OK, now this is more like it. “The Daleks” manages to give a clearer picture of what made Doctor Who so popular — it hits a lot of the same notes as the very first episode, but despite this second arc being twice as long as the series’ first storyline, it manages to maintain interest most of the way through. Granted, it’s not perfect, but it works well enough that the eponymous Daleks would go on to be the show’s number-one most iconic enemy. Considering they appear in the fourth episode of, what, like 800 at this point? That’s a pretty impressive feat early on.
Of course, 50 years later you have to make some allowances for the nature of ’60s television. But that should be easy enough for anyone who read this site’s gushing analyses of 30-year-old video games that have been grossly outstripped by more recently technology, right? Yes, the Daleks are sort of clumsy and goofy, and it takes a real stretch of the imagination to envision a bunch of people on an obvious sound stage pretending to be clinging for dear life to the edge of a pit in a cavern. But on the other hand, I’ve asked you to ooh and ahh over a tiny two-color sketch of a castle tower in the background of a neon-blue-for-nighttime bridge before, and you went along with that.
So let’s consider “The Daleks” in the context of television as a young medium, fresh and exciting to people who only a few years prior got their serial adventure kicks by sitting in front of a radio imagining the visuals that went along with the scripts they heard. “The Daleks” still bears a lot of the earmarks of the radio production mentality, to be honest, with a lot of actions being discussed more than acted out. The scene in the cavern drags on entirely too long — nearly an entire episode — and it is utterly unconvincing. But think of it as a radio production suddenly augmented with people pantomiming the script rather than simply reading it and it’s easier to stomach.
As for the Daleks, frankly they’re far more interesting on-screen than they would be on the radio. Their harsh, electronic voices would be alien and strange in an audio-only production, but their bizarre physical forms surely exceeded the imaginations of just about any child circa that era. Towering, tapered cylinders of metal with harsh, angular edges and primitive but functional manipulator arms, the Daleks become menacing in their inscrutability. Not only that, but the visual medium allows a subtle hint at even more unsettling facts about the race than first appearances would suggest: While the Daleks appear at first to be robots, eventually it comes out that the mechanical creatures are merely protective shells for withered mutations — a fact quietly reinforced midway through the serial when a cutaway shot depicts, for a brief moment, a feeble Dalek claw reaching from beneath the rubble. We never see a full Dalek au naturale, but that momentary glimpse of a single extremity is enough to make it clear that they bear little resemblance to the humanoid inhabitants of the planet. It’s a nice touch.
Plotwise, “The Daleks” works far more effectively than “An Unearthly Child” simply because it makes more sense. The Doctor and his companions show up in a situation not too entirely dissimilar from the one they just left — two alien factions are duking it out for supremacy in a hostile world — but the roles and nature of the sides are drawn much more clearly, and it’s far easier to know which side to sympathize with. I’m willing to forgive the fact that the good guys are basically a race of perfect blond Caucasians, because, well, that’s mid-2oth-century media as a whole. Even if the roles were reversed and the withered reptilian things in metal boxes were the outcasts and the übermensches were the ones inhabiting the city and screaming about EXTERMINATION, the story would still work and you’d still root for the race left foraging in the wilderness. The Daleks use lethal force, set traps, manipulate and abuse the Doctor’s crew, and ultimately plan to irradiate the planet’s surface anew in order to replenish the needs of their twisted bodies regardless of the fact that it comes at the expense of the other race’s total extinction. Daleks aren’t so much evil as amoral, prioritizing their own survival with no consideration of other races.
Interestingly, the story also adds some unsettling shading to the Doctor’s character as well. Their entire encounter with the Daleks and brush with radioactive death would never have happened had he not lied to his companions in order to trick them into venturing into the Daleks’ territory. Not only does this make you question his motives and means, it also completely screws the entire party when the TARDIS part he lied about having failed falls into enemy hands. The Doctor is a surly, judgmental, and not entirely honest fellow, yet the show is named after him, which only heightens the mystery of his role.
So even if the latter episodes drag a bit, and even if the Daleks inexplicably go down like suckers at the last minute, this proves to be a far stronger story than the show’s first serial. It deepens the enigma of the Doctor and introduces his deadliest adversaries, too. Not so shabby. I think I’ll stick with the show for a while longer.