“I’m not here as your prisoner, Davros, but your executioner.” – The Doctor
Always remembered as the dark and gritty story in which many people die, this is probably one of the few Dalek episodes that really captures the ruthlessness of the Daleks as a group, as individual creatures, and in the person of their creator. With the opening shots of rusting warehouses and people being shot down on the London docks, the story starts of with a heavy sense of menace. This is compounded by the sheer terror on the spaceship as everyone races to get away while the Daleks break through barrier after barrier. Indeed, some of this same tension and plotting have been used many times in the new series Dalek episodes as well. It just unfortunate that the intensity is often undercut by bland acting, some very silly costume ideas (Dalek shaped helmets?), and a bit too many unnecessary additions to the plot.
Even though the story swirls much more around the Dalek slaves/doubles and the resistance to them, it’s really the Daleks and Davros that stand out in this episode. Better than any other, it plays up the brewing civil war of Dalek Surpreme versus those loyal to Davros. Davros has some wonderfully over the top moments screaming in Nazi-like hysteria. It’s telling that the Doctor overcomes (or tries to overcome) his repugnance for killing in recognition of the threat that Davros is. (And it’s quite interesting to see Tegan’s shock at this even though she herself would probably not hesitate.) Davros escapes this fate by needling at the Doctor’s sense of good with a feigned heart of regret and talk of adding a missing sense of compassion to the new stock of Daleks. They also notch up the ability of the tentacled Dalek mutant creature itself as we see it viciously attack the poor soldier. (Again all ideas reused in the new series.)
The silent and unexplained police pair throughout the story are pretty cool–especially as they simply walk off at the end with Lytton unaffected by everything. (But I do think our initial introduction to them would have been more effective if the group we see them gunning down in the street had been dressed in normal clothes such that we didn’t get a hint that the people were not from earth.) Turlough returns to his weasely ways again in this episode, but the reasons are much more logical as he realizes the need for self-preservation amongst a group set on self-sacrifice. Tegan shows her tough side again but this time it breaks her in the end. Lots of ‘good’ people die in this story but the scream of Laird as she is gunned down in front of Tegan while trying to run away is quite shocking. This is why Tegan’s leaving scene is so effective. As she simply states “It’s stopped being fun, Doctor.” We realize that it really would take a toll to pass through the constant stream of danger she has faced, especially as almost every nice person you meet seems to end up dying violently.
Best (or worst) unsettling moments:
The pan to the soldier horribly disfigured by the gas is disquieting, but while the killing is all gritty, the best sense of eeriness come from the silent police pair as they walk in step without any explanation as to who (or what) they are, unafraid to be seen killing people in the street, especially the poor fisherman they shoot simply because Tegan looks over at him as a possible help for escape.
There are lots of seeds of future conflict between the Time Lords and the Daleks and amongst the Daleks themselves that could be pointed to as part of the retrofit of the Time War.
I would have liked to have seen some of the characters played better. There was a lot of lost potential. It’s also extremely shameful that they didn’t write the soldiers as being part of UNIT. They were investigating alien artifacts with a bravely nerdy woman science officer—how much more UNIT could you get than that, for goodness sake! On a larger level, there was no reason to add the complication of there being human “doubles”. It becomes confusing and entirely unnecessary, especially with Stien whose character arc is played more like a human overcoming mental control conditioning than a clone becoming more human. It’s even more ridiculous when they show the doubles of Tegan and Turlough as it creates a huge plot hole as to when the Daleks could have made copies of them. They should have just left all that out and stuck with the mind control aspect instead.