One of the last Jon Pertwee Doctor Who adventures not already on DVD finally arrives for eager fans to snap up. Death to the Daleks is a very good story and even manages to make his ruthless, though rather dull, enemy interesting.
After saving London (and the rest of the world) from a group of scientists bent on turning the clock back to the middle ages in Invasion of the Dinosaurs, The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and his companion Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen) decide it's time for a rest and set the TARDIS controls for Flourana where the bubbles in the effervescent ocean buoys vacationers to the surface so you can't sink. Sounds like fun. Unfortunately they have to make an emergency landing when the TARDIS looses power. They end up on Exxilon, a planet where all electrical power is mysteriously absorbed.
Stepping out for a look The Doctor gets separated from Sarah when he's attacked by a group of Exxilons and captured. He manages to escape and meets up with a small band from the Space Marine Corps. Their job is to secure a supply of the rare mineral Parrinium, only found in abundance on Exxilon, which is the only cure for a plague that is killing millions on the outer planets. Unfortunately their space craft experienced the same energy drain that the TARDIS did and they're stuck too, hoping that the distress beacon they sent in the last moments of power gets through to Earth. What makes matters worse is that the Exxilons are violent and have killed or wounded several of their party.
Meanwhile Sarah goes looking for The Doctor but instead discovers an ancient, abandoned city with a glowing beacon at the top of a tower rising from the center. This is a holy place for the native Exxilons and when Sarah's found there, she's captured and sent for execution.
Just as The Doctor is
starting to wonder about Sarah, the Space Marines hear another space
landing. They run to great it only to
find that it's not a rescue ship, but one full of Daleks.
The evil machine-creatures screech the order
to "Exterminate!" the humans as soon as they see them but... they can't. Their weapons don't work.
Like everything else on the planet their
blasters have been drained.
So the Daleks, very reluctantly, agree to team up with the humans in order to dismantle whatever system is causing the electricity to be drained. But can the Daleks be trusted? And what of the Parrinium, an element that the Daleks have come to Exxilon to mine also?
Okay, confession time: I'm not a huge fan of the Daleks. They are just not that menacing to me. Their design flaws seem to make them more silly than dangerous, especially since they can't follow someone up a rocky hill, and the fact that they say everything twice is just annoying. Having said that, I really liked how they were portrayed in this story. Scripted by Terry Nation, the man who created the Daleks, this story asks an interesting question: what would happen if a Dalek couldn't kill? The answer is that he's find a way to somehow, and that's exactly what this group does.
Being a four-part story with several intertwining plots the tale moves along at a fairly good pace throughout all the episodes. It only hits a bump in the later half when The Doctor and a native enter the mysterious city and they have to solve a series of intelligence tests at every stage before they're allowed to progress any deeper into the city. The tests are a bit simplistic (a child's maze? Really?) and there's not a lot of suspense since everyone watching knows that the Doctor is brilliant and can solve any puzzle that some extinct Exxilon engineer devised. Aside from that bit, it's a strong serial.
The supporting characters are especially engaging this time around. The main human foil is Dan Galloway (Duncan Lamont) a Space Marine who is left in charge after all of his superiors have been killed. He's a loyal soldier and his main duty is to complete his mission and save tens of millions of humans, and he'll do that even if he has to kill some of the natives in cold blood or turn over The Doctor and Sarah Jane to the Daleks for extermination. After all, he reasons, how can you compare the lives of two people (and strangers at that) against the millions who will be saved if they can get the mineral back in time? He's not a villain in his own mind, he's the good guy, and that makes for the most interesting antagonists.
I actually enjoyed watching the Daleks in this story quite a lot. Deprived of their main weapon, they are still very dangerous and lethal. Seeing how they work around their problems with a single-minded desire to always win made them even more intimidating than when they had their blasters.
Finally, Elizabeth Sladen and Jon Pertwee have a good amount of chemistry here. When fans think of Sarah, they often talk about her classic time with Tom Baker. Yes, those two were synched up nicely, but she and Pertwee are just as enjoyable. Even in this early adventure (it was her third Doctor Who story) Sarah is an independent character, not a companion whose sole duty is to be a hostage. When an Exxilon follows her into the Tardis, she screams but instead of running away she runs toward the creature and attacks him! She's also instrumental in creating a satisfactory resolution to the whole story, tricking the Daleks on her own without being told how to do it by The Doctor. That's what I like in a companion.
This show comes with the original mono soundtrack that fits the show just fine. The dynamic range is nothing to write home about, but the dialog is generally crisp and clear and there is no background noise, tape hiss, distortion or dropouts. There are optional subtitles in English.
I suspect that the reason this adventure took so long to be released on DVD is because the original prints and negative for the location filming is lost and the result is that a large part of the serial looks pretty disappointing. The image is rather soft on the exterior scenes when compared to other Pertwee era stories and the also look muted, like they were filming through a very light fog. The locations shots were filmed on 16mm too, which means that there's a good amount of grain in the image. The fact that many scenes are shot day-for-night just compounds the problem. The interior scenes, on the other hand, were recorded on videotape in the studio look better. The screen seems to pop when the switch from film to video, with the latter being brighter, more colorful and with more detail. Keep in mind that the Restoration Team did work on all of the elements and it certainly looks fine for a BBC TV show from the 70's, just not as good as the other Pertwee stories.
The extras on this disc are just average for a Doctor Who release, which means that they're head and shoulders above most TV show DVDs. The bonus material starts out with a commentary track moderated by Toby Hadoke and including director Michael E. Briant, actor Julian Fox, Dalek operator Cy Town, assistant floor manager Richard Leyland, costume designer L. Rowland Warne and sound effects creator Dick Mills. As always, Hadoke does a good job of keeping everyone talking and they relate some interesting behind-the-scenes information about the show and its creation.
The video extras include Beneath the City of the Exxilons, a 26-miunte featurette on the filming of the story with many members of the cast and crew chiming in on what they recall. There's also a 23-minute reel of footage recorded during the filming of the show that wasn't used. It includes muffed takes and the cast standing around while things are being set up, but its still fun to watch. The best bonus is a 13-minute talk with some of the men who were inside The Doctor's most famous foes, Doctor Who Stories - Dalek Men. They discuss the trials and tribulation of being a Dalek operator as well as sharing some of the fun times they had. There's also a brief look at some behind-the-scenes footage from the feature film Doctor Who and the Daleks.
In addition there is a pop-up informational text option which is very informative as always. It does give some dry statistics, like how many people viewed each episode, but there are also some interesting notes such as script changes that were made and background information on the supporting characters. The extras are rounded off with storyboard comparison, a trailer for the story, a photo gallery, and the listing from the Radio Times in .pdf format.
This is one of the better Dalek stories. Even though they don't have their deadly blasters operating, they're just as ruthless and dangerous as ever. With a solid plot and a good supporting cast, this adventure come Highly Recommended.