The Daleks have become so intertwined with Doctor Who, that it’s a surprise that they haven’t got their own spin-off show in which they hang about in their Central Skaro flats, visit the Central Skaro coffee house and mock the rest of the universe.
Mind you, time and over-familiarity have robbed the Daleks of any shock value that they might have had back in 1963. These days, you know that they’ll start out as deadly, omnipotent threats, but end up as easily defeated laughing stocks. In the new revamp alone, they’ve been reduced to dust, sucked into The Void and turned into out-of-control dodgem cars. Even back in the days of yore, before modern technology, all you had to do to defeat a Dalek was find the nearest flight of stairs. All told, when you think about it, they’re not much cop as monsters.
But then, that’s missing the point. Doctor Who’s core audience is kids, and to a 5-year-old, a Dalek is an awe-inspiring threat. Their unusual appearance is commendably memorable, their lethal weaponry is a force to be reckoned with, and best of all, their screeching, grating, metallic voices are imitated up and down school playgrounds everywhere. Daleks aren’t designed for cynical 35-year-old hacks like me, but for kids.
The terrifying threat of exterminating anything remotely different to a Dalek looms large in their début adventure. It’s been noted that the Dalek race can be equated with the Nazis. Anything that doesn’t conform to the Dalek appearance or ideology is a threat. Here, the Daleks regard the Thals as wrong since they don’t fit the Dalek pattern with their humanoid appearance and pacifist ways, and so, they must be wiped out without a qualm. Nation makes the Daleks a genuine force for evil, and for what’s meant to be a kids TV show, its advanced stuff.
In fact, the Daleks are excellently realised on screen - you can imagine kids peering out from behind their Christmas trees at not one, but several of the blighters. Their voices are memorably brought to life by Peter Hawkins and David Graham, who successfully laid the foundations for the likes of Roy Skelton, Michael Wisher and Nicholas Briggs.
The Daleks itself, as a story, is very good indeed. It carries on the themes laid down in An Unearthly Child. Again, the key aim of the story is to make it back to the TARDIS alive, as The Doctor’s blundering curiosity gets the better of him. As in the début story, The Doctor is shown to be selfish and arrogant as he tricks the others into visiting the Dalek city to get some apparently vital mercury, when in fact, there’s a mercury link in his pocket all along. Hartnell carries on the good work, combining that spiky, alien personality with a degree of vulnerability as he realises his folly and falls foul of radiation sickness.
The initial uncompromising nature of the story does give way to slightly more run-of-the-mill B-movie perils. In order to retrieve the lost mercury link, Ian, Barbara and the Thals are forced to brave various hazards such as lake-bound monsters and yawning chasms. The Thals aren’t exactly the most helpful followers, especially at the start when they refuse to fight. Steal your leader’s woman though, and a Thal will become a mean fighting machine, throwing punches as hard as your average boozed-up clubber on a Saturday night.
The Thals are a fairly mixed bunch. Superficially, they’re all a load of hoary old clichés: The leader. The tough love interest. The ditzy blonde. Fortunately, they’re given a degree of weight by strong performances from the likes of John Lee, Alan Wheatley and Philip Bond. Dyoni and Antodus are less successful, but that’s down to the limitations of their characters rather than the performances. Dyoni is the stock damsel-in-distress, refusing to think for herself, as an army of Thal men drool over her Cheryl Tweedy-style split trousers. Antodus, meanwhile, is possibly one of the biggest whingers in Doctor Who. Every scene he’s in, he’s bleating, moaning and wailing about the injustice of his plight. Imagine Antodus on I’m A Celebrity as he tries to do a Bushtucker Trial: You can guess that he’d start crying like a baby at the prospect of crossing a pit of worms to get stars for a meal. So much so, that he makes Peri resemble Ripley from the Alien films.
Still the Thals and their rubbish dress sense don’t hamper The Daleks too badly. Christopher Barry makes a fine job of creating a suitably alien atmosphere with negative video effects, skewed camera angles and a perfect execution of that all-important first cliffhanger. Richard Martin’s direction isn’t quite as strong, with a couple of poorly shot action sequences, although it’s still competent enough. The eerie sound effects and Tristram Cary’s musique-concrete score add much to the story too, as do Raymond Cusick’s excellent stark, metal designs.
The Daleks is just as pivotal a story as An Unearthly Child, introducing the show’s most iconic baddies and the archetypal alien monster story. Not only does it succeed in establishing the titular creatures as a memorable threat, it also tells a great story for all ages.
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