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11x3. Death to the Daleks
Writer: Terry Nation
Director: Michael Briant
Script Editor: Terrance Dicks
Producer: Barry Letts

Synopsis: The Doctor and Sarah arrive on Exxilon when the TARDIS mysteriously loses power, discovering a small group of humans from the Marine Space Corps (MSC) who have come to look for a substance called parrinium needed to cure a deadly plague. Soon after their arrival, the Daleks also arrive in search of the same substance, while the native Exxilons -- a once-advanced people that have reverted to superstition and barbarism -- and their abandoned city pose a series of dangers as well. With the MSC ship, the TARDIS, and the Daleks' technology out of commission due to the power drain caused by the city, some unusual alliances are formed.

Review: "Death to the Daleks" is a strange combination of complex setup and not-so-complex resolution. If last season's "Planet of the Daleks" could be summarized as, "The Daleks are on a planet being evil, so let's blow them up," then I guess "Death to the Daleks" could be summarized as, "The Daleks are on a planet being evil, but so is one of the humans in a way, and the Exxilons are not really being evil but are still dangerous, and the abandoned city possesses its own intelligence . . . so let's blow the Daleks up. Oh, and the city too."

It's odd, because at first this one seems like it might be a "Planet of the Daleks" retread -- it begins with the TARDIS malfunctioning, the Doctor being separated from his companion, and encounters with strange aliens whose intentions are unclear. But while "Planet" quickly settled into simple adventure formula with the Doctor and the Thals teaming up, "Death to the Daleks" offers a more varied set of characters and alien races, each with their own agenda. The Exxilons are an obvious example: they don't really seem to care about the parrinium, and they react to the humans and the Daleks with a sort of instinctive hostility. It's not clear how exactly their conflict with the MSC crew started, but they're not hesitant about using lethal violence, and they're more than ready to kill Sarah for approaching the city, which for them is a heinous religious transgression. The MSC crew are focused mostly on getting what they need and getting off the planet, but they differ over the methods they're willing to countenance in order to achieve that goal. Galloway, as his dying commanding officer noted, is something of a glory-seeker and is ready to cooperate with the Daleks' ruthless methods and demands, putting a slightly unconventional spin on his "self-sacrifice" at the end -- should we see it as a sincere moment of redemption, or, as Alan Stevens suggests, merely indicative that he'll literally do anything to ensure his own reputation, which has been tarnished by his moral compromises?

The Exxilons' peculiar relationship with their abandoned city is also interesting. Having created it as an intelligent entity of its own at the height of their civilization, they came to fear its power and sought to destroy it, and it retaliated by driving them all out. Now most of them worship it, while a small group of outcasts (including Bellal, who eventually accompanies the Doctor inside) still see it as evil and seek to destroy it. I found this an imaginative and realistic look at a society that has regressed after a dramatic disruption, in that their fear of the city, rather than being purely pragmatic, has become a religious taboo that they apply to everyone, even those such as Sarah who have nothing to do with them and their history with the city. On an aesthetic level, the dark cave scenes where the Exxilons chant and prepare for the sacrifice are suitably hypnotic and disorienting. The scenes of the Doctor and Bellal navigating the city's logic tests are a mixed bag, if only because some of the tests are kind of lame. I mean, really -- a small maze drawn on the wall? And we're supposed to think that people got trapped in a room and starved to death before figuring it out? Granted, most of the Exxilons don't seem very bright, but this is the sort of thing an average third-grader could figure out in about ten minutes. Still, I liked the sequence at the end when the city creates humanoid "antibodies" to fight off the Doctor's and Bellal's attempt to destroy it, and the Doctor's theory that the Exxilons had once traveled to Earth and helped build a temple in Peru is, if nothing else, an amusing shout-out to the "alien origins" theories about early human architecture.

Unfortunately, "Death to the Daleks" isn't much more than an average serial for a reason to which I alluded earlier: despite the complexity of the situation, the moral questions raised by Galloway's conduct, and the novelty of seeing the Daleks having to cut deals with other races because their weapons aren't working, everything is still resolved with a couple of explosions. I'm not saying that complex stories can't ever be resolved with explosions, but in this case, the script doesn't seem all that interested in any but the most immediate consequences. One might argue that the other MSC officers are guilty of at least minimal acquiescence to Galloway's collaboration with the Daleks, but it's not clear what, if anything, they think about that at the end. The question of what will happen to Exxilon society now that the city has been destroyed also receives no attention -- in fact, the script seems to have forgotten altogether that there's still an unconscious Exxilon in the TARDIS. A particularly strange moment of abrupt resolution is the scene where the Doctor and Bellal arrive in the city's main control room, causing a dead person seated in front of a monitor to dissolve into dust because they created an air current that broke the surface tension. Maybe this was meant to be mysterious, but it reduces the preceding scenes -- in which we see this figure supposedly watching the Doctor and Bellal on the monitor and are led to believe that he is alive -- to an elaborate tease, and we never find out who this person is or why he died there.

I realize that I may simply be barking up the wrong tree here. Doctor Who is not supposed to be an anthropological survey, and obviously the Doctor isn't going to stand around speculating about Exxilon history when there are Daleks to worry about. Still, I think more could have been done with the MSC characters, and if the first episode hadn't spent so much time with the Doctor and Sarah running around and getting lost, they might have been able to develop the story a little more without slowing it down too much.

Rating: **1/2 (out of four)

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