After escaping from the dawn of time, the TARDIS crew land on a planet that, unbeknownst to them, is bathed in high doses of radiation. Finding a futurist city, they meet one group of survivors from a terrible war – the Daleks. But is all as it seems? Are the Daleks true to their word? Who are the Thals and just what is the truth behind the war that devastated the planet Skaro?
So it’s come to this. Finally, after avoiding this story for the best part of seven months since we restarted the Review The Who site, I now have to actually review the first Dalek story. You may be wondering why I have avoided it. If you aren’t, then tough – I’m telling you anyway. To put it simply, I am not a fan of the first Dalek story. But wait! I can explain…
Our travellers land on a dead planet, but the TARDIS does not register the high radiation levels until after they have gone outside to explore the forest. They find a city but Ian and Barbara are eager to get home. However, The Doctor sabotages the TARDIS fluid link, effectively stranding them and forcing the crew to explore the city for mercury. Here they encounter the Daleks, survivors of a nuclear war that has mutated them to such an extent that they require machines to travel around their city. The crew soon show signs of radiation sickness so the Daleks allow Susan to go back to the TARDIS to pick up the box of anti-radiation drugs that had been mysteriously left there by an unknown person. This person introduces himself to Susan as Alydon, a Thal, and he gives her a cloak and more drugs.
After being trapped long enough to recover, our heroes escape with the aid of the cape and use the Dalek machine to find a way out to warn the Thals of the impending attack by the Daleks, who have used Susan to write a message of friendship to the Thals while secretly planning on destroying them for good. Escaping the city, The Doctor realises that he’s left the Fluid Link behind and they can’t leave without that part. It is here that they remind the Thals of their warlike past and convince them to attack the city, using a two pronged attack with Ian & Barbara taking the mountain entrance while the remaining Thals attack via the front. During the final battle, the Daleks static electric power source is destroyed, leaving them to slowly die and the Thals safe from any future attacks. The TARDIS crew find the missing link and return to the TARDIS, but are all knocked out by an explosion shortly after take off.
Now as I have said, I don’t like this story all that much, yet I can see what fandom loves about it. There are several iconic moments that will forever be associated with Doctor Who and the rise of the show from being a small tea time show after Grandstand to a programme that was loved by children and adults alike. There’s the moment we first see part of a Dalek, menacing Barbara at the end of the first episode, followed by the full reveal of the Daleks and how deadly their weapons can be with Ian being stunned. But in spite of these iconic images, “The Daleks” is not the best of stories as a whole because, when you look at the sum of its parts, it’s clear that the show is still finding it’s feet and therefore isn’t at full strength both on the acting and script fronts.
This being the second story in the shows run, William Hartnell, William Russell, Jacqueline Hill and Carole Ann Ford are still getting used to not only the ideas before them of travelling in this magnificent machine, but also of the ideas behind the show. Hartnell is still coming to grips with how exactly he wanted to play The Doctor and until after “Edge Of Destruction” he would not fully settle into the role of the loveable grumpy grandfather figure. It’s partly because of how this story brought Doctor Who into the mainstream of must see TV that probably helped him settle into the role and finally enable him to leave behind the brutish sergeant major type roles he had been known for. Russell and Hill are the most settled in their roles out of the four main actors; their job is to be amazed at all that’s happening to, possibly the easiest task of the four actors, and Hill also gives us the first iconic cliffhanger moment with the Dalek baring down on her at the end of episode 1. Susan still serves as the contact between the crew and the viewers, but we also see the beginnings of the character change that would see her become less childlike and alien, moving towards the eventual young woman that we see in her final story.
And then, of course, there are the Daleks themselves. The description that Terry Nation gave of them in his script was brilliantly realised by Raymond Cusick (though there is a part of me that has always wondered just what would’ve been if Ridley Scott had originally been able to do the design work on the story – would they have looked anything like what we saw on telly? Would he have gone on to direct several of the best movies of the past 50 years or ended up just being known as that guy who designed the Daleks?). The design, sound and look of the story is something that until this point had never been seen by anyone before on television The look of the Daleks, moving along the floor with the grace of a ball room dancer, enthralled the imagination of children of the time and too this day they still do. The suspension of disbelief of anything actually living being inside this machine launched the show to new and amazing heights. It also captured a little bit of the horror that was still felt being only 18 years after the end of the Second World War, with the Daleks being a perfect analogy to the Nazis in terms of an evil power that wished to conquer & destroy all that is not like them. Later Doctor Who book writers like Lance Parkin and John Peel have disputed this idea but, personally, I would take anything that John Peel has said on anything Dalek related with a pinch of salt – I mean, have you read War Of The Daleks?! Actually scrub the salt idea, take anything he’s said on the matter and burn it. Even the look of the Thals (tall, blonde and good looking) has somewhat Arian overtones. Then we have the voices that would frighten generations to come, with their staccato robotic delivery given by Peter Hawkins (the voice of Bill and Ben) and David Graham (the voice of Brains in Thunderbirds) through a Ring Modulator. This added to the already extraterrestrial nature of the Daleks and would help them become the icons that they are seen as today.
And finally there’s the writing. Terry Nation in later years (as often told by Terrance Dicks in interviews) was always said to have re-written his original script of “The Daleks” for any new story he would do for the show; you only have to look at “Planet Of The Daleks” and “Death To The Daleks” to see how similar that story is in tone to this one, yet those two stories are far more watchable compared to this one. It has nothing to do with it being in black & white as several of my all time favourite stories happen to be from the 60’s era of the show. “The Daleks” suffers from being seriously over padded in its storyline and could be shortened down by at least 2 episodes if the padding was removed. The simple fact that it would be cut down in the film version a year later shows just how padded it really was. I honestly do prefer the film version of “The Daleks” compared to the TV one because of if feeling tighter in terms of story telling.
And suddenly I feel that the last few readers here may have joined up with the rest of fandom to arrange my lynching, just in time for the 51st anniversary…
So, after that hatchet job of a review, you probably expect me to give this story a low mark. However, because this story brings lots to the show and launched it into the public eye, I’m not going to. I can see that while this story has flaws and padding issues, it is still a show that was very young in terms of feel and by the middle of the season the feel of the show that we all love would begin to bleed through. Therefore “The Daleks” gets a solid 7/10 from me because, although there is a lot that comes from this story, it is by no means perfect but is still strong enough to stand out 50 years after it first aired.
Written and edited by Alexander James Wilkinson