Doctor Who: The Daleks

"It's only a model..." "Shh!"
(aka 'The Mutants' or 'The Dead Planet')

At the end of 1963 the shaken and weak British populace, still reeling from the onslaught of Beatlemania, succumbs to Dalekmania!

Season 1, Series B
Starring William Hartnell as the Doctor
With William Russell (Ian), Jacqueline Hill (Barbara) and Carole Ann Ford (Susan)
Written by Terry Nation
Directed by Christopher Barry (eps 1,2,4,5) and Richard Martin (eps 3,6,7)
Produced by Verity Lambert

Episodes and Broadcast Dates:
  1. The Dead Planet – 21 Dec 1963
  2. The Survivors – 28 Dec 1963
  3. The Escape – 4 Jan 1964
  4. The Ambush – 11 Jan 1964
  5. The Expedition – 18 Jan 1964
  6. The Ordeal – 25 Jan 1964
  7. The Rescue – 1 Feb 1964

PLOT SUMMARY

The TARDIS crew lands in a petrified forest, and the Doctor realizes the planet has been decimated by a nuclear holocaust. Ian and Barbara adjust to the reality that they’re on an alien world. Susan is certain that a human hand touched her shoulder, but the others are certain that there’s nothing alive in the forest. They find the ruins of a vast and technologically advanced city on a plain below them; the Doctor is keen to explore but Susan, Ian and Barbara are unwilling. They find a small box outside the TARDIS, containing small phials. The Doctor secretly sabotages the TARDIS so it can’t take off, falsely declaring the fluid link needs mercury, so they have no other option but to seek a remedy in the city.

In the bowels of the city they encounter the Daleks, mutated survivors of the holocaust, who live in travel machines for survival and mobility. The TARDIS crew begin to show signs of radiation sickness, and realize the phials contained anti-radiation drugs left for them by allies. Susan is terrified, but as the healthiest of the four, returns to the forest alone to retrieve the drugs. Along the way she encounters Alydon (who had touched Susan’s shoulder and left the drugs), a member of the Daleks’ancient enemies, the humanoid Thals. The remaining Thals are pacifist agrarian nomads, and seek reconciliation with the Daleks now that their food sources are dwindling, and Susan passes the message to the Daleks. They appear to accept the offer of friendship and leave a large supply of food, but it’s actually an ambush and several Thals are massacred, including their leader Temmosus. The TARDIS crew escapes the city with the surviving Thals. The Doctor has to confess his ruse to his fellow travelers, as well as admit he left the fluid link back in the Dalek city, so they are in the uncomfortable position of having to convince the Thals to help them infiltrate the city and fight the Daleks so they can retrieve it.

The Daleks experiment with the Thal radiation drugs, but discover it is fatally toxic and that they are now completely dependent on radiation. They resolve to completely irradiate the surface of Skaro with a neutronic bomb to wipe out the Thals for good and make the rest of the planet habitable for them.

Meanwhile, the Doctor and Susan lead a small group to divert attention away from the main group led by Ian and Barbara, who travel through a terrifying swamp full of mutated byproducts of Dalek experimentation, and eventually find a cave that leads to the Daleks’ water filtration station and into the city. A climactic battle in the main control room destroys the city’s static electricity source seconds before the bomb detonates, stopping the countdown and killing the Daleks by starving them of power. The Doctor replaces the fluid link and the TARDIS is able to dematerialize, but shortly after takeoff, a violent explosion throws the crew to the floor...

ANALYSIS AND NOTES

It is fascinating, being both Beatle fan and a Whovian, to note that the initial waves of Beatlemania and Dalekmania were virtually simultaneous. I would love at some point to study more about the parallels between these two pop-culture institutions, and their roles in defining the experience of British youth in the 1960’s.

Inasmuch as the previous serial is justly famous for introducing the Doctor and the TARDIS, without this serial, they never would have lasted, and Doctor Who would be a curious relic of history among the lost early works of British Sci-Fi alongside A for Andromeda. Plenty of people have written volumes on the impact of the Daleks, and I don’t want to regurgitate or inadvertently copy their words.

Aspects of the Daleks featured here that we rarely, if ever, see again... no Davros, for a start, the notion that they ran on static electricity through the floors (they got over that in a hurry), that they thrive on radiation, etc. Also, the relative chronology of where exactly this serial falls in the overall spectrum of Dalek history has always been a subject for debate, and Terry Nation did himself no favors later on when he threw the concept of Davros into the mix some eleven years later.

To me, what really makes this story work, above and beyond the startlingly alien design (for 1963) of the Daleks, are the particularly memorable cliffhangers that ensured that everyone who watched one episode would be back for the next:
  1. the P.O.V. shot of a Dalek plunger arm (the only part the effects team had built yet!) advancing menacingly on Barbara
  2. the ominous thunder as Susan heads off into the petrified forest alone to retrieve the radiation drugs.
  3. the claw of the Dalek mutant emerging from the cloak.
  4. the realization that the Doctor left the fluid link behind in the city, and they cannot leave.
  5. the whirlpool as the swamp creature attacks the helpless Elyon.
  6. Antodus misses the leap across the chasm, plunges in, and dangles from the rope helplessly as his weight threatens to pull Ian and the others to their doom as well.
  7. The TARDIS is rocked by an explosion, throwing the crew to the floor.
And what seems to go largely unremarked upon, that makes this serial particularly effective for me, is the moral dilemma our heroes find themselves in. They escape from the city with the Thals after the Dalek massacre and are content to leave in the TARDIS (leaving the Thals to their fate!) until they discover that the Doctor lost the fluid link. The prospect of the four of them managing to retrieve it on their own is hopeless so they have to ask the Thals to help, essentially asking them to risk their existence for strangers. They then have to argue the case that it’s in the pacifist Thals’ best interest to fight the Daleks, which goes against their entire way of life. After the desolation of the nuclear war several generations ago, the Thals were so horrified that they repudiated all violence, and are unwilling and incapable of taking up arms again. Even so, the Daleks now know the Thals are still around, and are trying to exterminate (there, I waited until now to use that word) them utterly. Ian even takes the rather uncomfortable step of grabbing Smurfette... I mean Dyoni... and threatening to trade her for the fluid link. We know he’s just trying to goad the Thals into reacting, but it does re-emphasize that our heroes’ primary motivation is not to help the Thals or defeat the Daleks, it’s to get the hell out of there. It’s self-preservation, not altruism.

And of course, that sneaky bastard the Doctor, still quite removed from the heroic archetype he would later represent, has a lot to answer for and worsens the situation instead of fixing it, willfully sabotaging the TARDIS so they would have to go into the city, and then eating humble pie when he realizes he left the fluid link behind after they fled. We do, however, see his moral compass come into focus as he denounces the Daleks' plan to irradiate the planet as "senseless and evil."

We’re still about three years away from Troughton’s statement of purpose in The Moonbase: "There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything we believe in. They must be fought."

As for the rest of the story, episode one is especially dialogue-heavy, which can make it quite difficult for a contemporary viewer to stay engaged. If written today, all the events in episode one could’ve been compressed to one minute.

Terry Nation, eager to break free from his background in comedy writing, comes up with a concept that would justifiably immortalize him and keep him and his estate in clover, though it must be said that he rarely writes multi-dimensional characters and his subsequent Dalek and non-Dalek stories would find him recycling old plots to an almost absurd degree. And note that the cast apparently never actually take the anti-radiation gloves, er, drugs.

Nonetheless, there was a surprising number of special effects shots that still look impressive over a half-century later: the composite shot of the first glimpse of the Dalek city, the model of the Dalek city itself, the ‘frying’ of the wall when a Dalek shoots at Ian, the iconic ‘negative’ flash when someone is shot, the whirlpool in the swamp, even the cave is pretty well-shot (except when it’s all too obvious that the rock walls are made of styrofoam). The control room battle ultimately makes for a pretty weak climax, taped as it was virtually live in the studio, and might have been much better realized as a pre-filmed insert. But then, that's Richard Martin for you.

Technical note: Further evidence that the BBC was taking extra lengths to make the program work, even while simultaneously looking for an excuse to end it prematurely if necessary – Episode One had to be entirely re-shot due to a technical glitch, weeks into the rehearsal process of the subsequent episodes.

The BBC had initially approved a block of thirteen episodes, and it wasn’t until the immediate success of the Daleks that they greenlit thirteen more. And even with all the creative accounting that was necessary to keep the show afloat, the two episodes following the budget-busting epic on Skaro (i.e. the twelfth and thirteenth episodes in the original block) had to be set solely in the TARDIS with no guest actors. No problem...

Who You Know: Alan Wheatley (Temmossus) played a flamboyantly fey hitman in the 1946 film noir Appointment With Crime, featuring one of Billy Hartnell's rare starring roles as a crook on the lam. The investigating detective is Robert Beatty, who would later appear as General Cutler in The Tenth Planet.

RATING
3 out of 4 Pepperpots
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John Geoffrion balances a career in hospital fundraising with semi-pro theatre gigs, and watches way too much Doctor Who and Britcoms in between. He'll create an author page after he puts up a few more reviews.

1 comment:

Billie Doux said...

This is such an interesting read, John. I never would have thought of the confluence of the Daleks and the Beatles. Funny how they're both still part of the culture, too.

I did see this one a couple of years ago, although I'll admit I didn't retain much from it. I'm a Star Trek geek, not a Doctor Who geek. :)