Wednesday, 14 December 2011

TV Review 2: The Daleks, written by Terry Nation (1963/4)

Broadcast: 21st December 1963 – 1st February 1964


The Doctor – William Hartnell
Susan Foreman – Carole Ann Ford
Ian Chesterton – William Russell
Barbara Wright – Jacqueline Hill
Alydon – John Lee
Ganatus – Philip Bond
Dyoni – Virginia Wetherell
Antodus – Marcus Hammond
Temmosus – Alan Wheatley
Kristas – Jonathan Crane
Elyon – Gerald Curtis
Dalek Voices – Peter Hawkins and David Graham
Dalek Operators – Robert Jewell, Kevin Manser, Michael Summerton, Gerald Taylor, Peter Murphy
Other Thals – Chris Browning, Katie Cashfield, Vez Delahunt, Kevin Glenny, Ruth Harrison, Lesley Hill, Steve Pokol

Main Production Credits

Producer – Verity Lambert
Story Editor – David Whitaker
Writer – Terry Nation
Directors – Christopher Barry (Episodes 1, 2, 4 and 5) & Richard Martin (Episodes 3, 6 and 7)
Designer – Raymond Cusick and Jeremy Davies
Costumes – Daphne Dare
Incidental Music – Tristram Cary
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Special Sound – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

Story Summary (SPOILERS!):
The Doctor, Susan, and their reluctant companions Ian and Barbara arrive on a desolate alien world, where everything is dead and petrified. ...everything that is, except for a large metal city, where metal horrors lurk within the shadows...

After tricking his fellow travelling companions with a staged fault within the TARDIS, a fault that can only be rectified by discovering an outside source of mercury; the Doctor discovers that his greed for knowledge about the city has turned into folly when they are all captured by its menacing inhabitants – the Daleks! However, to their further horror, they also realise they are dying from fatal exposure to deadly levels of outside radiation.

From the Daleks, the Time travellers learn that they are on the planet Skaro, a World that was devastated centuries ago by a war between its two races, the Daleks and the Thals. Like the Daleks, the Thals too have survived, and over the generations have become pacifists, weary of war, in part a reaction to their difficult struggle to survive off the land of their dead planet.

The Daleks however, only see their survival with the total extermination of the Thals (and all other sentient life), and an artificial raise in the planet’s radiation level. After the Thals cure the Doctor and his friends of radiation sickness, they return the favour by warning them of a Dalek ambush to wipe them out during their escape from the metal city. Upon arrival back at the TARDIS though, they realise that the Daleks still hold the fluid link, the vital piece of the TARDIS systems that the Doctor used to trick his companions to go into the city in the first place.

Ian eventually convinces the Thals to fight the Daleks as a necessity for their own survival. After many fatalities and obstacles, the Thals and the Time Travellers foil the Daleks’ attempts to release deadly radiation into the planet’s atmosphere, and succeed in putting them out of action. As the Time Travellers leave, the Thals nurse their wounds, hoping that a new and better future awaits them.

Story Placement

Between An Unearthly Child (TV Episode) and The Edge of Destruction (TV Episode)

Favourite Lines

Barbara Wright – “I counted so much on just going back, to things I recognise and trust. But here there’s nothing to rely on. Nothing”
Ian Chesterton – “Well, there’s me. Barbara, all I ask you to do is believe. Really believe we’ll go back. We will you know”.

Alydon – “If they call us mutations, what must they be like?”

The Daleks – “We have the message now”.

Ian – “So there is something you’ll fight for”.

The Daleks – “We do not have to adapt to the environment. We will change the environment to suit us”.

The Doctor – “Always search for truth. My truth is in the stars, and yours is here”.

There’s good reason why The Daleks left such an impact on its audience, and it was because of a lot more than just the strength and success of the concept of the Dalek creatures themselves. In fact I’d say that The Daleks is one of the most tightly and best scripted Doctor Who stories ever, and it pays immeasurably, particularly in terms of creating kudos for the programme itself, at a time when it was needed the most, in those difficult early months of Doctor Who’s creation and production.

The first and perhaps most obvious person to credit for this is Terry Nation, the writer and creator of the story, plot and ideas for The Daleks, including the concept and central idea behind the Daleks themselves. The story itself is a fantastic thriller, and remains one of Doctor Who’s best tales. Terry Nation clearly thought so too, as he went on to rehash and reuse various elements of it in most of his subsequent Doctor Who scripts, including one instance when he rehashed the whole story itself a decade later in Planet of the Daleks.

I also love the idea of the TARDIS food machine. The Daleks was only the second Doctor Who serial, and already the production team were thinking of important questions like how time travellers can believably survive in a time machine over time, something which many future writers and producers for the show neglected. The idea of any food, being possible to replicate into a somewhat mundane-looking food ‘bar’, is not only remarkable, it’s also quite prescient. Although ‘space food’ made for astronauts had already been in development for a good few years before 1963, we were still decades before processed food bars would be an everyday reality for food shoppers.

The idea of a dead and desolate world full of petrified forests and mutated creatures is itself a fantastically imaginative idea that even outside of the filmed serial creates a vivid and visceral image that is unforgettable. The visual effects and set design do it great justice too, despite the low budget, and even the bigger budgeted Dr Who and the Daleks 1965 film adaption fails to recreate it as well later on. This is Doctor Who’s first alien world, and Skaro is by far one of the best, feeling truly alien in every way, from sound and lighting to the props and set design. Even the video technicians create a wonderfully subtle slight negative inversion of the black and white colours during the first moments of the TARDIS team exploring the planet, making it feel even more unusual, and even as a modern viewer it makes me forget for a while that I’m actually watching the interior of a studio set. There’s also a nice artistic contrast between the dark and dead forests and the sterile, shiny, brightly lit metal city that houses the Daleks.

Speaking of the famous pepper pots, the Daleks are undoubtedly a work of genius in almost every respect. Of course, from a modern perspective, it’s obvious that the Daleks are both a symbol and metaphor for the Nazis, and a warning about the dangers of leaving fascism and racism unopposed and free to corrupt and destroy both society and freewill. The Thals represent the civilised, peaceful, kind and altruistic in society, but also the oppressed and prejudiced who want to survive without betraying their principles and savour the best of what remains of their world. You could even argue that the Thals’ suffering at the mercy of the Daleks partly symbolises the Holocaust atrocity, and that the Daleks’ city/trap resembles a concentration camp of sorts. The story of The Daleks also has very strong cold war themes and overtones. Aside from the obvious nuclear war and fallout metaphor in the Neutronic war backstory, there’s also the common 1960s warning about the effects of nuclear warfare, not just in terms of the radiation fallout, but also the highly destructive and negative impact it has on society, politics, culture and most importantly of all, civilisation. The two small opposed groups of Thals and Daleks (or Kaleds, if you will) are clearly small pockets of survivors in a global population that has been all but decimated. The attitude of the Daleks to continue destroying all is another implication that engaging in nuclear warfare, particularly on one’s own kind in the manner of previous wars, in one way or another, causes total annihilation for all life on Earth, not just the ‘enemy’.

Another fascinating point to note about the Daleks in their first serial is that on this particular occasion, their motive seems largely to be self-preservation, rather than the later established and more commonly-accepted motive of universal domination. Their infinite hatred for the Thals is obvious, but the desperation to act for their own survival adds an extra dimension to their hysteria and hate-filled character that is often lacking in most subsequent Dalek stories. However, the explanation of the Daleks’ supremely racist nature (“dislike for the unlike”, as offered by Ian in the story) seems rather simplistic and off-hand, lacking in enough substantial detail to convince us of why they believe so strongly in acting this way in the first place. Thankfully, Genesis of the Daleks (1975 serial) clears up this particular mystery (along with many others) while examining their creation by Skaro scientist Davros, but that discussion will have to wait until another day.

Terry Nation wasn’t the only person responsible for making the Dalek creatures such a success. The monsters would be nowhere near as iconic, memorable or exciting without their impressive appearance or their thrilling vocal tones. These were brought us by talented set designer Raymond Cusick and Radiophonic Workshop sound designer Brian Hodgson respectively, both pioneers in their time who had to work magic with very little resources and money at their disposal. Sadly Ray Cusick has only been recognised for his sizeable contribution to TV history relatively recently. He wonderfully picked up upon the obvious shape of a pepper pot, and turned it into a thin and man-sized metal Tank, which today still looks like the image of the ultimate weapon and artillery vehicle that its imagery implies – threatening, impenetrable, unstoppable, and all-pervasive. I also love the Dalek’s eyestalk. The use of a camera lens and iris to not just represent the Dalek’s eye, but also to make it appear alive by squinting and opening up is pure genius. It really helps to bring the creatures to life and help us suspend our disbelief and think of them as characters. I can never understand why in the 1970s they ditched the lens-eye design and replaced it with a much less interesting static, black and white (or two-colour) target-shaped eye sensor that remained until the 2005 series gladly brought back the lens-eye design. The other great thing about Cusick’s creation is that it still stands up today, nearly fifty years on, and looks just as coldly alien, as I’m sure it did upon its Television entrance. As for the weapons, I honestly don’t mind about the much-ridiculed sink plunger. The 1960s Peter Cushing Doctor Who films proved that the claw adaptation was only slightly more practical and still a bit cumbersome, so I think the Dalek manages to successfully get away with the sink plunger, which has also become part of their iconic image now. The ‘egg whisk’-like Dalek gun is quite sleek and classy too, and above all rather flexible, so it’s actually really good as a weapon design.

The Dalek voice effect is also absolute genius. Although today sound modulation is considered a simple audio effect, back in the 1960s, sound design was still very much in its infancy, with much of what is produced with ease by sound software today, waiting to be invented or used creatively by talented sound engineers, sound designers and early electronic musicians. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop was one such group of pioneers, who although had a small budget, were at the forefront of progress in sound design and electronic music during it’s time (1958-1998), and created a lot of innovative advances, both in sound and music, which today we take for granted. Now, the use of voice modulation, along with a directed monotone performance, is synonymous with the fictional Dalek creations and equally part of their much-loved iconography and appeal. The Dalek voice artists, Peter Hawkins and David Graham also help bring the Dalek characters to life with a perfectly-judged and directed intense performance that brilliantly gets across their paranoid, ruthless, callous and xenophobic natures. One of the great things about the Daleks here too, is that outside of the humanised-Daleks of The Evil of the Daleks, this serial is one of the few times when nearly each individual Dalek actually appears to have an individual character, whether by movement or by the expression in each Dalek’s voice. Later Dalek stories would try to do this by introducing ranks and hierarchies, but it wouldn’t feel quite the same as it does here, where Daleks sometimes have conversations rather than just be barked orders. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Daleks though is how the production team got everything about them perfectly right from day one. Sure, the outward design may have had some slight improvements over the next few years, but for all intents and purposes the Daleks are a creation that through a team of talented professionals, has remained the same since 1963, and has never really needed to be changed despite the whims of various Doctor Who producers over the last 30 years.

Terry Nation also wasn’t solely responsible for making The Daleks such a great story and script. In fact I’m certain that the brilliance of the script is largely down to Doctor Who’s story/script editor David Whitaker, who was mainly responsible for maintaining the continuity of the regular characters, in their behaviour as well as their expanding story and character profiles. However, I feel this simple description doesn’t do justice to the amount of work David Whitaker did for Doctor Who, particularly for The Daleks. It’s clear, both from production diaries (as can be found in Doctor Who - The Handbook: The First Doctor (1994), by David J Howe, Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker), interviews and other non-fiction books on the programme’s early years that Terry Nation was mainly an ideas writer and didn’t really have much understanding of writing character or creative description, or at least in 1963 anyway. David Whitaker greatly fleshed out the characters and also gave most of them brilliant character development, even to non-regulars, like some of the Thals who went through as much of an emotional journey as the Doctor and his companions. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Whitaker was also the author of many of the story’s political overtones. However, most importantly of all he helps keep the audience involved in the adventure through some amazing dialogue and numerous dramatic twists and turns which stop us from taking anything for granted in the story, such as the radiation revelation in episode 2, and when Ian realises that the Daleks still have the fluid link at the end of episode 4. Whitaker also expertly writes a slowly build up of tension in the final episode so that the victorious climax gives us a memorable, thrilling and satisfying ending to this magnificent epic adventure. The only thing that spoils the story is the unfortunate padding that makes up significant parts of episodes 5 and 6, as both writers struggle to keep the Thals’ jungle trek to the Mountain caves interesting, but on the whole Whitaker always tries to keep the story dynamic, thrilling and on-the-move, and overall succeeds.

The characterisation that David Whitaker writes in The Daleks is truly masterful. I don’t think the original TARDIS team has been written any better than here. The Doctor is still very much the anti-hero that was introduced to viewers in An Unearthly Child, albeit slightly more trusting and respectful of his reluctant companions than before. At the beginning of the story we can clearly see that he is still rather ruthless, and operates from a position of self-interest. This is also where see that the Doctor has a scientific lust for knowledge and can’t abide a mystery. This selfish greed to uncover the truth about the metal city, regardless of the personal cost and consequences to his travelling companions, causes him to ruthlessly sabotage his own Time Ship, just so he can trick his companions into letting him go there. The Doctor’s devious behaviour rather parabolically leads him into a deadly folly as all the time travellers are exposed to a fatal amount of radiation that for a long while seems incurable.  I must say that this development was an electrifying twist, and even after watching this serial several times over the years, it still puts me on the edge of my seat every time (in fact most of episode two does, it’s that good!). This near fatal mistake, combined with his personal encounter with the Daleks seem to noticeably soften the Doctor slightly as a character, because he never seems to be quite as selfish as this again. Although the circumstances surrounding the fluid link forces the Doctor to aid the Thals in defeating and overthrowing the Daleks, his concern over the Daleks’ plans in episode 7 seem to be more than just self-preservation, even if at first he coldly didn’t seem to care about the potential genocide of the Thals. It’s interesting that it took a force as totally abhorrent, callous, evil and destructive as the Daleks to convince the Doctor of the morals of the sanctity of life, the need to fight evil and injustice in the Universe (where it didn’t affect the timelines of course), and the need to protect the innocent from it. Although it’s important to note that the Doctor is still a long way from being the hero we know and love at this point, this is where he first starts to get his lighter shades of grey in his character. Non-intervention may still be an option for him, but it’s no longer the only option. At least he now knows that what’s right and what’s best for him are not always the same thing. Though I do love the moments when we get to see the gentler side of the Doctor, like when he encourages the others to think about how to put a Dalek out of operation; exclaims admiration for Barbara when she shares his point of view; gives departing words of wisdom to the Thals; or just joyously gets caught out by the Daleks while bragging about his ingenuity to Susan.

The Daleks is a particularly good showing for Susan, who is a lot more brave and proactive here than in most of her other appearances. Even when surrounded by a dead planet, she still tries to hold onto everything that is good and beautiful (like the alien flowers), while everyone else seems to fall into despair. Susan’s kind-hearted nature means that she rarely thinks the worst of people, and quickly warms to Alydon and the Thals, and only really distrusts the Daleks because of the way they’ve kept her friends prisoner. Her courage in venturing back to the TARDIS alone is really admirable, and her eagerness to help and come up with ideas makes Susan a rather charming character to watch. For the first time, Susan feels like a key part of the TARDIS team, and it’s great that all the regular characters have good material for once, as sadly it wouldn’t always remain so in future serials.

Barbara Wright is still a very reluctant time traveller, but this time, her most recent experiences have made her much more able to put on a brave face throughout the various difficult situations she goes through in the story. Her strong convictions continue to make her a commanding voice amongst the time travellers and a compelling character, but for The Daleks Barbara seems to play a smaller, more background role than usual. Fortunately this doesn’t do any damage to Barbara’s character, as she gets a maternal moment with Susan when she gets slightly upset about her grandfather’s refusal to believe her word; and also has a wonderfully subtle romantic chemistry with Ganatus. Barbara even interestingly sides with the Doctor against Ian, when her life is under threat. However, for the most part, Barbara is still developing as a character, perhaps to a greater extent than the other regulars, and like the Doctor, her individual character story arc would be resolved in the next serial, The Edge of Destruction.

Ian Chesterton is also growing as a character. He smoothly develops into the protagonist of the series, taking charge and making a stand when needed, even if it means railing against the Doctor, the only person who can take him and Barbara back to their home time. He is also the time traveller with the greatest moral compass and conviction, always thinking of others whether protecting his fellow travellers, or feeling guilty for having to forcefully coerce the Thals into understanding that they need to make a stand against the Daleks, mainly for the time travellers’ self-benefit. Ian is also a very astute and reasonably quick-thinking person, whose resourcefulness surpasses even that of the Doctor on several occasions, as evidenced by him pretending to take Dyoni away to the Daleks, in order to prove to Thal leader Alydon the importance of fighting to protect ‘your own’, knowing that he would probably receive a strong blow in the process. He’s also understandably shaken and angry at the Doctor’s trickery and deceit when he comes clean, as he clearly found it difficult to imagine how ruthlessly selfish he could be considering what they went through back in the Stone Age on Earth. It’s clear that Ian always tries to think the best of people, but he’s no fool, even if he doesn’t necessarily have all the answers. If this sounds like a traditional ‘hero’ stereotype, then you’re partly right. Ian was clearly meant to be the leading protagonist of the regular characters, the ‘hero’ of the group, but the character developed into something far more three-dimensional and human than that. He’s down-to-earth and humble, intelligent, but not all-knowing, brave and selfless, focused and decisive, while still importantly being fallible. Also on those rare occasions when danger and dire situations are not present, Ian tries to keep up his companions spirits with a light joke, and never takes himself too seriously. Ian Chesterton is perhaps the most believable and well-rounded male companion ever written for Doctor Who, even by today’s high standards, and as I said in my review for An Unearthly Child is one of my all-time favourite Who characters.

Some of the Thals are also interesting characters. Alydon, while more closely fitting the traditional hero stereotype than Ian, has fascinating moments of self-conflict and doubt which make him quite a wise and thoughtful person. Ganatus also has depths to his character, appearing vain, wry and self-assured on the surface, but in reality is fiercely loyal, sensitive and affectionate, partly shown by Ganatus gradually falling in love with Barbara. The old Thal leader Temmosus on the other hand appears wise and learned, when in truth his old age as made him too trusting, naive and at times foolish too. Antodus is probably the only character I sadly don’t like, clearly created purely to set up the (literal) cliff-hanger to episode six, a dramatic twist made rather too obvious by Antodus’ continuous complaints and worries over the two proceeding episodes, that the Thals’ attack on the Daleks will fail and they’ll all die, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. In short, Antodus is mainly a coward and a cynic, who’s every line, is a moan of some kind, with no effort in the script to help make him likeable at all. His death is a mercy to the audience, although fortunately the cast try their upmost to redeem this scene.

In fact The Daleks is blessed with an equally strong cast as well as brilliant characterisation. William Hartnell continues to make the Doctor a fascinating and multi-dimensional character with a multi-faceted performance. Hartnell may seem to still play the curmudgeonly and arrogant old man of before, but now he has had more time to work out how to develop his performance. Of course the character is still aloof, but Hartnell rightly focuses his acting on emphasising the evolving change in the Doctor’s ways and reveals more about him through subtle performance than would ever be worthwhile, or even possible with exposition. He wonderfully softens off the character’s hard edges with whimsical bluster and an almost child-like enthusiasm. Just see the look on his face during a close-up in episode six when he knows that he’s one step ahead of the Daleks as he jests to camera about teaching them “a thing or two”. Pure TV gold! Most importantly though William Hartnell is astute enough to keep the Doctor a vulnerable character, partly because it’s essential to the plot of the story, but also because the audience needs to take note of the character’s fallibility and flaws that will be a key plot and narrative point of the next serial, The Edge of Destruction.

Carole Ann Ford continues to wonderfully convey Susan’s innocence and infectious enthusiasm in her continuing travels, particularly in her ability to play younger than her age, appearing especially shy when she first talks with Alydon, and initially being too trusting of the Daleks’ intentions when they offer to help the Thals. Jacqueline Hill also continues to deliver a consummate performance, maintaining Barbara’s healthy nervous distrust of her ever-changing surroundings, and believably plays to the character’s horror at just how alien this new world is, particularly in her terror-stricken performance when she first encounters a Dalek at the end of episode one, and powerfully sells that moment to the audience completely. Hill also brilliantly conveys Barbara’s vulnerability in this story, throughout the many shocks and trials the character has to go through, especially in the moments when she is in the Dalek cell, suffering from radiation sickness. On the other side of the spectrum, Jacqueline Hill also impresses with a beautifully subtle romantic chemistry with Philip Bond, who plays Ganatus and plays the chemistry equally well. The chemistry never feels forced, and I can totally believe that this romance could develop into a fictional relationship had Barbara chosen to stay. Of course, Barbara still wants to return to Earth, and Hill equally subtly shows Barbara pained that she has to leave Ganatus, knowing that she can’t leave any opportunity to return home. It’s so beautifully done that it’s certainly one of my favourite moments of the whole story.

The star of the show on this occasion though, has to be William Russell. He as an actor makes a lot of The Daleks utterly compelling to watch. Russell has the instinct, like Jacqueline Hill, to not overplay characteristics, and only put in a dramatic performance at the right climatic moments. He makes Ian a warm, charming and very likeable character, while trying to keep Ian’s bravery and courage muted and humble. Quite often though, it’s up to William Russell to shoulder a lot of the story’s drama and keep the audience caring about it, and he succeeds immensely. He’s also wise to the needs of a television audience in particular, performing and reacting with an impressive pace, and always with total conviction. There are three scenes that highlight this the most, firstly when the time travellers are dying of radiation poisoning and imprisoned by the Daleks. While William Hartnell and Jacqueline Hill have to play near unconscious, William Russell has to almost single-handedly sell the dire nature of the situation to the audience, and voice the Ian’s anguish and despair at being paralysed and unable to help his companions. Secondly the moment when Ian desperately tries to trick Alydon into realising he that he will fight to protect some things. The other scene is during the cave sequences when Antodus commits suicide to stop him from pulling Ian into the ravine with him. Just look at William Russell’s immediate reaction after the event to see what I mean, as he silently trembles with shock when he pulls up the end of the rope cut by the late-Antodus. It’s this attention to detail which makes you forget you’re watching a fictional TV drama.

The other key element that helps to make The Daleks compelling viewing is the high quality of direction. Film fanatics and film theorists may scoff at that last sentence, but for Television, some of the serial’s visual effects are really quite innovative and imaginative, especially considering the small budget, such as the movement of the Dalek lift, or the visual interpretation of a Dalek going mad by multiplying an image of a Dalek and the rotating the multiple images in a circle like a kaleidoscope, and the use of negative light inversion effect to represent the Daleks’ death ray. Then there’s the high quality of the general direction such as directed performance, cinematography and editing. Again the cinematography may not be as impressive as it is for film, but it is still quite impressive, including nice touches like taking some shots from a Daleks’ viewpoint. Christopher Barry and Richard Martin both do some great work here. Episodes 2-4 are the best directed, filled with a brilliant mix of drama, suspense and action with a pace that never lets up until the second half of episode 5. The time travellers helplessly trapped and dying from radiation sickness, the lift escape sequence, the tense slow build-up to the Daleks’ Thal ambush, and the equally thrilling build-up to the Daleks’ defeat, all these are some of Doctor Who’s best and most memorable moments, and it would never have worked as well had it not been for both Barry and Martin’s creative instincts.

I still maintain that An Unearthly Child is a much underrated classic, but The Daleks is an even greater one. A imaginatively and brilliantly written, acted and directed science fiction thriller, with multiple layers and twists that are not just exciting, but tense, occasionally touching and philosophical, that make for fantastic storytelling, and a wonderful adventure that became a successful template for many others, as well as believable characters and dialogue that make it easy for viewers to invest in, even 50 years later. The Daleks is a classic and key part of Television history that is simply unforgettable, it’s success having made its imaginative creations an immortal and iconic character that has spanned the generations, and that I’m sure will continue to do so.

Score: 10/10

(P.S. I should also thank Ian Levine for saving The Daleks and many other 1960s serials from destruction at the hands of unimaginative 1970s BBC bureaucrats.)

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