Magic Bullet Productions

Death to the Daleks
By Alan Stevens

Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 331

"Death to the Daleks" is generally considered to be a fairly run-of-the-mill Dalek story, neither as excruciatingly bad as its immediate predecessor, "Planet of the Daleks", nor as groundbreaking as its successor, "Genesis of the Daleks".  However, the fact that "Death to the Daleks" was made at a time of transition in Doctor Who history means that the story reveals some interesting details about Robert Holmes, Terry Nation and the Daleks themselves.

1. Production

"Death to the Daleks" was formally commissioned on July 2nd 1973. By the autumn, both script editor Terrance Dicks and producer Barry Letts had decided to leave Doctor Who, and although they retained control, their interests were clearly moving elsewhere. In keeping with this, Dicks' successor, Robert Holmes, was allowed to script edit "Death to the Daleks", uncredited. As a result, the serial appears as a curious mix of the by then well-known Letts and Dicks production style, and the more adult approach that Holmes was to introduce later.

The first area in which this blend of influences can be seen is with regard to the level and nature of the violence in the story. Letts envisioned the programme as being enjoyed by ages eight to adult; therefore, from mid-Season eight onwards the violence level drops, and the plots are very plainly put, so as to be comprehensible to the younger age groups. Holmes, however, regarded fourteen as the minimum vewier age for Doctor Who; later, as script editor, he would famously raise both the intellectual standard and the gore level of the series. In "Death to the Daleks", we see a mix of a simply-explained plot, with a good deal of exposition and info-dumping, and lurid set-pieces, including such scenes as the crewman's death at the beginning of the story, and the use of drugs in the sacrifice sequence. Although the choice of how to film a scene is ultimately down to the individual director, the fact that Michael E. Briant was permitted to record the sequences in this way speaks of a change at a higher level. Furthermore, the nature of the violence again shows a blend of Letts and Holmes influences. Although the Marine Space Corps/Exxilon stakeout, in which the human heroes are surrounded by bow-and-arrow-wielding hostile natives, is reminiscent in structure of the Boys' Own adventures and cowboy-and-Indian chapter-plays which Letts considered acceptable for children, Railton does not simply drop like a chapter-play cowboy when shot, but staggers around grotesquely, trying to pull the arrow out of his back, before collapsing to the ground, dead. The simplicity of the narrative, contrasted with the savagery of its delivery, indicate that the story was done with quite different intentions at different levels.

This can also be seen with regard to the character of Sarah Jane Smith. Sarah was deliberately created by Letts and Dicks to be a"feminist companion," in response to earlier accusations of sexism regarding the character of Jo Grant. However, like her predecessor Zoe (whose alleged intelligence was continually subverted by scenes in which she is menaced by monsters, while dressed in catsuits, hooker boots and PVC), Sarah at this point bears little if any relation to the actual feminist agenda. The character as portrayed in Season Eleven is a throwback to the late Sixties; Sarah may wear trousers, crop her hair and complain bitterly when excluded from the action, but she is also given to screams, tantrums and being kidnapped by villains. Although Holmes would later develop Sarah into a more mature, sensible figure, here she appears to be a mick-take of Letts' idea of feminism, one minute battering an Exxilon to death with a crank handle and the next shrieking helplessly when its fellows surround her. There is also a peculiar sexual element to her experiences, as she begins the story in a bathing costume, is tied up, drugged and manhandled twice by the Exxilons, and escapes only to be repeatedly groped and dry-humped by Bellal and his fellow insurgents. Whether the latter aspect of the character has more to do with Letts, Holmes, Nation or Briant is difficult to say; however, the treatment of Sarah closely resembles what happens to Fay Wray's character Ann Darrow at various points in the film King Kong (which was also a visible influence on scenes featuring Sarah  in the stories "Invasion of the Dinosaurs" and "Robot"). Once again the portrayal of Sarah shows an interesting, and occasionally rather suspect, blend of traits between the Letts and Holmes eras.

Finally, this mix of child-friendly surface and adult subtext also appears in the genesis of the story itself. When Dicks commissioned the adventure from Nation, he deliberately suggested a plot involving elements which he knew Nation would like: sophisticated societies reverting to the Stone Age, space plagues, a quest for an elixir (later changed to a mineral), and intergalactic organisations. The story contains a number of classic Nation hallmarks: names which are either derivations of his own (Tarrant), or apparently chosen by sticking a pin in a map (Galloway, Hamilton and, arguably, Bellal); a mixed-gender party of adventurers dominated by a sinister older-male figure; and the Marine Space Corps (which appear to be a thinly-disguised version of the fascist SSS, as seen in "The Daleks' Master Plan"). Holmes, however, was less than enamoured with both Nation and his creations; although the story that he came up with the name "Death to the Daleks" purely out of dislike for the characters is apocryphal (Nation's storyline, dated 1st June, was submitted under this title prior to Holmes being asked to work on the story), the resemblance between the words "parrinium" and "perineum" suggest that Holmes (who later attempted to sneak a planet named "Turdus" past the script editor in the Blake's 7 episode "Orbit") was making a dirty joke. Nevertheless, although Holmes professed little respect for Nation as a writer, the team of Nation and Holmes would later be responsible for one of the better-regarded Doctor Who tales; and the combination here elevates "Death to the Daleks" above many other stories of the season.

2. The City

With location footage recorded in Dorset (making a nice change from Reigate), and some surprisingly impressive CSO sequences, the Exxilon City which forms the pivotal axis of the story also appears to be a case of a superficially derivative idea with interesting undertones. The notion of a sophisticated city whose inhabitants have degenerated into "primitivism," and whose alien builders influenced the Incas, is visibly taken from von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods. However, it begs the question of why the Exxilons do not speak anything remotely resembling Peruvian, or why none of their artefacts look anything like Inca ones, apart from the occasional pyramid. The City's antecedents seem to stem rather more from H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines and its imitators (including King Kong), which involve intrepid explorers running afoul of spear-waving natives on their way to find a hidden city (and many of which involve somewhat gratuitous human-sacrifice scenes). These stories were based on the real case of the Great Zimbabwe, a ruined city in Southern Africa; the presence of this city puzzled the original European colonists, who could not believe that the indigenous population (whom they considered "primitive") were capable of having built such a structure. In "Death to the Daleks", interestingly, unlike the earlier stories- and in explicit counterpoint to von Däniken- the city was in fact built by the "primitive" local population. Furthermore, when we first see the human party, they have themselves "reverted to the primitive," using Exxilon-style bows and arrows. However, the story is given a further twist through the Doctor's remarks on the City's construction: although he is willing to accept that the City may have been built by the indigenous people of Exxilon, he takes it completely for granted that the Inca were too "primitive" to have build their pyramids without help, and he never acknowledges the fact that the destruction of the City, however well meant, leads to physical and cultural annihilation for the current Exxilons (with clear echoes of the way in which colonial powers attempted to ban and suppress native American and Mesoamerican rituals for the supposed "good" of the practitioners). The idea of a sophisticated culture being returned to a stone-age level is one which Nation explored extensively over the course of his career, culminating in Survivors; here, the premise of the story winds up being an implicit critique of the serials and pseudo-scientific works on which it was based, as well as showing the Doctor up as a colonialist.

The City's antecedents, furthermore, go much deeper than von Däniken and Haggard. The fact that the aliens were originally called Exilons (a name ostensibly derived from "elixir" but also recalling "exile") and the presence of snakelike "roots" guarding the City, suggests the Biblical story of the fall from paradise and the exile from Eden, as do the Exxilons' repeated attempts to return. Equally the apostate "breakaway group" is headed by a character whose name "Bellal" is just one letter off "Belial", a term from the Hebrew Bible which personified the devil in Jewish and Christian texts. The word is also used, in a Hebrew context, to describe persons who have committed sex crimes, which may explain Bellal's somewhat tactile approach to Sarah Jane. One might also remark that the whole idea of a people ejected from a secure series of tunnels and caves by an army of one-eyed snakes is rather Freudian, in keeping with the obsession with psychology shown by American films during the classic period of the 1930s through 1950s. The City of the Exxilons is thus an idea with a long literary and cinematic pedigree beyond 1970s pseudo-anthropology or Victorian adventure stories.

The most interesting aspect of the City, however, is the question of its motives. It is possible to reach the heart of the City through passing a series of tests; however, one has to ask why a city capable of self-defence and independent reasoning would make itself vulnerable to attack by a reasonably clever person. As the Doctor points out himself, the City "could have destroyed us dozens of times", but instead it gives them a chance to survive through using their intelligence. The Doctor reasons that beings clever enough to pass the test "have an intelligence level that could be useful," and speculates that "we might have some knowledge or science... that they could add to their databanks." However, the City has another motive, which is companionship. At the City's core we find a corpse, apparently undamaged, seated in a chair before a monitor screen. The body in the chair does not appear to have been one of the City's original inhabitants, but to be dressed like the "primitive" Exxilons, indicating that he is a later arrival, and one who died of natural causes rather than being killed by the City's defences. In addition, we have been told that- in another direct contradiction of the von Däniken/Haggard scenario- it was the Exxilons who rejected the City through their fear of its superior power, rather than the other way around; an entity that powerful could quite easily have killed the Exxilons, but it has evidently chosen not to. All this suggests that the real test is when the challenger reaches the centre, at which point it will become evident whether their intention is to destroy the City or to help it. If the intruder proves hostile, as the Doctor discovers, the City generates "antibodies" to eliminate them; however, if the intention is benign, and the creature intelligent enough to pass its tests, the City accepts them as guide and companion. The City is, therefore, despite its H. Rider Haggard veneer, actually a very cleverly-constructed idea. 

3. The Daleks

The story's eponymous monsters, similarly, are treated in an interesting way. For a start, they are practical enough to negotiate a deal with the Exxilons despite the Exxilons in question being very anti-technology, while simultaneously thinking rings around Galloway, who appears to be the brightest member of the MSC team. Although the Daleks do come across as rather substandard initially, due to the early scene in which they bellow their plans out while conferring behind a rock three feet away from the MSC expedition, surviving studio footage reveals that they were originally supposed to be whispering. The main problem with the Daleks in this story lies with the repetitive and rather trite dialogue they are given, which unfortunately has the tendency to undercut their achievements elsewhere. 

Their plan, furthermore, is a good deal  more interesting than it first appears. On the surface, it seems fairly simple; the Daleks are trying to get the parrinium, double-cross the humans, and then fire a "plague missile" at the planet to keep them away from it. The vagueness of the term "plague missile" has led many (including Jean-Marc Lofficier) to assume that the Daleks are in fact behind the space-plague. However, under close consideration this makes little sense; if this were in fact the Dalek plan, the sensible thing would be for them to corner the parrinium market before actually releasing the plague onto human colonists. Furthermore, although the Daleks imply that they are not affected by the plague (in that they say, in private, that this is not their "true reason" for wanting the parrinium), they would seem to be in a weakened military position. As we see when the Daleks emerge from the ship firing on the humans, the Daleks do not negotiate- or resort to blackmail- unless the position is such that they cannot simply exterminate their foe, and it also must be significant that the Daleks make no attempt to secure the planet.

The situation is also evidently so bad that the impact of the plague on the human colony worlds appears not to have been enough to redress the military balance, or else the Daleks would not be engaging in proactive manoeuvres. Throughout the story, the Daleks keep up a perpetual barrage of propaganda about their might and superiority, even when having to negotiate for survival. This would suggest, therefore, that the Daleks are trying to regain the upper hand, while concealing the fact that they have lost it.

The Daleks' true reason for wanting the parrinium is thus an opportunistic one. Their plan appears to be to secure the chemical, render the planet uninhabitable, and then use the plight of the human colonies to force the "space powers" to accede to their demands. As the humans, once allowed access to parrinium, would be immune to the space-plague, the "plague missile" referred to would, of necessity, not be space-plague itself, but some other disease.

The implications of this are rather grim for both the Daleks and the Exxilons. Once the MSC team have reported, firstly, that Exxilon is a key source of parrinium, and secondly, that the Daleks are on the back caster, then the "space powers", once they have brought the plague under control with the parrinium mined from the planet, will move quickly, first to set up a parrinium-mining system in order to ensure that all humans are immunised, and second, to take advantage of the uneven balance of power, using the Dalek behaviour on Exxilon as a justification. Consequently, this action not only means that the Exxilons, as is often the case for the weaker group in colonial encounters, will either be enslaved, moved off their land or destroyed, but it also, effectively, implies the death of the Daleks.

 4. Galloway

Finally, a look at the single most interesting character in the story, that of Dan Galloway. The other humans, to say nothing of Bellal and his companions, are fairly lightly-sketched caricatures: we have a well-respected but mortally wounded commander, two fairly nondescript military types, and a pretty girl. Galloway, however, is accorded a significant amount of development, which reveals much about the intentions and psychology of the human expedition.

When we first meet Galloway, he is spearheading an ambush, apparently intended for the Exxilons. Even when it becomes apparent that he has not trapped an Exxilon but the Doctor, Galloway attempts to kill him anyway, either because he is the sort of person who, once his blood is up, is unable to turn away from an attack, or else because he wishes to eliminate all potential rivals to his own interests. As the story progresses, Galloway is continually undermining the leadership of Captain Railton and Commander Stewart; he plays on Hamilton's feelings about his father, slain in the Dalek wars, by muttering to him sotto-voce that the Captain is "scared of the wee salt-shakers. I saw his face when they came out of that ship." When Stewart dies ordering Galloway to declare Hamilton leader, Galloway simply murmurs "sorry, Commander, couldn't quite hear what you said" (closing Stewart's eyes as he does so), and takes control of the group himself. At the end of the story, however, Galloway is apparently sacrificing himself for the crew; he could easily have used the inbuilt timer to activate the bomb which he smuggles aboard the Dalek ship, but instead insists on detonating it himself. In his novelization,Terrance Dicks states that Galloway stayed with the bomb because he feared its discovery, but that is clearly nonsense, as there was far more likelihood of the Daleks discovering Dan Galloway. Despite being a violent, bitter and self-serving type, then, Galloway still performs an almost incomprehensible act of self-sacrifice.

The reason for this act, however, is clear in Stewart's deathbed scene, in which Stewart explains his reason for wanting to promote Hamilton over Galloway: "You're not fit to command," he says, and then, when Galloway asserts that he is doing what is "necessary" to get the chemical to the peoples of the Outer Worlds, "whatever it costs," Stewart says, "not for them, for yourself. You're a glory seeker." Galloway gives the game away slightly earlier, when he argues with Hamilton that it is acceptable to allow the Exxilons to sacrifice the Doctor and Sarah, as they are simply "two people we don't even know"; however, Galloway is himself purporting to act to save millions of people whom he knows even less than he does the time-travellers. Galloway is not unintelligent, despite his prejudiced attitude towards the Exxilons and the outsiders; he is also not unaware that Jill Tarrant and Hamilton are somewhat disapproving of his methods. By committing an act of self-sacrifice, Galloway transforms himself from a plantation-owner into a hero; he is not the man who did a deal with the Daleks and enslaved the Exxilons, but the man who died saving the crew and ten million colonists from the Daleks. Furthermore, his methods up until this point will all be justified in the eyes of both his fellow-crewmembers and his superiors. Although Terrance Dicks, never a fan of subtext, ignores these themes in the novelisation, it is plain from Galloway's actions that it is not sudden remorse or a heroic streak, but an obsession with personal glory to the exclusion of all else, which causes his suicide.

Galloway's behaviour also recalls another of Terry Nation's interests. Nation was fascinated with a story about an army of Crusaders who got themselves stranded in Southern Europe,which he described in an interview for Starburst (issue six): "I think it's the third Crusade. All these guys set off and they were really going to wipe out these heathens and they got as far as Venice, I think, and ran out of money, ran out of boats and a million other things. And the Venetians said, 'Okay fellahs, listen. There's a Christian community over there. You've got the men and arms. Go and wipe out that town and we'll give you the boats.' So they wiped out the Christian community so that they could get the boats to wipe out the heathen community." Similarly, in "Death to the Daleks", not only do Galloway and the Daleks make a similar deal with the Exxilons- offering to kill the rebellious ones in exchange for the assistance of the others- the remaining crewmembers agree to go along with Galloway's plans. At the beginning of the story, frustration and despair has driven the crew to warring with the Exxilons, and anyone else who gets in their way; by the point at which Galloway makes his deal, Galloway has gone from standing back and allowing people he "doesn't even know" to be killed, to actively participating in the murder, not only of the rebels, but also of the Doctor and Sarah, who have joined them.

. Hamilton and Tarrant, for their part, may not like the idea of killing the Doctor and Sarah and, as events progress, de facto enslaving the Exxilons, but they do not raise any strong objections. Furthermore, when confronted with the problem of their equipment failing to work, due to the City draining power, the humans resort to fighting the locals with bows and arrows, whereas the Daleks find a workable mechanical solution to the problem. Galloway's actions thus highlight the way in which desperation and inertia will cause people to betray the very principles for which they purport to stand.

Galloway's attitude towards the Exxilons and the time-travellers, furthermore, is the key to why he is ultimately outthought by the Daleks, despite being shrewd and distinctly lacking in illusions. Galloway's treatment of the Exxilon slaves aside (accusing them, in the tradition of slave-owners everywhere, of being ignorant and lazy), the entire MSC team display a strong lack of adaptability to their situation, preferring to wait for rescue rather than, as the Daleks do under the same conditions, finding other solutions. Furthermore, although Jill Tarrant says that the Exxilons attacked the party right after they landed, there seems to have been more to it than that: the Doctor, on his first encounter with the Exxilons, is taken prisoner but not killed; the Exxilons later do not kill Commander Stewart, despite having ample opportunity to do so; one might also ask why the Exxilons, with their superior numbers and knowledge of the local terrain, have not yet managed to wipe out the MSC expedition, if that was their intention. The only time at which we see them openly declare a desire to kill any human is when Sarah and, later, the Doctor, commit acts of sacrilege (their hostility towards Bellal and his companions is also on religious grounds); significantly, the MSC expedition have got close enough to the City to take detailed photographs of it, suggesting that the Exxilons' initial attack may not have been unprovoked. Finally, when offered the chance to negotiate by the Daleks, the Exxilons take it. The bulk of the evidence thus suggests that their intentions towards the humans were not originally hostile, and that, had the team been more adaptable, they would have been able to negotiate an agreement. The Daleks, meanwhile, who are the living embodiment of racism- and who regard both Exxilons and humans as inferior- continue to nonetheless recognise the intelligence of the other beings. Consequently, they do a deal with the Exxilons, as well as with Galloway; Galloway, for his part, doesn't even consider doing a deal with the Exxilons until after they have captured him and the entire MSC expedition. Galloway's lack of willingness to respect the intelligence of other species is ultimately his downfall.

In all of the four areas of the story which we have considered, then, we see an interesting and unusual pattern for Doctor Who, which marks a pivotal point in the series' history. Although the plotline, the characterisation of the Daleks and Galloway, and the idea of the living city are all dealt with in a fairly superficial, child-friendly way familiar from the majority of the Letts era, underneath this surface lurks a series of dark, even genuinely sinister subtexts dealing with balances and imbalances of power, of a sort which appears in Nation's best work, and which would also characterise Holmes' tenure as script editor. "Death to the Daleks" thus looks back on what was, and at the same time looks forward to what is to come.

Images copyright BBC
Effects courtesy of Maureen Marrs and Fiona Moore