One of the final storylines for Third Doctor Jon Pertwee brings back the Doctor’s great nemesis, the Daleks. In Doctor Who‘s “Death to the Daleks” our hero as well as companion Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) find themselves on the planet Exxilon, fighting the mysterious unknown… and Daleks. Written by Terry Nation, the story is something of a departure for Dalek tales in that the humans (and the Gallifreyan at the show’s heart), at least temporarily, have to partner with the metallic monsters.
Although this may seem wholly impossible, at the beginning of the story, the TARDIS actually breaks down, sending the Doctor and Sarah Jane somewhere completely unintended. And, even more shockingly, something bad is happening at this location. Yes, okay, it’s a terribly, horribly, ridiculously typical Doctor Who set up and eventually one begins to wonder why the Doctor didn’t steal a more stable TARDIS. However, the way it initiates aside, “Death to the Daleks” proves a rather good Whovian experience.
The planet Exxilon, or something on it, for some unknown reason has sapped the power of all electronic devices (Daleks still work because they’re powered by the thoughts of the creatures inside). There is also a terribly scary group of locals present who kidnap Sarah Jane and it is up to the Doctor and a bunch of astronauts to get her back and unravel the mystery. Plus, you know, Daleks.
Actually, while the story works, the Daleks seem almost an afterthought to it – this isn’t their brilliant plan, they show up and find themselves without their evil death ray (because that is powered in a more conventional way), and have to team up with the Doctor to get to the bottom of it all. It is an alliance which, surprise surprise, is incredibly uneasy and ready to end at the drop of a hat.
It isn’t that I’m against Daleks showing up just for the sake of having Daleks, it just feels as though they could have been made slightly more integral than they are. It is clear from the beginning that the alliance will never hold up (the Daleks even reequip themselves with regular old guns shortly after discovering that their death rays don’t work) and that basic fact makes the entire thing that much more odd. The only thing that really makes the story different from any number of Doctor Who stories is this alliance aspect, something which is immediately undercut once it begins.
Okay, so that’s why it’s bad, but on the whole, it’s actually a fun little adventure. It isn’t just that Daleks chasing the Doctor is never really bad, it is (at least in part) that there is some comfort and familiarity to it, from the Doctor’s having to solve puzzles to make his way through a maze to the little moments like Sarah Jane making sure that the Doctor won’t disappear when she ducks back into the TARDIS only to have him disappear as soon as she does so.
Doctor Who works because the basic premise of the show—this oddball of an alien goes off gallivanting, encountering trouble wherever he goes and generally saving planets, species, galaxies, the universe, all of space and time, etc.—allows for nearly infinite variations on the theme. We all know, vaguely, what to expect going in and the question becomes whether the Doctor and the companion are able to go about their business in an interesting way. In “Death to the Daleks,” they do. The mystery of the planet Exxilon and what is causing the power drain is fun and the presence of Daleks (even when they’re not as nasty as they can be) only benefits the viewer. In the case of “Death to the Daleks,” the producers rely a little heavily on viewer memory of past Dalek schemes to build tension, but anyone who has that memory can and will accept them as a potential big bad and move on. It may not be the greatest Dalek story ever, but it is enjoyable enough to carry the day.
As with all of the Doctor Who DVD releases, this one carries a sizable number of extras. Included are an audio commentary from several different individuals, a making of piece, another featurette on the 1965 film Doctor Who and the Daleks, a talk with Dalek operators, and photo galleries and Radio Times listings. The behind the scenes piece for this particular story features some Dalek voices and graphics tying it all together which feels a little much, but the actual memories of those working on the show are still wonderful to hear.
With Death to the Daleks, one isn’t getting the greatest Jon Pertwee story, nor the greatest Dalek story, nor the greatest the TARDIS-has-broken-down-for-some-unknown-reason-on-a-mysterious-planet story, but it pulls in enough of those various things to make for an agreeable 100 minutes. With some good creature costumes, cheesy Doctor Who effects, and one of the more memorable companions in Sarah Jane, “Death to the Daleks” proves a fun experience.