The Daleks – pitch perfect

If early Doctor Who was conceived as serial drama, designed to draw you back week after week, then the Daleks is a high water mark.

Watching again, I am struck by it’s series of pitch perfect cliffhangers, each one making the next serial compulsory viewing. Is it any wonder people all over Britain were dragged back to their tellies each Saturday and then hooked forever:

  • Episode 1 – Barbara backs away terrified with a scream as big as any seen in Doctor Who before or since as we look down the end of a strange metal arm pressing towards her. What is it?
  • Episode 2 – Having made it back to the Tardis through the jungle Susan is forced to contemplate a return journey in the face of her own abject terror of the thing chasing her outside.
  • Episode 3 – a single mutated hand fingers its way out of the cloak. A scene nicely set up by the Doctors and Ian’s disgust
  • Episode 4 – We really have lost the fluid link
  • Episode 5 – A Thal is dragged into the Lake of mutations
  • Episode 6 – The terrified Antodus, jumps, missed and drags Ian off the ledge with him
  • Episode 7 – The Tardis console blows up and throws all the travellers to the floor.

Even episode 5, perhaps the weakest as it involves no threat to the Tardis crew, was strong fare.

Perhaps not until 1975’s Genesis of the Daleks would we be treated to such a memorable set of serial links.

While the conclusion to episode one is everyone’s favourite I am tempted to name the ending of episode two as mine, simply becuase it manages to equal. What they had achieved in part 1 – a case of top that.

There is terror that’s been building around Susan, the youngest member of the party, for some time – starting at the moment when the Doctors graddaughter felt a hand touch her in the forest.

In a long scene, a terrified, exhausted Susan is forced to return to the TARDIS through the jungle alone in search of lifesaving drugs. It is a harrowing journey in a well directed scene with a tight focus on Susan’s face. Little more is needed – so well does Carole Ann Forde do abject terror.

At this stage we don’t know what’s in the forest and we certainly don’t know that it will be populated by blond, slightly prissy ethicists with peroxide hair do’s and oh so very BBC accents.

There is genuine horror here – if the Daleks call the Thals mutations, then what must these Thals be like?

At the penultimate moment Susan reaches TARDIS and allows herself a moment of comfort, only to suddenly remember Ian’s words – ‘’don’t stop for anything, straight there and straight back’’.

Playing against herself Carole Anne Ford manages a gamut of emotions in a single scene.  The moment where Susan suddenly realises that she has to go back out (and that this is almost unendurable) is an astonishing  feat of acting for a television serial.

Susan realises she must go back

Gripped by fear she gathers herself before being forced back out into the Forest – only to be unnerved by a crack of lightening as she steps out, the screen turns black and the credits roll.

This is scary television.  Is there is anyone who can’t identify with the idea of having two intolerable choices?

This is an idea that permeates this series of seven episodes and is later seen in the character of young Antodus who wants to turn back in the caves on the way to Dalek city.

One wonders if Terry Nation was drawing on memories of teenage front line troops in World War I faced with certain death over the top or certain death by firing squad.

It is certainly not too great a stretch of the imagination given the characters of the Daleks –we don’t need footage of Nyder giving mini Nazi salutes to realise what they are.

These aren’t emotionless robots obsessed with logic or wanting make the world like themselves. They simply want to wipe out everything that isn’t like them.

In the end, it is the small touches, the nuance, that make this breathe and make us realise that our travellers have arrived in some corner of the cosmos which is very distant from Coal Hill.

When the Daleks are giving dictation to Susan and she signs her name they are suspicious – what is this Su-s-an they grate in a panicky drone, is it a code to the Thals?. They clearly have no conception of people as named beings. This little moment tells us more about them than we might learn in an hour of exposition.

The music is genuinely eerie and suggestive of another place. Like the Ron Grainer theme tune it stands up in 2011.

The vista scenes of the Dalek city – presumably a matte painting – would happily stand up against special effects from the show in the 1970’s and 80’s. This might be low budget but it’s being done with authenticity and care.

Taken as a whole, this is indeed a pitch perfect piece of television – a masterpiece.

Moments of greatness (and silliness)

  • A Dalek intones somewhat earnestly that ‘’every problem has a solution’’ as if it has wandered off the set of Blue Peter – is this a concession to the programs educational remit? Perhaps Verity Lambert hoping to mollify Sydney Newman who had issued a stern injunction against BEM’s – Bug Eyed Monsters
  • The Doctor is never more sneaky, fallible and full of foible than here and the show benefits from it – he succumbs first to the radiation, he breaks bits off the Tardis to strand it on the planet and it is Ian, not the Doctor, who convinces the Thals to fight at the serials crucial moment.
  • When the static electricity fails in the Dalek city and the Daleks beg for mercy the Doctor opines that he couldn’t fix it even if he wanted to. Contrast with 2011 which would surely see our hero zooming up some static in an instant at the end of the green glowing sonic solve-all.
  • The Thals uniforms are the series first major costume fail – ungainely and threatening to slip off at every opportunity
  • The drawings of the Thal warrior ancestors appear to be childrens illustrations of Knights wearing chainmail from England at the time of the Norman conquest.

Aussie connection:

1. Dalek operator Robert Jewell migrated to Melbourne Australia, where he – and yes this is true – appeared in the iconic TV drama soap Prisoner in the 1980’s in a series of roles as a truck and delivery driver!
2. Australian born Anthony Coburn was originally scheduled to write the second serial but the draft he produced – entitled The Robots – proved unworkable.

Craig Wallace

Craig Wallace is a marketing manager and project coordinator with Nican a national community organisation and has been a community leader with various organisations for more than a decade. He is the President of People with Disability Australia, a leading cross disability rights organisation in Australia and is a member of the ACT BLITS business group.

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