The Daleks ain’t all that. By which, I mean it’s fine and decent and solid, and as a serialised continuation of the travels of our newly flung-together quartet absolutely essential. But as a story, it’s derivative, obvious and mechanical, even by 1963 standards. It’s a Terry Nation-er, basically, and all his SF tropes – mostly borrowed SF tropes – begin here.
None of which means I condone hacking more than half of it out, colourising it (badly, if the separately sourced preview images are any indication) and adding a dollop of napkin-scribbled RTD dialogue on top. Doubtless we now learn Babs got up the duff from Ganatos – good thing the TARDIS replicator can muster up morning-after pills – Antodus fell from that precipice gripped by homosexual panic rather than standard-issue fear, Susan pines after boys’ bums, and Ian’s desperate to get back to London/Cardiff for some fish and chips. Plus Nick Briggs Dalek voices. That’s right, Daleks as they were always meant to be heard, if only earlier, less fortunate producers had the opportunity to avail themselves of his genius services!
On a note of all-things-corrupted Daleks, I’d successfully avoided any nu-Who subsequent to the second Whittaker seasons (it’s a miracle I lasted that long), but the much-discussed Children in Need skit was on YouTube, so… If Russell’s remit is indeed to push woke sensibilities in his nu-nu-(neo-)Who – as part of the much-deserved and planned demolition of the BBC – to the point where even the zombie ming-mongs (to coin an insensitively derived phrase Russell so sensitively helped attain new peaks of popular use) begin questioning his decisions, he’s doing a bang-up job. Most likely, they’ll largely continue to display an unswerving ability to fall in line. It’s been pointed out that Russell’s Davros-redux – a fully abled Julian Bleach, so dispelling the disabled/disfigured = villain connotations perhaps most commonly noted of the Bond movies – stands as contrast to the most egregious treatment of the character in his previous appearance under Steven Moffat.
Nu-Who has been singularly incapable of treating Classic Who villains with any wit or intelligence anyway – effectively mirroring the title character in that regard – but the banality of RTD bringing Davros back in 2008, completed with mechanical hand that succeeded in undermining his essential iconography (he simply doesn’t look right ambidextrous) was kicked into touch by the Moff, scooping up the Kaled scientist like a mechanical digger and determined to pile on the indignities, like Curse of the Fatal Death was not only canon but also a touchstone.
So we not learned the Doctor was the author of all Davros’ pain (that handmines cobblers would be fine in the Matrix, but as an actual thing?) And also that he can open his eyes. And then the Doctor hoists the Daleks’ creator out of his half-travel machine, leaves him flailing on the floor, and has a spin in it. Even Walter Sobchak would have drawn the line there. The point being: any lingering respect held for the character as originally devised had been obliterated before Russell, in his ultra-woke-dom, re-envisioned him as a sub-’Allo ’Allo! komedy loon (on a side note to all this, I favoured the Movellan “Kaled mutant” definition of Davros; he was never a Nyder type who suffered an accident, but rather one with first-hand experience of the progressive malaise his people were encountering and thus nursing a vested interest in finding a solution).
But I digress. The Daleks – or The Dead Planet or The Mutants, if you’re picky – is a story I enjoy more during its opening stages, as our travellers touch down, explore, decide to leave/contrive to stay on Skaro to see more. As opposed to the subsequent, somewhat formulaic and moribund adventures with the Thals. On the one hand, you have the Doctor being a right git, pretending there’s no mercury and getting them into a prize mess. On the other, you have Ian being a dictatorial so-and-so… until he gets morally queasy at the prospect of pushing the Thals into a conflict that might be the end of them; Babs is the more suprising character in this respect, coming over all ruthless (and allying herself with the Doctor) when it comes down to needs-must, self-preservation-first considerations.
And then there’s Susan, already a needy, sobbing, petrified chump in a petrified forest. One who manages to wrap herself in a Thal blanket in the penultimate scene, promptly falling over likes she’s a tot barely able to take her first steps (none of this is a critique of Carole Ann Ford per se, except maybe that she performs the part too well). That unearthly child schtick didn’t last long, did it? Time to get the scissors out and make a beeline for Ian’s testicles… When a Dalek instructs her to “Stop that noise”, you can only sympathise.
The Doctor is still in the mode of the discourteous codger willing to bash skulls in with rocks, such that Babs will ask Ian “Don’t you ever think deserves something to happen to him?” (not just because he’s flagrantly careless with regard to their safety and wellbeing, but also because, per the Moff, he’s a racist old homophobe). It’s been suggested the course of this story finds the character shifting in position and heroic focus, and it’s certainly the case that later actions and statements are somewhat at odds with the self-interested ones that trigger the adventure. He’s determined to “study that place” (the Dalek city), but once there and Babs goes missing, he’s happy to “leave at once”; it’s only Ian using the fluid link as a bargaining chip that forces him to capitulate. When it comes to the Thals’ welfare, he is similarly brusque – it’s “none of our business” and “Let’s leave well alone. We have ourselves to worry about” – and again, the fluid link that determines his remaining (the Daleks took it from Ian).
Key in this is his lack of compunction in determining that their own priorities should dictate those of the Thals. Ian blanches at any such manipulation and “having anyone’s death on my conscience” but the Doctor and Barbara – who retorts “Except mine and Susan’s and the Doctor’s?” – consider calling on this “ready-made army” entirely justified (hilariously, he modestly suggests “With me to lead them, the Thals are sure to succeed”). Such trifles as Susan identifies – “The Thals won’t fight. They’re against war” – are met with an extraordinarily unconscionable and dismissive “this is no time for morals”. However, he essentially wins the argument, Ian succumbing to testing the Thals’ philosophical resolve (“Are they cowards, or are they just against fighting on principle?”)
This notion, that pacifism represents a defect of character, is immensely dodgy, of course: what it rather represents, in the Thals, is being manipulated into action from the level of those with lesser values. It’s okay, though, because Ian “proves” they’re really masking their true intentions when he threatens to take Dyoni to the Daleks, and Alydon responds by landing a punch on him (what part of his equation would make them cowards is unclear, though. Presumably, the punch confirms Alydon is not a coward, but if he’d let Dyoni be dragged off, would that make him one, or a man of unmoveable principles?)
Barbara early ponders “Can pacifism become a human instinct?” and Ian responds “Pacifism only works when everybody feels the same” (an immensely caveated position – see Gandhi, at least in popular consciousness – because he’s assuming a specific outcome, rather than a principled end in itself, come what may). Ian’s essentially taking the provocative tack, showing the only-on-the-surface-more-evolved – because no one could really believe such a thing – race the harsh, meat-hook realities in the way a James T Kirk or Doug McClure later would.
The Thals are, in their high-minded way, attempting to embody Service to Others ethics, as outlined in the Ra/Law of One Material (the Daleks being transparently Service to Self), but their path is perverted owing to TARDIS crew’s selfish devising (when we see them again, in Planet of the Daleks, they’ve “devolved” further; they’re now any old commando force on a raid). Service to Others is fine as long as it’s on human or Gallifreyan terms, of course, such that, by the story’s conclusion, the Thals, once a warrior race and now farmers, have rediscovered their capacity for killing, a largely untroublesome transition if your foes don’t resemble you and you can’t see them dying.
Ganatus opines, as Davo later would, “If only there’d been some other way”, but there was; the other way wilts on the vine however, of it evidently being the case that there are not some things – principles – worth dying for (under threat of the blast of a Dalek neutron bomb). This is, obviously, Doctor Who’s standard approach, and it’s one required generally as a simple, straightforward dramatic method (Ian’s rallying is very much in spirit of passive Eloi preyed upon by aggressive Morlocks in the Time Machine, the movie of which was released only three years earlier). But one has to wonder at times if, in certain respects, the TARDIS crew don’t have more in common with the Daleks than the Thals.
After all, the Daleks are similarly bent on preserving the safety of the group, tout science as king (and were, formerly, teachers and philosophers), manipulate others to their own advantage (the anti-radiation drugs, Susan’s note) and have a remarkably similar can-do ethos to the Doctor: “Every problem has a solution” is pretty much the Doctor’s “There’s always a way” reworded.
Admittedly, it’s difficult to see even this Doctor – who was once a pioneer “amongst my own people”, doubtless due to his/her being a timeless child or some such balderdash – approving the terraforming of an entire planet for the benefit of that one group (or Skaro-forming if you like: after all, the neutron bomb will preserve their lifeform, just as adapting another planet’s environment would preserve humanity’s). Would he have abided by his offer to build the Daleks a machine “capable of crossing the barriers space and time”, one wonders, if they’d agreed? At any rate, a line even he can’t live with seems to have been crossed when he learns of their plan: “This senseless evil killing!”
So one race who, through pacifism, were prospectively willing to die for their belief system until outsiders showed them another, less scrupulous path, are enabled to inflict sensible, righteous killing on another. All is fair and square, come the final scene: the Thals get “To rebuild a whole new world” (evidently, that isn’t the whole story with regard to the Daleks, although timelines of both races are less than lucid). Ironically, the Daleks’ reasoning, that “It is logical that together they will attack us”, is proved entirely correct by events in the following scene. (It’s curious that Nation’s initial concept was of a war triggered by a third-party whose later peace envoy then caused additional problems, since one might apply third-party manipulations as causative in real-world superpower loggerheads. And also because the third party in the broadcast story – the TARDIS crew – are the ones who effectively trigger a war). Temmosus, who warns against suspicion, fear and hatred, must die for the newly less-principled Thal race to live on.
As for the Doctor’s most famous nemeses – putting to one side the Time Lord himself essentially being revealed as the product of transhumanist tendencies, Timeless Cobblers excepted, and the fact that his survival is intrinsically linked to a wondrous machine (that is, sort of, alive) – any intimations towards merging the organic and mechanical are to be deeply distrusted at this stage of the show (and should remain so, regardless of Elon’s ambiguous touting). Obviously, their presence here is often inconsistent with the lore that would follow. We can quite happily put references to Dals and any other anomalous details of the planet’s history down to inaccurate records. It is, however, a shame the Daleks didn’t maintain something of the erudition shown here (“A few questions will reduce the mystery”).
It’s Ian who characterises the Dalek ethos – “a dislike for the unlike” – but one wonders if their enmity towards the Thals, particularly given their much touted (by Nation) status as space Nazis, isn’t really borne of jealousy (it’s also a reductive characterisation, something of a millstone, in a similar fashion to the Master being entirely motivated by universal conquest). The “disgustingly mutated” Thals have evolved, after all, into a master race, and not through an expressly devised eugenics programme but simply the luck of mutations coming full circle. The only deficit being, obviously, that it’s also bred bloodlust out of them (luckily, Ian’s on hand). The actual disgustingly mutated Daleks meanwhile are encased in life support systems within, in turn, a shockingly non-robust city. Rather than idealistic (their Dalek existence driving toward an ultimate destination), they’re just pissed off.
What’s also striking here is that their sequel appearance isn’t the first register of Daleks being mocked as a form and concept (there, it was one taking a tailor’s dummy for a real human; further besmirching would inform The Chase). Susan laughs reflexively at the notion “Do you think there’s someone inside them?” and we have Ian proving it very soon afterwards; he squeezes inside and becomes a Dalek operator, so eliminating the idea there’s some kind of complex apparatus in there (regardless of the mutant wrapped in a cowl). He also quickly gets the hang of a Dalek impression, while his “peers” are so dense, they’re unable to pick out an impostor in their ranks.
Then there’s the extraordinary – not least because it’s utterly baffling the Daleks as scientists wouldn’t have realised their dependency on radiation by this point – Dalek on anti-radiation drugs pleading “Cannot control. Cannot control. Help me. Help me. Help! Help! Help! Help! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!” There’s no need for Victor Lewis Smith when you have that kind of performance (on the mirthful front, it’s also rather winning that the Daleks have handy sculptures that can be chucked down their lift shafts. Do they also organise art classes?)
The Ambush (4) offers the first immortal intimation of their primary inclination (“They are to be exterminated”). That one was overseen by Chris Barry, who keeps things on an even keel across the four he tackled (1-2, 4-5). Sure, he lets those Dalek cut-outs get through (and would use them again in The Power of the Daleks), but he probably figured they’d look fine on 405-line fuzz at home. Likewise, the forced perspective corridors; the Dalek-configured architecture shows designers thinking about coherent worlds as they often would not going forward. It’s the same with the exteriors, of petrified forests (metal creatures we’d never see again).
Tristram Cary’s score is outstanding, those iconic sound “whips” retaining a particularly eerie quality, and in an age where Murray Gold’s wall-to-wall “uplift” has strangled any inclinations the show might once have had to offer soundscapes or the prospect of the unknown or uncanny (not likely under RTD and subsequent nu-Who professional fans anyway). Those inlay shots are groovy too, even if the placement in the frame is unvarying. It’s with Richard Martin’s episodes that the spottiness is highlighted.
The Ordeal (6) is Nation travelogue ordeal filler (it does what it says on the tin), and it’s an absolute chore, some inventiveness in terms of the underground sections notwithstanding. The Rescue’s grand finale is a damp squib, not least because the big fight is a dog’s dinner in terms of choreography and framing. Martin even goes for the equivalent of cartoon dying with one’s legs in the air for the Dalek raising its eyestalk vertically when it expires. In the interests of balance, it’s a Barry episode (The Ambush) where Ian hangs around for an age, allowing Temmosus to give a speech before warning him it’s a trap. Still, just as well, because the Thal’s leader would never have swallowed the aggression line Ian would later spring.
Barbara’s quite frisky here, but not as frisky as Ganatus, who goes to sleep with his head on her leg. There’s also no stopping her joining the more dangerous mission, except that she’s inclined to rest up almost immediately (women don’t tend to get a very positive showing here, albeit a less severe one than pacifists) Antodus is utterly wet and entirely unsympathetic, as all pasty cowards are. Anticipating Peri, we get an “all these corridors look alike”. It’s nice to have Susan recall Ian’s earlier words in her head when she’s en route; such devices tended to be “bred out” of the show as it became more homogenised. Anti-radiation gloves. Chesserman.
An exciting adventure with the Daleks? Perhaps occasionally. Cut-down and colourised, however, it’s sure to leave a new generation, if they’re even remotely curious, entirely unmoved. The Daleks is, regardless, never less than essential, if far from wholly remarkable.