Doctor Who and the Daleks (1963)

It was only last week that I watched the very first Doctor Who story, 100,000 BC and like all well-behaved nerds I immediately followed it with the second. It's titled The Daleks.


Almost more famous than the Doctor himself, the Daleks stand with Darth Vader as one of the most menacing and memorable villains of all time. Personally, I can't quite figure it out. All reports glorify this story as the turning point for DW, where the series cemented its success. It all comes back to the cliff-hanger at the end of part one, where Barbara is captured by an unseen creature. Her face is horrified, but all we see is an egg whisk and a plunger. The thought was so terrifying that it apparently propelled even the most casual viewer to become a dedicated fan within the week, desperate to see what was on the other end of those kitchen utensils.


Ok, perhaps I'm being a bit cheeky, but it's still tricky to see how even the most naive of audiences could be scared by this moment, especially when it's drawn out of context. I've seen the clip many times, but I can't recall watching the episode before recently. In the wider context of the episode, it's downright spooky. The foursome land on a planet that is supposedly dead. Everything is petrified, including a dark and tangled forest and a vast futuristic city. The loo plunger is the first sign of life we encounter, and in the tradition of the best horror usually being lo-fi, the atmosphere that writer Terry Nation constructs is sublime. Using just a couple of sets, the whole planet brings itself to life.

Terry Nation would end up being one of the most important contributors to the Doctor Who universe, pretty much through the Daleks alone. I've seen and read later works of Nation's and been rather unmoved by them, but this seven-part story is a masterfully written Doctor Who story. There's a lot going on here that Nation's effectively inventing to be part of the Doctor Who formula: the Jacobean tragic ending that showcases the futility of war, the companion developing a crush on one of the locals, the classic 'why don't we split up' stupid error of exploration, and the one-party-kidnapped and one-party-rescue split. 

Upon researching further, I discovered that Nation's ongoing credit for creating the Daleks is unusual. It was a special deal at the time, negotiated by his agent. The creation of this one sci-fi monster would see him earn millions, and place him in the history books forever. Almost all other monsters are the sole property of the BBC. Not so with Nation. And here's the kicker: Nation's agent was Beryl Vertue, mother of Sue Vertue, and wife to Steven Moffatt. 

Boom. How about that? Suddenly fifty years doesn't seem that long, does it?

Like 100,000 BC, the Doctor's behaviour is wonderfully childish and terribly unlikable. His petulance gets the group in enormous trouble. He outright lies to them about a broken part of the TARDIS, driving them into the city where they eventually meet the Doctor's worst enemy and they are captured. His one point of recklessness eventually causes several deaths. He has no trouble asking local inhabitants of the planet, the Thals, to sacrifice their lives in order to get him and his party to safety. Once again, it's Ian who is the most morally virtuous, and is the action hero of the day. The Doctor comes across as a weird, arrogant, childish old man. For whatever reason, it works.

The Dalek story is good, and certainly worth watching. My nerd hackles were raised at some tricky continuity. The Daleks here are not the all-conquering genocidal foes they would grow into. Compared to later evolutions of the monster, they seem downright mild. Nevertheless, they haven't changed that much in fifty years. In fact, the TARDIS and the Daleks are probably the most stable part of the entire DW universe, and their first appearance is a deserving fanfare of their entrance into popular culture.