The Daleks

Written by:
Terry Nation
Directed by: Christopher Barry/Richard Martin
Starring: William Hartnell
Year: 1963/64
Video Availability: Try

The Daleks were so phenomenally popular that they clocked up thirteen sequels, not to mention legitimate cameos and almost-stories like Mission to the Unknown, Frontier In Space, The Five Doctors and their off-screen squeaky voiced inclusion in the 1996 TV Movie. Taking the series from appealing family viewing (an average 5.9 million viewers during its first month of broadcasting) up to a huge ratings smash in just the first three weeks of this story, The Daleks is undeniably the most important story in Doctor Who's history. Sadly, it's also severely dated, and, while most of its sequels, even the dumb ones, can still be watched by modern audiences, this one is a historical document at best.

There's stuff that makes you shake your head. Okay, after the ratings for this one they could hardly turn it away, but with Terry Nation drafting this and The Keys of Marinus, it's staggering that the focus of the show went towards him and away from John Lucarotti, when said writer had constructed the far superior Marco Polo and Aztecs in the same season. Also amazing is that of the two directors allocated to this story, it was the amateurish Richard Martin who got given the task of directing the Daleks again in their first two reappearances. This one is helmed by Chris Barry and is better, but is still awkward and stiff. Lots of this is intentional - there's still a mutual distrust between the Doctor and his companions until after The Edge of Destruction - but often it's just the stilted dialogue and characters pointing to things offscreen because they can't afford any longshots. Thankfully Tristram Cary is on hand with his "doom" score, something he uses time and again throughout the show and something I'll praise several times over. I still can't get over how no one notices Billy very obviously ducking under the Tardis panel to bugger up the controls though.

One thing I'm never normally aware of is the fact that Hartnell's wearing a wig in the role. To my eyes it's pretty convincing, and only seems to be a hairpiece to flatter his own existing hair. Here though it's like a rock solid ice cream cornet stuck to the top of his bonce and looks, well… a little silly. Better is the never-since seen food dispensing machine, two years before Star Trek came on the screen with their Replicators. The cliffhanger's a pretty serviceable thing too, but also one of the greatest myths of Doctor Who: everyone wanted to see what was on the end of that plunger. Actually, they didn't, the ratings dipped by 500,000 the next week to 6.4 million and only shot up to 8.9 million after the appearance of the Daleks in episode two. By the time this serial finished the show was being watched by 10.4 million viewers, a four million increase on the last episode of An Unearthly Child.
* * * ½

A harrowing second episode where Billy's heroin addict is interrogated under a spotlight by mechanistic persecutors while begging for more drugs under cold turkey. This is still a decent episode, leading me to think that any problems with the story are largely Martin-related ones. What makes the original Daleks so compelling is that they're genuine characters with clear motivation and character dimension, rather than just one-dimensional pissed-off robots who shout "exterminate!" a lot. Here their ever-active eyes monitor carefully all that goes on before them, making them realistic interacters within the narrative, rather than the Bug Eyed Monsters that Sidney Newman slated them as, and they would later become.

This episode also contains one of my favourite-ever Hartnell fluffs, something that threatens to break into my personal top five: "It's possible they may have been anti-radiation gloves… drugs." It's not just the gaffe itself, but more the look of abject horror on William Russell's face as the realisation of what he's let himself in for suddenly strikes him. For completion, then we also get in episode one the mighty: "The animal is sit- solidified, certainly, but it's not, er… crumbling stone" and "held together by a er… magnetic field, or, in a mag-magnetic field, rather." Lastly, episode six contains the considerable "Now we've short… we've shorted it, you see."
* * * *

The first episode to be directed by Richard Martin, who would also returned for the final two episodes. To be honest, in hindsight I can't really see all that much difference. Okay, It's more rigidly blocked, but with all the episodes of The Daleks, more than any other Who story, there's a "dawn of television" feel about them, from wobbly cameras and continual boom mikes, a level of artificiality that registers on a subliminal level and makes it almost impossible for a viewer of 2004 to get fully immersed in the fantasy.

There's plenty of stuff here that would become Nation clichés, such as the stranger who wants to help and the plot being pushed forward by eavesdropping on a conversation, but it's all new here and often used more cleverly (here it's the villains who eavesdrop on the heroes, rather than the other way around). His reversal of the physical trope to make the good guys Aryian and the bad guys mutants could be taken as just a standard recreation of the body-conscious "good and evil" stereotype. Combine this with the moral of the story - if you have an enemy there comes a time when you have to kick the crap out of them - and it can be seen as quite distasteful. A dated b-movie concept that sees the battling Dals and Thals, survivors of a neutron war, it effectively kick-started twenty-six years of Doctor Who but can no longer be fully appreciated on its own terms.
* * * ½

The Daleks really is quite a quaint story given that it's so of its time. When Terry Nation reworked most of this stuff in 1974 for Planet of the Daleks it was anachronistic, but here the linear "peril of the week" plot has bags of charm. Oddly, William Russell seems to have taken a few episodes to have got into his part, and is less effective here than I recalled, something lost on me by doing them out of order. (Before reviewing this one I've covered 11 of the 14 Ian Chesterton tales that follow it). However, I'm still not going to utter a sarky "Where's Roy Castle when you need him?" as anyone who believes in a revisionist supporting of the two Peter Cushing movie adaptations is clearly not right in the head. Besides, it's all fine enough, with the Doctor showing a darker side by not wanting to save the Thals from death, and the Daleks working for the Forestry Commission by cutting down a few wooden Thals.
* * * ½

A good one that sees some intriguing moral debate at the start which I'd forgotten about. It might seem leaden by today's standards, but it's worthwhile, as is the psychedelic Dalek and his disorientated "aaaaaaaaah". The cardboard Daleks are appalling and - Genesis aside - this is the story with the most uncoordinated Dalek indicator lights. But they glide superbly in that little city of theirs, and the revelation of them being reliant on radiation is exceptional. Add to this an almost undeniable subtext that Barbara has shagged Ganatus, and a snazzy special effect of a whirlpool and this is probably the best episode of the lot.
* * * *

Okay, I keep changing my mind as to why the story doesn't quite work, largely because I'm enjoying it more than I expected. But despite some Martin limitations, I think the real problem comes from this being a six-part story told in seven episodes. With its individual title being "The Ordeal", then this aptly named instalment is the only one to really drag. From start to end it's the Thals and the Tardis crew making their way into the Dalek city… very slowly.

Even here though it's better than remembered, with Ganatus's "Do you always do what Ian says?" a fine counterpoint to him knowing about "ladies first" and the Daleks having the opening titles as part of their viewscreen system. Even on the restored VHS release this is the poorest quality of the seven episodes, with a very lined appearance, but it's still watchable even if the plot is dragged out beyond its natural lifespan. For the record, this is the only episode in the original story where they say "extermination" (twice), which is a fine political satire rather than questionable catchphrase here, though the "Hitler salutes" should maybe have been rethought…
* * *

The quality of this one isn't so great either, technically, as the negative is "a dub from the existing positive print". Considering this was one of the stories destroyed by the BBC then we're lucky to have it at all, but the archive nature of proceedings does increase the feeling that what you're watching is a more primitive style of television.

As for the content, then it's a bit of an anti-climax as Ian, Barbara and the Thals take over fourteen minutes to get into the Daleks' lair… then beat the crap out of them. And that's it. Next, we're given a wrap-up where Billy almost makes the "moral of the story" palatable with his off-centre cynicism and a likeable coda where the console explodes, leading into The Edge of Destruction. Interestingly, it's here where the Doctor first puts the idea of a space/time machine in the Daleks' minds, and "if only there'd been some other way" was paraphrased and ripped off for Warriors of the Deep - was that intentional?
* * * ½

I think really it comes down to expectations. I didn't have high hopes watching this one again, but I sat through the whole lot in one sitting (busy day, right?) and hardly got bored once. More dated than any other Doctor Who story in existence, it still has the power to entertain and is Terry Nation's finest script, even if its sub-50s concerns no longer feel as relevant as they once did.
* * * *