Five Hundred Eyes

Death to the Daleks

For many years my favourite season of Doctor Who was the eleventh. It was the year of the programme's tenth anniversary, as witnessed by the publication of the Radio Times Special, and for me marked the beginning of an obsession with Doctor Who that would grow as the years passed. I watched Doctor Who before 1973, but, although it was definitely my favourite programme, it was the eleventh season that finally sealed my fate forever - from that point on I was condemned to be a Doctor Who fan.

Without exception the stories of Pertwee's final season were exciting and well-written, simple enough for a child to understand but with sufficient content to be of lasting interest in later years. Through the Target books I relived these stories over and over again, convinced that Doctor Who had never been so good. But then the disillusionment began, not from within but from without. I joined the DWAS, read the Monthly, and gradually came to realise that not everyone held this illustrious season in the same high esteem that I did. And as I read more and more about its faults - budget, acting, plots and so forth - the more I came to question my own memories of this "perfect" series. Could the aura of childhood nostalgia be tinting them so drastically?

Three years ago I had the good fortune to see Invasion of the Dinosaurs at the DWAS's Interface III, and I wasn't disappointed. All the build up had left me expecting something vaguely comical and perhaps rather sadly incompetent, but instead I enjoyed every minute of it, transported, for one day, back to 1974 and the days when the Doctor fought his villains and was thoroughly moral about it. Yes, the monsters were rather poor but such was the force of the story, the quality, the believability of the acting and the whole momentum of the plot that such faults were so easily glossed over as to be non-existent. As for the overtly moralising Doctor, devoid of his earlier bitterness, well I couldn't see him there. Perhaps Pertwee's Doctor had mellowed somewhat towards his UNIT colleagues, as would be expected five years on, but he still acted with the same force and vigour, the same determination to see justice triumph. Moral he was, but never the boringly saintly figure that I had been led to expect from the general consensus of fandom. My faith was restored, I could once more believe in Season Eleven as one of the high-points in Doctor Who history.

All of which brings me, in a rather roundabout way, to the subject in question, Death to the Daleks. As I sat down to view the latest BBC Video release (and about time too, a year after the previous one, again Pertwee and the Daleks) I knew that I would enjoy it, my memories, rose-tinted or not, assured me of that, but would my (arguably!) maturer self tolerate the production limitations that the child of thirteen years ago accepted without question? I had read so much about the cheap sets, the all-too-obvious jump between film and video, and so on - was I in for a treat or a great disappointment, the confirmation of all my memories or a terrible disillusionment? Only one way to find out - put the video in and press "Play".

I suppose I'd better mention at this stage that the tape in question wasn't actually mine, I'd borrowed it from a friend (but only because Woolworths and Smith's had sold out number five in the charts already!) and so I had been pre-warned about the fault in the duplication. I don't know if this is a universal complaint, but the batch that this particular cassette had come from had the story abruptly stopping just five minutes in and reverting to black. Had I not been told about this in advance I fear the shock might have been too much and I might have done something silly, but as it was I just waited and sure enough the tape continued, but starting from the beginning once more ! Oh well, a second chance to see that title sequence again - and what a title sequence it was. Extremely fast (you need a video to fully appreciate it), wonderfully detailed, breathtaking in the most literal sense of the word and a total masterpiece in every respect, a title sequence to lead the viewer by the hand and drag him at high-speed into the magical world of Doctor Who. Personally I could have watched a whole ninety minute video of this one sequence, but, following the clumsily superimposed titles, the best was yet to come.

The opening shot I had feared lost, as the BBC archives version is apparently missing the initial scene of the Earth crewmember being violently shot in the stomach, an effective shot (in both senses of the word!) and one which is almost essential in setting the mood of the whole episode. I can understand why it might have been censored (particularly in a "U certificate programme" like Doctor Who), but luckily it was restored, via the NTSC 525-line version of episode one (which is odd, as the Australian uncut 625-line copy was supposedly returned to the BBC last year). Apparently the whole of the first episode on the BBC video was 525-line, but I can't say I really noticed. I do remember thinking that the picture quality was a little fuzzy, but as previous BBC videos have been less than crystal-sharp (Day of the Daleks was a particularly bad offender here) I just put this down to cheap tape and one having to make concessions to get £9.99 videos; certainly I didn't notice any change in picture quality between episodes one and two.

After this rather matter-of-fact murder we are taken, of course, to the Tardis. (Why am I bothering to tell you anything of the plot or construction as you're all bound to have seen it by now?) This Tardis is the real McCoy (to coin a phrase done to death by Fleet Street), perhaps not the marvel of space-time technology of the earlier years but still a vessel worthy of the title "ship". For once the set is not over-lit, but rather, even in the pre-power-failure scenes, a darker, greyer console room than we are used to today. The dark atmosphere pervades the whole of the first episode, the cold mists of Exillon penetrating into the usually-cosy Tardis and removing the last refuge of the Doctor and his companion. The Tardis was once the sanctuary for the time-travellers, reach the Tardis and they were safe, the story was over. But in this story the ship is no warm bolt-hole, there is no hiding from the Exillons. Sarah is attacked from within the Tardis, and the tension in the scene when she winches the doors shut is unbearable. She thinks she is safe at last from the horrors of the dark planet outside, but we know that she has in fact locked the monster inside with her - there it is, a shadowy shape slowly moving around the console to get her ... The attack is wonderfully shot from the Exillon's point of view (a technique previously used outside on the Doctor) and whilst our sympathies naturally lie with Sarah, under threat in the usually-safe Tardis, the camera-work brings home the fact that there are two sides to every story and we are, momentarily, forced to consider the situation from the Exillon's point of view. We may not wish to take the time to understand it fully (and indeed, such is the pace of the story that this seems to be actively discouraged) but it is there and cannot be ignored. This reversal of roles, almost making Sarah into the villain of the piece is extremely effective and somewhat disturbing, causing one to perhaps question the whole matter of the rights and wrongs of one's natural sympathies. Or is this reading far too much into just one simple scene ...? Sorry.

The camera-work in Death to the Daleks is distinctive and dramatic, something more than the standard "four-square" approach. To one used to the relatively staid methods of today's programme, the techniques used seem innovatory and special, and there is no denying that they were, but in its early days right up until the mid-to~late seventies Doctor Who directors were forever trying out new ideas in an attempt to stop the programme stagnating, to tell an old story in a new way. The director of Death to the Daleks, Michael Briant, was always at the forefront of such methods, using images and movement as an effective way of getting his story across. The tension and excitement that such a style creates can only really be appreciated by watching the video itself (as, of course, you all have) so there is little point in trying to describe it here. Suffice to say that Mr Briant uses every trick at his disposal to create interest in what could have been a visually very dull story (Daleks and gravel pits? Yuk!). The direction is at its most effective when it isn't noticed consciously, which, in this story, is most of the time. Michael Briant was never "showy", just the odd shot that would make one think "oh, that's clever", but never anything that would get in the way of the plot. Subtlety used to effect, the mark of a good director.

But all this is to look at Death to the Daleks from a 1987 perspective, through the eyes of a twenty year-old (who admittedly knows little about camera-work, but can waffle at great length about it). Just as important, no, more so, I feel, are the views of the seven year-old child back in 1974. Then I didn't know anything about the techniques of television, I could only witness their result, and that result was captivating. Such was the drive of the story that one was totally absorbed in the action - it was all real, and totally believable. Of course, I realised that it was just a tv production, that the Doctor was really Jon Pertwee, that the Daleks were worked by BBC employees, but for twenty-five minutes a week one could suspend all disbelief and just be transported to the planet Exillon alongside the Doctor. Such youthful trips of fantasy can never be fully recaptured, but watching the BBC Video I found some of that early exhilaration still remaining as I was taken back in time to the far distant future of an alien planet.

I have already mentioned the superb direction of Michdei Briant as a factor in establlshing the atmosphere and maintaining the tension in the plot, but there are still two others which contribute just as much, if not more. Firstly, there is the plot itself, a good, solid script from Terry Nation, who may have lost his initial orginality but shows here that he could still construct a story so as to generate maximum entertainment. Humour is relatively low-key as the action focuses mainly on the twin threats of the Daleks and the Exillons (and later their city) and the dark, oppressive atmosphere built up so carefully in the first episode is continued in the second, although inevitably to a lesser degree as more elements of the plot emerge. The plot is simple enough for the kids without being too elementary; surprises are few (you just knew that the Doctor would have to journey into the City and destroy it, that the Daleks would follow him, that Sarah would be tied up and sacrificed, etc.), especially on a repeat viewing (of course!) but this doesn't matter. One is not encouraged to think about what will happen next, just to sit back and let it come. There are, of course, twists and turns along the way, and it is these that supply the tension.

If the script has one major failing, it is in the characterisation of the Earth astronauts. Of course, poor Terry Nation has set himself an uphill struggle here as it's all been done many times before and the scope for innovation is limited. Nevertheless, something more than the "hardened veteran/plucky girl/impetuous youth/responsible captain" combination would have been welcome. It is a tribute to the actors that these characters come across as slightly more than cardboard cutouts, and it is here, in the acting, that the second factor in the success of Death to the Daleks lies. The crew forming the Earth expedition are all individuals, despite the shortage of lines ascribed to some of them. In particular, Duncan Lamont makes Dan Galloway something more than the cliched Scotsman I suspect the script intended him to be. From the Exillon side, Arnold Yarrow as Bellal imbues the role with an air of credibility not normally asociated with alien life-forms on Doctor Who. A definite antecedent of DV84 three years later, his scenes with the Doctor are a joy to behold - such a pity he couldn't have been retained as a regular companion, at least for a few stories. All of which is not to say that there was anything lacking from Elizabeth Sladen's third wonderful performance as everybody's favourite journalist, Sarah Jane Smith - indeed, in this story she proves to be every bit as good as we all remember her from previous (later) BBC videos, a little less forceful perhaps, as demanded by her role in the plot (get captured by the Exillons and not much else) although she is given a chance to assert herself in the way we all know and love as she and Jill Tarrant swap the Daleks' Parrinium with bags of sand.

And then, of course, there is the Doctor, Jon Pertwee, just three stories away from his regeneration and thoroughly at home in the part. I must say I wasn't in any way disappointed with the Season 11 Doctor as seen in this story, indeed I would say that the long length of time in the role was to the characterisatlon's benefit. Although admitting a slight preference for Jon Pertwee's Season 7 portrayal of an anti-authoritarian, nonfighting Doctor, the Third Doctor seen in Death to the Daleks was, I would argue, an improvement on that of the previous two or three seasons when he became too much the action man. The physical stuff is still there, but to a much lesser degree, and generally it isn't the Doctor who initiates it (OK, so there is that one scene in the Exillon "temple", but Sarah was about to be sacrificed ...). The old idea of the Doctor using his head rather than his fists to solve the problem was resurrected in the final two episodes as the Doctor, with Bellal, makes his way into the heart of the City by brain power alone. The Doctor always used to out-think his enemies and it was nice to see him do so here. Alas, all this fell by the wayside in the closing moments as the Daleks were finally defeated not by intellect or cunning but by a bomb. Admittedly, the Daleks aren't the nicest chaps to know, but not one tear was shed over the wholesale slaughter of a shipful of living beings. And all the Doctor could say was pity about the city.

The Daleks were, they told me, the weakest part of the story, and after Day of the Daleks I feared the worst. But, once again, a pleasant surprise : Dalek voices (all done by Michael Wisher, which must have been tricky in crowd scenes) were back on form once more, or indeed even better than before, the casings were given a smart new paint-job, and overall the Daleks were exceptionally well handled. It has been said (and refuted!) that it is impossible to badly shoot a Dalek - this is certainly the case if your name is Michael Briant! "We must let them believe there are only four of us," said the lead Dalek - well, it's as good a method as any to disguise the fact that the BBC had only four Dalek props (plus, of course, the numerous dummies that were burnt, blown up, pushed over cliffs or generally exterminated)! I have to confess that after a while the "Dalek theme" got on my nerves as it was played every time a Dalek appeared on the scene, but otherwise Carey Blyton's incidental score was very good.

On the whole, my worst fears weren't reallsed and my fondest memories were justified - certainly on the strength of this story I am given new confidence in my "rose-tinted" recollections of Season 11. Many of the crltcisms made in fandom against Death to the Daleks seem invalid: sure, there was a noticeable jump between film and video, but nowhere as bad as it could have been (as in, say, The Green Death), and it never interrupted the flow of the story; sure, the planet Exillon was rather stark and bare, but that was the whole point; and yes, the plot is simple, but it's pitched just right for the younger audience, with enough pace and style for the adults too. It may not be an all time classic (give Richard enough space and he'll tell you why he thinks it's the best story ever) but it had everything a Doctor Who story needed to entertain, and in the final analysis, that's what the programme's there for. It told a story and told it damned well - what more could you ask for?