Hasslein Blog: Doctor Who Retro Review: Serial 002—The Daleks


Hasslein Blog

Friday, April 12, 2013

Doctor Who Retro Review: Serial 002—The Daleks

Doctor Who Retro Review
Serial 002: "The Daleks"
Starring: William Hartnell

By T. Scott Edwards

As Sue would say on Adventures with the Wife in Space—"Terry F****** Nation." The man has done a great deal for Doctor Who over the many years, and has a lot to answer for, and this, his first script for the show, is ultimately the reason the series ever existed beyond the first few stories. The creator of the Daleks, he is renowned for rather mundane scripts, but it is the creation of these pepperpot monsters which truly cements his arguable genius. His scripts are often rather stilted, with bland characterisation and frightfully run-of-the-mill episode titles—yet he is also responsible for what is arguably one of the greatest serials ever, Genesis of the Daleks. That a man can have so many hits, and so many misses, is fascinating. But what of his first serial, The Daleks?

Each of the earliest serials was split into a number of episodes, each with their own names—some truly off the mark, others apt. As the story opens, with the title card reading "The Dead Planet," the flickering of the danger light on the TARDIS console sets the scene instantly. Before anything can happen, our time-travelling heroes are already in grave peril. Great pains have gone into the creation of the sets for this serial, and Raymond Cusick is truly a genius—not only did he create the iconic design of the Daleks, but also he created such a sense of otherworldliness, of alienness, that it is breathtaking. The petrified jungle, the metal creature, the corridors of the Dalek city with their slanted, crooked doors too short for Barbara to walk through without ducking—from the outset, we know that they are somewhere unknown.

As with the design of the landscape and model work, an unsung hero of the piece is Tristram Cary, whose sound-scapes are just as breathtaking—the use of incidental music throughout creates a sense of awe. Epic chords as the city is revealed in the distance, and the terrifying silence building into that cliff-hanger—yes, that cliff-hanger. Our first ever sight of the Daleks—one plunger waved crazily in front of a camera by a floor assistant, creeping up on the terrified, disconnected Barbara, who, within minutes of being stuck inside endless alien corridors is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The merging of this scream into the end credits isn't perfect—something we will come to know and, dare I say love? in Bonnie Langford's era as a companion—but it leaves us on tenterhooks, desperate to find out more.

What we must remember as objective viewers is that when this first aired in late 1963, nothing was known about the show. No-one knew what lengths the series would go to to engage the audience. As such, when Barbara is pinned to the wall, and likewise in episode 2 when Ian is shot by the Dalek, we can't be sure that they will survive—it grips you with a paranoid sense of fear not unlike that of the characters.

Episode two, "The Survivors," is the first real look at a Dalek, other than that of the plunger before, and as such it is enthralling to think that these creations are so iconic, so atypical of sci-fi and horror. Terry Nation made it clear that he held a great disdain for robots in these genres from Hollywood movies and other TV shows, as they made it quite clear that you could tell that it was, simply put, a man in a costume. As such, he was determined that his would appear to glide effortlessly—which they do, to some extent. Far smaller than others that we see now, these pepperpot creations with suckers for arms and evident weapon arms are, at first, not the villains. It is surprising to note that, again objectively, the Daleks, whilst scheming and evidently using the Doctor and co for their own uses, are not instantly villainous. Instead, they are acting through fear of the 'unlike', as it is termed later in the serial—the Thals must be horribly mutated, disgusting freaks. Ironic, then, that what is inside the Dalek casing—the thought of which makes Susan guffaw with laughter so readily—revealed in episode 3 is a hideous, gelatinous clawed blob, yet the Thals look—well, beautiful, really.

As with the first serial, the Doctor comes across as abrasive, unlikeable and gruff. His life has been uprooted and, along with his granddaughter, he has been forced into another life of wandering exile. Having finally settled on Earth, albeit only briefly, he is forced to wander all of space and time again, unable to navigate or plan ahead. His act of selfishness in episode 1, emptying the mercury fluid links to ensure a look at the Dalek city up-close, is not really selfishness—it is scientific curiosity. Whilst is does lead the group into being placed in utter peril, it is he who is driving the action. The group would rather just take off again, continuously hopping from time and place to time and place, until they eventually wound up back at home.

Susan continues to frustrate, doing little other than screaming and running and falling and screaming and running and falling and screaming... you get the idea. For an alien being herself, she acts like a terrified school girl. In the face of the Doctor's alien nature, she seems positively pathetic. Her overacting aside, she does little to progress the plot, other than the fact that she makes first contact with the Thals in the beginning of episode 3, "The Escape." "The Escape" is one of those episodes with a redundant name—there is no escape, no one gets away from anything.

Ahhh, the Thals. Those beautiful, perfectly-coiffured alien beings whose mutative cycle has gone full circle, from warrior beings to mutants, and right the way back to... well, farmers, actually. A spineless bunch of misfits, who spend far too long spouting redundant exposition which it is difficult to feel any passion for at all. As the serial progresses, they don't really get much better either—they are, of course, the good guys, but much like any number of races after them, they inspire little enthusiasm in the audience. It is no wonder that the Daleks became as popular as they did; in comparison with this bunch of badly dressed farmhands, they inspire us to encourage their dastardly plans. It is episode 3 which sees the first ever "Exterminate" from a Dalek too—although interestingly, it is used in flowing exposition, as opposed to the polysyllabic threat which has become so synonymous with them.

Susan gets another of those awkward laughs when the Daleks monitor the writing of the note—"Su-San?," the Daleks enquire, unused as they are to individual names. The note, of course, leads the Thals, after yet more exposition, into a trap which becomes the 'highlight' of episode 4, if it can be called that. Episode 4, "The Ambush," sees the Doctor and his cohort escaping following their creativity with the Dalek casing at the end of part 3. The scene in which they wait for the lift, Ian trapped within the casing, would be nerve-wracking, if it weren't for Susan's screams as always, as she points to a door which is no further broken down than before, trying to create a sense of urgency. The scenes with the lift and the statue are brilliantly realised, though, through some superb model work, which create a genuine sense of danger—that lift, coming up ever so slowly, could contain anything, and we genuinely believe it.

Then the eponymous ambush occurs—and it is a dreadful letdown. Despite Cary's outstanding score creating a mounting sense of danger, the Thals blindly and stupidly wander into the trap, and when Ian bellows "No! It's a trap!," there is an awkward pause, as the Thals do not move, and the Daleks do not fire—as though no one can fully believe that it has been this rashly put-together. The Thals are pathetic wimps, and it is difficult for us to give a toss as one or two of their number are picked off by that exhilarating negative effect created by the guns.

Once our band of heroes are back at the Thal camp, they become even more pathetic—refusing to fight, and saying that they would prefer to simply retreat further into the mountains than fight with the Daleks. That they are taken in by Ian's ruse about handing over Dyoni is even more irksome. What is interesting is the dynamic with the Doctor and his companions, though—Ian, despite his earlier protestations at his desperation to return home, refuses to force the Thals to give their lives for their cause. Barbara and the Doctor are, however, insistent. This is the beginning of the friendship between them which will be truly put to the test in the next serial.

Once the Thals have been persuaded, the group splits into two, watched at every move by the Daleks from their base. This forms the basis of the next two episodes—"The Expedition" and "The Ordeal." The sets are again perfectly realised, and the beast in the sulphurous lake, rising out of the water on its many-legged body is incredibly effective—eyes aglow, it is a haunting image, and one which makes the cliff-hanger, the swirling eddy engulfing Elyon, even more dramatic. It is during these two episodes in particular that the fact that the story is made in black and white are truly effective—the sequences in the tunnels are sparsely shot and incredibly tense, shadows dancing across their faces—and for once, not boom microphones. This is all intentional, and it is all the stronger for it. Sadly, episode 6, "The Ordeal," is aptly named—it is an ordeal to watch and endure, as we watch each and every member of the group go through their preparations for jumping a crevasse, running, then jumping... It goes on, and on, for what feels like an eternity. Even the occasional cutaways to the Doctor and his group cannot redeem the boredom, as they spout educational stuff about electricity and short circuiting, filling the brief that Doctor Who should be, above all else, instructive. Their capture by the Daleks, and their torture in the final episode, are too brief, and too much time is spent watching Ian and his group jumping...

"The Rescue" highlights one of Nation's shortcomings as a writer. After nearly 3 episodes of build up, following the expedition through treacherous lands and dangerous encounters, as well as the mind-numbing cliff jump, the group finally arrive within the city walls, only to run straight into Antodus—whilst the Doctor and Susan were caught, it proves that it was a rather simple affair to have walked in and remained undetected. The fallen Thals seem to have given up their lives to little ends. As the Thals gather to discuss their attack on the city, armed with sticks and stones—and presumably some nasty words, too—one shouts "Have we forgotten how to fight?" The awkward silence following this question speaks too loudly of the inability of the Thal people—they really have. When they finally attack, they are simply cannon fodder, as extra after extra is mowed down having achieved nothing but an impressive aerial descent by rope.

The Doctor and Susan, whilst being tortured, make a flippant comment which seems rather jarring—in order to spare their lives, they are willing to share the secret of time travel, and even offer to make another TARDIS for the Daleks. Had Tom Baker made this comment, or any other Doctor, we could have been forgiven for reading it as a bluff. Here, though, the look of desperation in Hartnell's face is unnerving—we genuinely believe he would break one of the fundamental rules of time travel, and give the secret away to some tyrannical tin beasts to save his own skin.

The final showdown is made all the more tense by the grating, alien voice of the Dalek counting down the seconds to the detonation of the nuclear bomb. What ruins this dramatic effect is that evidently it was filmed as an extra to be added in during postproduction, rather than live, and as such, when the voice reaches "4!" the countdown is forced to stop, as the Thals attack, Ian and co appear to save the day, and it takes about 2 minutes before the control panel is destroyed. The tension disappears the second that voice stops.

This is nitpicking, I daresay, looking for faults in what is a relatively strong story. It is, as always, an episode too long, with too much padding and exposition to make it appear as tense as Nation clearly intended. The direction is, for the most part, very good, and Jacqueline Hill and both Williams', Russell and Hartnell, are on top form, delivering their lines brilliantly—with quite a few of the infamous Billy fluffs along the way from Hartnell—and serves as a great reminder of why the Daleks, in their original outings, were so effective as villains. Their cold, calm and collected attitude towards logic is horribly unnerving. Through overuse, they became rather silly—and again, this is predominantly Nation's fault. The next Nation script will be a far cry from this one, featuring no Daleks and pushing the boundaries of studio-bound television to its very limit. All in all, though, a thoroughly enjoyable tale—one which serves as a stark contrast to the next, with the claustrophobia and terror of the unknown inside.

Scott Edwards is a teacher of English and Theatre Studies at Barnard Castle School in the North East of England, with a BAHons in English Literature and Film Studies. He is also a self-professed ‘ming-mong,' and in addition to http://timelordapprentice.blogspot.co.uk/ he also runs http://www.facebook.com/Classic.Doctor.Who. You can also follow him on Twitter: @TimelordTSE.

Labels: , , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home