Tuesday 27 July 2010

Reviews in Time & Space: The Daleks

Taking a short break from my summer quest to see a large portion of the Doctor Who stories I've never seen, I decided to come back a visit an old favourite of mine and I'm sure many other peoples'....the Doctor's first encounter with a race that would become arguably as popular as the Doctor himself. Of course, it's none other than the Daleks.

Following on instantly from the events of An Unearthly Child, the Doctor and his companions find themselves on a faraway planet covered by a petrified jungle. After discovering a futuristic metal city on this dead planet, the Doctor purposely sabotages the TARDIS so they they have no choice but to investigate the city. But the Doctor gets more than he bargains for as they are thrust into the world of the Daleks and their enemies, the Thals. Now the Doctor and his companions must escape from the Daleks and help to end a war that has been waged for centuries, and brought the planet Skaro to its knees...

Fans of the new series be aware, the early adventures of the first Doctor (as portrayed by the late William Hartnell) are very different from the Doctor as portrayed by Eccleston, Tennant, Smith and even some of the later 'classic' Doctors. Here the Doctor is both rash and selfish, his determination to explore the city of the Daleks resulting in him and his companions not only becoming prisoners of the Daleks, but also being exposed to highly lethal amounts of radiation. These early companions are also very different, with both Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) not choosing to travel in time and space with the Doctor and his granddaughter Susan (Carol Ann Ford), instead essentially being kidnapped by the Doctor after they discover the TARDIS and the secrets behind Susan and her grandfather. While they initially seem at odds with each other (which makes for very good viewing, especially when coupled with the prior adventure), their ordeal with the Daleks brings them closer together as a group (or a family even) and is much closer to the usual dynamic between the Doctor and his companions. This character growth is evenly spread out among the 7 episodes of The Daleks, which in turn gives plenty of time for the story to progress at an even rate, looking at the horrors of nuclear war and demonstrating some of the Nazi-esque ideals Terry Nation used in creating the Daleks. It just further emphasises to me how the new Doctor Who series would benefit from more episodes per story, not only to bring back the cliffhanger format but also to make stories with potential (I'm looking at you Victory of the Daleks) not look like rushed messes.

The Daleks of this story are also very different from what they would become. Before a time where there were Dalek empires and Davros, before the Daleks had the ability to travel through time or even space there were these mark I Daleks, mutants trapped in their casings, unable to survive the nuclear fallout their war with the Thals had caused without them. Not only this, but they are also trapped within their own city, dependant on static electricity from the metal floors. These Daleks are far more vulnerable than they would become in the future, but this doesn't mean they aren't a threat. In fact, they are as equally, if not more so threatening then the fully fledged Dalek empires of the future. They may have obvious weaknesses - but they themselves know it, and this creates far less arrogant, more manipulative Daleks (a similar kind appeared in the excellent 1974 story Death to the Daleks). The original design makes these Daleks also feel a lot more alive and individual, each with their own distinct voice pitch and dilating iris in the eyestalk (a feature that was dropped when the Daleks first appeared in colour in 1972's Day of the Daleks and would not be returned to them until 2005's Dalek). Back then there was also the mystery of what exactly was inside the Dalek casing, a brief glimpse of the mutant only being seen at the conclusion of episode 3 'The Escape'.

As the DVD sleeve insert says, this is one of, if not the most important story in Doctor Who's extensive history, and that is no exaggeration. Without the popularity the Daleks brought to the series, Doctor Who may have been another flash in the pan BBC drama and it certainly wouldn't be famous for what it is today - the adventures of a time travelling alien battling monsters in time and space. When the series was originally commissioned the BBC's then Head of Drama Sydney Newman didn't want the series to fall into the generics of sci-fi strictly said "No Bug-Eyed Monsters (abbriviated to BEMs), and no tin robots." Six episodes into the series the Daleks were unleashed upon the world and, well, the rest is history. This story was not only the very first to be adapted into a novel, but also remade into a cinematic adventure starring Peter Cushing as Doctor Who (while admittedly this movie condensed the plot into a shadow of its former self, the Daleks have never looked better and therefore the two Cushing Dalek movies are particular favourites of mine).

The Daleks have been a staple of Doctor Who since the very beginning, being the only monster to have battled all 11 incarnations of the Doctor (8th Doctor Paul McGann has some excellent Dalek stories in both book and audio format). The series wouldn't be what it is today without them, so long may they continue to appear.

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