The DaleksBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Michael Scott Shappe

"No bug-eyed monsters!". That was the original injunction laid down by Sydney Newman at the BBC when he and Verity Lambert came up with the idea for a time-travel programme for children called Doctor Who. But when production for the originally-intended second story fell through, the fledgling production staff found themselves in a bind, but with a script (originally intended to be fourth) by young Mr. Nation in hand. When the monsters of the series' first futuristic piece were designed, sure enough, they had a single, buggy eye, on a stalk, no less!

In truth, they looked ridiculous. Most commonly compared to pepper pots, completely lacking in manipulative appendages, the Dalek is an impractical mechanism, and an improbable success.

And yet, successful they were, owing largely to Nation's initial script. It's not their appearance that frightens, that generates tension...it's their psychology, their ruthless, selfish, merciless attitude toward the universe and everything in it. You can talk to a Dalek, but you can't reason with one, because, from the very first, it's clear that the Dalek mind doesn't work anything like the human mind, and they like it that way.

These earliest days of Doctor Who were very different from the hey day of Tom Baker and his successors. At this time, the Doctor was till a very unsympathetic character -- selfish, irascable, arrogant, occasionally charming and erratically brilliant. He's far more likely to cause trouble in his own self-interest than to fix things.

Instead, the heros of the piece wind up being the two human companions, Barbara and Ian -- particularly Ian, whose tendency to take a strong moral stance would rub off on the Doctor over the next couple of years, until, by the time of Ian's departure from the series, the Doctor, for all his increasing frailty, is much closer in temperament to the do-gooder of the next 25 years.

Almost all of this can be credited to Mr. Nation, who succeeded where Anthony Coburn (author of the first serial, "100,000 BC") had failed in bringing these characters to life. At a time when American adult television was still producing simplistic sitcoms with cardboard characters, Nation produced a script for children that properly introduced the four, very complex regulars, including a strong, intelligent female role model in Barbara.

The story itself is well paced for the style of story-telling they were going for back then -- somewhere between the purely episodic story-telling of modern American TV and the pure serial of a Flash Gordon. Tho' seven episodes long, it rarely drags.

Considering the budget they were on, the sets are incredibly elaborate. The petrified jungle where the TARDIS first lands is not nearly as cheesy as you might expect (the full-colour jungle in the 1976 episode "The Face of Evil" was far cheesier); the Dalek city is believably alien. Like the Daleks themselves, it's hard to understand how the city really functions at all, but that's not entirely a bad thing. The Daleks are supposed to be a little beyond our ken, after all.

But really, where the story shines is in the way it plays the main characters. The Doctor is marvelously ambiguous throughout, conniving and cheating in order to get to see the Dalek city (he doesn't know what it is, at the time), selfish and even slightly cowardly in the face of danger, and yet ultimately willing to do what seems to be the right thing.

Ian fulfills the role that in later years the Doctor himself would play -- agent provocateur. Ian understands where the extreme pacifism of the Thals comes from, but he refuses to accept it as a valid solution to the current problem. His reinforcement of those Thals who want to take action to save themselves tips the scales. The Daleks would spend centuries blaming the Doctor for all their problems, but in this first meeting, it's Ian they really have to worry about.

One of the most remarkable characters in Doctor Who's long run is Barbara Wright. The series would have occasional lapses (like Jo Grant), but this story establishes the more general rule that female companions, even if they scream a lot, will have brains in their head and be willing and able to take independent action. In this case, Barbara also has a heart of her own. In the earliest conception, Ian and Barbara were already a couple, but by the time the series came to air, their romance had been removed in favor of a professional friendship. This left Nation free to have Barbara get attached to one of the Thal men, providing a sympathetic hook and helping to make the Thals themselves more than just J Random Humanoid Alien With a Problem. Whether because Nation is a romantic, or because it's a children's program, there's never anything very overt about the bond that forms, but it's clear at the end that Barbara is actually a little reluctant to leave.

Susan probably fares the worst, and yet even she doesn't do too badly. While more prone to panic, she's also much younger, and very sheltered until recently. She still manages, however, to be useful and resourceful. She stands in adequately for all the younger audience who might well react the same way under those circumstances. The human adults provide excellent role models, while Susan provides someone for the kids to identify with.

Watching this story again today, there's little question as to why it was this serial that established Doctor Who as a success. While one couldn't predict a 27-year television run on the strength of this story, one can certainly see why people started tuning in more regularly. If you've never seen any of the William Hartnell stories, this is a good place to start.