terms of classic 1970s Who. And if it isn't Genesis, well they can't all be, and the pace keeps up nicely in spite of some occasionally desperate plot devices.

Death To The Daleks also contains Doctor Who's worst cliff-hanger ever. It's so bad that it will genuinely make you laugh, so I'll not ruin the surprise!

The Practical and semi-special effects are, as usual, a mixed bag. On the one hand, Death contains some of the most flawless Chromakey work in Who's long and notorious relationship with that technology (using yellow instead of blue to 'knock out' studio backgrounds and insert spaceships). On the other hand, the models that get put into these expert mattes just don't have enough budget to bear the scrutiny. Neither does the patently polystyrene city impress in and of itself, but it too is integrated into the studio environment with a level of finesse that the show might have envied even 10-15 years later - and this in itself is an enjoyable curiosity.

Despite director Michael E. Briant's complaints about the wires showing in the commentary, and despite having been completely ripped off in design from the robo-tentacle in Byron Haskin's War Of The Worlds (1953), the 'root' - a cross between a civic janitor, a snake and a Terminator - proves to be one of the most memorable and imposing guest-monsters in classic Who, with only the likes of the Raston Robot in the same league. The Beeb can't usually afford monsters this imposing. Hell, there wasn't even anything in The X-Files this tall...

The 'Root' rises up in 'Death To The Daleks' (Doctor Who, 1973)

Another actor rising above the call of duty along with Liz Sladen is Arnold Yarrow, as the diminutive Bellal, a friendly ground-dwelling Exxilon. A little character, but a big performance that's memorably raised above the writing by the actor, struggling as he is beneath complete body and face make-up...

Arnold Yarrow as Bellal in 'Death To The Daleks'

See how nobly Bellal is trying to hide the polystyrene?


As usual 2Entertain and Auntie Beeb have come up with the goods again, to the very limits of their budget and spurred on by love of Who - the extras are really the heart of these classic Doctor Who outings, to the extent that I'd almost consider paying for an on-demand TV channel where I could dip in and out of them as I liked!

There's a pretty good moderated commentary by actors Julian Fox (Peter Hamilton), Dalek operator Cy Town, director Michael E Briant, assistant floor manager Richard Leyland, costume designer L Rowland Warne and sounds guru Dick Mills. If the absence of Liz Sladen continues to draw a sad tone on this aspect of any DVD that features her, the main participants are kept chatting and there isn't toooo much repeat from the documentary interviews (always the curse of these particular DVD releases).

Beneath the City of the Exxilons (26.47)

Features Arnold Yarrow, Michael E Briant, Julian Fox, Richard Leyland, L Rowland Warne and Who-crazed Nick Briggs (currently the voice of the Daleks in new Who and one of the forces behind the Big Finish Doctor Who audio adventures).

Studio Recording (23.46)

Hard to believe it was so long ago, but here we find a baby-faced Liz and dapper Pertwee providing more unconscious insights into the studio process - and we also get some comical behind-the-scenes visual effects bloomers...

Chromakey in 'Death To The Daleks'

On the Set of Dr. Who and the Daleks (7.50)

Did you know that Jason Flemying's dad directed the two Peter Cushing Doctor Who films in the 1960s? You will if you watch this, as here's the man himself, clearly very proud of his late dad, talking about it all in company. Nothing to do with Death To The Daleks, but since the Cushing films have already had their special edition, this is a welcome and unexpected little morsel of Who trivia.

Jason Flemying talks about his dad, who directed the two 1960s Peter Cushing 'Doctor Who' movies

Doctor Who stories - Dalek men (13.00)

This too veers away from Death To The Daleks, with new and archive footage from classic Who's Dalek operators. If you've ever wanted to know how Daleks pass water, this may be your only chance.

Radio Times listings

As usual, a PDF with some retro-listings...

Death To The Daleks Radio Times listings


3 stars


4 stars

Death To The Daleks is released on June 18, 2012

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