Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Death to the Daleks

4/9/12 “Death to the Daleks”
“What’s fascinating about fog?” –Sarah Jane Smith

Oh DEAR.  This was unbearable in places, and it was only a four-parter. 

I know I’m in the minority here, but I quite like “The Chase” and “Keys of Marinus” and would take those any day over the majority of ‘60s and ‘70s Dalek stories (particularly Pertwee ones).  I am finding Pertwee Dalek stories to be interminable, full of runaround, boring, and even rather offensive from time to time. 

“Death to the Daleks” doesn’t start too badly.  On a murky, post-apocalyptic landscape, an unfortunate human in dreadful ‘70s uniform is shot by an arrow!  He has a spectacular death, falling into a pool.  It’s shades of things to come in the shape of “Genesis of the Daleks,” but for now, it remains a tantalizing glimpse of moments of vision that are rarely achieved in this story.  Inside the TARDIS, the Doctor is singing “By the Seaside” to a bemused Sarah Jane Smith, who is dressing (like Mel, some thirteen or so years later) for a swimming visit.  I have to say I was impressed at Sarah’s cute, very ‘70s (a jabot/cravat to rival the Doctor’s frilly shirt!), comparatively modest swimsuit (it’s a contrast to Peri’s in “Planet of Fire,” which leaves nothing to the imagination).  They’re headed for the effervescent waters of Florana, where, “ you can’t sink.”  “I can sink anywhere.”  Their holiday is spoiled, however, by the fact the TARDIS appears to be drained of all power.  “It’s as if the TARDIS was dying,” murmurs Sarah.  Elisabeth Sladen is forced, throughout, to make the most of the material, which either gives Sarah stupid, nonsensical, or wildly out-of-character remarks to make.  The Doctor and Sarah sit in the dark inside the TARDIS (quite an interesting contrast to the TARDIS freezing in “Amy’s Choice”).  I’m impressed but not surprised that the Doctor has an oil lamp, which he uses to light their way out of the TARDIS.

There is one of the worst excuses for Sarah to scream, perhaps ever, as she sees a petrified figure that is so difficult to perceive that I think it would have scared, perhaps, a budgie.  Noting that they now seem to be trapped on the planet until they can find a way to repower the TARDIS, Sarah sensibly notes that “I’m not really dressed for this climate.”  The Doctor gets back a patronizing, “for heaven’s sake, put something warm on, girl!”  It’s a contrast to the playful interest the Fourth Doctor had in Romana’s outfits during the Key to Time. 

There are atmospheric wanderings on the planet’s foggy surface after the Doctor disappears and Sarah finds the lantern and “BLOOOOOOOOD!”  There is a terrible girly reaction, and Sarah, who has changed into the semi-practical-yet-still-not-very-warm-and-so-ugly-it’s-great short suit in what looks like brown serge/polyester with knee-high boots and the jabot from her swim suit (!!!), runs back to the TARDIS, trying to defend herself from voiceless nomads.  What follows is one of the most unusual TARDIS sequences I can ever recall seeing, with Sarah trying desperately to save herself from an alien with hostile intent (though how she knows it has hostile intent, other than the blood—why not try to communicate?—is beyond me), hand-cranking the TARDIS closed, then beating the Exxilon senseless with the crank, then hand-cranking the TARDIS open again and running off willy-nilly into the fog.  This inaugurates quite a bit of violence in this serial as well as long stretches of moody silence. 

The Doctor has been kidnapped and is being frog-marched by Sand People through canyons before a scuffle ensues.  (The humans have had to take up bow-and-arrows on the electricity-less planet.) The Doctor is almost killed by rough, Scottish anti-hero Dan Galloway before his colleagues Peter and Richard stop him.  “He’s quite friendly,” Richard says of the Doctor as they bring him back to their ship.  “We hope,” says Galloway.  In their ship, the Doctor is introduced to wounded Commander Stewart and the requisite Nation woman, Jill Tarrant.  They are from the Marine Space Corps and are on Exillon to get at the parrinium mineral that will save billions of lives in a cosmic space plague (embarrassingly I kept thinking they were saying “perineum”).  Unfortunately, rations are running out and apparently no one has managed to negotiate with the Exxilons?!?  The Doctor is informed that the shining white City (part Tainus from Raiders of the Lost Ark, part Peladon castle) is treated as a thing of worship by the Exxilons and that if found there, someone will suffer death.

Of course that’s where Sarah is headed, having weirdly put her hands on all the stone faces (very reminiscent, in my opinion, of Marinus).  The Exxilons, of course, capture Sarah.  They seem to have nothing better to do than sacrifice heretics all day (as ever, there seem to be no women Exxilons).  The section with Sarah waiting to be sacrificed is mind-bogglingly bad.  The soundtrack has some gobbledygook chanting on it clearly meant to inspire awe and fear at Sarah’s situation, but it sounds so ridiculously overblown, I just want to turn it off.  Occasionally, the Exxilons seem capable of intelligible speech, but most of the time they grunt in such an embarrassing fashion, I really feel I can stand this no longer.

At that moment, a space ship arrives and the Daleks spill out of it. A (logical) fakeout is achieved by the fact that on Exxilon, the Daleks’ weapons are useless.  (In the meantime, while waiting to be fired at, Jill apparently can’t stand such a strain on her weak, womanly body and clutches at the Doctor and the other men for support!)  After some negotiations, the Daleks and the humans enter into an alliance against the Exxilons, although they face capture after the Exxilons destroy some of the Daleks with spears and bows and arrows.  The Exxilons have also grabbed Commander Stewart and use him as a bargaining chip.  (Surely, if they are that intelligent, they deserve a better story?)  One of the Daleks suffers an identity crisis when it can’t kill and consigns itself to oblivion.)  The Doctor rescues Sarah from sacrifice but by attacking the High Priest is basically written off.  The humans confirm that they must get the parrinium off the planet somehow to save the plague victims (the Daleks need it for that reason, too) and so once the Daleks and humans unite, ever-so-briefly, they get the upper hand and force the Exxilons to become their slaves.  (One could surely take a colonialist view of this story—Galloway ways, “The creatures are primitive—they don’t count.”  For once, the Doctor doesn’t seem interested in finding out their viewpoint or even communicating with them!)

The Daleks have managed to come up with some kind of weapon (bullets?) which they use to corral everyone else into submission.  The Doctor and Sarah are sent off into some kind of tunnels where, actually, there is rather a good episode ending as a truly creepy-looking creature reaches out to grab Sarah . . . He turns out to be the redeeming feature of this story, Bellal, one of the exiled Exxilons, tiny, phosphorescent, kind of like a humanoid marmoset!  He has a head on his shoulders and can actually communicate and informs the Doctor, eventually, that the Exxilon race is ancient and advanced.  First, though, he says the nonsensical, “there are so few of us yet so many.”  Sarah believes the Doctor dead for awhile as he goes to meet a giant hoover that sets things on fire.  To her credit, Sarah adjusts quickly to the idea that Bellal is to be trusted.  The thing the Doctor faced was actually a “root” (?!?!) for the planet is made up of roots and the City. Bellal explains that the City became self-supporting and now is a thing of evil—“they destroyed themselves,” he says of the previous inhabitants of the City. 

The Daleks are forcing the Exxilons to mine for parrinium, but their efforts are halted by the root deciding to come up out of the water and kill an Exxilon in a horrific death.  The Exxilons are merely extras in sheets and do not seem to react more than the script requires.  Once the Doctor, Sarah, and Bellal reach the City, the Doctor realizes the markings on the City walls remind him of the wall of a temple in Peru.  This thread doesn’t really go anywhere.  Peru?!  The City, to the Doctor,  is one of the 700 wonders of the world and he does seem to admire it.  The Doctor insists that Sarah stay and make sure the parranium can be smuggled off the planet while he and Bellal (the “menfolk”) go off to search for answers in the City.  The Doctor is sure the Daleks will not share the parrinium—“they’re not medical missionaries.” 

Sarah dutifully goes back, and just as I’ve declared that Terry Nation can’t write a scene with more than one woman in it, she and Jill make plans to get to the ship and send the parrinium off as soon as the Doctor has switched the power back on.  The Daleks have a similar plan and want to blow up the beacon; they blackmail Peter and Galloway to plant the explosives.  Now comes the fun part, with the Doctor and Bellal in a game of wits against the City as they move through its maze, using their intelligence while macabre skeletons are the only remains of the City’s original inhabitants.  There is hilarious cliffhanger that surely Terrance Dicks stole, and then the Doctor and intrepid Bellal (who should have been a companion—that would have been great!) are pursued by the Daleks, who believe that the City is actually indestructible.  There’s a fakeout with someone watching their progress on a view screen, but when the Doctor and Bellal actually reach the control room, it proves to be one more corpse that crumbles to dust.  The most exciting moment is when the City produces “antibodies” (kind of like Omega’s champion in “The Three Doctors”) to combat them, and they are only saved when the Daleks appear and take the brunt of the threat. 

The Doctor has succeeded with whatever he was doing, the beacon gets blown up, power is restored, the parrinium gets distributed, and everyone lives happily ever after.   

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