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Doctor Who: The Daleks (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Daleks originally aired in 1963-4.

Make! no! attempt! to! capture! them! they! are! to! be! exterminated! you! understand! exterminated!

– four episodes in, the Daleks have a catchphrase

Because of the somewhat confusing naming conventions for the Hartnell era, where each individual episode had its own title, this one goes by a variety of names: The Mutants, The Dead Planet, or The Daleks. Still, if you’re reading this, you probably know the serial I’m talking about. It’s the one that introduced everyone’s favourite psychotic little pepper pots.

Taking the plunger…

The ship’s no good without him. We’d better keep an eye on him. He seems to have a knack of getting himself into trouble.

– Ian’s getting the hang of this

I think that, in the fifty years since they first appeared, it’s easy to forget just how alien tha Daleks must have seemed to sixties audiences. Of course, even before the revival, Daleks were everywhere and had been absorbed through pop cultural osmosis. I knew what a Dalek was even before I became a fan of the show. They’re iconic and institutional, to the point where it’s hard to imagine a show without them. Indeed, it would certainly have been a very different show without them, as their popularity drove the show towards science fiction and away from its original educational foundation.

Still, to those audience members tuning in to the BBC in late 1963, they really must have seemed strange and… well, alien. The show didn’t have the biggest budget to begin with, but it’s striking that the production crew could create something so far outside the norm. On sixties television, “alien” was synonymous with “humanoid”, with must alien creatures in various shows ending up as a fully grown man in a silly latex suit. There were exceptions, but they were few and far between, and they certainly didn’t look like this.

The show was always good at cliffhangers…

It’s interesting to reflect back on it and contemplate how easy it would have been for the Daleks to flop with the general public, and be rejected by the audience as being too daft or silly, or not threatening enough. Certainly, in their introductory serial, there are moments when the monsters seem to talk too much, offering monologues or long expository conversations in those shrill voices. It’s strange what can become a fad, and what can become establish itself in the public imagination. The Daleks would return, on a wave of public anticipation, more than a few times in years to come – and I wonder how long the series could have survived without them.

Created by Terry Nation as Nazi analogues, it’s interesting to compare the creatures they were then with the icons they’d become – much like it’s interesting to look at Hartnell’s early portrayal of the character and measure it against the interpretations of his successors (and even his own later work). A lot of elements vanished fairly quickly – the reliance of the Daleks on static electricity, for example, or their dependence on radiation in order to survive. However, a lot remained. In particular, the extreme xenophobia that would define the militant mutants across five decades of the program – it’s fairly easy to recognise their motivations and philosophy here, even after dozens of stories. Even after all this time, their “dislike for the unlike”remains their defining character trait.

The Doctor, brought to kneel…

I do find it interesting that the Thals are represented as a bunch of Aryan people, at least as well as I can gauge from black and white. They all look like blonde swimsuit models, with the men walking around practically bare-chested. “You’re perfect!” Susan declares. This is to create a sense of irony with the Daleks’ assertion, “They! must! be! dis!gusting!ly! mutated!” However, I do find it strange that Nation would put a bunch of Aryans opposed to a bunch of Nazis. Surely it would make more sense to show a diverse group opposing the enforced homogeneity of the Daleks. It’s not a major point, but it is something I couldn’t help but think about.

The Daleksis a serial with a pretty hefty reputation. Indeed, many would argue that it’s the first truly classic serial that the show produced. I concede that it remains one of the most important and influential adventures, but I’m not entirely convinced that it’s a great adventure judged on its own terms. It’s seven episodes long, running nearly three hours, which is a lot of time. However, Nation’s script falls into a pattern that would become a tried and tested formula for the series: the characters explore, they are captured, they escape, they regroup, they attack, they are victorious. Nation’s serial effectively defines the default outline for a Doctor Who serial, and it’s undoubted highly influential.

So Sue me, I’m not too fond of it…

However, there is a large volume of padding here. There are a lot of the same awkward devices we’d see in later stories like Planet of the Daleks and even The Dalek Invasion of Earth, where Nation attempts to extend his story by creating strange and random monsters to block our heroes’ journey, just to buy some time. There’s no need for the extended trip back into the Dalek city, and certainly not through a dodge swamp “inhabited by all sorts of strange creatures.” It just makes the last two episodes drag, as do plot devices like the missing fluid link and the radiation medicine, along with the really awful soap opera between the Thals.

Nation even tries to hint at a romance her between Barbara and Ganatus, which would become something of a staple of his work, sketching romances with a varying level of credibility between female companions and guest stars in an attempt to generate depth. It barely works in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, and I’d argue that it doesn’t really work here – though it works better than in Planet of the Daleks. He also creates an expansive supporting cast, in the hopes that killing off certain members will create pathos. In short, Nation is a big fan of melodrama, but it seems forced and unconvincing.

The city on the edge of the soundstage…

On the other hand, the serial still looks great. The black and white serials benefit a bit from the way that the footage masks the matte paintings and the model work to a greater extent than it would with colour. Skaro looks great as a first attempt to realise an alien world, and I think that if the show had managed to maintain that standard we’d have been spared years of “quarry” jokes. Some of Nation’s smaller ideas, like the metal animals, are fascinating, and serve to illustrate how rapidly the series is shifting from educational into the realm of science fiction.

There are also some clever ideas to be found on pacifism, stuff a lot more complex and developed than in some of Nation’s later stories. “What would you do if the Daleks could leave their city?” Ian asks the Thals. “If they came up here and attacked you?” The leader responds, “We would go away, back to our plateau where we came from.”The Thals are genuine pacifists, afraid to fight, unlike the self-serving and manipulative pacifism of the Doctor’s later incarnations. Nation’s moral seems to be that while war is a bad thing, there are things worth fighting for – and it’s a surprisingly nuanced position for a tea time show to adopt.

Close companions?

There’s also a sense that the TARDIS crew are growing and developing. Again, it seems that Ian is the makeshift leader of the group, with the Doctor along simply because he’s the only one who can fly the TARDIS. It’s Ian the one who convinces the Thals to act, and who leads the expedition into the heart of the Dalek city. “Susan, you do as I say!” he insists at one point, usurping her grandfather’s position of authority.

This is in contrast to the Doctor, who is seen as a manipulative and thoughtless creature. It’s his tampering that strands the crew on Skaro, so he can satisfy his own curiosity. “I will not be questioned,” he insists. “Uninvited passengers. I didn’t invite them to the ship. I shall do what I want to do.” He’s a selfish old fellow, and it’s interesting to note how quickly he gets on board with Ian’s decision to nobly sacrifice himself so that the others may live. “Well, come on. He’s right.” When he discovers the Daleks plan to wipe out the Thals, his first instinct is, “Best leave well alone.” However, when he discovers that the Daleks have the fluid link, he’s keen to drive the Thals against them as cannon fodder, insisting, “My dear child, this is no time for morals. They must fight for us.”

The relationship between the TARDIS crew is just flowering…

It’s interesting that Barbara actually sides with him on this point, and against Ian, who is morally disgusted by the suggestion. “I am sorry, I’m not having anyone’s death on my conscience.” I like the idea that Ian serves as the Doctor’s conscience, the muscle that basically forces him to do the right thing rather than simply getting the hell out of dodge. “It’s time you faced up to your responsibilities,” Ian warns him. “You got us here. Now I’m going to make sure that you get us back.” My pet theory is that the Doctor credits humanity with making him the sort of hero that he is, and that’s the root of his fondness for us.

And yet there are hints of something more. In particular, he seems to be warming to the presence of Ian and Barbara, especially because they can relate to his granddaughter. He explains to Barbara, “Yes, you know, sometimes I find the gulf between Susan’s age and mine makes difficult understanding between us.” You know, part of me wonders if he didn’t abduct them in order to give his child two surrogate parent figures. After all, he takes the two of them with him because he doesn’t want to change history by letting them see a TARDIS, but he seems pretty cool with the cave men from An Unearthly Childseeing the TARDIS dematerialise (and in helping them make fire).

Sorry, you must have Skaro-ed them…

There’s also hints of the show’s already developing mythology, not least of which the first suggestion that the Doctor – for all his bluster and assertions – can’t actually fly the TARDIS, in what would become a running gag. “Well why doesn’t he take us back?” Barbara asks, prompting Ian to respond, “I’m not sure that he can.” It’s interesting that so much of the show was defined so early on and so much of it stayed constant. I know that the minor details changed, but the outline of the series was defined pretty clearly and pretty quickly.

More than that, though, we get a true sense that the Doctor is a man of science through and through. As much as he might be cowardly and anti-social, Hartnell gives the character a joyful enthusiasm when dealing with anything of scientific interest – whether learning about Skaro’s twelve-planet system or playing with the Dalek’s static electricity. “Grandfather seems to be enjoying himself,”Susan remarks, and she’s right. I think that Hartnell’s portrayal managed to give us a protagonist with major character flaws who was still an interesting and engaging character. I imagine that this is what the production staff were going for with Colin Baker’s Doctor, but it didn’t work out.

Testing Ian’s metal…

The “are they/aren’t they” dynamic between Barbara and Ian continues in this serial. When Barbara screams, Ian rushes to her aid so quickly he even crushes Susan’s plant. When Barbara has a nervous breakdown, there seems to be a very clear romantic angle to his response. “I counted so much on just going back to things I recognise and trust,” she explains. “But here there’s nothing to rely on. Nothing.” Always smooth, Ian replies, “Well, there’s me.”

However, there’s also a sense that this whole experience has knocked Barbara for a loop, and she doesn’t seem to acclimatise as well as Ian. So it’s interesting to watch her flirt with Ganatus as he coyly asks, “Do you always do what Ian says?” She answers “no”, but there’s no way that even somebody in a relationship would answer yes. Unless they are Rory. I just see it as Barbara asserting her independence from Ian, who has been taking all this in his stride while she’s struggling.

Which one of these is the star of the show again?

There’s no denying the fact that The Daleks defined the show. What had originally been intended to be an educational show designed to enlighten and educate about science and history suddenly became an exotic adventure serial with strange monsters and new surroundings. The show was such a success that Nation was commissioned to write The Keys of Marinus for the show’s second batch of episodes. It’s telling that the plain old historical stories exemplified by An Unearthly Child ended up being forgotten and becoming relics abandoned by the series, while the high-concept science-fiction fantasy of The Daleks lives on in the show to this very day.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of the classic Doctor Who:

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