Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Doctor Who: The Daleks

Cody watches as the Doctor meets his most famous enemies.

The way the TV docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time portrayed it, the production of the second serial in the Doctor Who series was a make or break moment for the show. BBC higher-ups were not impressed with the 100,000 B.C. serial or the fact that they had gone over-budget. They were ready to pull the plug on it right then and there, and the four episode show about a strange otherworldly doctor who had a run-in with some cavemen probably would've just faded into obscurity. Head of Drama Sydney Newman and producer Verity Lambert had more faith in the concept than that and moved forward on production of another serial, written by Terry Nation, entitled The Mutants, later to become known as The Daleks.

This happened despite the fact that Newman himself hated the idea of this particular story, feeling that it broke the rules he had laid down for the show - that it not feature bug-eyed monsters or tin robots. As it read, this was to feature bug-eyed monsters in the guise of tin robots! But his decision not to call off its production turned out to be a very good one.

The Daleks begins with the TARDIS materializing - with the Doctor, his granddaughter Susan, and their reluctant travel companions Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright on board - in a forest on the planet Skaro that has been petrified by some kind of great heat. When Susan checks the radiation levels and finds that they're safe, the group feels comfortable enough to step outside of their police box-shaped ship and explore. It isn't until Susan turns away from the control panel that the radiation reading rises into the danger zone.

During their look around, the main thing of interest found among the dead trees is the corpse of a metallic lizard creature later referred to as a Magneton. Of much greater interest to the Doctor is a hi-tech city spotted in the distance.

For a time, it seems that the only threat to the travellers could come from within the forest. Though there seems to be no life around, Susan feels something touch her shoulder while she's outside, and later a small case full of glass vials is mysteriously left outside the TARDIS doors. Susan is ready to get out of here, Ian and Barbara just want to get back to their lives in 1963 London, but the Doctor is so determined to investigate the city he saw that he fakes a problem with the TARDIS - unscrewing the fluid link, then pretending to discover this mercury-leaking problem when the ship doesn't work properly, telling the others that they must trek into the city to look for more mercury to fill up on.

The necessity of the fluid link isn't the only thing established about the TARDIS in this serial, we also get a look at how its food maker works. Much like a vending machine, all you have to do is punch a code into a panel and the food maker will spit out just what you ordered - blocks of a cheese-like substance in whatever flavor you please.

They all set out for the city and, normal for actor William Hartnell's version of the Doctor, the older man must sit down for a rest by the time they reach the city entrance. But there's something other than the Doctor being old and out-of-shape at play here. The Doctor and all of his companions soon find out that they are in fact suffering from radiation sickness, and it soon gets worse.

Entering the city, the group is quickly captured and imprisoned by its inhabitants - oddly shaped robots that slide around on the metal floors of the city, equipped with guns that fire some kind of energy that causes the picture to switch to a negative image and inflicts paralysis or death on its victim. The arms of the robots look very much like toiletry plungers, giving the creatures - the Daleks - a rather goofy look overall. But don't let their silly appearance fool you, the Daleks are evil schemers, relentless and violent. Any living creature that is of no use to them is only fit for extermination.

Designed by a man named Raymond Cusick, the Daleks were originally meant to have claws or pincers as hands, but as it turned out it was simpler to just stick the plungers on them. They surely would have looked much different if they have been made by the man who was first hired for the job but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts - future big name director Ridley Scott.

Mock the look of the Daleks though you may, many do, I do myself, but there's no denying the popularity of these characters and their design. Cusick's design worked for the creatures, was functional, and he had the comfort of the performers in mind when he sketched it and had it built, the shape of the Dalek body allowing for an actor to sit down inside it and slide it around with their feet.

It's soon revealed that Skaro was devastated and irradiated by bombings in The Neutronic War  more than five hundred years earlier, a skirmish that broke out between the two races that inhabit the planet - the Dals, who were teachers and philosophers, and the Thals, a tribe of warriors. At the end of the war, the Dals retreated into their city to be protected from the after effects by their machines - the Daleks aren't really robots, they're mechanical bodies that the Dals live inside of. These machines can only move on metallic surfaces, so they're unable to leave the city. Most of the Thals perished in the war, but the Daleks believe that some of them do still live out in the countryside, most likely horribly mutated by the radiation.

Once everyone has come to the realization that the case of glass vials delivered to the TARDIS actually contained a cure for their radiation sickness, the Daleks allow Susan to venture back to the ship under the pretense of letting her cure her cohorts, but their true reason is because they want to examine the drug the Thals have been using to stay alive. Susan has to be the one to go because the Doctor is too sick and the TARDIS lock is too complicated for Ian or Barbara to figure out. It has twenty-one holes inside of it, and if the key slides into a hole other than the correct one, the security system will be set off. During her journey, Susan encounters the surviving Thals - and they're not hideous mutations after all, rather they're all very fit and attractive people. We'll come to find out that, inside their machines, the Daleks are actually the race of mutated monsters.

The Thals, the race that once were warriors, have become farmers over the last five hundred years and grown to become innocent pacifists with names like Alydon, Temmosus, and Ganatus. Driven by drought from the plateau they've been living on since the war's end, the Thals have reached the Dalek city after a year of nomadic drifting and find that those they share their planet with are not interested in peaceful cohabitation.

Despite the threat the Daleks present to their existence with the plan they devise to flood the atmosphere with more radiation, the Thals are reluctant to defend themselves, and have to be talked into taking action.

The Doctor and his companions clash over multiple issues in this serial, and as they argue over how to handle the situation they find themselves in, it's made very clear that the Doctor is not a heroic character. Once he and his group are free from the Daleks, he's ready to just get away from Skaro, he doesn't care what happens to the Thals, he's willing to just leave them to die. As in 100,000 B.C., it's his conscientious fellow travellers that keep them embedded in the situation until they can help make things right.

I can totally understand why the BBC would have been underwhelmed by 100,000 B.C., it is a very underwhelming and rather tedious serial. The Daleks really gets the series on track, with a much better story and much better writing. Terry Nation created very formidable foes for the Doctor in the form of the Daleks, and built a very interesting world around them to stand as the setting for a grand adventure serial, featuring intense situations,  treacherous journeys on a strange world, and an exciting climactic assault sequence.

During said assault sequence, Ian, Barbara, and a group of Thals find themselves trapped in a corridor in the Dalek city as bulkheads shut all around them. This actually really unnerved me, because - looking at it from Ian and Barbara's perspective especially - the thought of being stuck in a small space by two bulkheads in a hallway on an alien world... That's a pretty terrifying idea.

There is another thought that troubles me... If the Thals have been living as simple farmers for the last 500 years, how do they make the drug that cures radiation sickness, apparently with just one treatment, and keep such a ready supply of it? The planet of Skaro holds many wonders.

When all is said and done, the Thals are so appreciative of how these strangers have helped them that they even ask the Doctor to stay on Skaro to help them rebuild. That's how much they come to trust the man who wanted to leave them for dead. The Doctor declines their request, but does mention that he was once a pioneer on his own planet.

The Doctor and the Thals end up on friendly terms, but the animosity between the Doctor, Ian, and Barbara is so great throughout this story that, early on, Barbara even admits that she sometimes feels like the Doctor deserves to get hurt during their explorations and adventures.

The bad feelings among the group will come to a head in the next serial.

They say everyone remembers exactly where they were when they heard JFK was assassinated. For the cast and crew of Doctor Who, it was on the set of the second episode in the Daleks serial.

The seven episodes of The Daleks - The Dead Planet, The Survivors, The Escape, The Ambush, The Expedition, The Ordeal, and The Rescue - aired between December 21, 1963 and February 1, 1964, and aside from a small dip in viewers on The Survivors, viewership grew with every episode. By the time the serial was finished, the series' audience had grown from the 4.4 million people that watched An Unearthly Child to 6.9 million who watched The Dead Planet and topped out with 10.4 million viewers for both The Ordeal and The Rescue.

Doctor Who was now officially a hit. The show would go on, and it was largely thanks to those bug-eyed monsters in the guise of tin robots, the Daleks. The children of the United Kingdom had caught Dalekmania, ensuring that this wouldn't be Doctor Who's only encounter with these villains. Not by a long shot.

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