Directed by Christopher Barry (Episode 1, 2, 4, and 5), Richard Martin (Episodes 3, 6, and 7)
Written by Terry Nation
If we were to point to a moment that explains Doctor Who’s popularity and existence today, it’s right here with this serial. Not only does this episode introduce other alien races and planets for the first time (The Doctor may have been from another planet but it has yet to be established that he isn’t human or only half-human anyway), but it also introduced the most famous villain from the series, the Daleks. It’s hard to describe exactly how big the Daleks were when they debuted both as an American and as someone who was decades away from existing, but they put Doctor Who on the map and became a sensation all its own. They were the focus of both Doctor Who movies (the first of which is based on this serial and is not any good) and sprouted a whole “Dalekmania” phenomenon. Beyond the Daleks themselves, this is when the show really embraced the science fiction genre and its popularity is what led the show away from the “educational” historical episodes even if they hung around through the rest of William Hartnell’s tenure as The Doctor.
The TARDIS lands in a petrified forest, which is gradually revealed to be on Skaro, and which looks like the set of a high school play with some of the fakest looking scenery I’ve ever seen on TV. There are seriously parts of it that appear to be merely cut up paper that wouldn’t be out of place at a kindergarten’s art project. The Dalek city is largely made up of a series of metallic looking hallways (the most Doctor Who of interiors), but at the very least they look good, if simple, and fit the design aesthetic.
There is substantially more chemistry between The Doctor and his kidnapped companions but there’s still a disconnect between them and numerous conflicts in goals as The Doctor wants to explore the Dalek city, while Ian and Barbara just want to get home while later The Doctor and Barbara are much more willing to sacrifice the Thals than Ian is. Having them have to actually work together to escape is a great way to move the relationships forward and make them more likable. By actually keeping them at the focus of the serial we finally get some much needed character work and clarification of their motivations. Ian has already established himself as “the leader” even if it’s clear that The Doctor isn’t going to fall in line behind him. This fact was a necessity due to William Hartnell’s age and frequently ill health, but Ian is clearly not a natural leader as he has all the bluster but not nearly the smarts he thinks he has and a varying amount of respect. The Doctor is a more natural leader but at this point he is still too mysterious to be a consistent lead. The Doctor is also cleverer than he was in “An Unearthly Child” actually coming up with more complicated plans and able to deduce how the Daleks function instead of just sort of being lost.
The first episode ends on the iconic shot of the Dalek’s plunger arm menacing Barbara in classic B-monster movie fashion and it’s a heck of a hook. Sure the situation is quickly defused in the following episode in true serial fashion, but as an intro to a new race of aliens it’s just about perfect as not only is it our first look at something inhuman on the show, but also we are left wondering what truly terrible thing is scaring her so much and she isn’t the easily frightened Susan. Sadly, The Daleks never really live up to that menace in the rest of the story. While much of the appeal of the serial came from how scary the Daleks are, that clearly doesn’t hold up in the present day and they are very easily defeated. All it takes is a couple of people wrestling one on to a mat and they are useless, the even more difficult task of pushing them on their sides with, or just depriving them of radiation. Just don’t go run head on at them and you’re golden and even that isn’t guaranteed failure.
The Daleks are rather different from the Daleks of the rest of the series. Their distinctive appearance and vocal patterns may be there, but here they are stated to be mutated by nuclear war (formerly the Dals), reliant on static electricity from the ground to move, dependent on radiation to survive, and the signs of genetic superiority are more stated by Ian despite not having much evidence at that point (for all he knows they could just hate the Thals because of generic animosity towards longtime enemies). By now the Dalek design is well established, but they are still iconic in appearance and hold up well.
The similarly mutated Thals are just goofy Aryan looking humanoids which of course make the Nazi parallels with the Daleks even more noticeable. The most interesting thing about them is their rather negatively portrayed pacifism which is treated as not quite as bad as cowardice (at first) but not something that is actually effective and certainly not an innate emotion. Still the internal conflict between this institutional pacifism and an ever increasing trend back towards being willing to fight the Daleks creates natural tension and creates a nice parallel with pre-WWII Britain (though they look like something out of Hitler’s dreams with their tall size, blond hair, and blue? eyes).
Early on, radiation sickness creates a sort of ticking clock factor which gives the story much more propulsion and urgency to the early goings. It also gives Susan a chance to not be completely useless though her characterization continues to regress as she is further removed from Earth, continuing to become even more frightened, naïve, childlike (despite apparently being a high schooler), and frankly rather dim. Already (well maybe that’s not completely fair since this is a rewatch) I am growing weary of her too frequent and obnoxious screams. Even at an ungainly (and unnecessary) seven episodes, “The Daleks” feels faster and is much better paced as the changing objectives are constantly clear and the overarching goal of being able to leave never slips from view. They must find mercury for the fluid link, retrieve the medicine, escape, returning to the city to retrieve the forgotten fluid link (Ian you really are an idiot), and finally rescuing The Doctor and Susan before defeating the Daleks (which is of surprisingly little concern for most of the run) with each getting about the same amount of time preventing each one from feeling too dragged out.
Grade: B (which is probably higher than I would’ve given it on first watch)
-Writer Terry Nation is known mostly for writing Dalek serials when it comes to Doctor Who but he also created Survivors and Blake’s 7.
– Ian and I guess everyone for that matter are apparently unable to figure out who told the Daleks about the Thals right after they had finished talking about them in an apparent cell.
-After figuring this out they still openly talk about plans after only a camera is destroyed although somehow this does not backfire.
-Have I mentioned how stupid everyone can get at times at this point?
-“Stop our power from wasting or it will be end of the Daleks” “Even if I wanted to I don’t know how”. The Doctor’s hatred of the Daleks begins full force and the Dalek pleading for its life is surprisingly pretty sad.
-The Doctor violates the prime directive by helping the Thals scientifically and really that can’t be good for the timestream.
-There’s a brief flirtation between Barbara and one of the Thals which feels really out of place when it happens as if it was something that had been developing all episode.
-I really like the trend of these serials to set up a hook at the end for the next one here ending with an explosion on the TARDIS
-I didn’t rate “An Unearthly Child” partly out of forgetting, partly out of the vast difference in quality between the first and final three episodes, and partly out of grades being arbitrary and generally being inflated (and different than my personal grading system) over at the AV Club proper. Retroactively I guess I’ll give it a C+.
-Any complaints about grading will be swiftly ignored
Next Up: “The Edge of Destruction” on Monday a particularly short serial which will thankfully give me more time to get through “Marco Polo” for next Friday.