Friday, 5 June 2009

The Daleks

Previous viewings - few

After a cracking introductory episode then a three-episode mini-story about cavemen, I can't shake the feeling that this seven-parter is where the series really began. The introduction of "bug eyed monsters" is a sea change in Doctor Who's remit only four episodes in and it's almost unfathomable for Doctor Who to be watched by a public who has never heard of a Dalek. Indeed, such is the impact of this story by the end I think if viewers even remembered the cavemen adventure they would think of it only as a footnote, a stepping stone leading from the first episode to this story. I defended the cavemen episodes, but even I would agree.

The plot has some similarities to HG Wells' The Time Machine, the film version of which was released in 1960 and which could well have been in Terry Nation's mind when he wrote this. That film is my favourite film ever - yes, really it is - which could have a bearing on my opinion of this story. We have two races, survivors of an ancient war, who have gone down different evolutionary paths. The peaceful Thals are cardboard cutouts as characters but as they resemble humans we're on their side. The Daleks are the real stars of the show, whether its the design or they way they're written or both, something struck a chord with the public. I think it's the combination of the instantly recognisable look, their single-minded hatred of anything non-Dalek, and a third thing that separates the good Dalek stories from the bad Dalek stories; they're not mindless drones, they can be intelligent.

The actions begins in an excellent first episode (and my favourite of the story) which begins a tradition of just the Doctor and his companions exploring their surroundings with no other characters present. This story is well watched shortly after the last one as it's a direction continuation. Ian and Barbara are wondering if the Doctor is trying to get them home or if he's just doing what he wants, and unfortunately the latter seems to be the case. In hindsight, the Doctor tricking his friends in determination to see the city can be considered out of character and makes him rather unlikeable, but Hartnell brings enough charm and humour to the role that he's never less than likeable. I can even believe that the Doctor would only have one fluid link - with any other Doctor perhaps not, but this is the doddery First Doctor who's later clamouring for "anti-radiation gloves".

So why is the first episode my favourite? Well, there's no sign of the boring Thals yet, it's just the excellent original TARDIS team, a creepy planet set, then scenes like the food machine scene which gives our heroes a rare chance to relax and chat to each other without the threat of death looming - something which happened all too rarely in this era - and then we're introduced to the city, with an increasing unsettling feeling as Barbara is separated from the others and we can feel her panic as doors open and close around her, leading her to a mysterious sink plunger. It's easy to say "imagine watching it not knowing what a Dalek is" but these days you really can't.

We move on to the actual introduction of the Daleks. Interestingly, the second episode doesn't pick up directly from the first, instead taking us to the Doctor, Ian and Susan, with the Doctor admitting his deception, before the Daleks are introduced. It's like Terry Nation is toying with viewers who want to see the monsters. The Daleks themselves are interesting, totally recognisable to what they're like today but with a touch more individuality to each and even a stun setting. This begins a long stretch of the story where the travellers are held prisoner by the Daleks, who seem to have had nothing better to do than wait years for intruders in the city so that they can learn about the Thals. I loved the teamwork scenes with the TARDIS crew escaping, though there are scenes where the budget limitations start showing. The sets are adequate but look cheap, the Daleks wobble and most of them are just photographs on set walls. Quite ironic that the story that sold the show on the public is the one where it starts to look its budget, following a very convincing opening story. Nevertheless, there's a real sense that the TARDIS crew form some kind of family unit, and we know where each one stands and what they are expected to contribute to a story.

Susan's big moment in this story is her excursion to the TARDIS in parts 2/3 and her meeting with Alydon. Carole Ann Ford isn't the world's greatest actress, but she rises to the occasion and does quite well here in one of the few times she takes centre stage. Alydon however is dull and this doesn't bode well for the Thals. They're obviously the good guys but I almost feel bad for the Daleks for being defeated by such a pathetic enemy, so painfully inept that Ian, a science teacher, looks like an experienced warrior and battle strategist in comparison. I didn't care much when Temmosus got killed, but at this point the Thals are nothing more than stock pacifist morons.

A highlight of the episode is the travellers' escape, and this really should have been the climax of the story. If the Thals had been more interwoven into the earlier episodes - or quite possibly removed entirely - this would have been a taut, exciting four-parter and an easy 10/10, but after an arduous escape (albeit one where the Daleks are a bit ill-served and come off as rubbish enemies) the travellers get back to the forest and meet the Thals, who have apparently got over losing their leader already. And then the story officially outstays its welcome when Ian realises he left the fluid link back in the city.

Am I wrong for wanting to put my foor through the TV at this point? The only way a story can get away with such an excuse for padding is that it's so good I don't want it to end. This was a good story, but not that good, and given the heavy involvement of the Thals - which can only diminish the interactions of the four regulars - the rest is sure to be a disappointment. And sure enough, it is.

My first unexpected delight of the marathon was these last three episodes, actually. The first four went down from my estimation from last time, but these went up. Perhaps because all I remember from before was a few episodes of wandering through caves, then that badly-acted Thal gets scared, then an amateurish grand finale. The cave scenes were actually full of character moments, although they were still long, and there was a fair share of cuts to showing us what the Doctor and Susan were up to. Episode 5 started out brilliantly actually, with Ian trying to convince the Thals to fight the Daleks for their own gain. The Thals don't ring true in any way, and I didn't believe in Alydon hitting Ian, it was very contrived. Still, it moved the story along at least.

We are introduced to more Thals, but I forget their names or even what they look like, except Dyoni but she's easy to remember as she was the only girl. I would find it easier to remember them by their single character trait that distinguishes them. You know, I'm starting to think I'm being pretty hard on the Thals, in fact I'm hardly mentioning the Daleks at all, and I probably should be.

There are lots of interesting Dalek moments in this episode. The point-of-view Dalek shots are well done and almost make me feel sorry for them as it feels confined - this is the only story that plays up the claustrophobia the Daleks feel from being in their casings, and I can almost relate to them. They mess around with the anti-radiation drugs for a few episodes and realise they've grown accustomed to radiation - this is before Genesis of the Daleks and apparently the Daleks (and the Thals) were mutated by radiation rather than being genetically created. This actually makes them scarier I think as their "dislike for the unlike" is therefore not genetically engineered but genuinely the way they feel. Low-budget naffness in this serial aside, there is a lot in the Daleks here that other writers should take a look at.

The static electicity idea was not one of the good things about the Daleks in this story however, as it lets them be defeated too easily not once but twice, including in the finale. The Doctor shows more hints of what he will become as he reacts in horror to the Daleks' plans for the total extermination of the Thals and sets out to stop them. Within a few minutes, it's all over as a power drain renders the Daleks powerless and granting the Thals an easy victory.

My favourite part of the final episode is actually the last scene in the petrified forest, with the Doctor acting a tad more Doctorish than he was at the start of the story - and they say the classic series didn't have character development - and the travellers saying goodbye to the Thals. And then we get the cliffhanger leadnig to the next story, although one would think after that, erm, ordeal, the TARDIS crew would deserve a bit of a rest!

I enjoyed re-watching this story a lot. The first few episodes might have lost some of their impact from the first time I saw this story, but the last few seem a bit better. It's dragged down by some key factors, notably the cardboard cutout Thals and some of the most shameless padding ever seen in the series, but the Daleks and the four regulars just about hold everything together, even if it all looks pretty dated now. Even after 46 years and loads more Dalek stories, you still feel the impact they have on the series here - shaky voices and wobbly heads aside, they made Doctor Who.

Horror quotient - When the Thals aren't around, the planet set and the city sets are quite creepy in conjunction with the music. Imagine the cave scenes and how much better they would have been if it was just the Doctor and the companions though.
Comedy quotient - Still deadly serious.
Drama quotient - This is an action-driven story, even if the action is a bit slow. There were a lot of good scenes, but Terry Nation's writing, while reliable, rarely delivers the absolute best of what the series is capable of.

A terrific showcase for the Daleks with good tension and drama in the first four episodes. Unfortunately it's a seven-parter.


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