The Daleks have reached such a mythical status that replicating the experience of an original viewer is impossible. It is difficult to imagine what this must have been like, not knowing what was at the other end of the sink plunger menacing Barbara. One thing we can do is look at the television landscape at the time to get an understanding of why the Daleks made the impact that they did.
Doctor Who was never made entirely as a children’s programme. The BBC at the time had a children’s department, but it didn’t make Doctor Who. Having said that, it was made with child viewers in mind, a little more so than it is nowadays, probably best fitting the description of “family show”. In terms of a series that was accessible to children, whether meant for them or not, it was unique. It’s obvious predecessor, The Quatermass Experiment, was for adults, broadcast at 8pm after most children were in bed. Children had very little experience of seeing aliens or monsters on television, with only a couple of puppet shows really doing that pre-Doctor Who, Fireball XL5 and Space Patrol. But there was obviously a big difference between puppets threatening puppets, and actors being menaced by alien monsters in live action television. I can find only one children’s television series that could in any way have prepared children for Doctor Who, The Red Grass, which featured killer alien grass, but this was five years before, in 1959 (and it’s not exactly Daleks!). If anyone knows of anything else, please feel free to use the comments section.
So the point I am making with all this is that the Daleks have an impact today, but nothing like they did in 1964. And everybody must have realised they were breaking new ground here. There is a great deal of effort not to push things too far (although this may also have been the result of budgetary limitations), with the viewer’s imagination doing the job for a lot of the story: all we see of the Dalek mutant is a claw, and the creature in the water is not shown at all, with a reaction shot and a scream doing enough to spark the imagination. The story makes a big deal about the Daleks being mutants in tanks, more so than most subsequent stories where they are shown to be much more integrated with the technology. Here one can be taken out of its Dalek shell quite easily, and there is space for Ian to climb in. There’s got to be a lot of empty space in there. Maybe the Daleks get claustrophobic.
The story is already very frightening long before a Dalek appears. It makes great use of the trope of a ghost town, with unseen threats lurking somewhere in the shadows. This is done both with the petrified forest and the Dalek city, neither of which are as deserted as they at first appear to be.
When the Daleks do appear they are quite different to their later stories, in more ways than one. There is only one other example in the whole of Doctor Who to date where Daleks shoot to paralyse rather than to kill, and it will take ten years to get back to that point, with the same writer doing his greatest hits. This is not an example of being kinder or less dangerous, just more devious. They will later be portrayed as creatures who kill without thought (not always), but here they are trapped in their city and want to find a way to utilise anyone from the exterior. What is different is that they are not quite the race of creatures that revel in killing for the sake of it. They are still trying to rationalise it:
Doctor: That’s sheer murder!
Dalek: No. Extermination.
So why don’t they like the idea of murder? They rationalise it as wiping out vermin, of which there are undertones in the word “exterminate”. The choice of word is significant: they don’t go round chanting “kill”. This is very Nazi. The parallels are made a lot, and that’s because they work, and in this post-war world (less than 20 years after the end of the war), it does add another dimension of fear. Susan describes the Thals as “perfect”, which is an interesting reversal of the whole Aryan thing, in this story the Thals (Aryans) are the ones the Daleks (Nazis) think should be wiped out. This is what makes the handsome=good / ugly=bad theme acceptable here because the xenophobia theme is a subversion if you look at the source of inspiration, with the “ugly” creatures trying to wipe out the “beautiful” ones. In any case it is not a bad idea to play a cliché straight before you flip it round, and Doctor Who will get round to subverting it entirely, and challenging assumptions many times over.
The other strong theme of the story is learning to be brave. Susan has to travel back through the petrified forest, in the middle of a storm, suffering from radiation sickness, and as far as she is concerned there are hidden enemies lurking in the forest who are as bad or worse than the Daleks. Forget the running on the spot, this is frightening. Antodus wants to give up and go home, and has to be persuaded to fight his own cowardice, which ultimately costs him his life when he cannot bring himself to fully commit to the jump across the very small chasm. In the end he learns to be brave and sacrifice himself to save the others – all rather bleak. The Thals have to learn to fight because pacifism will get them all killed, but here is where the theme starts to blur. Ian and the Doctor’s motivation is highly questionable, and the story does give consideration that the moral stance that never fighting could actually be a valid viewpoint, whatever the cost, because it shows us a post-war world in which very little life has survived. So what is the message here? It seems to be both “war is bad” and “pacifism is bad” at the same time.
No. ultimately the message is one to the viewers: you need to watch this series because it’s going to be epic. The Daleks have arrived, the Doctor is starting to learn how to be the Doctor, and television will never be the same again. RP
(scroll below the artwork for another review)
The view from across the pond:
An interesting thing happened to me in 2017. I recommended Babylon 5 (1994-1998) to two of my dearest friends. While B5, as it is nicknamed, can be a subject for later discussion, the fact is, it remains one of the best written science fiction shows of our lifetime. Strangely, what both my friends said to me after watching just one episode is that it seemed dated. (In fairness, one of those two friends doesn’t stick with anything longer than about 12 minutes and prefers to read entire series synopses on Wikipedia rather than commit the time to view anything so he’s a bad example.) But the other is a huge fan of Doctor Who having seen every episode since the beginning. And yet, somehow, the mid-90s seem dated! What must Hartnell’s era of Doctor Who look like?
The fact is, those early Who episodes were often long, talky, drawn-out affairs with a lot of “back and forth” plots and missing each other on the way to a destination, tons of screaming girls or girls being asked to make tea, and no visual effects to speak of… in fact, one early episode went so far as to use a plunger as a cliffhanger. Think about that for a second! As cliffhangers go, this could have lead us to a whole different type of show! Imagine the following week, tuning in… one sees the carrier is a plumber, pants hanging off his backside trying to be as one with the crack in the plumbing he’s come to fix? Yes, Barbara, I too would scream!
And yet, Doctor Who told a tense story with The Daleks, holding the viewers’ attention rapt for the full 25 minutes of that first episode. Not just that, it left viewers wanting more. Week after week, those talky, effects-less episodes drew audiences in like a swirling pool on Skaro. And rightfully so, because the show wasn’t made during a time when visual effects were at their pinnacle. It was made on a shoestring budget without even the money to afford a reshoot when things went wrong, like looking for gloves… I mean drugs… to save everyone from radiation poisoning. Not just that, but it was endearing! The cast acted their hearts out and sold the unsellable: giant salt and pepper shakers with plungers for arms and a total lack of ability to go up a flight of stairs… were terrifying. They became the longest running enemy in Doctor Who and, somehow, the most popular. But it started in a dead forest with a lying hero who puts everyone’s lives in danger for his own curiosity; a dead and empty forest full of shadows and hints of something sinister…
To add to the brilliance, they captured something essentially British. When Ian prompts a peaceful Thal to slug him in the jaw, Ian takes it with the stiff upper lip so popularly associated with the British. If that were American, it would have had Ian pick up a bat, curse the Thal, then swing a time or two before realizing “Oh, that’s the response I was looking for!” Ian, by marvelously British standards, takes the stiff upper lip approach, akin to “oh, jolly good slug there, wot! Just as I had hoped, you know! I say!” It’s perfect! (Those were not his actual words, but did sum up the response rather well, I think!) And all teasing aside, not only does it work, but it’s an incredible scene. Would it work nearly that way today: nope! But that’s part of the benefit of watching something from another era: it gives us a taste of the time it was made.
The Daleks, when viewed in a single run-through doesn’t rocket by. It’s a slow burn. A good one, but a slow one. But remember, when watching Boris Karloff in Frankenstein, one can’t expect his acting to be like Robert DeNiro from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein because it was a different time. It featured different actors with different sets of skills. The typically amazing Robert DeNiro did nothing for Frankenstein’s monster even though it was more modern. In fact, it’s an epically forgettable performance. Modern means we can do things we couldn’t “back then” but it does not mean it is automatically better. The Daleks went on to exterminate all of time and space, almost wiping out reality in the process. I think they warrant a return to their first story, even if the Thals think leather pants are in fashion.
Doctor Who has always been about being open-minded; to see beyond the effects. Those grade school kids I had to endure who said the show had lousy special effects can eat their outdated hats now since Doctor Who is everywhere. We Doctor Who fans won in the end! But it was the Daleks that really jumped the show; launching it into the vortex and energizing it for future generations.
“Dated”, my plumbers-bottom! ML