As the masterminds behind the Peruvian temples (at least according to the Doctor), the Exxilons are another of those Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World aliens the series was obsessed with in the early 1970s. It feels like we’ve heard the back-story of the living city of the Exxilons several times before already, and the possibility of the Doctor and Belal braving an Indiana Jones race through Inca traps is quickly put to bed when the puzzles that have confounded so many turn out to be tracing a maze, and (in one of the dumbest cliffhangers ever) avoiding some floor tiles.
All the bits with the Exxilons are fairly dull. Belal’s surprisingly articulate info-dump about their backstory goes on for ages, and the Crystal Maze challenges he and the Doctor face (three wrong turns and it’s an instant lock in) while strangely prescient of the Dark Tower sequences in The Five Doctors, are a typical Terry Nation device for padding out the script (how many pages? That’s ok, bung in another coffee break brain-teaser).
For the first time in the colour era, the Daleks are the most interesting thing about this. When they’re on screen, Briant keep finds interesting, even iconic things to do with them. For example, the location film “root” attack on one of the Dalek guards, culminating in its dome exploding, is spectacular, and the inspiration for the most eye-catching of all the Target book covers. Even the studio work is pretty strong (including another “root” versus Dalek punch-up, weirdly cheered on by the Doctor). But for all Briant’s efforts, he can’t quite turn this sow’s ear into a silk purse.
Next episode: Death to the Daleks – Part Four
I’m raving a bit about Michael E Briant, but he’s the first director of the 1970s to get the Daleks just right. Notice the way they twitch angrily in their first meeting with the humans, giving every impression of containing the ‘living, bubbling lumps of hate’ the Doctor so vividly describes. It’s an impression that’s reinforced when one of the Daleks, unable to exterminate, loses its wits and careens suicidally into a gang of attacking Exxilons. The subsequent image of a burning Dalek is almost as iconic as the ones on Westminster Bridge. Even the voices are finally more or less as good (or, at least, as emotive) as they used to be. To be sure, he’s helped by a script that’s somewhat channelling The Power of the Daleks, with the Daleks having to act more cautiously than usual, and in alliance with lesser beings. But the technical brilliance grudgingly admired by the Doctor is clear from the way they quickly replace their useless ray guns with ‘primitive’ projectile weapons, quickly re-establishing their deadly ascendancy. I even like the Marmite joke of them using a miniature TARDIS as a target.
After the last serial featured a deserted London and attempt to roll back time to a pretend golden age, Death to the Daleks focuses on the search for a vaccine to a plague. It’s all a bit too close to the bone for my liking. This is an excellent, atmospheric opening: a misty, barren quarry; the TARDIS in darkness; loads of handheld camera work and some imaginative fades between scenes (the discussion of a photograph of the Exxilon city transitioning to Sarah Jane outside it). Michael E. Briant is no stranger to quarries posing as alien planets: he directed Colony in Space, which similarly featured a species of “savages” ruled by their High Priests in an ancient city, but his style has developed in the intervening three years and this looks as strong as the show has ever been.
‘Is everybody in this conspiracy,’ asks the Brigadier as the Doctor outlines General Finch’s part in the plot to frame him. The answer, pretty much, is yes. But that’s in part what gives this a modern, paranoid thriller style a long way from the criticised cosiness of something like The Time Monster. This time there’s no Master plotting world domination, or alien invaders to be beaten back. It’s all on us. Even our friend Mike Yates has fallen for the comfortable panacea offered by wiping the slate clean and starting again, to escape from a world that’s ‘too complicated and corrupt’.
Whittaker and Grover wax lyrical about rolling back time to a golden age, promising that although they’ve been misleading their followers, ‘we’re going to bring the past to them’ even if it means condemning the rest of the country while they pursue their dreams of growing their own food, making their own furniture and bringing it all back how it used to be. Their pernicious nostalgia, a pining to duck the difficult decisions and complexities of modern life in favour of clinging to a rose-tinted perception of an easier, happier past, suggests that the real dinosaurs are these fogeys.
This must be one of the thinnest scripts the series has had to date: whole stretches involve the Doctor driving round deserted London and lurking first in an abandoned tube station, and then an underground bunker, all in the name of playing catchup with Sarah Jane – who already discovered all of this last week. As such, it’s fine, but does feel like it’s just noodling on things we already know (for example, Mike Yates complaining again that he never agreed to murder the Doctor), and finishing with the implausible idea that the Doctor could be framed as the mastermind behind the Dinosaur invasion.
While it’s easy to over-state the differences between companions (they’re mostly there to ask questions, get into trouble and be the Doctor’s strength and weakness), the way they each fulfil their role can vary a lot. Dropping Sarah Jane into a UNIT story creates a very different dynamic than with Liz or Jo, both UNIT employees. Sarah needs both a reason to be accepted by the Brigadier, and a reason to want to stick around. Last episode dealt with the former essentially by having the Doctor appoint her his temporary assistant. This episode focuses on what’s in it for Sarah. She’s not getting paid to be the Doctor’s assistant, so she needs a different angle: a story, ideally with some juicy photos of a captive tyrannosaurus. Later, she smells something interesting about a secret nuclear reactor, and goes off to interview Sir Charles Grover MP in a very business-like way. The result in both cases is the same as would have happened with Jo: Sarah gets into danger. But the route to the result is quite different, and spices up what could have been fairly routine.
When I was a kid I absolutely adored dinosaurs. I had picture books, toys (not even smart toys, literally just solid, dinosaur-shaped chunks of plastic), I’d go mad for any film or TV that had them in. For my birthday one year my parents took me to the Natural History Museum in London to see the dinosaur skeletons. I could recite their names and tell you that the tyrannosaurus was the most ferocious dinosaur ever to walk the Earth. I was obsessed. They were the only thing that rivalled my obsession with Doctor Who. All of which is to say, if Invasion of the Dinosaurs had aired when I was six years old I would have been buzzing. It’s deeply unlikely I would have noticed or cared that the dinosaurs have all the mobility and liveliness of Liberace’s face. I would have been hooked. And I expect this would have been equally true for a big chunk of the target audience in 1974.
Featuring eerie, deserted streets, London landmarks empty of tourists, darkened shops and the authorities on the lookout for curfew breakers, this is the perfect episode for CoVid lockdown viewing. Paddy Russell’s location filming is one of the highlights of this episode. It’s reminiscent of the show’s first big out-of-studio set pieces: the Daleks patrolling conquered London, and, as in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, the initial excuse for the quiet is that it’s probably Sunday. But as we’ve already seen a dog eating something out of an abandoned car, and a milk float with its curdling cargo smashed about it, we’re already primed to expect something more sinister. Later, there’s an absolutely horrible shot of a looter, head bashed in, which is made more disturbing because it’s so brief and gives no time to take in the details. And as a result of the only partially successful colour recovery from the B&W telerecording, the whole thing comes closer than any other Doctor Who episode to looking like a grotty print of a grottier 1970s exploitation horror movie. No wonder I love it.
This continues to be Robert Holmes’ funniest script to date. Bloodaxe, on first impressions a Baldrick type figure, slyly mocks Irongron’s pretentions: ‘Tis a cunning plan, Captain… Yours is indeed a towering intelligence’. Holmes even dares to poke fun at Pertwee (‘A long-shanked rascal with a mighty nose’), and while some of the quips about the ‘fair sex’ are a bit cringey nowadays it’s notable that Sarah is both willing to admit when she’s wrong, however grudgingly, and continues to be a driving force behind the fight against Linx and Irongron, leading the raid on the castle to capture the Doctor, and convincing Sir Edward and Lady Eleanor to give him a fair hearing.