Tell me, have you ever tried Venusian hopscotch?
This time, the Dalek story title wheel lands on an alliteration, but at a stretch, it’s possible that Terry Nation’s “Death to the Daleks” (Story Production Code XXX) actually could apply to the story itself, since the dozen or so Daleks in the story do perish at the end. Alas, as with most things Dalek in the early 1970s, the title, and the story, aim for the grandiose and provide the pedestrian.
In keeping with one of Nation’s favored themes, a terrible plague threatens the outer colonies of almost all species. Only one planet, Exxilon, inhabited by a Stone Age civilization, possesses the cure in quantities sufficient to save the millions who suffer from the disease. Both the humans of the Marine Space Corps and the Daleks (of, um, the Daleks) want this miracle substance, parrinium, and would gladly fight each for it, if only their spaceships and energy weapons worked once they neared Exxilon.
For even the TARDIS succumbs to the energy-draining powers of the “forbidden city” of the Exxilons’ ancestors, who were old when the universe was young. Their city, imbued with a form of bio-technological sentience, was meant to be their crowning achievement, but in standard science fiction fashion, it realized they were an impediment to its efficient functioning and killed off most of them. The remnants worship the city, reduced to chanting and incense-heavy sacrificial ceremonies in its name.
Terry Nation must hold some grudge against the TARDIS, as for the second story of his in a row, the TARDIS runs out of a vital component (here energy, previously oxygen) and remains useless to the Doctor. Even in “The Daleks” back in 1963, he sees fit to render the blue box hors de combat, with the Doctor pocketing the fluid link to force everyone to investigate Skaro to find a replacement. The notion of the inviolable TARDIS never quite took with Nation, it seems, and he uses whatever plot device he can to get the Doctor out of its safe confines. At least the Doctor has an oil lamp handy with which to guide his way out of the blacked-out TARDIS, as one does…
In fairness, though, Nation continues the process he began with “Planet of the Daleks” in terms of making the pepperpots more personable. When they realize that their weapons do not work, they positively bristle in fear at the Doctor’s approach:
Doctor: Well, well, well. Daleks without the power to kill. How does it feel?
Dalek: Keep away. Keep away!
Doctor: And if I don’t, what will you do?
By imbuing the Daleks with fear and uncertainty, Nation at once strips them of their veneer of perfection and potency, giving them the one attribute every well-rounded villain needs, at least from a literary perspective: pathos. Though the three Dalek stories of the Third Doctor’s era lack much in the way of strong plotting (or even a compelling reason to have the Daleks in the story in the first place), they serve as a turning point in the show’s characterization of them, positing individuality underneath the endless rows of chrome domes.
Perhaps this effort goes a little too far, when a Dalek delegated to guarding a human prisoner destroys itself in an act of mortification for letting her escape, crying out in anguish that it has failed, but the overall movement towards a more nuanced understanding of the Doctor’s oldest foe cannot be faulted.
The Doctor, of all people, brokers an alliance between the Daleks and the humans, an act all the more stunning because the Skarosians recognize him as “an old enemy of the Daleks,” known to them on sight. With the threat of millions of deaths should the humans not procure sufficient perrinium, made difficult by Exxilonian spear attacks, and no way escape the planet due to the energy drain, the Doctor feels as though he has no choice, warning the humans not to trust the Daleks at all but acknowledging the need for their help. Having been through “the last Dalek war,” the humans need no such reminding.
The upshot of the human/Dalek alliance sees the native Exxilons essentially enslaved into perrinium digging, with the Daleks, who have rigged up projectile weapons, threatening to kill their high priest should they not cooperate. Lieutenant Galloway of the Marine Space Corps agrees further to hand over the Doctor and Sarah Jane to be sacrificed to the city—a return to one of Nation’s favored themes of duty and honor versus expediency and ruthlessness, the ends, here of saving millions, justifying the means, a bit of minor slavery and some light sacrificial slaughter. In his last story, Nation had the Doctor warn the Thals against becoming like the Daleks to fight them; here, the Doctor is the intended victim of someone who has done just that.
In escaping from the Daleks and Exxilons, the Doctor and Sarah Jane discover (or rather are discovered by) Bellal, a renegade Exxilon who is working to destroy the ancient city but hasn’t yet figured out how to, um, enter it yet. But he knows where it is!
The entrance is sealed by a simple logic puzzle that reminds the Doctor of carvings found on Peruvian temples, ancient constructs whose advanced composition could only be explained by the Exxilons being their alien builders—or by Terry Nation having recently read Erich von Däniken’s 1968 book Chariots of the Gods?, positing just such an idea. Given that the Third Doctor already determined that Azal, the Daemon, was responsible for secretly guiding human development over the past several thousand years, perhaps the Exxilons worked a deal to gussy up Peru while Azal focused on the Celts.
Inside the city, a set of increasingly difficult logic puzzles—fine, just a maze and some hopscotch—awaits the Doctor and Bellal, who are slowly chased by Daleks struggling with the same puzzles. When the Doctor finally reaches the central control room of the city, he switches some circuits in the city’s “brain” to induce a permanent paradoxical problem (in short, he does what he always does to a computer he wants to destroy), causing the city to ultimately melt, for some reason.
In the interim, the humans, now under the thumb (plunger?) of the armed Daleks, blow up the antenna that allows the city to siphon power, restoring the human and Dalek ships, not to mention the TARDIS, to full operability. But unknown to everyone, Sarah Jane and Jill, of the Marine Space Corps, have filled the Daleks’ bags of perrinium with sand, stashing the real stuff on the human ship. The Daleks take off, intending to blackmail the universe with the precious plague cure—and planning to make Exxilon inaccessible for further mining by launching their own, um, plague missile at the planet.
Given an honorable ending by Nation, Galloway holds true to his near-obsessive belief in serving the greater good no matter the cost by destroying himself along with the Dalek ship using an explosive he purloined while blowing up the antenna. “Well, he did his duty,” the Doctor dryly notes.
Tonally, Nation has stopped writing Doctor Who so much as Terry Nation stories featuring the Doctor. Unlike in “The Daleks,” there’s no sense of wonder or curiosity in the Doctor at the eons-old development of a sentient city; he just wants to destroy it. The imminent danger of the plague does drive matters, but the series has always allowed the Doctor to indulge his sense of wonder even in the midst of the most dire catastrophe. And the Daleks, for all their character development here, just don’t really fit.
As with “Day of the Daleks,” it’s hard to understand why they’re even in the story. Our perfidious pepperpots serve as little more than shorthand for evil menace in a story that already has ready sources of opposition from an easily riled Stone Age civilization and a rogue, highly advanced city capable of defending itself with tentacle monsters. It’s a Nation Doctor Who story, though, so with Nation you get Dalek, whether you want them or not.
More generally, the tone has continued to hew towards the violent end of the spectrum. Though always filled with lots of action and explosions, tons of fistfights and tumbles, the series has begun to edge towards more explicit scenes of blood and overt violence. For the second story running, blood is seen on screen, and when a Exxilon is zapped by a tentacle monster, we see not just a puff of smoke but a stuntman on fire. (One can just about glimpse Mary Whitehouse’s crusade gathering indignant steam in the distance.)
While Nation doesn’t give Elisabeth Sladen quite the same short shrift he gave Katy Manning’s Jo Grant in “Planet of the Daleks,” Sarah Jane is nevertheless reduced to a lot of screaming and captivity. The first two episodes have her fairly roughly handled by the Exxilons, though given the violent onscreen beating she delivered (via winch handle) to one who snuck on board the TARDIS, I suppose they realized she’s not to be trifled with. No use is made of her inquisitive journalistic background, but it is her idea to swap the Daleks’ perrinium with sand.
Happily, at least, she is referred to as a companion, by the Doctor, no less, his first use of the phrase in quite some time:
Doctor: I have a young companion with me, Sarah Jane Smith.
She and Jon Pertwee do have chemistry, and their banter works for the most part, even if the Doctor remains dismissive towards her understanding more frequently than he did with Liz Shaw (and even Jo Grant towards the end). For her part, Sarah Jane aims towards humor as a means of coping with her predicament, which has had significantly less on-screen downtime and development than either of her predecessors with the Third Doctor.
For Pertwee himself, he’s well into his swan song, with his departure at the end of the season imminent. Nation doesn’t deliver a script that is long on his strengths, but neither does he force the Third Doctor into some sort of elder statesman role as in “Planet of the Daleks.” His engagement with Bellal almost makes one wish that the Exxilon joined up for further adventures as a companion—if you can explain Dodo as a companion, you can explain anything or anyone, even a glowing Exxilon.
Seeing the Daleks so soon after their last appearance comes as a bit of a shock, and in a mere four episode story to boot. They don’t overstay their welcome, but it’s a near run thing. Especially this close to Pertwee’s exit as the Third Doctor, the domed doom machines take up too much of the stage for very little narrative payoff. Jon Pertwee deserves more focus at this point. At least the next story features a return to the scene of one of the Third Doctor’s most narratively nuanced stories: the lovely galactic backwater of Peladon. What could possibly go wrong on a return visit fifty years later…
(Previous Story: Invasion of the Dinosaurs)
(Next Story: The Monster of Peladon)
Post 74 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project