This week our rewind takes us to the second-ever story of Doctor Who, and the first time the world was introduced to the murderous pepper pots known as The Daleks. This is the first of the longer classic Who stories at 7 parts, a length that is common for the first few Doctors, giving the whole story a run-time of just over 3 hours. If you haven’t watched it, we suggest you do before reading the reviews to prevent any possible spoilers. You can pick up this story, along with the ones preceding and following it, in the “The Beginning” boxed set (link below).
Doctor Who: The Beginning (An Unearthly Child / The Daleks / The Edge of Destruction) (Stories 1 – 3)
As hard as I tried to write a straightforward review of this episode and ignore the elephant in the room, I simply couldn’t. It wouldn’t be fair to the readers who are in the same camp as Jamie, newer viewers of classic Who. So, yes, I’ll say it right here: this episode is a giant mess in terms of Dalek canon. What’s worse, it’s a giant mess that has never been adequately explained. While the Daleks look, sound, and act similar to the ones we know and … well … love to hate, there are differences that go far beyond the usual fanboy grievances. So, instead of me going episode-by-episode through this episode and telling you what I loved about it (it sits among my favorite black-and-white episodes), I’ll just tackle the question that everyone asks when seeing this episode.
What’s up with the Daleks?
So before I go all “indignant fanboy” on you all, we’ll start by defending this show. It’s fair to assume that when Terry Nation developed the Daleks for the second episode of a brand-new and revolutionary television show in 1963, he didn’t assume he was creating a species and an episode that would have to serve as the cornerstone of a canon that is now entering its fifth decade. The Daleks were created as a unique enemy to show the kiddies the possible dangers of a nuclear war (remember, this was 1963, when the Soviet Union still scared everyone) and to amuse them with a funny robotic voice. The sheer amount of popularity these things garnered was unexpected.
That being said, it should be taken as granted that the “indignant fanboy” moments to follow are not pointed at Terry Nation and his wonderful introduction story, but at the writers and stories that followed, changing the Daleks in several ways without ever adequately explaining the changes. So, what are the charges?
This issue is the one that Whovians have been arguing about literally for decades. The episode tells us exactly when it happens, 500 years after the end of the Neutronic War between the Daleks and the Thals. If that war sounds familiar, that’s because it should. That war is featured in the 1975 episode “Genesis of the Daleks,” when the Doctor is sent back in time to destroy the Daleks at the moment they’re created (that is, during the war between the Kaleds and the Thals, before they changed their names). This creates one of the largest canon issues in the history of the show. As we know from other episodes, Doctor Who subscribes to the single-world interpretation of time travel, that is, all changes happen in the same timeline rather than creating a parallel universe with each change.
At the end of “The Shakespeare Code,” the Doctor has not yet done what would eventually anger Queen Elizabeth. However, he is still chased away by an irate monarch. Because a change he makes in his future affects him in the present, we know that it all happens in the same universe.
So, using that logic, there is no way that the Daleks would not recognize the name “The Doctor” unless some explanation was furnished that the Daleks from this episode were somehow damaged or otherwise unable to remember the single most important enemy to their people.
Likewise we’re faced with the conundrum of the name. In this episode, as they look at the Thal’s history of the planet, it’s revealed that the Daleks were originally called the “Dal” or “Dhal” (depending on if the spelling was meant to match the “Thal”), while we know from future episodes that the Daleks were originally the Kaled people. While this could be explained by the Thal simply having their information wrong, it’s a simple incongruity that didn’t need to happen. Instead of calling them the Kaled in “Genesis of the Daleks,” they could just as easily have called them the “Dal” and kept one aspect of the continuity stable.
This is the change that confuses new viewers the most. While it’s understood that the Daleks take a long time to develop flight for their exoskeletons and are therefore stymied by something as simple as stairs, this episode introduces an even larger issue. In this episode the Daleks are powered by static electricity from the floor. This means that not only are they unable to travel anywhere that does not have a metal floor, making their eventual plans for universal conquest difficult, but also that they’re completely without power when insulated from the floor.
While it makes sense for the show to eliminate this weakness, which makes it impossible for the Daleks to be a threat anywhere but their home turf, it’s never adequately explained why these future Daleks are less advanced than the ones introduced in “Genesis of the Daleks.”
The Apparent Mercy
This is the one area where arguments can be made in a couple of directions. While it’s true that the Daleks act in ways that seem contrary to the behavior we’ve become accustomed to, particularly in the moments when they paralyze Ian instead of killing him, or giving the second container of anti-radiation drugs back to Susan, allowing her to save the others.
These moments, however, add up eventually to a trait that the Daleks have always had more than enough of: cunning.
Dalek: They are to be made to believe that they are in a safe environment.
It’s this plan that makes the TARDIS crew believe, at least temporarily, that the Daleks were people with whom they could reason. People who might decide to help the Thals. Meanwhile, this ploy caused the TARDIS crew to let down their guard and convince the Thals to walk into a trap. Showing in that moment that all the false care was calculated, all part of a larger plan to eliminate the Thals.
However, there are odd moments when the Daleks act as if they care about the fate of the main characters, even going so far as to comment about their inability to help them, as if they might if they had the ability.
Dalek 2: I have just come from the prisoners. The old man is dying.
Dalek 3: Then he must die. There is no help we can give him. How are the others?
Dalek 1: The woman is sleeping very heavily, the young man fights against it.
This is the one moment in the episode when the Dalek’s apparent mercy doesn’t seem to have a self-serving aspect. The main characters can’t hear them, and yet they comment to one another in a way that suggests an inability, rather than an unwillingness, to help.
However, despite this one moment of possible kindness, at the end of the serial, the Daleks take on the attitudes we’ve always recognized, not being interested in anything but the improvement of the Dalek people and the extermination of anyone else. We’re left with the Daleks of Skaro apparently dead, but we all know the Daleks are more resilient than cockroaches, and this is far from the last time we see them.
“He seems to have a knack for getting himself in trouble.”
Well, it certainly didn’t take us very long to encounter the most iconic of all Doctor Who villains: the Daleks.
Welcome to Skaro … for the first time. This is where it all begins, for realsies. The Doctor has no idea who the Daleks are when they meet, and vice versa. The Daleks, for their part, take to just referring to The Doctor as “the old man.” I think that’s fair.
If you recall, The Doctor and his captives … er, companions left the Stone Age during the previous episode and arrived at a new and exciting planet. Said planet happens to be loopy with radiation, but they don’t notice the convenient TARDIS Geiger counter going a little nutso in the danger zone. (Thank you, Kenny Loggins.)
Apparently, The Doctor has only the most rudimentary ability to pilot the TARDIS. Ian and Barbara are convinced he can’t control where it goes, and Susan claims he’s just too “forgetful” to do anything right.
Anyway, the gang heads out to explore the planet. They’ve landed in what appears to be a petrified forest, and it takes just a few minutes for The Doctor to declare the entire planet totally lifeless. Well, turns out there’s quite a lot of life on the planet. There are the Daleks, there’s an entire separate race of people known as the Thals, and there’s a “Lake of Mutations” in which irradiated mutant monsters dwell.
Hm. How awkward. For The Doctor, I mean. You know, the one who’s supposed to be an unsurpassed genius and wise in the ways of space-time travel.
But no bother. None of his companions bothers to call him out on this, especially since they’re all so busy antagonizing one another. Seriously, the group dynamic goes from bad to worse here. The Doctor flat-out refuses to listen to Ian or Barbara’s concerns and actually goes so far as to sabotage the TARDIS so they’re forced outside to explore the “dead city.”
What I found interesting here is that although this storyline does deepen The Doctor’s character a bit (he’s more scientifically minded and curious), it also establishes Ian as our hero. That’s right, our Companion in a Cardigan steps up, takes the lead, and is really the only character to show believable levels of empathy, compassion, and curiosity.
He’s also the only one asking rational questions. For example? When they first discover evidence of life on the planet, he asks, “What form does this intelligence take?” I think that’s a valid question to ask when you suddenly find yourself on an unknown planet. The Doctor? He dismisses Ian’s concern and gets frustrated with him for even asking it.
Anyway, our first glimpse of the Daleks comes at the end of the first episode of the serial. The episode ends with a shot of a terrified Susan as the camera approaches with a POV shot down a toilet plunger. The Daleks have arrived.
Their voices and design are almost exactly the same as they are today. It’s really quite remarkable how something so relatively basic has remained unchanged for more than half a century.
But the plunger worked! The ratings for this serial skyrocketed. The first episode had 6.9 million viewers, and it went up from there. The last episode saw 10.4 million people tune in. And the Daleks have appeared in almost every season of Doctor Who since. I guess if it ain’t broke …
The Daleks here, however, are not the same Daleks that they would come to be. They are not a master race of intergalactic conquerors. They’re … well, they’re completely reliant on static electricity to move and are confined to their city. Susan and Ian literally take one down with a handful of mud. They turn out to be a formidable foe (capable of paralyzing or killing you with a single laser shot), but they’re hardly the terrifying nemesis they’d later become.
All of the main plot points are resolved (more or less) by the fourth episode. The gang has recovered from their radiation sickness, they’ve escaped from the Daleks, and they’ve made it back to the TARDIS. However, this is a 7-part serial. What does that mean? It means we’re going on a wild goose chase for the TARDIS’s missing “fluid link” and we’re returning to the city by way of a way circuitous route through a swamp and cave. Oh, and we’re taking along the Thals for good measure.
This all serves to draw out the story over three more-or-less unnecessary episodes. To underscore this, the characters all flip-flop their positions. Until now, exchanges went something like this:
Doctor: “Let’s stay and explore!”
Everyone else: “No! We need to leave!”
Now? For some reason, it’s changed to this:
Doctor: “We need to leave!”
Everyone else: “No! Let’s stay and help the Thals!”
However, we are treated to a couple golden nuggets of wisdom from the Thals. Turns out The Doctor’s granddaughter was the original teenage pop star, as Susan is described as “no longer a child; not yet a woman.” (Thank you, Britney Spears.)
More seriously, though, the “transformation” of the Thals from extreme pacifists to a group willing to fight for its survival is poignant in its own way. Alydon, the leader of the Thals, remarks, “There is no indignity in being afraid to die, but there is a terrible shame in being afraid to live.”
That line alone almost made the three mostly superfluous final episodes of this story worthwhile. Almost.
This episode hits on both high notes and moments of boredom for the modern audience, myself included, as the story stretches into its third hour. This is an issue we will doubtless come up against again, and some episodes will doubtless fare worse than “The Daleks.” For all of its flaws, it’s a solid moment of Doctor Who history.
Neither, I would guess, is this the last time we’ll come up against an episode that runs against the show’s canon. Indeed, such a thing is inevitable for a show that has had so many writers and producers in such a great span of time. It’s a testament to the writing of Terry Nation that this episode, despite the inconsistencies that appear even within the First Doctor’s time, is considered among the best of Hartnell’s time.
Next week we have a bottle episode, as the TARDIS crew find themselves trapped in ship at the “Edge of Destruction.”