As promised at the end of the previous story, “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” the Doctor is taking Sarah Jane to the paradise planet of Florana for a well-deserved holiday, when the TARDIS experiences an inexplicable power drain. Using an oil lamp to guide their way, the Doctor and Sarah Jane go outside to find they are not on Florana at all. After a run in with the planet’s native inhabitants, they encounter a team from the Marine Space Corps who, like the TARDIS crew, have been forced to land due to something interfering with their power supply. The MSC crew’s interest in the planet, Exxilon, is a mineral called Parrinium, which they need to cure a deadly plague that threatens the lives of 10 million people. However, no-one is leaving Exxilon until they discover the source of the power interference. And to complicate things, old enemies of the Doctor have shown up with plans of their own…
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
“Death to the Daleks” was broadcast between February 23rd and March 16th, 1974. The four part story was written by Dalek creator Terry Nation, and features a lot of classic Terry Nation problem-solving puzzles. In typical Nation world-building style, the planet’s inhabitants, the Exxilons, are divided into two groups: those that worship the beautiful city with its glowing tower, and the heretics who see the city as the cause of their problems, and want to destroy it. The city worshipers chant and perform rituals, such as sacrificing foreigners to the city by dropping them into a pit and leaving them at the mercy of the creature that lives beneath (more about that in a moment). The heretics live underground in fear of the fanatics, plotting a way to bring about the city’s downfall and freeing their people from its tyranny.
And then there’s the city itself, built by a highly advanced civilization to be self-sustaining to the point where it acts like an organism, repairing itself and creating antibodies to deal with invaders. It’s the beacon on this city that is preventing the flow of power within any machine that comes within its vicinity. This includes flash lights, but not oil lamps. For some strange reason, it also includes Dalek guns, but not Dalek motors–they are still able to move around.
The acting in the story is good, especially Elisabeth Sladen. She plays Sarah Jane with such conviction, you can see in her eyes she is totally sold on making you believe this is real. It’s a shame Nation gave her the ultimate cliché Who companion line, “What is it, Doctor? What’s happening?” at the moment the lights go out in the TARDIS. It seems out of character for her. Otherwise, we begin to see why Sarah Jane fast became a fan favorite.
For that alone, this story is worth watching. There are plenty of odd moments that, strangely, make time spent with “Death to the Daleks” even more worthwhile. These odd moments fall into two categories, odd in a good, quirky or unusual sense, and odd in a… well, just plain odd sense. On the “good” side, we have the Doctor going off without Sarah Jane while she goes to change into something a bit warmer than her beach costume, just after Sarah Jane tells him not to go off without her. We see Daleks unable to use their weapons, so they adapt their guns to fire bullets. Also, there’s the Doctor’s ominous command to Sarah Jane before he enters the city: “If I don’t come back, go with them” (i.e., the Marine Space Corps). That line adds a level of intensity, showing a hint of trepidation, that the Doctor really doesn’t know what he’s getting into. And then there’s the Doctor’s almost inappropriate humor at the end, as the city melts, undoubtedly killing all who are within: “Pity. Now the universe is down to 699 wonders.”
On the just-plain-odd side, we have the Daleks using model TARDISes for target practice with their new weapons. There’s the awkward battle between the Dalek and the “root” monster in the underground pit, clearly a victim of budget constraints. The “root” looks like a vacuum cleaner hose with a headlight. In fact, it probably is a vacuum cleaner hose with a headlight.
And then there’s the whole puzzle scene at the end of episode three and beginning of episode four, which deserves its own paragraph. For some reason I thought these puzzles were reminiscent of Nation’s “The Keys of Marinus” from 1964, where the TARDIS crew had to go through a series of quests to find a set of keys. Unlike the “Marinus” trials, though, these puzzles are a bit lame. First, we have a maze. A big maze on a wall. And in the room are the skeletons of those who couldn’t figure out how to draw a line from start to finish, and spent so long on it, they died. It’s a MAZE for crying out loud! They’re not that hard. Even one this big! If you take your time, perhaps an hour or so, it wouldn’t be that hard to solve. Sorry, but I would hardly call that an intelligence test. Then we have the floor puzzle, which the Doctor doesn’t even figure out; he just uses the sonic screwdriver to tell him which areas are safe. Where’s the logic in that? AND… they made seeing the floor puzzle the episode three cliffhanger!! “Look out!” says the Doctor to Bellal, his Exxilon friend, and the camera zooms in on the extremely threatening red and white floor tiles!!! DUH DUH DUH!!!! Eeeeerrrrrr… oooeeeoooo…. *sigh* That really wasn’t well planned. And then there’s the mind attack, which was probably the most effective of the “challenges.” While all this is going on, the Daleks are hot on the Doctor’s heels. Except… how did they solve the maze when the Dalek’s plunger couldn’t have reached to the starting position, and is too big to accurately trace the correct path? And since they got through while the Doctor and Bellal were just about finished with the Tiles of Doom, how come they didn’t catch up? What’s more, the Daleks were able to glide over the tiles, sustaining little damage from the electric bolts that would have fried the Doctor. And yet it took them ages to get anywhere close to the Doctor and Bellal!
One more point of odd interest. There’s a scene where the Daleks are using the Exxilons and the Marine Space Corps crew to mine for Parrinium. One Dalek is guarding Jill, a crew member, in a cave, but Jill escapes, with help from Sarah Jane. The Dalek realizes its prisoner has fled, and instead of immediately setting out to recapture her, has a complete mental breakdown. This is Dalek depression at its worst. “I have failed! I have failed!” it cries out until it shuts down completely. Are the Daleks aware of the deep psychological issues some of their number have?
Oh, and just one last thing: I have never understood the title. Why “Death to the Daleks”? Isn’t that what everyone wants in a Dalek story? Perhaps someone could explain that to me.
To sum up, as I said, this serial is worth watching for the performances and the generally good story. It’s even worth it for all the strange and quirky parts I mentioned above. 🙂