The Daleks

I often start my review of a story by reminiscing about the first time I saw it, and “The Daleks” will be no exception. It was 1985, and I had no idea that my local PBS station had begun showing the black and white episodes until I was flipping channels on a Tuesday afternoon after school and I caught what looked like Daleks in black and white! That was episode 2, the first Hartnell episode I’d ever seen, and indeed the first black and white episode I’d seen. I bought a VHS tape on the way home from school the next day and started taping episodes. It was the late 90s before I found the story on video and bought it so that I could finally see episode 1 (for the first time) and see episode 2 again. With the Beginning DVD box set I’ve finally been able to see a really good copy of the story, since even the VHS release is pretty poor in spots. Needless to say, I have a real fondness for this story, which for years I thought was entitled “The Dead Planet”. After seeing it for the first time in a number of years, all cleaned up and VidFIRE’d, how does it hold up?

It looks better than I’ve ever seen it. Very clean, very clear contrast between whites and blacks, and the sound is good. I’ve always thought of this as one of the better Dalek stories, and I’ve liked it since I first saw it, but it really surprised me just how much I enjoyed watching it again, and how quickly some of the episodes passed. I was watching episode three for example, and when it ended I was surprised it was over so quickly, though of course I have seen it before and knew what was coming. I’m rapidly changing my formerly held opinion that the black and white stories were all fairly slow and not as interesting as they could be. Sometimes that’s true, but more often than not all it takes is a good watchable copy to drastically ratchet my opinion of a story up a few notches. “The Seeds of Death” is an example of a story where I just thought it was as dull as could be based on the old VHS release, but the DVD changed my opinion drastically.

“The Daleks” is a compelling adventure story. I considered watching just one episode a night to enjoy the experience longer, but ended up saying “OK, just one more episode” and watching two or three at a time. This is a story where I can really get caught up in the ordeals of the TARDIS crew, where despite the sci-fi trappings, much of what they go through is pretty down-to-earth. They trek through the forest, or are locked in a cell. Then there is the dark claustrophobia of the caves behind the Dalek city, or the hike through the swamp. Okay, so most people don’t have to deal with Daleks or swamp mutations, but on the whole, much of what the characters experience isn’t terribly outlandish. Suspension of disbelief is easy. And the direction is very good as well. There are a number of genuinely tense moments throughout the story. Even though I knew exactly what would happen, I found myself getting caught up in the drama a number of times.

My only real quibble with the story is the ending, or rather a few facets of the ending. First of all, the fact that the Thals can get into the city rather easily during the final episode makes Ian and company’s expedition seem pointless in the end, though it is mainly Ian’s group that reaches the control room I suppose. Alydon sends them on their way, they trek through swamp and cave and lose two comrades, only to run into Alydon once they reach the city. Hmmm.

The other issue is the fact that pushing one Dalek into some sort of power junction shuts all the Daleks down. Would a circuit that critical be left so vulnerable? I wouldn’t think so. Still, the Daleks are beaten, and the Thals take no joy in the victory, and it’s made to seem rather sad for all concerned, so it’s good in that respect.

The Daleks make more sense in this story than perhaps any other. This is the one time we really see them in context, in their own environment, and it suits them perfectly. Mutations of an atomic war, who need radiation to survive and who are confined to their travel machines, they’re both sad and frightening in their single-mindedness. “Every problem has a solution” might be an admirable attitude for some, but for the Daleks it’s a statement of how focused they are on their goal of destroying the Thals so that the Daleks can survive. It’s a template for their future behavior. They speak more quickly than I remember, and generally seem to be written as characters rather than as little tanks that go around yelling “Exterminate!” They are people, much as the Thals are. And they’re intelligent, working their way through a number of problems quickly when it comes to the anti-radiation drugs. On a side note, it’s really cool the way they hold things with their sucker hands, and push buttons, and pick up ticker tape and salute. In the scene where Temmosus makes his speech, all the Dalek guns are twitching, and though they’re just itching to shoot. The Daleks are given some nice body language as it were, and this adds to their character.

The model shots of the Dalek city and the surrounding mountains are very impressive. Sure we could do better now with CGI, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the model looks great. Between the forest, and the swamp, and the city with mountains behind it, there is a real sense of environment and scale. The story doesn’t feel like it’s taking place on a few sets in a studio.

And of course, as in “An Unearthly Child”, the actors really sell the story. Or at least the four regulars do. Some of the Thal actors are less than convincing, and say some rather odd things, as if they’re trying to be deeply philosophical but can’t quite manage it. Contrast that with the excellent debate at the beginning of part 5 between the Doctor and Barbara and Ian, with some pretty strong ideas about life and death and being willing to fight to survive being thrown about by the three. Ian really shines in this story, being very much the resourceful and brave man of action. He stands up to the Doctor, takes the lead in the expedition and quickly forms friendships with several of the Thals. Barbara doesn’t have as much to do, but she also proves herself to be a strong character, trekking through the mutant-filled swamp and the caves and attacking a Dalek in the control center. Her relationship with Ganatas is wonderfully understated but nevertheless quite apparent, and when they part at the end it’s sweet and rather sad.

Susan is another character I’m revising my opinion on. She’s prone to bouts of hysteria and screaming, but though she does suffer from some of that here, she’s also brave enough to go through the dark forest at night and retrieve the anti-radiation drugs. And Susan is the one who gets the crew out of the little jam at the guard station after they’ve just escaped from the cell. She’s really rather likeable and useful here.

Last but not least, there’s the Doctor. Still selfish and still looking out for himself and Susan above all others, he’s only beginning to develop his sense of morality that we’ve come to associate with the Doctor. I’m always tickled by his trick with the fluid link, and his barely concealed glee that his little trick has worked and that they’ll have to go down into the city. It’s entirely fitting that this backfires badly on him. He’s a little too eager to have the Thals sacrifice themselves to retrieve the fluid link as well. But we start to see some signs of the Doctor that will develop over time with his pleas to the Daleks to “Stop this senseless, evil killing!” and his willingness to trade the TARDIS for a stop to the irradiation plans. Hartnell is as good as ever, despite a slip or two. He really was a superb actor in many ways, and it’s a pity that his iffy memory and the rapid production schedule gave him such fits with his lines. On one of the DVD interviews it’s nice to see Verity Lambert defending him, saying that he delivered the goods more often than not.

There’s so much good stuff in this story that I’ve barely scratched the surface. It’s outstanding, and I can certainly see why the audiences grew during this serial. There are some flaws, but nothing that detracts from the overall experience.

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Posted in 1st Doctor - William Hartnell

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