Thursday, 11 April 2013

The Daleks written by Terry Nation and directed by Christopher Barry & Richard Martin

This story in a nutshell: The introduction of the Daleks and the birth of an unstoppable science fiction series.

Hmm: What a frightening, dangerous character the first Doctor was in his initial stories. You could almost argue that it was his relationships with Ian and Barbara that softened his character because he steps into the series as a thoroughly unlikable and irascible old man, always out for number one. It’s odd that when Colin Baker displayed these characteristics (and Baker’s vanished far quicker then Hartnell’s) he was condemned for perverting the character and yet Hartnell’s initial take on the character is risky and worthwhile. Perhaps it was because Hartnell didn't try to make a joke of his attitude. A wild haired, unpredictable man who likes to work on his own, he's forgetful and will happily blame his mistakes on other people. Susan suggests that he doesn’t know how to fly the ship. There is something almost feral and wild about his behaviour and Ian takes it upon himself to remind this man of his responsibilities and to be his conscience. It’s great when we finally see the crew working together to uncover the Daleks’ weaknesses and the Doctor is right at their heart pulling together all of the suggestions, a blistering intelligence. Its shocking that he is willing to leave the Thals to their fate and you have to wonder what could possibly have made him so cold? What’s even more chilling is how as soon as he needs the Thals to obtain the fluid link for the Daleks he is determined that they would fight for them regardless of the loss of life. So remarkably selfish. He’s keen to learn about the solar system they are in and in his reading glasses he has the look of an ancient scholar. He praises himself that with a few simple tools and a superior brain he can achieve anything! Interesting that he offers the Daleks the TARDIS as a bargaining chip. Finally he reveals some kindness when he almost drunk with disgust declares ‘this senseless evil killing!’

Science Hero: I find when I watched the first two series that Ian makes a huge impression in the first series and is given plenty of meaty material but is shunted off as an action hero in the second season. Certainly Ian has a fantastic role in The Daleks. He hates not knowing where they are and tells Barbara that he is afraid as she is. It’s wonderful that travelling to other worlds is such a terrifying experience in the first season, not the jolly lifestyle choice of later years. Ian and Barbara step out of the TARDIS terrified into scary, unknowing environments, its exactly the sort of gritty realism that makes these two the best companions we ever had. He has been uprooted violently from his time and has plenty of questions; can they live in the TARDIS, what do they eat…good questions and the sort of thing that is forgotten in later years when stepping into the TARDIs is dealt with in no more depth than cursory shock. Ian really abuses the Doctor once he discovers he tricked them into going to the city, you get the sense that if he wasn’t feeling so ill he would rough the old duffer up! William Russell plays Ian’s paralysis for real. The one moment when you have to ask if Ian has lost his sense is when he waits for the length of a bible to warn the Thals that they are about to be slaughtered. His insidious plan to take Dyoni to the Daleks in exchange for the fluid link shows that Ian really can think on his feet when the situation is desperate and will take a knock on the chin for his friends.

Bouffant Babe: Even when Barbara is not the centre of attention Jackie Hill has such screen presence my eyes always draw to her. Sometimes Barbara thinks the Doctor deserves something to happen to him, a very natural reaction to his coldness. She counted so much on going straight home back to normal things she recognises and is appalled to find herself on another world. Barbara being menaced and trapped within the city is really frightening because the atmosphere of the place and her fear of the unknown have been built up so well. ‘Plead with them! Anything!’ – Hill plays desperation so realistically. Barbara flirts madly with Ganatous and together they make the tedious scenes in the caves almost worthwhile. They hold hands as they say goodbye and kiss gently and he starts the sentence ‘I wish…’ and Barbara rushes back into the TARDIS before either of them could even consider where that sentence might end.

An Unearthly Child: Is it worth me restating how much I dislike Susan? I have never found her appealing because she adds very little to the stories she is in (Barbara conveys fear so much more convincingly and less irritatingly and the Doctor proves unknowable and alien enough for the two of them) and since I met Simon (fourteen years ago) his opinion of certain companions have had the unfortunate effect of rubbing off on me. He likes most of them but there are four he cannot bear, no matter how much I try to convince him that they had good moments (if you’re interested the four are Susan, Adric, Tegan and Ace). I can still remember the last time I did a Doctor Who marathon about five years ago (and this time in order) and I was watching The Keys of Marinus in bed to the derision of my husband every time Susan shrieked and screamed (which was about every two minutes or so) he mimicked her and started spasming hysterically in the bed! It really brought home to me how useless the character was! I find it bizarre that Susan should complain that she is always being treated like a child...she should stop acting like one then! Her dash through the storm lashed forest to save her friends is actually quite brave although as a consequence we are treated to some more screaming. She’s no longer a child, not yet a woman. Her handwriting is bloody awful! When the Dalek checks his orders Susan thinks on her feet and creates a scene (and wails, obviously). Her concern for Ian is hysterical (well, what else?) but it does make you wonder if there are some feelings for him buried under all that bluster.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Can pacifism become a human instinct?’
‘We do not have to adapt to the environment, we will change the environment to suit us.’
‘If only there’d been some other way.’

The Good Stuff: The original theme music is still my favourite despite some stiff competition later on, a blend of sucking, slurping sounds merging into something alien and frightening. The effects shot of the travellers on the cliff face overlooking the city is a very exciting visual that perfectly encapsulates that wonder of steeping out onto an alien world of the first season. In today’s slick, fast storytelling we miss the opportunities to build characters this well and generate an atmosphere of quiet menace, it grounds the show in far more realism. Watching the domestic scenes in the TARDIS and how convincing their interplay completely shows up the shows fudged attempts to do the same thing in the nineteenth season. I love the fact that they use food bars rather than pills, its still retro but with a unique Who twist. Because they set so much of the early scenes in the TARDIS the set is a vast, alien labyrinth with lots of nooks and stylish touches, it wouldn’t be this impressive again until the TV Movie. Great moody music, a gong of death signals their approach to the city. The Dalek city itself is a very impressively realised; low doorways, mirrored walls, electronic eyes following Barbara’s progress, the creepiest of alien noises closing in… That’s the best cliffhanger scream ever and its debatable that the show ever offered anything quite this exciting again (because for once all bets were off). A neutron bomb polluting the atmosphere with radiation and our heroes sweaty and tired with sickness, this is terrific adult drama and played with absolute conviction. No wonder the audience fell in love with the Daleks, that first pull back reveals and cacophony of bumps, sticks, plungers and eye stalks – nobody had seen anything like this before. Their innovations are so cool, swiveling eyes, twitching feelers, a terrifying metallic voice and paralysing guns. The lighting is exceptional; the Daleks practically glow in their city. How bad must the war have been for the Daleks to retreat inside metal casing such as these? The lightning that streaks through the TARDIS and lights up the roundels is yet another wonderful cliffhanger and provides an unforgettable image. There is some evidence of fairytale morality evident with the disgustingly ugly Thals turning out to be perfectly beautiful. The Daleks are such devious bastards you cant help but adore them, listening in on our heroes and using them to perpetrate their genocidal desires! How many kids must have wanted to ride a Dalek like Ian does here? What obscene creature lies underneath that cloak? Its easy to see why come episode four this series was such a huge success; the escape from the Dalek city is an episode long set piece, a fast paced sequence of cutting through doors, Ian trapped in the Dalek shell and a Dalek advancing up the lift shaft after them. I love the shots of the Daleks creeping into the shadows as the Thals approach; gun sticks twitching, eager for the kill. You get the sense of a barely controlled hunger for the kill beneath the metal trappings. The Dalek firepower blistering the wall is a brilliant special effect for the age it was made in, there would be stories in later years that would kill for a heart stopping moment like that. ‘Dislike for the Unlike’ – the Daleks racial creed is exposed. This really is a tale that knows how to capture the audiences imagination with its cliffhangers - the realisation that they have left the fluid link with the Daleks is another great end of episode and the thought of having to return to the nightmarish city is frighteningly played. There is some great trippy lens work for the Dalek giddy on drugs! How wonderful to have the regulars all chip in with an opinion about whether they should manipulate the Thals for their own needs, there is some intelligent discussion which shows how their difference of opinion creates great drama. Nice POV of a Dalek travelling into the control room, the director(s) are always trying new and inventive ways to shot this story as though Doctor Who finally gives them a chance to approach storytelling from a new visual angles. Water dripping from trees, mist curling from swamps, screaming creatures and sucking, slurping sounds all make for an atmospheric lakeside set. Such simple touches really send shivers up your spine; air bubbling furiously to the surface of the lake, a tentacled creature rising from the water and a whirlpool which sucks a character to his death. You’ve got to cheer for the Thal who gets an extermination blast right in the face and keeps fighting until he kills the bugger that shot him! I almost felt sorry for the last pitiful Dalek begging for survival. The Doctor says that he might visit their grandchildren one day and it warms my heart to think that the show would last another ten years so we could see that event take place in Planet of the Daleks.

The Bad Stuff: The Doctor’s fluid link ploy makes all the regulars look remarkably gullible. Susan runs on the spot in the jungle whilst being whipped with tree branches. I realise this was early days for televisions but that is an obselete technique. At times the Thals do feel like a stock sci-fi race and the humourless Dyoni is by far the most wooden of the lot. This the first example of cardboard Daleks much favoured by Christopher Barry to suggest numbers and it certainly would not be the last. How on Earth do Ian and Barbara manage to sleep in that swamp with all those horrific noises going on about them? Episode six is where the story really crawls to a halt with the cave scenes being pure padding to delay the conclusion for another week. We spend far too long watching every character jumping across ravines. The pace doesn't so much stutter but freeze for 25 minutes.

The Shallow Bit: Ganatous is a nice blond hunk for Barbara to moon over. The Thals are all decked out in leather slacks with holes cut out in them.

Result: A little piece of history and for the most part The Daleks more than lives up to its grand reputation. As our first step onto an alien world it really sells this series as something totally alien and mysterious, not to mention exciting and full of dangers. The Daleks bucks the trend of season one that it is the historical adventures that are the best realised and most memorable because this is one planet you will not forget in a hurry. The series certainly never did. The Daleks themselves are imaginatively shot throughout, devious, implacable and deadly and it’s no wonder they were an instant hit. This is a stage of the show where the Doctor wasn’t quite the hero and the companions had an equal share of the action with Ian, Barbara and (surprisingly) Susan all contributing memorable moments. A quick mention for the two directors, Barry and Martin, who keep this story moving and dazzling us with some imaginative and gorgeous lit images. Barry would go on to do better things with Doctor Who but this is Martin's best work on the series by a country mile. If this had been six episodes and we cut out the penultimate episode of padding it would be virtually flawless demonstration of how gripping the series could be when it took flight to another planet: 9/10

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