|I got a bad desire.
It’s February 23, 1974. Suzi Quatro is at number one with “Devil Gate Drive.” A sort of post-glam piece of bubblegum, it holds the spot for two weeks before giving way to Alvin Stardust, another sort of sanitized glam cash-in. It lasts for one week before yielding the top spot to Paper Lace’s “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero,” widely recognized as one of the worst songs ever recorded. David Bowie, Ringo Starr, The Hollies, Paul McCartney and Wings, and the Bay City Rollers all also chart.
The most obvious piece of news to cite here is the fact that the election that returns Harold Wilson as Prime Minister takes place. Charles de Gaulle Airport opens in Paris. And seven major Nixon aides are indicted in the Watergate break-in and cover-up.
Far from all of this, on television, is Death to the Daleks. There are many Doctor Who stories from the 70s that are well-remembered because they are classics. There are also, however, several Doctor Who stories from the 70s that are well-remembered because they came out on VHS early. The 80s VHS releases were focused almost entirely on classic monsters and highlights from the early Tom Baker years, which meant that both Day of the Daleks and this were among the stories that were widely and universally available on VHS. The logic on this was understandable, if crass – the early releases strongly favored four-parters, which were cheaper (in the UK, six parters got released as two tapes. The US generally condensed them to one, but the result was that in the early days, four-parters were strongly preferred). Within the era favored by the releases – Pertwee and Hinchcliffe-era Baker – these were the two four-part stories featuring the Daleks, so they were shoo-ins for release. (This same logic is why Revenge of the Cybermen was improbably picked as the first release – it had the right Doctor and a monster the show had just brought back.) For American fans, this release seemed particularly common, frequently ending up as the only Doctor Who story that ended up at the local Blockbuster. And so for a generation of Doctor Who fans, this is one we’re intimately familiar with. (Not to impose myself overly on the narrative. Yet.)
As I’ve suggested, the level of familiarity here is oddly incommensurate with the level of quality. It is not that Death to the Daleks is a bad story – although it’s hard to argue with a straight face that it’s a particularly good one. Unfortunately, the weirdness inherent in the odd overwatching of this story tends to obscure the degree to which the story is screamingly weird on its own. Because coming after ten weeks of The Time Warrior and Invasion of the Dinosaurs, this story sticks out like a sore thumb.
I don’t inherently mean this as a bad thing. It’s just that for the past 16 episodes and nine months, Doctor Who has been, seemingly by choice, an earthbound show again. The stretch from the start of The Green Death to Invasion of the Dinosaurs is entirely stories that at least start in the UNIT format, with only three episodes of The Time Warrior lacking the Brigadier. This is actually, both in terms of calendar time and episode count, the longest stretch without a story in which the adventure starts with the TARDIS actually traveling somewhere since the stretch from The War Games to Colony in Space.
On top of that, there’s a clear difference in style at the start of this. Some of this is the fact that Terry Nation remains thoroughly uninterested in piddly questions like “what has the series been dong since I stopped writing for it in 1965.” And so we get a wealth of things that are just odd. The TARDIS is far more of a mechanical object than it usually seems, requiring a hand crank to open the doors when the power is out. This is not quite as jarring as Nation’s strange idea that the TARDIS pulls in its air supply through the doors in Planet of the Daleks, but it still feels off. Nation is also, as ever, utterly uninterested in these “women” things that are apparently running around the universe, contriving to have Sarah mute or absent from as much of the story as possible while leaving the only other female character with basically nothing to do.
But there are other things going on here as well. The basic plot and setting – an H. Rider Haggard story in space – is bizarrely incongruous within the Pertwee era. Even stranger is the script’s apparent confidence that the audience will care about vast living cities and strange aliens making sacrificial offerings simply because they’re vast living cities and strange aliens. I’ve been complaining for several entries now about the failure of the series to take seriously any broader notion of humanity, but this story expands this to ludicrous new levels. There is no sense whatsoever that Exxilon is a world with any meaningful culture so much as a video game level full of very dull puzzles. (Apparently there is a game of “spot the moment where Jon Pertwee decides to quit the series” to be played with this story. My nominee is when he has to pretend that solving a maze is an interesting and dramatic event, in particular when he expresses that he thinks they’ve got it when there is no ambiguity whatsoever that they have a straight shot to the exit.)
Adding to this is Terry Nation’s bizarre sense of scale. Previously, we had the idea that an army of 10,000 Daleks is massively terrifying on a galactic scale. That would be, roughly, the population of Woodbury, Connecticut. (No, of course you haven’t heard of it. That’s the point.) Nation goes on here to establish the stakes of this story – ten million people across the galaxy might die. Although ten million people is indeed a lot, it’s somewhat less significant when you consider the fact that it’s roughly the population of Hungary, or if you prefer, Seoul. This is a somewhat lackluster figure on a galactic scale. And since we never see any of these people, or hear anything about them besides as a potential death toll, it’s tough to say this story does much to give a sense that anything is at stake here. There’s a moral stake, but it’s played wrong. Either the story needs to go with “it doesn’t matter how many people there care, this is the right thing to do” or it needs a number that’s actually suitable to setting up a prima facie case for the magnitude of events.
To be fair to Nation – although I’m honestly not sure if this is a point for the prosecution or the defense – he at least gives no sense of scale or humanity for a different reason than usual for the Letts era. Normally the complaint is that Letts prefers broad moral messages to details. But Nation seems not to care about either. It’s actually that the number of people dying isn’t, to his eyes, what anyone cares about in this story. He appears to genuinely believe that the lure of Daleks and an ancient city is sufficient justification for this story. Everything else is just a MacGuffin. Ten million people dying is the new “core of the Time Destructor” or “hollow out the Earth’s core and drive it around picking up girls.” It’s not supposed to matter, it’s just supposed to get you Daleks.
And even there, Nation is clearly realizing that he’s got a problem, because he has to go for the cheap stunt of the Daleks having their weapons disabled so they have to be wily and tricky (In fact they just append regular guns in place of their laser guns and basically get on with enslaving all humans). This is a very bad sign. We already had some clear signs that Nation had run out of ideas for Daleks beyond “put them on a hostile planet with a human(oid) expedition and have them fight it out.” Which would be one thing if it weren’t for the fact that the three Dalek stories prior to Planet of the Daleks all attempted far more interesting things, so for Nation to, in successive stories, roll the format back to its earliest version and then visibly hit a wall with variations on it is disheartening. Especially when no effort is made beyond that to tie it into any larger narrative or context for the viewers. But now we’re in real trouble – at least before Nation didn’t have any Dalek stories beyond this. Now he seems to be running out of gas on this too.
So, to recap,the series goes from three stories in a row that are set on Earth, only one of which even has an alien in it or goes out of the present day, to a space story with no meaningful ties to Earth even on a metaphoric or thematic level. The only thing anyone cites as a real world context for this story – the power drain as an analogue to the rolling blackouts of the Three Day Week – falls apart when you realize the story was in the can before the end of December, with the scripts presumably finished a ways before.
And in addition to all of this, the story is something of a departure in terms of narrative technique as well, at least in its first two episodes. Up until the third episode, what stands out most about Death to the Daleks is how visual most of the storytelling is, with numerous sections in which the plot is advanced by what we see on screen instead of what we’re told. It’s not until episode three that the story even begins to explain the nature of Exxilon. Prior to that the plot is mostly people doing things instead of saying things. This is an odd register for Doctor Who to be in. It’s more cinematic than the series usually is.
All of this conspires to give Death to the Daleks an odd and almost dreamlike feel compared to the rest of the Pertwee era. In a way this oddly prefigures the dark science fantasy tone of the looming Hinchcliffe years, doubly so because Robert Holmes is the uncredited script editor on this story. This story isn’t usually pointed to as a prototype of the Hinchcliffe era, but it absolutely is, every bit as much as The Tenth Planet was a prototype of the Troughton era, or The Invasion was of the Pertwee era.
The essential problem with it is, ultimately, the Daleks. As I suggested earlier, the fact that Nation has to reduce to gimmicks like depowering them in order to get a story to work suggests a writer badly out of ideas – as, if we’re being honest, did his previous script. But Planet of the Daleks at least had a reason to be a retread, given that it was the “proper” return of the Daleks. Doing a type of story that hadn’t been done in a decade makes sense even when that type of story is dated. Doing the exact same story you were doing the last time the TARDIS was moving freely in space and time, however, is unfortunate. Particularly when the main effect of the previous outing was to give a real sense that the show has moved on and that this type of story was a nice nostalgia trip, but not what the show really is anymore.
Frankly, since David Whitaker left the program, nobody involved has had a clue what to do with the Daleks. Whitaker made them work in his two stories by realizing that, done right, the Daleks are a truly mythic enemy, and then putting them into a story where only a mythic enemy will do. Power of the Daleks requires the Daleks because the new Doctor has to have a baptism by fire. Evil of the Daleks requires the Daleks because it needs an enemy that is the literal embodiment of pure evil. But Death to the Daleks doesn’t require the Daleks. In fact, it would probably be a more interesting story if it skipped the Daleks and just told a story about Exxilon. The idea of a living city worshipped as a god is far more interesting than “Oh no! Daleks!”
None of this is helped by the fact that the Daleks are in tacky 60s costumes that were obviously not made to present any interesting color visuals. Apparently the Daleks made for Planet of the Daleks were deemed low quality and discarded. Which I assume, from a production standpoint, they were. But visually speaking, they were great, with the gunmetal finish providing a real visual flare that the lumbering bright silver things in this story can’t possibly match. Nor is it helped by the fact that the Daleks are apparently neurotic, with several just having nervous breakdowns and exploding for no apparent reason beyond that something hurt their feelings. Not only the Dalek in episode four that explicitly commits suicide, but also the one that just charges at the Exxilons (despite having no weapons) shouting “Exterminate” in episode two before gibbering incoherently and exploding.
But the root problem is just that Terry Nation has no ideas for the Daleks. He never designed them as mythic threats. He designed them as generic baddies lurking in an abandoned city. Even when he did bring them back in a more mythic mode, as in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, it’s not really what he does that renders them mythic (other than the frankly obvious trick of a first episode cliffhanger reveal) so much as the combination of the show’s first returning monsters, Susan’s departure, the first alien invasion of Earth, and everyone else playing it for the mythic despite the script not really supporting that. Having never invested in the mythic nature of the Daleks in the first place, Nation is in many ways the writer least suited to bringing them back because he lacks any sense of how to structure them into an event. The only thing saving Planet of the Daleks was the fact that Malcolm Hulke wrote six episodes leading into it that set it up as a massive Dalek event. Without that lead-up, and forced to have the Daleks be interesting on their own, Nation draws a complete blank.
The result is a story that, even if it is interesting in hindsight for its odd look forward, feels like a deeply flawed aberration that serves mostly as a strong case for why the Daleks need to either be put back to bed or given an impressive reboot – whichever one most effectively means we never see such a lazy and cynical use of them again. Yes, there are some interesting bits of tone in this story, but based on the story alone, you’d never think that an era moving in this direction could possibly work. It may have a dreamlike quality to it, but then again, falling asleep often does.