Doctor Who: Humiliation of the Daleks!

The Doctor Who story "Death to the Daleks" contains the coolest image ever created: A Dalek exploding in flames. Huge roiling flames coming out of the burst-open dome, like a towering inferno had consumed the mutant within. I still remember the crazy cover to the Target novelization, where the flames soared so high they were half the picture. This was fiery Dalekgeddon.

And then you watch the actual story "Death to the Daleks," and... Umm. It's kind of embarrassing. You feel bad for the Daleks, honestly.

On paper, "Death to the Daleks" is a great idea. The TARDIS gets stuck on a planet where some mysterious force sucks all the power out of everything — including the TARDIS and the spaceship of some humans who've come there. And then the Daleks show up and they, too, are without power for their weapons and stuff. Except that the Daleks can still move around, because they use hand-wavy psychic stuff to move their shells. The Daleks, deprived of their usual firepower, have to use more cunning to get what they want.

So far, so good. Except that, rewatching "Death to the Daleks" after its recent DVD release, it's hard not to feel horribly let down. These are probably the least bad-ass the Daleks have ever been — yes, worse than the original version of "Day of the Daleks." It's probably a tie with "Destiny of the Daleks," the story where the Daleks:

A) Are unable to defeat Disco robots with groovy shiny hair
B) Are portrayed as totally logical, flying in the face of all previous portrayals of them as irrational hate monsters
C) Become suicide bombers, because the universe's most awesome war machines are at their most formidable with explosives strapped to them, apparently.

But "Death to the Daleks" is almost as bad. The Daleks are unable to kill the Doctor and his friends with their ray guns, and it doesn't occur to the Daleks to just try running them over or something. The Daleks continuing to make the little fibers go in and out of their egg whisk guns long after it's clear they're not actually firing is sort of sad. But then you get to the bit where the Dalek gets blown up and bursts in to flames (see above), and it's really kind of unfortunate. The Dalek basically gets hits with sticks a few times, which don't even scratch its casing. And then it bursts into flames for no particular reason. Maybe the Dalek just felt like being a Tiki torch, to add to the festive mood.

Later on, there's the famous bit where the Daleks fit themselves with machine guns, and they test them out by shooting at little models of the Doctor's TARDIS, which are standard equipment on all Dalek vessels because of aggression therapy. They're like the equivalent of those office squeezy balls that you're supposed to grip to get rid of tension.

But worst of all is the bit where a Dalek notices his prisoners have escaped, and starts shouting louder and higher... until finally he just dies of a nervous breakdown. Yes, really. The Dalek is so upset he just dies of tsuris. He self-destructs, but there's no explosion or anything, just the Dalek sort of crapping out.

I had somehow remembered "Death to the Daleks" as a pretty sturdy little story — not as interesting as "Day of the Daleks," or as weirdly epic as "Planet of the Daleks," the other two Jon Pertwee Dalek stories, but pretty fun. But sadly, the new DVD release is a great chance to revisit and see how poorly this story really treated the Daleks. The rest of the story is also kind of naff — the natives of the planet, the Exxilons, are sort of standard-issue savages who've lost the use of their former high technology. With the human sacrifice and the weird superstitions. The alien city that turns out to be the cause of all the power drainage can only be entered after going through precisely one episode's worth of silly tests of skill and intellect, a trope that's done way better in "Pyramids of Mars" a couple years later.

It's probably worth renting, just for Jon Pertwee being debonair here and there, plus one of the first stories with Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith. The extras are really nice, too — much better than a lot of the other recent DVDs. There's some actual behind-the-scenes footage showing stunt sequences and action stuff being worked out, and you can see the super-primitive use of greenscreen (or in this case, yellow-screen) for the Daleks coming out of their spaceship. It's a pretty fascinating look at how they did this stuff on a shoestring budget.

The "making of" documentary is also more fun than a lot of the other recent ones we've seen — including this weird anecdote about just how totally embarrassed the Daleks during the production of this story, getting shoved around and "taking on a little bit of a rock and roll" and crashing into each other. Oh dear.

Also on the DVD — a brief look behind the scenes of Peter Cushing's Dalek movies, and a bizarre little featurette about the guys who sat inside the Daleks throughout the classic Doctor Who era. Apparently going to the bathroom when you're inside a Dalek could be a tricky proposition. Unless you just rolled on top of a storm drain and let it go. (See video at left.)

When the Daleks actually work — as they do in "Genesis of the Daleks" a year later, or a handful of other stories — they're utterly terrifying and impressively alien. And seeing them not work quite so well, in a story like "Death to the Daleks," is sort of a reminder of just how miraculous and inspired their successes were.

If you want to see Doctor Who trying to create another race like the Daleks, and failing miserably, another recent DVD release is "The Krotons," in which some diamond-headed sorta-robot sorta-rock creatures oppress the squabbling Gonds from inside their spaceship. The Krotons look even more ridiculous than I'd remembered, and the fact that they basically can't move outside their ship, and are blind without the Kroton inside the ship giving them "direction point" every few seconds, just makes them even less formidable. Possibly the worst Dalek knock-offs the show ever produced — but it's sort of amusing to watch Patrick Troughton run rings around them.