The Doctor and Sarah arrive on the planet Exxilon. A mysterious force deprives them, and everyone else on the planet, of power. Also stranded are a Marine Space Corps team from Earth, here to bring away the antidote to a plague sweeping through the galaxy. While Sarah is kidnapped by the planet's inhabitants a Dalek craft lands. With their power disabled, the Doctor and the Daleks have to work together...
Death to the Daleks, a four-parter written by Terry Nation, was the middle story of Season Eleven, Jon Pertwee's last as the Doctor and Elisabeth Sladen's first as Sarah Jane Smith. It's probably the strongest stories of that Season, but that's a little like damning with faint praise. The season was underwhelming at the time – and us young fans had been given a preview of all five stories in the Radio Times's Tenth Anniversary Doctor Who special the year before. And it's the same over thirty-five years later, as the stories all come up for DVD release, and Death to the Daleks is the last of the five to make it to disc. While The Time Warrior and Invasion of the Dinosaurs before it, and The Monster of Peladon and Planet of the Spiders after it all have their strong points, they all have their flaws as well. In a stronger season, Death to the Daleks would be a middle-ranking story between far stronger ones.
By now, Pertwee was in his fifth year as the Doctor. Barry Letts had produced all but one of his stories and Terrance Dicks had been script editor since the end of Patrick Troughton's era. For much of that time, the show's principal characters had remained stable. The Master had unavoidably been written out (for a few years anyway) due to Roger Delgado's tragic and untimely death. Katy Manning's Jo Grant had left at the end of the previous season and Richard Franklin's Captain Yates had (gasp!) been revealed as a traitor in Invasion of the Dinosaurs (he would return for one last time in Planet of the Spiders). Things were changing and while Sladen had given the show some freshness as the new companion, it was all looking a little tired. The following season, with a new leading man (with whom Sladen worked particularly well), a new producer and a new script editor, the show got the boost it needed.
By now it was becoming noticeable that Terry Nation's Dalek scripts were tweaking the same formula, rehashing elements of previous serials. Here, the twist is that the Daleks, robbed of power (a topical theme at a time of widespread British power cuts), have to collaborate with their arch enemy The Doctor, on the surface at least. (There's a nice touch when the Daleks, replacing their usual blasters with machine guns, use a model TARDIS for target practice.) Finally, Nation would be challenged to write a different Dalek story, and the result was Genesis of the Daleks. The Planet Exxilon was a sandpit in Dorset, which caused mobility problems for the three men operating the Daleks – not to mention the one dummy Dalek with no-one inside. This was solved by on-location rails and friendly pushes from other members of the cast. (What happened when Jon Pertwee gave John Scott Martin's Dalek a too-vigorous push is a story related more than once in this disc's extras.)
Michael Briant does an able job of direction, making good use of subjective camera (even Dalek-viewpoint shots), and there are good things in this story. The double-act in the later episodes between the towering Pertwee and the diminutive Arnold Yarrow as the subterranean Bellal (another very uncomfortable full-body costume) is delightful, so much so that you wonder what might have happened if Bellal had sneaked on board the TARDIS for a few adventures. On the other hand, the human characters are rather colourless. (One of these actors, Duncan Lamont, has a place in small-screen TV history: he was the original infected astronaut Victor Carroon, in the 1953 The Quatermass Experiment.) Carey Blyton's score, played by the London Saxophone Quartet, is something of a matter of personal taste.
If you like Seventies Who, then Death to the Daleks is certainly watchable and entertaining, but nowhere near the top rank. (It does have bigger fans than me, though: see the extras.)
Death to the Daleks is released by 2 Entertain on a dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only.
The DVD transfer is in the original ratio of 1.33:1. Death to the Daleks was shot in the usual combination of 16mm film for the exteriors and 625-line PAL video for the studio work. Season Eleven was the one where the practice of making black and white 16mm telerecordings for overseas sales died out, as more and more countries switched over to broadcasting in colour. Colour VTRs were sent instead, either PAL or 525-line NTSC conversions. With this particular story, Episodes Two, Three and Four exist on their original 2-inch quad broadcasting tapes. However, Part 1 was wiped sometime in the late Seventies (specifically, sometime between November 1976 and December 1978), making it the last episode in the show's history to be wiped, and for a while this was an incomplete story. However, the missing episode was recovered in 1981 as a NTSC copy returned from Canada. In addition, a 625-line PAL tape of Part 1 from Dubai existed in private hands, and in 1992 the BBC copied this. (Since then, a PAL copy of this episode has been returned from Australia, but it had the opening scene, with stuntman Terry Walsh on the receiving end of a spear, edited out.) So Part 1 is a generation away from the originals, while the remaining parts are the original tapes, but it would take a very trained eye to tell the difference, and picture-wise this is up to the usual standards of the range.
The soundtrack is mono, as it should be, and is clear and well balanced. You have the option of listening to the work of Carey Blyton and the London Saxophone Quartet as an isolated score. Hard-of-hearing subtitles are available for the episodes and all the extras except the commentary. In addition, there are the usual information subtitles, provided this time by Martin Wiggins, which tell you all you need to know about this serial and more besides.
The commentary is moderated by Toby Hadoke and features in Part 1 director Michael Briant, assistant floor manager Richard Leyland, actor Julian Fox, costume designer L. Rowland Warne and sound effects man Dick Mills. Warne takes a break in Part 2 and Dalek operator Cy Town joins in. Richard Leyland steps out in Part 3 and Dick Mills does likewise in Part 4. Hadoke reads out emal comments from Joy Harrison, now based in Canada. With quite so many people present, the commentary could descend into chaos, but it's ably handled by Hadoke, though inevitably Briant tends to dominate. Briant expresses some sadness at the end, having contributed to the DVD release of each of the six stories he directed, of which this is the last.
“Beneath the City of the Exxilons” (26:47) is ths DVD's making-of documentary. It begins with Nick Briggs, twelve years old on first broadcast, captioned as “World's Biggest Death to the Daleks fan”. This featurette inevitably overlaps with the commentary and many of the same personnel turn up here, with Michael Briant again dominating, with plenty of stories of production difficulties. It's good to see Arnold Yarrow, now in his nineties, turning up to say his piece. It's the usual solid run-through, given a rather jokey presentation, with Dalek voices introducing each section.
Unedited studio recording tapes rarely survive from 70s Who, but one that does is of the session of 4 December 1973. (For another example, see the DVD of The Claws of Axos.) The full session ran some ninety minutes: this extra is cut down to 23:36 and has explanatory captions added.
“On the Set of Doctor Who and the Daleks” (7:50) actually refers to the 1965 feature film rather than the television series. The ITV programme Movie Magazine did an on-set feature on the making of the film. The programme no longer survives, but film trims (black and white and mute) do. We see some of those, plus interviews with TV historian Marcus Hearn, actor Jason Flemyng (son of the film's director Gordon Flemyng), first assitant director Anthony Waye and Dalek operator Bryan Hands. There are also some stills, including one of a song-and-dance routine performed by two of the film's leading actors, Peter Cushing and Roy Castle. That's something you don't see every day. Not something you see every day. This isn't really relevant to the serial on this DVD, but it's still of interest and as good a place to have it as any.
“Doctor Who Stories: Dalek Men” (13:00) is the latest in a series of reminiscences, derived from interviews conducted in 2003. Here, two longtime Dalek operators, John Scott Martin and Nicholas Evans have their say, and they also discuss other Who monsters that they played, a Zarbi and the Slyther respectively.
The extras are concluded by a self-navigating stills gallery (5:51), the serial's Radio Times listings in PDF format and a Coming Soon trailer for The Krotons (1:20). Click left from the stills gallery for an Easter Egg: 1:28 of a textless version of the opening and closing credit sequences.