Reviewed by John Hussey
“An Unearthly Child” may have set-up Doctor Who but “The Daleks” well and truly set the bar for the show’s quality and direction. Without a doubt this entire serial was a bold move, not just from a story stand-point but also from a production stand-point. Sydney Newman, BBC’s Head of Drama and initiator of Doctor Who, originally disliked the idea of the Daleks but producer Verity Lambert was adamant to follow her instincts and push for Terry Nation‘s script to be developed.
True enough the serial was a massive hit and Newman’s tone quickly changed, with him admitting he was proud of Lambert’s decision, reconfirming he made the right choice in hiring her as the very first female producer. “The Daleks” was a complete change in style and tone from “An Unearthly Child” and featured a lot of heavy adult themes revolving around Nation’s experiences with World War II.
This was shown through the imagery of an alien world ravaged by nuclear weaponry, stemming from the ongoing fears during WWII that a nuclear world could possibly become a reality. Along with that we had the Daleks themselves that were heavily inspired by the Nazis and their extreme views on purity and mass extermination. It created a world that felt totally alien whilst at the same time feeling familiar within the hearts of those that endured the War, reminding them of the terrors it held and the possibilities they feared would happen.
It was a perfect move to have the second serial expand on the scientific side of the programme. We had a journey travelling through time, seeing the animalistic nature of prehistoric man, and now it was time to see the other aspects of the TARDIS and really begin to see the possibilities of this brave-new science-fiction show. Nation did well at delivering this in an intriguing way by having the audience gobsmacked by the alien design and culture whilst getting a narrative that feels real, and personal, and above all, intelligent.
“The Dead Planet” acts a lot like “An Unearthly Child” through its air of mystery and slow pace to allow you to delve into this new world. The designs of the sets are fantastically designed (considering the limitations of the 1960s) and really helped to bring Skaro to life and create this dead world were evil lied in the soil. Like with the first serial, we have a narrative completely carried by the main cast and they all do a wonderful job at expanding their characters.
Despite only recently boarding the TARDIS, Ian and Barbara slowly settle into their new lives whilst still feeling hesitate. They thought that they were going home, having just escaped a barbaric tribe, and now were standing on an eerie landscape on another world in another galaxy. This episode did good at further expanding The First Doctor’s arrogant nature in which he was willing to put the lives of other’s at risk all for the sake of scientific discovery.
Upon discovering a city on the edge of the petrified forest The First Doctor immediately wants to investigate but is prevented by his companions who think it wiser to return to the TARDIS. However, The First Doctor has other ideas. In order to get his own way he stages a scene to make it look like a crucial component, the fluid link, was in need of repair so that they had to search the city. This of course quickly goes wrong as they begin to get sick, resulted by radiation poisoning, and are then captured by the sinister survivors of the city.
The cliff-hanger to “The Dead Planet” is phenomenal. It has a really tense, and suspenseful atmosphere and leaves you in complete stress as you ponder on what the hell is cornering Barbara. It’s no wonder so many people wrote into the BBC asking questions because this was, and still is, television history. “The Survivors” peaked the audience’s curiosity further by introducing them to the Daleks.
One can’t go without mentioning how brilliant the designs are. Raymond Cusick created a one of kind look for the Daleks due to their menace and lack of emotional expression. They are simply a killing machine that glide majestically across the room. It’s fair to say Cusick’s design has certainly stood the test of time as being one of the most iconic imageries on the planet.
Then of course their is the infamous voice of the creature, originally voiced by Peter Hawkins and David Graham. The voice is just chilling. It sounds completely robotic and yet has an unsettling emotion to it. Though the Daleks themselves lack compassion it’s clear that they get a sense of enjoyment out of being completely merciless. The way they shriek out the phrase “extermination” is truly haunting and it’s no wonder why they caused children (and probably even adults) to hide behind their sofas.
If the cliff-hanger to “The Dead Planet” wasn’t chilling enough then their dramatic entrance in “The Survivors” certainly was. The way they just suddenly appeared and surrounded The First Doctor, Ian and Susan was truly terrifying. Nothing like the Daleks had ever been seen before. You had no idea what they were or what they were capable of. Did they have good intentions? Did they mean to harm our heroes? So many questions must have been spilling out of viewer’s minds upon the original broadcast whilst their hearts raced.
After paralysing Ian to showcase their dominance the Daleks locked the TARDIS crew up in one of their cells. The plot thickened as we began to understand the Daleks and their motives, along with the history of their world. It’s very clever how Nation uses his experiences to create this organic world which feels very relatable, which I believe is what makes the Daleks and Skaro so scary because it could’ve happened to us had World War II gone a different way.
The TARDIS crew’s condition grows steadily worse and death is very much apparent. This again just shows how powerful Nation’s ideas are when he slips in the affects of radiation sickness into a children’s programme, giving us a very grim sequence of events that nearly kills off the main characters. It’s then left up to Susan to return to the TARDIS and fetch the antidote, which was unknowingly left for them by the Thals, the neighbouring species on Skaro.
I will admit that the Susan in the Peter Cushing film adaption shows more bravery in this segment of the serial. I will just congratulate Carol Ann Ford on at least trying to work with the shoddy material she was given. It’s just a massive shame that her character didn’t gain any real development and forever remained a shrieking cry baby that felt very useless most of the time and was too dependent on her grandfather.
“The Escape” really gets the ball rolling through the Thals interactions with the TARDIS crew and understanding the Daleks in more detail. It starts to quickly become apparent that the Daleks have a strong hatred for the Thals, created by the stupid reasoning that they simply hate them for being different. I like it when Alydon questions why the Daleks would call them mutated and ponders what they must look like.
This creates another deep layer in showing this claustrophobic idea of the Daleks being hideously mutated and trapped within their war machines, forever alone inside their city, which goes a long way to explain their insanity. The Daleks begin to formulate a plan for complete genocide by using Susan to lure the Thals inside the city. It’s extremely tragic how the Thals are tricked into believing the Daleks want peace, to start again and attempt to rebuild the world that had once been destroyed by their hatred for one another, only to be tricked, resulting in their leader Temmosus being murdered.
“The Ambush” pushes the TARDIS crew to new limits as they have to escape their captives once again, this time battling against dangerous pepper-pots with racial problems. The entire episode feels tense because of the urgency of each moment as they try to escape the Daleks. Then there is the added tension of trying to prevent the Thals from walking into a trap. To top it all off we are left with a dread inducing cliff-hanger that reveals that their escape was in vein as the fluid link is in the position of the Daleks, meaning they are trapped on Skaro.
Things move again in “The Expedition” where the TARDIS crew debate about using the Thals to retrieve the fluid link. I really enjoy Ian’s stand-point on this matter, believing that using the Thals for their own needs is completely selfish. It’s very surprising when Barbara stands by The First Doctor’s selfish approach just because she wants to go home (making her a very unlikable person in the process). But as Ian rightfully says, they needed to fight for their own reasoning, have their victory mean something important, and not be for the sake of a puny piece of machinery.
Ian eventually manages to convince the Thals that the Daleks will attempt to kill them, one way or another. He does this by threatening to take Dyoni to the Dalek city in order to make a trade, resulting in Alydon punching Ian. It’s a very powerful moment that shows that even a pacifist is willing to fight and die for something. This moral thinking leads to Alydon leading his people to attack the Daleks and free Skaro from the fear of hatred and war.
This leads to a daring mission to enter the Dalek city undetected, resulting in Ian and Barbara joining fellow Thals Ganatus, Antodus, Kristas and Elyon on a journey through a deadly swamp and treacherous mountains. Elyon is killed by an unknown creature in the swamps, leading to the others having to continue without him. I like the dynamics that Nation gives to the characters within “The Ordeal” despite the strong concentration on the enduring adventure at hand.
Gantatus is given a lot of character development as he shares a sweet romantic relationship with Barbara, whilst he tries to motivate his brother Antodus who is clearly a coward and wishes to abandon the mission. His fears ultimately lead to his death after he fails to make a jump across a gap in the mountains and is forced to cut to rope in order to save Ian from falling too. Even as the serial becomes more adventure orientated Nation’s desire to create a dark and thought-provoking plot never fails to disappear.
Meanwhile whilst all this is going on the Daleks come to some disturbing conclusions. They realise that they are dependent on radiation after an attempt to use the Thals antidote results in multiple Daleks dying. Their rationalisation changes from paranoia to purism as they decide their existence is greater than any other lifeform. The Daleks plan to bombard Skaro with further radiation in a desperate attempt to make the environment suit their needs, killing everything else in the process.
It becomes a race against time during the climax – “The Rescue” – in which The First Doctor, along with Susan, attempt to reason with the Daleks after they are once again taken prisoner. The Daleks by this point have lost the plot and only value Dalek life as important. This begins the seed to their quest to become the dominant lifeform in the universe. Even when The First Doctor offers to share his knowledge of travelling in space and time the Daleks refuse to stop their plans, believing they can simply take control of the TARDIS, without the time traveller, after they take over the planet.
In an explosive rush to prevent the destruction of everything the Thals storm the city and attack the Daleks. The Daleks are soon outnumbered despite the usage of their deadly weapon. During the battle for survival more Thals are killed, but it is ultimately good that prevails after the Dalek’s power supply is destroyed and the creatures of hate are silenced in a grim conclusion to a fairly grim narrative. It’s hard to think that this ending could’ve possibly seen the last of the Daleks.
“The Daleks” is a wonderful serial and has one of the most gripping, intelligent and fascinating narratives within the entire history of Doctor Who. Not to mention has some rather unsettling incidental music by Tristram Cary who adds a whole other layer to the sinister tale. The serial’s also important in making the show a ground-breaking success due to the popularity of the Daleks, resulting in the Time Lord’s greatest enemy being his greatest asset. I truly love the themes Nation incorporated into this dark tale and how his unpleasant past experiences helped create one of the world’s greatest science-fiction icon.