Doctor Who From The Beginning: The Daleks

The Daleks.
Writer: Terry Nation
Directors: Christopher Barry and Richard Martin
DVD Availability: As Disc 2 of The Beginnings Box Set

While An Unearthly Child was the start of Doctor Who, The Daleks is the story where what we now think of as Doctor Who actually started.

Well, sort of.

More than any other story from the first year of Doctor Who, it’s impossible to watch this story and get any sense of what it must have been like to watch at the time. Even the episodes that have been burned arguably stand up better, because we don’t have anything to compare them to – the Doctor never met Marco Polo again, and even the whole historical genre quickly disappeared, so when we watch that story we do it without any prejudices.

With The Daleks, on the other hand, we’ve seen the Doctor fight the Daleks dozens of times. Even for those of us who grew up in relatively Dalek-free eras of Doctor Who (and despite the way the Welsh series has managed to have them turn up every five milliseconds, only two of the proper Doctors actually met the Daleks on TV more than twice, and the last three only had one Dalek story each) have always known that The Doctor Fights The Daleks.

Not only that, we’ve seen *this story*. Not only did Terry Nation write almost identical scripts several times more (most blatantly in the Third Doctor story Frontier In Space Planet Of The Daleks), but this story was the first to be adapted to other media, appearing both as the novel Doctor Who In An Exciting Adventure With The Daleks and the slightly more snappily titled film adaptation Doctor Who And The Daleks, which has been shown on Channel 4 every bank holiday since time immemorial.

So watching this now, it’s hard to watch it for what it was at the time – an exciting piece of children’s entertainment – rather than what it looks like now, which is someone doing a Dalek story and not getting it quite right. They don’t even say “exterminate!” for God’s sake!

Truth be told, even at the time this probably wouldn’t have held the attention of anyone much over the age of twelve. It was written in a rush by Terry Nation, a hack writer who felt the job was beneath him and was only doing it because he’d been sacked by Tony Hancock and needed the money. The story, such as it is, is essentially the wine of a couple of 50s Dan Dare strips decanted into the bottle of an old Flash Gordon serial. Susan has gone in four short weeks from being a spooky, mysterious figure to an hysteric who can’t walk two steps without screaming.

And watching it as a whole makes it seem worse than it should. This was designed for serial viewing, a week between each episode, not for watching in one two-hour-and-fifty-four-minute sitting. Watched all in one, it becomes incredibly obvious that nothing at all happens for much of episodes five and six, apart from a standard Terry Nation speech on how pacifism is evil.

DVD picture quality does the programme no favours, either, allowing us to see that most of the Daleks in the ‘crowd scenes’ are rather unconvincing cardboard cutouts.

And then there’s the message – judging people by their appearance is wrong, and ‘dislike for the unlike’ is terrible, say the blonde-haired blue-eyed muscular Adonises as they fight the squat ugly creatures inside their metal cases…

But despite all that, it still works, somehow.

Partly it’s the Doctor’s continuing moral evolution (his character definitely has what people nowadays call an ‘arc’ in these early stories) – breaking the fluid link and endangering the people who are travelling with him at the beginning, but being utterly outraged by the Daleks’ attitude towards murdering the Thals by the end. Partly it’s the music – almost musique concrete, sound effects blending in with the music so you’re not sure what is ambient sound of Skaro and what’s soundtrack music. The music for this story was by Tristram Cary, one of the great pioneers of electronic music and one of the few musicians at the time who could actually compete with Delia Derbyshire’s astonishing rendition of the title music.

But mostly what sticks with the viewer after watching this is the *look* of the thing. Raymond Cusick’s designs still astonish -and not just the Daleks, incredible though they still are as a design, but the whole Dalek city. The model work is particularly spectacular, and it’s also one of the few Doctor Who stories to have corridors that look like they’re designed for aliens rather than humans. (And indeed if you look, at one point Susan writes a letter to the Thals that’s clearly in an alien script, though where she’s had the chance to learn their writing isn’t made clear).

And there are odd images that still have a power – and strangely, not just those in Christopher Barry’s episodes (like the Dalek eyestalk coming towards Barbara at the end of episode one) , but even in the episodes directed by Richard Martin. Widely regarded as something of a hack, while Barry is regarded as one of the better directors to have worked on the show, Martin still gives us the odd evocative moment like the Kaled mutant (as they’re not yet called) claw coming out from under Susan’s cloak.

At these moments, for a second, one can get a flash of what it was like to watch this during the 1963 Christmas holiday. You can see why the Daleks became the big playground craze of the year, why there were toys, films and comics – why, in short, we have everything from the Welsh series to Faction Paradox novels to Big Finish audios to the new computer game that won’t work on GNU/Linux to birthday cards with voice chips with Nicholas Briggs’ voice in them. All this ultimately stems from a script thrown together in five minutes, that the executive in charge of the programme hated, and with a great monster design. On such things does the world turn.

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6 Responses to Doctor Who From The Beginning: The Daleks

  1. Gavin Burrows says:

    So watching this now, it’s hard to watch it for what it was at the time – an exciting piece of children’s entertainment – rather than what it looks like now, which is someone doing a Dalek story and not getting it quite right. They don’t even say “exterminate!” for God’s sake!

    Well they say “extermination!”

    Though you’ll get no argument from me about how slow things sometimes get, I sometimes tend to think of things exactly the other way up – this was the only time a Dalek story was ever really done right! The trouble with so many subsequent Dalek stories is that they pretty much only say “exterminate!”, they become mere killer robots set up so the Doctor has someone to defeat. This time they have a degree of characterisation and genuine motivation. Of course they always do the wrong things, but there’s motivations for them behaving so beyond being simply the bad guys.

    For all the matinee movie and toy spin-offs, I think of this as being a surprisingly bleak story. It’s not just the dead planet that has been rendered infertile by war, every inhabitant is exhibiting some kind of post-traumatic shock. This is probably why I don’t find the ‘moral’ as trite as you, in fact I’m not sure there’s really a moral in the first place. Yes the Thals are persuaded out of their pacifism, but it doesn’t result in Flash Gordon derring-do. It’s their only option, there’s no attempt to make it appear a good one. Virtually the last word is a Thal wishing “if only there could have been some other way.”

    I’ve argued before that the whole thing’s a fantasticalised metaphor for post-war Germany, perhaps if the bomb had been dropped there instead of Japan.

    Partly it’s the Doctor’s continuing moral evolution (his character definitely has what people nowadays call an ‘arc’ in these early stories)

    It’s a classic example of something being there, visible within a work of art, without anyone ever putting it there. I don’t think anyone would argue that ‘arc’ was deliberate on anyone’s part, but its definitely in there,

    • Don Alsafi says:

      You’re not alone in thinking it the only one done right! This was the first Dalek story I ever watched, and to my mind too is still the best. (Well, with all the typical caveats about padding and story logic, of course.) Certainly by virtue of its early placement, it implies an exciting lack of boundaries – an uncertainty as to what could possibly come round the next corner – which would soon dissolve as the production team figured out what exactly a Doctor Who story looked like.

      Far too often after this the Daleks seemed to be the enemies thrown at the Doctor simply due to their unexpected popularity, but even then I preferred them to the random henchmonsters they became once Davros was introduced. And while I can appreciate the Frankenstein / mad scientist metaphor, I personally found the thought that evolution and chance had combined to create a race of creatures predisposed to evil and hate a far more terrifying idea.

      • Don Alsafi says:

        Others worth mentioning though: “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” for the only time their return was arguably tense, suspenseful and terrifying (at least until the hilarious revelation of their motive), and “The Evil of…”, for the sheer nuttiness of daring to introduce Daleks that were cute and playful…!

        • Gavin Burrows says:

          In many ways I think of ‘Dalek Invasion of Earth’ as the one that coined the template. ‘The Daleks’ was intended as a one-off which only appeared so early by chance. By ‘Invasion Earth’ they knew they had a property and were already set to repeat. Now there’s an upside and a downside to that. But Andrew will doubtless reach that soon, so no use jumping the gun…

      • Andrew Hickey says:

        One of the things I like about Big Finish’s earlier Dalek stories (before they went to the well a few million too many times) is that they actually bother giving the Daleks characterisation and motive again – Jubilee may be the *best-written* Dalek story by a long way…

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Oh, I agree in many ways, but I’m talking there about how it looks in hindsight – now we know how Dalek stories are ‘meant’ to go – because we’ve had a million of them, with increasingly diminishing returns – this can’t help but look in retrospect like an early draft of ‘proper’ stories like Planet Of The Daleks or something…

      As for the rest of your points, I’m left as so often wishing I’d said them myself…

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