Sunday, July 22, 2012

Doctor Who: Death to the Daleks DVD review

Back when I got into Doctor Who, around ’84 or so, its seemingly vast universe was entirely new to me: Over 20 years worth of a series that I now had the opportunity to immerse myself in. Needless to say, I dove right in and through Sunday night screenings on PBS, Target novelizations, and an assortment of reference books, I got pretty caught up over the next few years, and most of that trivia I carry with me to this day. During this time I was completely in awe and maybe even a little jealous of anyone who’d been watching the show since it started in ’63. Or even 1970. Pick a year that’s far enough away from ’84 so as to command some respect. For these people, in my mind, surely Doctor Who was not merely a show, but a way of life, for they had seen the passage of two decades reflected in this wonderful, imaginative TV series.

Fast forward to today, and close to another 30 years have passed, on top of the aforementioned 20. Doctor Who will be celebrating its 50th birthday in 2013, and the show is picking up rabid new viewers all the time. There are people for whom Matt Smith is their first Doctor – people who after discovering him, go back and see the Eccleston and Tennant episodes for the first time, and maybe, if they’re really taken by the concept, they go even further back into the show’s history and look at Tom Baker or Jon Pertwee. To those folks, might I now be one of those people I envied and was jealous of? I’ve got this whole history with Doctor Who, and have been following it through some frequently turbulent times, all the way up to the massively successful beast it is today. But I use the word “might,” because I don’t know if there’s the same kind of respect for the show’s history today that maybe there was 30 years ago.

There’s such a surplus of genre material on TV available to fans these days (certainly far more than in '84), and as such there’s always something newer and cooler right around the corner. Sitting in this tiny corner of the internet, I write about some of the more obscure aspects of what’s currently the most popular sci-fi TV series on the air. Does anybody really care about all this history? The answer is, of course, yes. The Rued Morgue has its regular readers, and plenty of folks actively searching for specific classic Doctor Who DVD reviews end up on this blog as well. What’s bothersome to me personally is that I know that most fans of the new series are content with just the new series, and in between seasons, they’re not seeking out these classic adventures that form the basis for the series today. So whether you’re relatively new to the Whoniverse, and you’re here reading about classic Who for the first time, or have been getting into the classics for a while now, I’d just like to say good on you for your appreciation of and/or interest in everything that came before. These classic tales are the backbone of Doctor Who, and the upcoming 50th anniversary won’t be something that happened overnight.

Now all of that said, I couldn’t have written a more elaborate, reverential intro for a more mediocre classic series entry. It’s easy to take Daleks for granted when you’re a fan of this show, as they’ve always been there. (Some may not even know there was a period during pre-production of the new series when the estate of Dalek creator Terry Nation looked as though it wasn’t going to allow the Doctor’s most infamous foes to be used - a potential development that seems unthinkable and impossible at this point.) At this stage of the classic series, the production team was whipping out Dalek stories right and left. The previous two seasons had featured “Day of the Daleks” and “Planet of the Daleks,” while the season following this one would unveil “Genesis of the Daleks.” All three of those are reasonably good to excellent tales, and so it falls upon “Death to the Daleks,” from Jon Pertwee’s final season, to be the weakest of this unofficial early to mid-‘70s quadrilogy. After giving this DVD two full viewings, I’ll at least give the serial (and Nation, who wrote it) some credit for trying to add a couple twists to the Daleks…even though those twists end up not terribly exciting.

The Doctor (Pertwee) plans to take Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) on holiday to the planet Florana, where the water is effervescent, so swimmers just sort of automatically float. The TARDIS ends up elsewhere – the planet Exxilon, which is about as far from a holiday planet as one could imagine. It’s a dirty, muddy hole with an ancient, impenetrable city at its center. Making matters worse, the city drains the power of anything and everything in the surrounding area, so the TARDIS runs out of power entirely. This is one of those rare instances where the Doctor is actually forced into having a dangerous adventure.

Exxilons on the planet Exxilon
Outside the TARDIS is the indigenous Exxilon population – grunting, cloaked waxen-faced figures - who attack first and ask no questions later. Also present are a group of humans (the Marine Space Corps), and hot on their heels, a group of Daleks. Both groups are searching for a rare mineral called Parrinium, which exists in abundance on Exxilon, and is the cure for a space plague that’s running rampant and laying waste to both species. Like the TARDIS, the Daleks find that their power has been drained, and so their energy-based weaponry no longer functions, and they are forced into an uneasy alliance with the humans. One thing’s for certain – nobody is going anywhere as long as the ancient Exxilon city continues exerting its force over all the parties involved.

(l-r) Pertwee, Duncan Lamont, Joy Harrison, Julian Fox
On paper, “Death to the Daleks” doesn’t sound all that bad, but there’s something of a disconnect between script and screen here. It lacks the necessary “oomph,” I think, and the first two episodes in particular move like dripping molasses. It’s the sort of pacing one expects from and will typically excuse in a Pertwee-era six-parter, but in a four-parter like this one, it’s a bit indefensible. The human characters are all terribly stock, and their attitude toward their mission lacks any kind of urgency. Duncan Lamont’s portrayal of the pivotal character Galloway, in particular, is exactly what’s wrong with this serial; the guy’s just sleepwalking through this script, collecting a paycheck. The crippled Daleks retrofit their weaponry with standard, bullet-based hardware, which sounds potentially much more exciting than it actually is; director Michael E. Briant never makes the most of what he has to work with, and instead the whole production feels as if it’s just “getting by.”   

The Doctor and Bellal
In the third episode, the story introduces the character of Bellal (Arnold Yarrow), an underground dwelling Exxilon that doesn’t share his surface-dwelling relatives’ beliefs or subpar intellect; aside from the regulars, Bellal’s the most interesting character in the serial, but that may only be because there’s no real competition in the interesting character department. The Doctor’s trip into the Exxilon city with Bellal manages to kick the entire affair up a notch or two, although much of what happens on their journey was bested in other, later classic Who tales such as “Pyramids of Mars,” “The Hand of Fear,” and even “The Five Doctors.” Yeah, that’s kind of the rub here: There’s little that “Death to the Daleks” does that the show didn’t do better somewhere else, although actress Joy Harrison can’t be found in any other serial, and she is quite the looker; enough so that even the Doctor seems more interested in protecting and comforting her than Sarah Jane...yet as a member of the Marine Space Corps, one wonders why she needs protecting by or comfort from a man who appears to be twice her age, dressed in a frilly shirt and a smoking jacket. (Clearly there are loads of women in the Whoniverse working through their daddy issues via the Doctor.)

Last, and far from least, “Death to the Daleks” features quite possibly the worst Who score of the ‘70s. Written by Carey Blyton (who’d previously done the oddball score for “The Silurians”) and performed by the London Saxophone Quartet(!?), this thing is just one step above “Wha-wha-whaaaaaa…,” sad-sack type music. Not real sure where Dudley Simpson was, but man oh man this serial could’ve used his magic, as Blyton was clearly the wrong person to add musical menace to the Daleks.

DVD Extras: Since most of the key figures involved in the making of this serial have since passed on, that leaves a rather oddball assortment of folks to fill out the commentary track: Actor Julian Fox (who is so enthusiastic about his work in this serial, it seems the highlight of his career), Dalek operator Cy Town, director Michael E. Briant, assistant floor manager Richard Leyland, costume designer L. Rowland Warne, and special sounds creator Dick Mills, all moderated by Toby Hadoke. If only they’d have found the janitor for this serial, my commentary dreams would be complete!

Go on. Have a chuckle.
The making-of, entitled “Beneath the City of the Exxilons,” is at its most engaging when Nicholas Briggs is speaking. It seems that he’s the world’s biggest “Death to the Daleks” fan, and, admittedly, through his enthusiasm, it’s easier to see the good in this serial, so by all means, don’t take my word as gospel. Sometimes all it takes to elevate the opinion of a dodgy classic Who story is one incredibly passionate fan, and that’s exactly what Briggs does here. Likewise, Fox appears here as well, and his cheery outlook on all things “Death” continues, but I was most stoked to see Arnold “Bellal” Yarrow interviewed, if for no other reason than because his character was such a highlight of an otherwise lackluster tale.

23 minutes worth of behind the scenes studio footage from this story is quite the cool addition. Even to someone who’s not a fan of the story, this was perhaps the bonus highlight of this disc. Also present is another entry in the “Doctor Who Stories” series, this time called “Dalek Men,” which features interviews with Dalek operators John Scott Martin and Nicholas Evans from 2003. “On the Set of Doctor Who and the Daleks” features some rare, behind the scenes footage of the first Cushing film. Finally, there’s the photo gallery, the production notes subtitle option, Radio Times Listings in PDF form, an isolated score(!), and a coming soon trailer for “The Krotons,” which was released on the same day as this disc.