When Doctor Who first came back to television with the revived series, there was something the writers quickly established: Even a single dalek was a threat to a whole planet. No matter how outgunned, numerically inferior or what plans the enemy might have, just one is all it can take to render a whole city completely lifeless. This was the first time that the daleks had been introduced in such a manner, but it wasn't the first time the show had tried to show that even a few powerless figures were still a major threat.
Throughout the classic series the daleks were continually shown to be an all conquering military force, capable of having entire armies at their command at a time. The few occasions where they were shown to be only a handful in number were thanks to circumstance, and even then they were often soon seen acting in force. Power of the Daleks, one of the all time classics of the series, was one of the few early serials to show them being forced to use espionage or act covertly. However, even that soon gave way to eventual direct warfare, with the daleks simply biding their time until they had the strength in numbers they needed to fight the human colonists who had discovered them. By comparison Death to the Daleks was an experiment on the part of the creators: Remove any strength of arms, strength of numbers, but still find a way to make the daleks menacing.
Traversing to a world for a holiday with Sarah Jane Smith, the Doctor finds the TARDIS suffers a massive energy drain whilst traversing through space and time. Dragged down onto an unknown world of Exxilon by some unseen force, the time machine is quickly robbed of all power leaving the duo stranded. As they are attacked by hostile indigenous species, they soon find that they are not the only ones who have been trapped down on the planet...
While having a great title, the thing which plagues Death to the Daleks the most is that it comes across as an extremely uneven story. For every moment of great atmosphere and threat, there are some which just make you wonder what Terry Nation was thinking when he wrote them. There's little to deny that, while the story does make some good use of its concept, a good number of tropes and ideas from past tales have also been re-used here. Well, that's not entirely fair, it's not so much that the episode completely rehashes a number of stories so much as doesn't do enough to truly separate itself from comparisons with them.
The reason Power of the Daleks was brought up before is that, despite varying plots, the episode still carries out themes of the daleks quietly building strength and then turning upon the colonists. They take account of their disadvantages, find a way to overcome it secretly and then turn the tables on their longtime foes once they are ready.
What separates this somewhat is the way the story approaches these ideas. Unlike in that story, the daleks cannot simply create more of themselves and still need the humans and
The daleks themselves however are not the main villain. Instead that is the being which has consumed the power of each vessel which travels too close to the world and reduced the exxilons to primitive savages. A gigantic sentient city which has abilities which border upon magic and, despite being a fixed structure, can spread its will across the world. The daleks themselves rapidly learn this as they encounter its sentinels, massive "roots" which can easily destroy them in moments and emerge from almost any location. While it does not actively seek to destroy those on the planet, they are repeatedly harassed by instruments of its will and constantly proves to be more than a match for the daleks. It's an interesting idea to see that, even once they regain their power, they realise is still something higher on the food chain than them.
Unfortunately, while the daleks' deaths and actions are the most interesting element of the story, it's also its greatest weakness. More than once they are put down as fools in actions which almost seem laughable. One disarmed dalek is violently mobbed to death by the primitive exxilons with little effort while another goes berserk and self destructs upon realising a prisoner has escaped. For all the times they are proven to be an intelligent and competent threat, there's a moment where they just fail to live up to their iconic menace.
This is something not helped when the episode doesn't make as great a use of its ideas as it could have. The idea of forcing the daleks being robbed of their ability to exterminate others is a great one, if requiring careful handling, but it's dealt with relatively quickly. Several simply upgrade themselves with solid projectile weapons and carry on as before, meaning the resolution just lacks some impact.
Many of the Corps characters are also not given enough to do at the end of the day. Beyond Weapons Officer Galloway trying to broker a deal with them, then coming to the realisation of what he is dealing with over time, none of them stand out that well. Galloway himself might be driven in part by the talents of actor Duncan Lamont (someone with quite a history in acting) but at least he was given material to really work with. The others seem to just stand about and be screamed at by the daleks periodically, leaving the regulars to do most of the actual work and fading next to the aliens. Then again, given how reliable Jon Pertwee was in his role and Elizabeth Sladen repeatedly proved to be, this was a move which visibly benefited the story overall. Though Pertwee himself had an admitted dislike for the Doctor's iconic foes, it does work in the scenes where he condescendingly regards the de-powered aliens and mocks them.
Pertwee and Sladen are more frequently seen interacting with the native exxilons in the later parts of the tale, who both do and don't work. The design manages to maintain a good number of human aspects while remaining obviously alien, but there's nothing which truly stands out about the design. Furthermore, they're fairly generic when it comes down to being a culture and they just boil down to being a group of savages, living sacrifices and all. The only thing which really makes them stand out is Bellal played by Arnold Yarrow, who manages to put a good performance through the heavy makeup. With enough physical quirks and movements, he does well in the role and definitely rises above the average guest alien to turn up on the show.
As mentioned previously, this is the real problem of the serial. What seems to work in one place fails entirely in the other or just fails to really stand out. You'll be appreciating something in one scene, but can come to dislike it in the very next one. Sometimes purely because it only works when relating to very specific things within the serial.
For example, while the music is definitely a major step up from the maddening insanity which made the likes of the Sea Devils difficult to sit through, it seems to only fit the tone half the time. Ominous moments with the city, the threats encountered, a tune which conveys mystery all are elements which work well. However, the daleks' theme sounds as if it was intended to mock them in their initial state and never changes beyond that. Something which robs them of some impact and can't hold a candle to the likes seen in many other tales.
Similarly, Michael Briant's camerawork and direction worked well in many settings, but really failed when it comes to some of the more open action scenes such as the first dalek being killed. He easily makes up for it later on and there are a good number of great shots, but there are also far too many which either seem bland or are just confusingly put together. The man's obviously talented and the extras on the DVD make the difficulties in filming clear to the audience, it's hard not to see where bits of his camerawork just fell flat.
Speaking of the extras, they're definitely well worth watching in this installment. Along with adding some idea of the amount of trouble which went into creating many scenes and issues with the daleks themselves outdoors, there's a great deal of information conveyed by the crew. While it's hard to overlook the absence of Elizabeth Sladen in either the commentaries or interviews when compared with other releases, it's still fascinating for those wanting to see the production side of things. Easily holding up to the quality seen in other remastered DVD releases and giving considerable insight into what made the story what it was.
Death to the Daleks is undeniably flawed and problematic as an episode. Even without comparing it to the giant which was Genesis of the Daleks which would soon follow it, the sudden dips in quality or obvious problems in the script and production hold it back. Watch a few clips on Youtube before you make your mind up, but you'd probably do better to go with a more famed tale than this. It's not terrible, and definitely has its moments, but it's hard to grade it as above average for the era.