Wednesday, February 2, 2011

"The Daleks"

Aired Dec 21, 1963 - Feb 1 1964

Episode 1 – The Dead Planet
Episode 2 – The Survivors
Episode 3 – The Escape
Episode 4 – The Ambush
Episode 5 – The Expedition
Episode 6 – The Ordeal
Episode 7 – The Rescue

Story 2

Written by Terry Nation

Directed by Christopher Barry (Episodes 1, 2, 4, & 5)

& Richard Martin (Episodes 3, 6 & 7)


The TARDIS has materialized on the planet Skaro, an alien world ravaged by a brutal war between two races, the Daleks and the Thals. After the Doctor contrives to remain on the planet and explore even after it proves dangerous, the travellers are nearly killed by the radioactive atmosphere and captured by the Daleks, malicious creatures who have protected themselves from the radiation by encasing themselves in armoured travel machines. The Daleks attempt to force the travellers to aid them in a final effort to eradicate the Thals, who have become agrarian pacifists struggling to survive. 

After escaping the Dalek city, the Doctor and Ian convince the Thals of the need to fight their enemies and prevent their own extinction. The Daleks plan to irradiate the planet, which will wipe out all life other than themselves.

The travellers come up with a risky plan of attack. Ian, Barbara and a group of Thals will approach the Dalek city from the mountains, a dangerous route but one that is undefended. Meanwhile, the Doctor, Susan and the remaining Thals will mount a frontal attack as a diversion. The two-pronged approach succeeds, and the Doctor's team deactivates the Dalek defences, allowing the others to destroy the power source for the city, killing the Daleks.

Leaving their newfound and grateful friends, the Thals, all seems well. But then the ship lurches suddenly and the travellers are hurled to the floor….


Looking at it today, it's easy to see how The Daleks secured Doctor Who's immediate future. An Unearthly Child's first episode was astoundingly impressive, but the subsequent three had been solid, if a little unremarkable. However, The Daleks impresses immediately, and serves to create a template for the types of stories the programme will tell, while also introducing its most famous antagonists.

First, the overall look of the story is one of the  high points for the series. While, like all classic Doctor Who, it's obvious they don't have a lot of money or time to work with, this serial really makes the most of what they do have. The sets are well designed and look sturdy. The model work is quite superb actually. The visual effects, including the technique used to simulate an elevator, as well as the sequences where a Dalek ray fries a wall panel and a strange whirlpool devours a Thal, would barely be matched again in the classic era. There are some dodgy bits, of course, but overall the story boasts some really impressive work.

The script itself is structured into two acts. The first act, which covers the first four episodes, concerns itself with the mystery of the jungle and the city, the reveal of the Daleks and the threat from both them and the radiation sickness. It's a very grim section, with the Daleks making an incredible impact, and the atmosphere creating a tense, serious tone. The final act is a B-movie style action adventure story, in which our heroes must trek through the jungle before storming the fort. Both are thrilling, though clearly the first half is more engrossing (and its spooky atmosphere probably much more responsible for its huge success) than the second. Terry Nation delivers a taut, well-structured serial that barely drags (aside from the interminable spelunking sequence), although some of the plot points that seem so fresh here would be re-used so much that they would be beaten into the ground. Here, at the beginning, it's an unmitigated triumph.

The Daleks themselves make an indelible impression, a perfect melding of design and story. Nation's creations are paranoid and hateful and pathetic, and totally alien. Raymond Cusick's design is the real triumph, though. They are decidedly non-human, not just a guy in a suit. Without the human form to latch on to, the Daleks are immediately more imposing and terrifying. However, it cannot be denied that there is something also slightly comical about them. This uneasy mixture actually results in something that simultaneously repels, but still manages to be charming. Something that's so rarely commented on by other reviewers is how smoothly they move in this story. They glide around here, in the set built for them, like they rarely will again.

Finally, the regulars are all terrific. So many commentators call the Doctor sinister or ruthless during these early days, but I’m not sure I agree. He is selfish, certainly, and mistrustful of everyone, but nowhere near as dark as he is usually said to be. It is shocking to see him so eager to leave the Thals in the lurch, but when it becomes clear that the Daleks intend genocide, he is clearly outraged. It's less that he's ruthless, but more that he's not used to getting involved. It could, and has, been argued that his experiences with Ian and Barbara radically change him over time. He goes from a selfish wanderer to a hero over the course of this season, and this story is where it starts.

A classic in every sense of the word, and perhaps the single most important story in the show's history.

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