Episodes: Seven Original Air Date: December 21, 1963 – February 1, 1964
Story: The Doctor (William Hartnell), Susan (Carole Ann Ford), Ian (William Russell), and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) find themselves on the alien planet Skaro. It has been racked by a nuclear war between two warring races, the Daleks and the Thals. After exploring a strange city, the four quickly get captured by the Daleks. The four must ban together with the Thals if they hope to defeat the Daleks and leave Skaro. Thoughts: This serial probably influenced Doctor Who and what it would become more than An Unearthly Child. Initially, Doctor Who was meant to be an educational program. The Daleks, the story as well as the creatures themselves, changed all that. It wasn’t an overnight change, but eventually, the educational purpose was lost in time. I won’t lie when I say my expectations were high for the Doctor’s first confrontation with his most famous foe. Sadly, despite some good set design, the creepy and mysterious Daleks, and a good idea for a story, it didn’t meet my expectations. The designs are, baring a few hiccups, superb. Even with the measly budget of the show at the time, the episodes manage to create an interesting, foreign alien world. There’s the petrified jungle our heroes land in at the beginning of the story; the futuristic metallic Dalek city full of sliding, Star Trek doors and magnetic tracks for the Daleks to move around on; and a swampy area where Barbara runs into a weird creature, (the alien animal itself is, disappointingly, extremely cheap, cheesy looking). The Dalek designs themselves are, of course, legendary by this point. Many call them pepper pots with a whisk and plunger for hands. Despite this comical combination, the design works. It was, as far as I know, the first of its kind, nothing like it had ever been seen before. These completely out of this world beings match up with their equally bizarre planet.
Doctor Who is sometimes unfair to the Daleks, making them more laughable than they are sometimes intended to be. I didn’t hide behind my couch while watching this story, but there was an element of horror to the characters not usually present today. To be fair, my judgment of this story and how frightening I find the Daleks has been affected by the later stories, which I saw first and – like I already mentioned – sanitized the villains to a degree. Part of their menace in this serial comes from the fact that we don’t know much about them or what they are capable of by this point. They also don’t speak all that much, which adds to the sense of the unknown. We don’t know what they’re thinking, what they’re planning, and that ups the horror because anything could happen next.
Ian, Barbara, Susan, and the Doctor must battle these horrible creatures, for a time, while still suffering the effects of radiation poisoning, which quickly weakens the Doctor’s old body and is slowly doing the same to the others. This leaves the Doctor not quite at his best when first confronting the Daleks one on one. The scene was a let down for me. I was expecting more from this legendary meeting, and the Doctor ends up not being the one man force I was hoping for. Again, to be fair, though, this was a different time. The Doctor wasn’t the one man force he would become. Nobody knew how important the Daleks would later become. No one was aware of the importance these creatures would have in the 50-plus years of the show. So, I can’t be too hard on the scene. There’s an uncharacteristically immature side to the Doctor seen in this story. The Doctor has and always should have a childish nature present in himself, and there are plenty of times he acts with maturity less than is expected from a man of his age. Here the Doctor wants to explore the city against the wishes of his companions. The Doctor is curious and determined to get his way and so acts as a child might. He tricks the others by purposefully messing with the Tardis and saying they need to go to the city to find the mercury they need to get it working again. During the original airing, this could merely demonstrates how the Doctor is a petty man who doesn’t always think of others over himself. Looking back with the knowledge we have now, it carries more meaning. This Doctor may be the oldest looking of all the Doctors to date, but he is actually the youngest, the least experienced, the closest to a child, and thus the most immature. It’s appropriate for a Doctor so early in his life, but that’s in hindsight. The Doctor is later reluctant to help the Thals defeat the Daleks later in the story, as well. It’s Ian and the others who must convince him to join them in helping the Thals. This serves to highlight the growth in the character we will see in later stories, when he is more than willing to stay and fight for the betterment of the locals. Even if he has a way to go before he’s the caring man we all know, the Doctor still shows a warm side throughout the story, such as when he is talking to a young Thal woman. The plot is good and well-conceived by Terry Nation (the writer of this story and the creator of the Daleks), but the seven part story drags in too many places for it to be a true pinnacle of the show, like when Ian and some Thals take forever to get across a large gap in a cave. It’s one of the problems with a serial format. Sometimes you have to pad events out in order to reach the story’s episode quota. There are also a few cliffhanger resolutions that are less than satisfying. In one episode, Susan is faced with trekking alone through the forest back to the Dalek City and give the others the radiation medicine they need. The cliffhanger sets this all up wonderfully. Then the following episode picks up with Susan when she has already gotten back to the city, cheating us out of her brave walk through the dangerous, unknown wilderness. The Thals are not the most identifiable of guest characters. Their cause is good and relatable. Their manner of speak and way about them, though, is slightly Shakespearean and foreign, which made them come off more like old-fashioned stage actors than real life people.
An interesting story to be sure and certainly a landmark, but Doctor Who can still do better. I would recommend seeing it for some nice visuals, interesting ideas, a number of well-done dramatic moments with good amounts of tension, and the first meeting of the Doctor and the Daleks. Up next is a unique episode, even to this day. It’s the only story to be set entirely within the Tardis and to feature only the regular cast. Come back in a couple weeks for The Edge of Destruction.