Barbara’s exploration of the city’s long, barren, gleaming, maze-like corridors is accompanied by a growing sense of fear and desperation, and a dawning realization that this city may not be not as abandoned as it seems, that she’s being guided further and further toward the heart of the complex. And then—trapped and alone, she turns to face some nameless, faceless thing as it advances toward her. Barbara screams…
“Doctor Who and the Daleks” is the combination that TV viewers in 1963 didn’t know they were waiting for, yet it’s widely acknowledged that the Daleks played a major role in Doctor Who’s success. The Daleks are
almost synonymous with Doctor Who, and in many ways, you can’t have one without the other.
It’s important to note from the start that the Daleks that we encounter in this serial are different from almost all other Daleks that we see in subsequent stories. There’s no Cult of Skaro, there’s no Supreme One, and there’s certainly no Davros. These Daleks are cunning and ruthless, absolutely, but they’re more thoughtful (if such a word can be used to describe the Daleks), and perhaps not so prone to killing first and asking questions later. Indeed, their traditional “Exterminate!” isn’t even used in this serial—the words “extermination” and “exterminate” are used, but not quite in the same capacity—and they opt to temporarily paralyze Ian’s legs rather than killing him when he attempts to run upon first encountering them. The Daleks even warn him that the paralysis “will be permanent” if they’re forced to fire on him again.
Interestingly, at no point in the story is it unambiguously stated that the Doctor has at least never heard of the Daleks before, though it’s probably his first direct encounter with them. At the time, of course, this wouldn’t really have occurred to anyone, possibly not even Terry Nation himself!
Furthermore, the history of the Daleks and their traditional enemies, the Thals, in this serial is not quite consistent with later accounts, though the basic story is more or less the same: a nuclear war between the Daleks and Thals (whom the Daleks believe are horrible mutations by now) 500 years previously made the planet radioactive and unable to sustain animal or plant life outside the city. This is, of course, a thinly-veiled reference to the burgeoning Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union: the Cuban Missile Crisis, which ended just about a year before Doctor Who began, would still be very fresh in people’s minds, while many viewers would no doubt remember the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima by American forces at the end of the Second World War. The prospect of nuclear war was very frightening and very real, and in many ways The Daleks is an allegorical warning as well as a call for peace.
The characterization of the time travelers is far more consistent that in any previous episode, but we don’t learn too much more about them—this episode is all about the Daleks, who are very interested in the box left outside the Ship, believing it to contain the Thals’ anti-radiation drugs that allow them to live on the surface of Skaro. Promising to share the drugs with the time travelers, who are suffering very badly from radiation sickness, the Daleks send Susan back to the TARDIS to retrieve them. It’s a lie; they only want the drug for themselves in order to duplicate it. Ian tells Susan to go straight to the Ship and come back as quickly as possible.
The Doctor is dying and Ian and Barbabra are not much better off. Susan runs through the petrified jungle as a storm approaches; lightning illuminates a strange shape hidden among the trees which follows Susan as she makes her way back to the TARDIS, which is familiar, inviting, and, above all, safe compared to the nightmare outside. Susan relaxes—for a brief moment, it seems clear that she might rest for a short time. Then, remembering Ian’s warning that “an hour might make all the difference,” Susan opens the Ship’s doors for the trip back, the storm and the lightning becoming ever more frightening…
Daniel is the owner and Managing Editor of Time and The – !. He's been a fan of Doctor Who since watching Tom Baker regenerate into Peter Davison on his local PBS station as a kid. He launched Time and The – ! in 2011 after having the bright (?) idea to watch every Doctor Who story from the beginning and blog about it. (Yeah, he's way behind.)