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Doctor Who (Classic): "The Daleks"

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"The Daleks" (season 1, episodes 5-11. Originally aired Dec. 21, 1963-Feb. 1, 1964)

I don't think it's hyperbole to suggest that "The Daleks" might be the most important serial in the history of Doctor Who. I'm not saying it's the best—though it is very good—but it was such a huge success at such an early stage in the show's development that it changed what the show was about at its core. It made the show an instant hit, and sparked a frenzy of interest in the Daleks, complete with tons of cheap toys and novelty records. And its influence still echoes in both major and minor ways, from helping to define the Doctor by defining who his enemies are, to establishing a tradition of dramatically revealing a serial's main villain as the cliffhanger of its first episode.


So it's interesting that it almost never got made.  When Doctor Who was first conceived in the early 1960s, the BBC—particularly head of drama Sydney Newman—insisted on avoiding the kind of science fiction that they considered vulgar. The official edict was to avoid "bug-eyed monsters" or "tin robots." This was seen as needlessly limiting by Doctor Who's first producer and script editor, Verity Lambert and David Whitaker, who went ahead and commissioned writer Terry Nation to put together a story about a race of mutants who had survived a nuclear war by living in tank-like metal casings—bug-eyed monster and tin robot in one fell swoop. Newman still hated the concept, and might have rejected it if it weren't for the fact that all the other potential scripts had either fallen through or weren't ready yet. (In fact, Nation had to lengthen the serial to seven episodes from the original six.) Once the show was actually broadcast, though, it was clear that a) Newman had been flat-out wrong that a story about monsters necessarily had to be of poor quality, and b) the public loved it. Viewership went from 6.9 to 10.4 million over seven weeks, and Newman, very much to his credit, admitted to Lambert that she'd been right and that he wouldn't second-guess her again.


"The Daleks" is, for the most part, quite solid, full of well-paced action and some interestingly subtle characterizations, though it definitely begins to drag around the fifth episode, with a long trek through swamps and caverns that moves the plot forward by about an inch. But it's Shakespeare compared to something like "Time and the Rani" or "The Twin Dilemma," and it was a tremendous relief to finally get back to this era of the show after the last few weeks of this column. By today's standards, it sometimes doesn't look like it was filmed by professionals—you can see boom mike shadows, things like that. I find it's easier to get into the spirit of these older shows by thinking of them as live theater instead of television.  If a small mistake happens, you just forgive it and let the story keep going. Wait for something major before turning it off.

The story itself picks up directly after the previous episode, "An Unearthly Child/100,000 B.C.," in which schoolteachers Ian and Barbara (William Russell and Jacqueline Wright) are kidnapped by the Doctor (William Hartnell), the cantankerous and untrustworthy grandfather of their student Susan (Carole Ann Ford), and barely survive an encounter with a tribe of desperate cavemen.
The old man is now hopelessly lost, having jumped the TARDIS  hastily and apparently randomly twice—first in a fit of pique to keep Ian and Barbara from spilling his secrets, and then to escape the consequences of his first rash decision, a bunch of angry Cro-Magnons with clubs and spears. It's worth noting that the first three Hartnell-era serials are far less concerned with the wonders of exploration than they are with stark, basic survival. (Hat tip for pointing this out to me to my friend Tom, who posts as "Dr. Tom" in the comments section, and who's been watching most of these shows with me.) It's not until "Marco Polo," three months after Doctor Who debuted, that the crew is secure enough to explore strange new worlds or seek out new life and new civilizations except to forestall the threat of imminent death. They don't boldly go where no one has gone before, they do it because they're forced to by circumstance. (Well, mostly, but I'm getting to that.) It's true that Ian and Barbara push the Doctor toward more conscientious behavior, but it's undeniable that helping the cavemen and the Daleks' pastoral enemies the Thals is done as much out of self-interest as because it's the right thing to do—a surprisingly complex view of heroism for a kid's show.


The first episode is almost entirely focused on the four lead actors as they explore the strange petrified jungle where they've landed and debate whether to explore the tantalizing city they see in the distance, or just get the hell out of there and try to go home. It's a good choice, this early in the show, to devote this much attention to building the relationships between the major characters. Susan is naive and easily frightened, the Doctor is evasive and haughty, and Ian and Barbara waver between curiosity and well-grounded suspicion that they're not safe here. Meanwhile, they start to feel the first signs of what we viewers know is radiation poisoning, and are given mysterious vials by an unseen person that turn out to be gifts of anti-radiation drugs from the Thals.

Despite being the title character, the Doctor is not the lead protagonist here—it's more of an ensemble show, or even arguably about Ian and Barbara, with the Doctor as an untrustworthy and devious side character who causes as much trouble as he solves. Which brings me to his deliberate sabotage of the TARDIS when it's clear that everyone else wants to leave. The Doctor's irrepressible curiosity overwhelms his sense of caution, a trait that's still one of his rock-solid defining characteristics. But for the First Doctor, it's a serious flaw in his character, and his foolhardiness nearly gets them all killed. This is what boldly going gets you.


The Doctor would not become the unequivocal star until later in the Hartnell run. And—tangent coming up here—perhaps he never would have been, if there had been a slightly different emphasis on the characters during this early part of the series. It's easy to imagine an alternate-history scenario: Hartnell's health eventually declined to the point where he was forced to leave the show in favor of Patrick Troughton, and the early signs of it are apparent even in "The Daleks," in which he clearly forgets his lines a couple of times. But part of the reason that the producers came up with the regeneration concept was that no other character on the show at the time could quite take his place—the actor couldn't stay, but the character couldn't go. In these early serials, it's Ian who takes on most of the show's need for a dashing hero who tries to do the right thing—but that began to shift more and more toward the Doctor, particularly after Ian and Barbara left the show in "The Chase," and became definitive when Troughton stepped in. But what if Hartnell had stepped down while Ian Chesterton was still on board? Unlike all of Hartnell's other companions, Ian was only one step away from fitting the Doctor's basic "science hero who travels through time and space" description—he couldn't pilot the TARDIS himself. If he learned how, then—speaking strictly in terms of his ability to fit into the narrative as a plot driver and heroic figure—the Doctor becomes replaceable. If the writers had still had him to work with as a character when faced with the sudden need to write out the title character, they might have simply transferred that role to Ian. The Time Lords, the special relationship of the Doctor with his time machine, his status as a sort of time-space wizard—none of that had been invented yet, and there was no particular reason that a high-school science teacher couldn't have filled his shoes. That doesn't mean that we'd now be watching Ian Who—assuming that the show was still on the air, it would have lost the concept of a central character who unifies the show across all eras. William Russell would have eventually left, replaced by some other actor who'd be inheriting a position, not a character, like the successive captains of a ship. There'd be no Doctor and no Doctor Who as we know either of them.


Anyway, back to the show at hand, where the TARDIS crew has now hiked hours through the stone jungle to the mysterious city where they hope to find mercury to fix the fluid link that the Doctor hasn't yet admitted that he broke on purpose, though it's clear that Ian suspects something. It's the Daleks' city, of course, and even before we see them, the architectural design suggests that something inhuman lives there. The angles are all wrong, like a German Expressionist film, and the door controls are shaped for fingerless, sucker-shaped hands. I don't want to make too much out of that—it's subtle, and less impressive in 2011 than it would have been then, but solid atmospherics by designer Ray Cusick, and Tristram Cary's electronic score.

Barbara gets separated from the others in the mazy corridors, and wanders into a room that turns out to be an elevator. Now thoroughly lost and rattled, she turns a corner to see…



With a sucker arm.

Coming towards her.

She screams.

Cut to black.

Cue end credits.

Fifteen hundred words in and I'm just now getting to the end of episode one, but it's worth pausing here to talk about this moment, the justifiably renowned cliffhanger that gives us the first, tantalizingly incomplete glimpse of a Dalek. It's remarkably creepy and tension-building, and far more chilling than the similarly teasing shot of a caveman's shadow that ended the first episode of "Unearthly Child." The importance of the cliffhangers might not be immediately obvious to us now, watching the shows in a single block on DVD or streaming video. But you have to remember that none of these stories were intended to be watched—and could not be watched—the way we do now. They were doled out in 24-minute parcels once a week, and each segment of the story had to build to a climax strong enough to make you remember to tune in again in seven days. Often enough, the cliffhangers were cheats, jolting the narrative artificially without marking an actual turning point in the story, but when they were done right, they had tremendous impact. And this one set a standard for all the rest to follow. I'm not sure the show ever did a cliffhanger better than this, though it would go back to that well on numerous occasions.


Once we finally do meet the villains eye-to-eyestalk, they are—well, you know who they are. Unlike the Doctor, the Daleks are basically the same creatures as the ones who pop up in the modern era. They're interstellar Nazis, implacably hostile to anything that isn't a Dalek, driven by persistent race hatred and a need to be obeyed. But still, these Daleks are not quite yet the Daleks. They're not world-beaters, not conquerors of the universe. They are desperate survivors of a long-ago nuclear war. They're weak and frail and sickly, and absolutely terrified that someday the Thals will come back and finish the job of killing them all. And you know what, they weren't wrong. With the Doctor's help, their enemies exterminate them. (For now.)


The Dalek/Thal relationship has a clear antecedent in H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, with its division between the golden-haired, tribal, innocent Eloi and the brutal, subterranean, technological Morlocks. That helps explain the uncomfortable fact that the so-called "perfect" Thals are all stereotypically Nordic blonds, though I appreciate the irony that if the Daleks are Nazis who dream of racial purity, it's their mortal enemies who wound up looking like Aryans. There's also an echo of Wells' War of the Worlds in the Daleks, with a fearsome metal shell encasing a hostile, tentacled thing inside. It wasn't exactly uncommon for sci-fi stories of this era to reflect the Cold War's divisions, and the Daleks are no exception. They are individualistic enough to need to talk over their plans amongst themselves, but none appear to have a unique identity. They all look exactly alike, and none are given names. There is not even a definable leader—decisions seem to be arrived at by consensus. They're communists.


The radiation issue suggests to the Daleks that there is no possibility of co-existence, even if the Thals stick to the jungle and the Daleks stay in their city. Later on, that nuance would be lost or glossed over, and when their origin story was retconned in the Tom Baker serial "Genesis of the Daleks," we're told that the first Daleks had their consciences removed. But here, even though the Daleks don't show any signs of an ethical struggle, their ethical situation is complex enough to be worth noting.

The Dalek body plan has been mocked countless times for its impracticality (no legs, so it can't climb stairs, etc. etc.), but seeing them in their first appearance, it's more apparent that their design really does work elegantly for its original purpose. From a production perspective, they're effectively alien, as convincingly non-human as it was possible for a human actor to be in 1963. Most aliens look like some guy wearing a mask or a rubber suit, not just on Doctor Who but all sci-fi TV and movies before computer animation was common. (Ray Cusick, it should be noted, rarely got enough credit and never got any royalties for his design, since he was a BBC staffer; writer Terry Nation co-owned his creation, and got rich for it.) In-story, the Daleks' limiting tank-like forms are a reflection of the way they've become too well adapted to their immediate environment, the radiation-laced city with its miles of flat floors and nourishing static electricity.


Later on in the series, Daleks commonly assert themselves to be the universe's superior beings. Here, we see how hollow that claim is, even to them. Inside their shells, the Daleks are full of self-hatred. Their first goal in this story is to steal the Thals' anti-radiation drug to cure themselves of their mutation, of their very Dalekness. But the discovery of what the drug actually does to them changes everything. The Daleks have been trying to free themselves from their post-nuclear hell, not realizing that they have passed the point of no return. The Daleks adapted to the radiation from the war by evolving to thrive on it; the Thals adapted by moving to a remote area where they lived for hundreds of years. One group will die if there's too much radiation, and the other will die if there's no enough of it. Now that the radiation levels are falling in the post-apocalypse, what made the Daleks fit to survive is now killing them. Darwin's a bitch.

It's left unclear, but it's possible that the Daleks were merely victims of the earlier war, not the aggressors—even the Thals' own legends say that their people were the warriors, while the pre-mutation Daleks were philosophers and teachers. It's tempting to sympathize with them; though there's no doubt that they're evil, it's possible to understand their point of view. They do what they believe that their situation forces them into. Of course, they go about their goal with a total disregard for anyone else, and never even consider peaceful co-existence. Then as now, that's the essence of Dalek behavior—they're grotesquely literalized bullies, with a hard shell concealing something soft and loathsome inside that survives in direct violation of the laws of nature.


When the Daleks returned in later stories, they left their city on Skaro behind, although it was the only place in the universe that seemed tailor-made to suit them. Outside their city, Daleks are something like the way Douglas Adams described Vogons in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: They know full well how badly adapted they are to live anywhere else, and it just makes them hate everyone else even more. They ignore it, and go on to conquer the universe out of sheer bloody-mindedness. But at least they don't write poetry.

Stray observations

• I love the quaint futurism of the TARDIS' food machine, which dispenses sad-looking cubes of nourishment to the delighted astonishment of Ian and Barbara—though it would have certainly seemed impressive in 1963, when the American space program was still glamourous enough that even astronauts having to eat by sucking strained peas through a straw was kind of cool.


• Ray Cusick got the job designing the Daleks because the original guy wasn't available—which was Ridley Scott, the future director of Alien and Blade Runner.

• According to the infotext (always a highlight of these DVDs, though it's often distracting from the main action), episode two of "The Daleks" was filmed just minutes after the announcement of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.


• Susan's terrified run through the Skaro jungle to retrieve the Thal drugs in episode two is, like Barbara's capture by the Daleks in the first episode, a great instance of the production team making a virtue out of the small set they had to work with to achieve a real sense of claustrophobia and constrictive fear. There wasn't enough room for Carole Ann Ford to run through the jungle set, so she ran in place while crew members lashed her with branches to simulate the effect of fleeing in terror through the forest at night. And the cliffhanger is well chosen too: She's finally reached the TARDIS and collapses in relief and exhaustion after being pushed to her very limits—but now she's got to go back. What fresh hell is this, eh?

• Here's a taste of the pop-culture craze for the Daleks that infected Britain in 1964: The cloying novelty single "I'm Gonna Spend My Christmas With A Dalek" by one-hit wonders The Go Gos (not to be confused with the '80s girl group):

• Next week: The Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) gets surreal in 1968's "The Mind Robber."
• Aug. 14: "The Time Warrior"
• Aug. 21: "The Brain of Morbius"
• Aug. 28: "Earthshock"
• And in September—well, I've got a few serials locked in, but I'm open to suggestions, though I'd like to stick to the first five Doctors for a little while. My guiding principle, so far anyway, is to jump around through the history of the show in such a way that I can hit the major developments in the series in a way that might help viewers who know (at most) the new series to get into the old series.
• Sept. 4: "The Aztecs"
• Sept. 11: TBA Patrick Troughton episode—probably "The Invasion" or "The Seeds of Death"
• Sept. 18: "Terror of the Autons"
• Sept. 25: "The Talons of Weng-Chiang"
• Oct. 2: TBA Peter Davison episode—probably "Kinda"