Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between. But recently I decided to spend some of my 50th birthday spending money on some of these adventures, and enjoy them with one or two of my nerdier daughters. (However, I already owned this one–but it was rewatching all those others that inspired me to revisit it again).
(Daily Doctor Who #48)
Starring William Hartnell as the First Doctor.
Companions: William Russell as Ian Chesterton, Jacqueline Hill as Barbara Wright, and Carole Ann Ford as Susan Foreman
Written by Terry Nation. Directed by Christopher Barry (episodes 1-3 & 5) and Richard Martin (episodes 4, 6 & 7).
Format: 7 episodes, each about 25 minutes long (individually named The Dead Planet, The Survivors, The Escape, The Ambush, The Expedition, The Ordeal, and The Rescue)
Originally Aired: December 1963 – February 1964 (Episodes 5-11 of Season 1)
The Daleks wasn’t the first Doctor Who adventure, obviously, but it was the one which really put the show on the map. The series had been moderately successful up to that point, but after this serial both the program and the Daleks became massive cultural phenomena. Prior to its production, Doctor Who-conceptualizer Sydney Newman objected to it because it looked to much like trashy science fiction, but producer Verity Lambert (and the necessity of circumstances) convinced him to let them go ahead and make it. And the rest is history.
There are a lot of ways that much of The Daleks is kind of similar to the last three episodes of An Unearthly Child. Both stories involve the Doctor and his companions being trapped in an enclosed space for an extended period of time, and both involve a little group of primitive or semi-primitive locals whose culture gets explored and that the time travelers must contend with. The Thals are actually less interesting then the cavemen were for the most part, and are hard to keep track of thanks to the fact that they are all athletic and blond. But there is ultimately less time spent on their internal dynamics, and more on the external plot, which makes the story far more satisfying.
It is, arguably, too long. Certain sequences, such as the escaping travelers navigating a lift, go on for too long. And though I enjoyed all the business in the tunnels in the last couple of episodes, it could certainly have been compressed somewhat. And there are a few examples of awkward direction. Foremost amongst them is the ambush of the Thals–Ian seems to be hiding around for a long time before deciding to warn anyone, and Temmosus is bizarrely unaware of the fact that there are multiple Daleks moving towards him. The show also struggles to keep the story’s final battle from looking a bit awkward and clumsy.
But on the whole, it’s a gripping adventure filled with neat ideas and nifty sets. The Daleks themselves are menacing and effective antagonists, effectively designed by Raymond Cusick (though of course it’d all look a bit clunky to a modern viewer). But their paranoia and xenophobia are on full display here, as is their deviousness. Later, they became much more powerful of course, but it’s easy to see how at the time these things gripped the imagination of British school children around the nation. In that sense, I suppose that it was better that the story be as long as possible!
All of the regulars are well-served by different moments in the story, but it’s William Russell’s Ian Chesterton who is really the star of the show, especially in the later installments. In The Expedition (part 5), he’s even positioned as the moral center of the group, arguing against asking the Thals to put their lives at risk just to help them get away. His subsequent way of getting them to agree to help–by pretending to threaten Dyoni–is a bit cliched, but the sequence just before where he stands his ground against both the Doctor and Barbara is pretty convincing. And it’s interesting to remember that the episode was made in 1964–less than 20 years since the end of World War II. Ian talking about the dangers of closing ones eyes to the dangers of an aggressive enemy–a pacifism based on wishful thinking only–must have seemed particularly relevant to the British people of the day.
And I also like the little touch of the first romance on Doctor Who–the barely developed attraction of Ganatus and Barbara. It’s cute and believable.
And of course, let us not leave the discussion of this story without mentioning the excellent cliffhanger at the end of The Dead Planet, as a confused and haggard Barbara finds herself trapped in the metallic city, only to be shockingly menaced by…something. She leans against the way…and screams…! To this day, it remains one of the best episode endings the series has ever had.