“THE DALEKS” – Season 1, Serial 2, Story 2 – The First Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan go for a spin in the not-functioning-properly TARDIS and wind up on a seemingly dead planet, where everything’s been turned to stone. The planet’s called Skaro, which means more to you than them because this is the first time the Doctor’s been there. Yup, in the second serial in the show’s run we have our very first encounter with the Daleks and the only way to stop them is to deprive them of … static electricity. Bad Ass. They’re living in an underground city and the freakishly mutated Thals are living on the surface, and by “freakishly mutated” they mean “normal looking humans.” After the fantastic opening serial and then the letdown with the cavemen in AN UNEARTHLY CHILD, DALEKS is fantastic long-form storytelling and would be even if the tin cans weren’t in it. Because This Serial Has Got It All Except For A Bag Of Fluid Links.
The end of episode 2 of the serial that’s come to be called THE DALEKS (also called THE MUTANTS and THE DEAD PLANET at various times) contains perhaps my favorite cliffhanger in all of DOCTOR WHO – which is pretty amazing since the cliffhanger at the end of episode 1 is every bit as good.
Episode 1, “The Dead Planet,” ends with the first appearance of the Daleks. After landing on Skaro, a, ahem, dead planet where all vegetation has been turned to stone, the Doctor sabotages the TARDIS so he can explore an abandoned city beyond the edge of the forest. While in the city, ostensibly to look for mercury for the fluid link the Doctor removed so the TARDIS won’t work, Barbara is separated from the others and herded through metallic corridors and into a lift, where the Daleks make their first appearance in a point-of-view shot with just their plunger arm seen extended out from the camera.
It’s a fantastic shot in a whole episode of fantastic shots.
I’m going to guess that of the 95,000 reviews of DALEKS banging around the internet, this is the only one that will compare it to Marvel’s Planet Hulk animated feature. We’re all victims of experience or context or high fructose corn syrup, and it is just the way things happen that I watched Planet Hulk last night and DALEKS tonight. One of my criticisms of the Marvel movie is it’s pedestrian depiction of the action. Instead of using perspective to its advantage, the movie spends too much time giving us mid-range shots at eye-level. Compare that to the varied use of perspective and angles at play in the Christopher Barry- and Richard Martin-directed DALEKS. (Barry directs episodes 1, 2, 4, and 5, while Martin handles 3, 6, and 7.) In order to heighten tension and build drama, Barry employs a handful of techniques: moving cameras, obscure angles, close-ups, characters moving in and out of frame, etc. It’s an expert display of how to enhance an already strong script (by Terry Nation) with the use of a camera. That this is a studio-bound production filmed in 1963 perfectly illustrates that creativity can overcome budget.
(Interesting historical tidbit: Episode 2 was apparently filmed minutes after the cast had been told that American President John Kennedy had been assassinated.)
The scene in episode four where the Daleks wait in ambush for the Thals illustrates this perfectly. Barry slowly pans his camera to the left, showing Dalek after Dalek standing in separate doorways, then switches to a full-perspective shot where we can see all of the Daleks retreating back into the dark interior of the doorways. It’s a simple yet dramatic use of camera, editing, and set to create tension. In episode 7, Martin seems to reference this shot as he pulls his camera back to reveal all of the dead Daleks littered on the floor.
Back to the cliffhanger at the end of episode 2 – the typical DOCTOR WHO cliffhanger plays like the Dalek’s threatening of a suddenly screaming Barbara in episode 1 – stepping away from the action at the moment before death or attack, when the threat is imminent and the stakes are at their highest.
In episode 2, however, there is no villain and no immediate threat of death. After they’ve been captured by the Daleks in the city, Susan is allowed to go back to the TARDIS to get the vials the Thals left for them to overcome the radiation sickness. She’s run back through the forest, completely terrified and shaken, and has found haven inside the TARDIS, but the moment of respite is soon lost as she hears Ian’s voice come back to her, telling her she must run right to the TARDIS and come immediately back at the risk of the Doctor’s death.
Susan is caught between her immense fear and her desire to help the others. She cradles the container of vials tightly to her chest as the TARDIS doors open. Barry shoots this shot from behind Susan, at an angle where we can see her and the nightmarish forest awaiting her just outside the TARDIS doors. Thunder cracks and lightning flashes as a scared girl looks out from her place of safety.
Absolutely stunning shot.
Barry’s and Martin’s direction is expertly paired with Tristram Cary’s incidental music. Used sparingly, Cary’s music is eerie and minimalistic, heightening the sense of unease, danger, and alienness of Skaro and the Daleks.
The real star of this serial is Ian Chesterson, played by the dependable William Russell. Ian serves a perfect Companion for the First Doctor, willing to challenge him as well as work with him, depending on the circumstance. Chesterton is principled yet pragmatic, quick to anger but quick to let it go, too. “I’m going to make sure you face up to your responsibilities,” he says to the Doctor when he wants to leave Skaro behind after they’ve first left the city. Ian refuses to leave the Thals in the state of danger they’re in while the Doctor wants to get out of Dodge.
It’s very easy to see the influence of Ian on later regenerations. In many ways the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors are much more like Chesterton, in fact, than the First Doctor, imbued as they are with a sense of righteous, principled justice. It’s Chesteron in DALEKS, after all, who refuses to leave and then refuses to try and ask the Thals to fight for them. (It turns out he’s had the TARDIS’ fluid link taken from him by the Daleks and the TARDIS can’t fly without it. Ian had taken it from the Doctor when the Doctor’s ruse had been revealed.) Like the Doctor, Barbara now puts her own desires over the best interests of the Thals, causing Ian to wonder: “What argument can you use to make a man sacrifice himself for you?”
Even though he and Barbara are friends, stuck on this crazy TARDIS ride together, she doesn’t escape his ire, either. When they’re caught by the Daleks, he asks her to tell them everything she can remember about them from her own, separate capture. When she tells him, he angrily snaps, “I’m afraid that’s not very much help.”
Chesterton gets a host of fantastic lines in the serial. After the Thals refuse to fight (he agrees to try and convince them to fight for themselves and if that works to their need to get the fluid link back, so be it), he and Barbara have an honest-to-goodness discussion about the Thal’s dislike of violence. “Pacifism only works when everyone feels the same,” he remarks sourly, voicing his disapproval of their ideology.
The Daleks are equally fantastic, and it’s easy to see why they caught the public’s fancy. Beyond their always cool look and sound, they prove themselves to be ultra-devious bastards in their debut. When the four travelers concoct a staged fight in order to damage the Dalek’s camera in their cell, the Daleks instantly see it for the ruse that it is and how they can use it to their advantage. Always scheming, always thinking out their plans, the Daleks come off as cold and calculating, determined and demented, genius and genocidal.
They trick the travelers into bringing them back the anti-radiation vials, but then when they use it and see that it kills them, they realize they now thrive on the surface radiation, they decide to set off another bomb to increase the radiation on the surface.
Because the serial runs seven episodes (at 25 minutes a pop), there’s plenty of time for the show to explore the philosophies of the Daleks’ total desire for the Thals destruction (what the Doctor calls murder they call extermination) and the Thals’ pacifism. The serial sags a bit towards the end when DOCTOR WHO takes its first extended journey through a series of caves (there’s a lot of pedestrian “throw the rope over here” and “rest a minute to catch your breath” bits), but the pay-off (the suicide of Antodus, who sacrifices himself by cutting his support rope so he doesn’t drag Ian to his death) is fantastically executed, building on all of those mundane bits to emphasize Antodus’s fear.
In the end, the Thals enter the city and defeat the Daleks, who we’re told for the first of 892 times (and that’s just the Russell T Davies run) that the Daleks are destroyed for good.
From start to finish, THE DALEKS is a fantastic, gripping, tense, serial, jam-packed with far too many ideas to properly expound on without taking more words than I can devote to it.
Unlike most of the pre-relaunch serials that I’ve written reactions to through this point (the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Doctor serials), I’ve seen DALEKS before and had no intention to watch all three hours of the serial again, but so strong is the serial – Nation’s script, Barry and Martin’s direction, Raymond Cusick’s designs (which were supposed to be Ridley Freaking Scott’s designs – the mind boggles), the acting of Hartnell and Robertson, the plight of the Thals, and wickedness of the Daleks that it all sucked me right back in.