The Daleks. Something almost as old as Doctor Who itself. As Doctor Who is approaching its 50th anniversary, so are the Daleks themselves. They’ve appeared with every incarnation of the Doctor in all these years (although the McGann one is a bit spurious). They’ve been loved, mocked, made fun of, remounted, turned into color coded kids merchandise options, they have also been known to get you tea from time to time.
Legend has it that one of the original series “bullet points” from creator Sydney Newman was that he didn’t want any bug eyed monsters, and when he saw what Verity Lambert was doing with the Daleks, he objected, until he found out how popular they were. Despite still being a valid character into 2012, and they’ll be the enemy in the first story of Series 33 when it starts later this year, most of their original design spec continues to this day. Which is odd, as the character has evolved somewhat. You wouldn’t think the Daleks would evolve (Dalek Sek aside), but they have – especially after a recent viewing of this story.
Now I know comparing a 50 year old programme against its modern counterparts isn’t exactly FAIR, but it’s impossible to go back and watch the beginning of the Daleks without comparing them to what comes today. However, it’s with all this in mind that I cast an eye back on the original Dalek serial from 1963, simply called The Daleks.
The first thing you notice when watching the show is the pace of the program. The complete story comprises seven 25 minute episodes, the equivalent of roughly three and a half modern day stories. There’s entire sequences in this whole story that span an episode and a half that on the modern show would take up 10 minutes. Pacing and storytelling is wildly different, and this also extends to the Daleks themselves. I would think if they made this serial today, they’d probably do it as a two parter.
An early example of the Doctor’s attitude pops up quickly, where he lies to the crew to get a view of the Dalek city below that they spotted earlier. Hartnell’s Doctor early on was portrayed as a bit of a frump, and this was a good example. “Fine – you don’t want to go? Well, we’ll go anyway, I’ll just make you think it’s the only way to go”. He eventually confesses to the “crime” in a latter episode, and there wasn’t much repercussion to that, oddly enough. But the character of the Doctor is in full display here, from the cranky old guy, to the caring soul that permeates all the incarnations, to the alien who wonders why people don’t want to do things his way. It’s actually well handled by Hartnell. (The Doctor even says at point that “we cannot jeopardize our lives and get involved in an affair that is none of our business”)
The first episode closes on what was at the time an epic cliffhanger. Not so much now, because we all know what the Daleks look like, but back then, Episode 1 ended with Barbara being menaced by a Dalek, but all we could see on screen was the plunger. That probably works well if you’ve never seen a Dalek before, but in 2012, I find it unlikely someone has never seen a Dalek before, much less watched THIS episode first over any other. The resolution of the cliffhanger actually prolonged the drama a bit further, since you didn’t find out what was behind the plunger until about five minutes into the episode.
I’m guessing part of what makes the original impact of the first full appearance of the Daleks was that we had never seen one before (at that time). As I started watching Doctor Who in 1983, I’m well versed in Daleks now, and the impact of that is lost on me. It doesn’t seem like such a dramatic entrance to me, but I’m looking at an almost 50 year old show with an enemy I had seen multiple times before I saw this episode. Still, it does show the Daleks as being calculating, as they stun Ian’s legs where he can’t walk – as opposed to just zapping him into non-existence.
I guess in retrospect, that probably made it quite dramatically entertaining, as you don’t know what these things were, and what they were capable of. Their look certainly fit the monochrome aspect of the show at the time. Given the show was in black & white, I always felt their look was set well for that environment. The set design was quite good, so it all fit together nicely to the combined themes of nuclear devastation and the “metallic” feel of the Daleks. Always enjoyed that part of the story. Some of that set design has made it forward into the modern series, as well. Some of the curved hallways have appeared in other Dalek serials – I really enjoyed seeing the Dalek spaceships of Eccleston’s era have the same hallway shape taken from this 1963 serial.
During the escape from the Daleks in episodes 3 and 4, we get a good example of these “primitive” Daleks. In this era of the show, the Daleks were powered by electricity on the floor, much like bumper cars (or dodge em cars). They stopped a Dalek cold by pushing it onto a cloak lying on the floor. Ian got into the Dalek, and lead them to safety, although not before a short adventure in an elevator shaft. It’s around this time we get a shot of the Dalek creature inside the shell. It wasn’t until the modern series that we got a good and clear view of that. We did get the odd peek here and there in the classic series, but this shot also influenced future design.
Most of the episodes comprise themselves with a single story point, which is where the pacing is really slowed down. Episode 2 is about who is going to retrieve anti-radiation drugs from the TARDIS. Episode 3, meanwhile, is meeting the Thals, and the escape from the Dalek City, with episode 4 featuring more escape. Episodes 5-7 feel like padding. In fact, the story could have quite easily ended after episode 4. The last parts of episode 4 show our heroes agreeing to leave, but then we find out that the Daleks took the fluid link from Ian and it’s down in the city, starting a second adventure to regain it, leading into episodes 5 through to 7. It’s almost, but not quite, like two stories meshed together…
This is where the story is stretched out, with an expedition to get into an unguarded area of the Dalek city and not all of the expedition making it until part of the way into the final part!
The final episode starts with the Doctor and Susan captured, where they learn of a Dalek plan to spread radiation through Skaro. The other party eventually makes it in, and the Dalek plan to spread radiation is averted at the last second. The odd thing about the big finale, is the Daleks were overpowered and destroyed rather easily – some of them immobilized by what appears to be nothing more than just a fist punch to the dome. Although the last Dalek to die whose eyestalk goes straight upwards always made me chuckle for some reason. The story ends with some nice dialogue between the characters, who seem to like each other. A nice short speech by Hartnell as well about the Doctor’s place and truth being in the stars was a highlight.
This story shows the Daleks to be a much more primitive character than the Daleks we know now. Daleks of this era are far more simplistic – even being apparently befuddled at one point by a small piece of metal that was keeping a door from closing. Even extermination is barely mentioned in this story. It’s not until episode 4 that we hear an extermination “order”, with one person actually killed by the Daleks. This story, while different in its pacing, sets the groundwork for many Dalek stories to come including the Daleks of the modern era. So while the pace might be an issue for some people (the story could have moved much faster than seven episodes), there is a lot worth seeing here, so give it a view if you’ve never done so.