“It’s beautiful! Beautiful!” “To you perhaps. To us, it is evil.” – The Doctor and Bellal, of the ancient city
The impression this story left on me as a child was a long episode where they go through a maze in an old city solving simple puzzles. I was surprised to realize later that this actually makes up only a small portion of the last episode. In effect, it’s an example of a writing problem that plagues this story; the writer Terry Nation introduces many grand ideas but doesn’t follow through on them. While the Doctor notes that they are working their way through a series of tests to see their intelligence and scientific capability, most of the tests don’t require reasoning or skill at all but are rather just mental probes. And there’s absolutely no reason for the Doctor to think that the final test will be an attack on their sanity based on that assumption. The Doctor also mentions that the wondrous city of the Exxilons is like a living being and that their move through the halls of the city is akin to being pushed through a circulatory system. But there’s nothing they encounter that even remotely contributes to this idea except the forced metaphor the Doctor makes when he calls the monsters sent to kill them ‘antibodies’.
Some better examples of temporarily interesting themes or ideas are introduced in the second episode. What happens, for example, when beings like the Daleks who secure their power from ruthless killing suddenly lose their killing ability? It doesn’t take long for the Daleks to find a way to get back to dealing out death, but there’s definitely a sense that they are lost and unsure of themselves without their guns, proving that they are nothing more than blustering bullies. Even more interesting is to see Terry Nation take the Nazi-like parallels of the Daleks to the next level by having other characters have to make decisions about collaboration. We see someone who is supposedly a good man descend into a willingness to justify slave labor, handing over the innocent, and wiping out dissidents just to save himself and his own kind. I wish they could have pursued the idea more and deeper throughout the story. They do at least give Galloway a moment of redemption by having him sacrifice himself to set off the bomb at the end.
The characters of the Exxilons are not fully developed either though the costume design is striking, particularly that of Bellal and the other renegades, as the strips on their stone-like skin glow in pulses. There seems to be some idea that these characters (who appear a bit like stone) actually do fossilize into rock at some point—perhaps after death. This gives us a nice eeriness at the beginning when we’re not sure which of the shadowy figures in the shadows is suddenly going to move. Bellal meanwhile is such a sweet innocent that you can help root for him and feel sorry for some of the pain he goes through. You really just want to reach out and give him a hug (as many of the main characters actually do).
Overall the story is rather ho-hum. Not bad but nothing that memorable. There are some rather silly moments (like the Dalek self-destructing in shame for a lost prisoner?) but the occasional inspiring moment or good line as well (like the Doctor’s famous description of the Daleks: “Inside each of those shells is a living, bubbling lump of hate”). I suppose the title comes from the times in the city when the Daleks, helpless without weapons, are killed and how satisfying this turn around is for everyone–including the Doctor! The image of the Exxilons dancing around the burning Dalek they’ve just killed is quite iconic.
Best (or worst) unsettling moments:
There’s some nice atmosphere with Sarah alone in the darkened TARDIS and the creeping cloaked figure coming up on her or of the mass of blank glass-eyed aliens chanting around her as the prepare for the sacrifice or the menacing figure watching the screen. The “groaning” of the city as it dies is just odd. I find Galloway’s cold seizing of power and willingness to compromise the lives of entire populations even more disturbing.
It seems there are always some hokey bits in a Terry Nation story (like the self-destructing Dalek noted above), but the silliest looking bit of this story actually starts as a good idea. The deadly ‘root’ of the city we encounter is actually operated super well (the snake like movement in the water, for example) but not even that can hide the fact that it’s just a vaccuum tube with a light on it. The lack in design totally undercuts all good idea of it.