Friday, 3 July 2009

Doctor Who: Death to the Daleks

Part One

“You won’t go away, will you?”

The story starts with a random bloke running for a bit and then getting killed- must be a Terry Nation story then. And if that wasn’t enough, things suddenly start going wrong with the TARDIS- yep, it’s Terry, all right.

Thing is, though, the scene where the TARDIS goes wrong and strands the TARDISeers may be predictable, but it’s fun, and shows what a surprisingly good pairing the Pertwee Doctor and Sarah Jane actually make. Sarah Jane (or “Sarah” as everybody seems to actually call her), on her very first visit to an alien world is stranded, and taking it extremely well. The fact that this is believable is more down to Lis Sladen’s performance than the script, but believable it is.

Sarah returns to the TARDIS while being followed by a sinister figure who, for once, doesn’t turn out to actually be friendly. Still, there’s a big alien city to remind us who wrote this story. The dialogue’s a lot sharper than you’d expect from Terry Nation though, a reminder that Robert Holmes unofficially script edited this.

I like the fact that the story starts at night but it becomes gradually lighter as the episode progresses, the sort of detail which can be so easily forgotten.

This is a typical Nation first episode in which our heroes explore their surroundings for a while, only meeting any other characters later if at all, but it’s a proven formula. We finally meet some stranded humans, and they include a character called Jane Tarrant, surprisingly our first Tarrant of the marathon. Apparently there’s a space plague, no doubt requiring doctors of space medicine.

This is very well directed, with lots of good handheld bits and even an impressive-looking dissolve. The Daleks’ flying saucer looks good too, and is immediately recognisable from The Dalek Invasion of Earth, another surprising example of continuity from many years ago. We’re seeing a surprising amount of this sort of thing- presumably the Radio Times Tenth Anniversary Special has had an influence. But it also goes to show that the reveal of the Daleks is not supposed to be a surprise, but a dramatic climax, and the saucer is a hint of what’s coming which whets our anticipation.

Sadly, once the Daleks appear their voices are nowhere near as good with Michael Wisher doing the voices on his own, and for some reason they’ve been painted silver. And this should have been a good cliffhanger- in fact a double cliffhanger with Sarah about to be sacrificed- but we can clearly see that either the Dalek guns don’t work or they’ve forgotten to do the effects.

Part Two

“Inside each of these shells is a living, bubbling lump of hate.”

Slight problem here- the Daleks’ weapons don’t work, but the lights on their domes apparently do. But aside from that things are still great. There’s some nice tension inherent in this uneasy alliance between humans and Daleks- we know the Daleks will betray them once their weapons are working again.

There’s more great direction on show early on as we get our first Dalek POV shot and our first Dalek to be attacked and set on fire, both of which look great and recur throughout the story.

Galloway’s an interesting character, resenting the Doctor for challenging his status as the alpha male. And he renders himself beyond the pale by trying to fit in with the Daleks and agreeing to the extermination of some Exxilons.

The sacrifice scenes are brilliantly done, very atmospheric with the chanting, the incense, the cages and the attention to detail all round. This story was the second BBC video I ever owned, I think way back in 1989, so I’ve seen it many times. But this is the first time in many years and I’m surprised just how good I’m finding it.

I love the model TARDIS the Daleks use to test their new guns. This makes it seem doubly ironic that it’s the Daleks who rescue Sarah and the Doctor from being sacrificed. The Doctor and Sarah are forced to flee to a tunnel with something nasty, leading to a nice line from Sarah: “I just heard your wind effect gnashing its teeth.”

 Part Three

“Yes, a palpable hit.”

Seeing Bellal, an Exxilon without the rags, makes me realise what a fantastic alien costume this is. Admittedly we also get a strangely mannered performance, but yet again everything about this story proves to be far more impressive than I remember.
Annoyingly, though, we get yet another story trying to tell us that “primitive man” could not possibly have built all those ancient monuments, so aliens must have done it. Grrr. One of my pet hates, that.

I love the whole thing with the city- the tests are fun in themselves, and I think the element of being chased by Daleks would be an exciting addition to IQ tests in real life.

Surely the most terrifying cliffhanger so far… the floor of doom.

Part Four

“Now the universe is down to 699 wonders.”

More tests, culminating in some groovy psychedelia. This episode is as great as all the others, and a real eye-opener about Terry Nation. Being script edited by Robert Holmes really does seem to pretty much compensate for all his faults. Admittedly, the “I have failed- self-destruct” Dalek suicide scene is just silly, but this is a fantastic ending, with even Galloway redeeming himself as all the plot threads are nicely drawn together. Although it’s ironic that the Doctor and Bellal are once again saved by the timely arrival of some Daleks, and Jill and Sarah seem to fill the Daleks’ sacks with sand and move the parrinium awfully quickly.

Oh, and I notice that pulsing sound is heard briefly inside the Dalek ship. It’s maintained its 100% record in Dalek stories so far.

Well, that was great, 5/5. With Holmes there to tart up the dialogue and presumably sharpen up the plots and characterisation, a Terry Nation script is revealed to be actually rather good, with some great ideas. So far this season, which I hadn’t had particularly high hopes for, has earned two 5/5s and a 4/5. Can it keep on with this sort of form?

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