“Daleks! Everything they touch turns into a horrible sort of nightmare.” – Barbara
I didn’t think much of this story as a child—the flimsy special effects of the saucers, the silly looking headsets (and acting) of the robomen, and the lifeless fight scenes all overshadowed any good in it; I just knew that this story would be an embarrassment to watch with a non-fan. However, I now can appreciate it much more as a story with some strong characters and plot elements if you can ignore the rest. If you think about the premise, it’s quite horrifying: Ten years prior the whole Earth was bombarded by meteorites sent by the Daleks that contained a viral plague that quickly wiped out most of humanity. We are on an Earth where most people have lost hope—we encounter many crouched in corners huddled in trauma and fear. The Daleks now control the few small fractured sections of the globe that remain by regularly harvesting people to have their brains overrided by a machine that turns them into living zombies until it wears down the mind to the point that the body reacts by smashing itself against rocks or drowning itself. (“They used to say the Earth had a smell of death about it.”) Gruesome..
Though it has some obvious plot holes, it’s actually well put together in terms of telling a very specific slice of a rather big and ambitious story. It’s clear our heroes have entered a particularly crucial moment and have to act. (“They dare to tamper with the forces of creation!” “Yes – they dare! And we have got to dare to stop them!”) In addition, each of the guest actors in this piece has an amazingly strong presence that comes across the screen – Tyler, Jenny, David, and even Wells all make an indelible impressions and, amazingly in a story so full of death, all make it through to the end.
The story is also notable for the program’s first real use of outside location shots (not counting some establishing shots in Reign of Terror that didn’t involve the main actors.) We thus get many great shots of Barbara running at full tilt through London and people scurrying around factory gangways, all of which give scale to the story. The pictures of the Daleks gliding about all the famous landmarks of London are of course iconic, and it’s well documented that the Nazi-like salutes they flash in those scenes were intended to evoke just such an image. The use of terms like of “masters”, “races”, “commandant” and images of an underground resistance listening to radio broadcast throughout the story are meant to draw that parallel as well. (“They were our own people, made to work against us! And the Daleks knew that, knew how they humiliated and degraded us. They are the masters of Earth.”)
[As a side note, resolving the events of this story with those that come later in the history of the program requires a little bit of revision in canon. How could the Doctor not have known about a major period in Earth’s history where it was decimated by the Daleks and had to be rebuilt? And if he knew that, then how did he not know what the Daleks were when he first met them? There are a couple of different possibilities to imagine—it could be that the history of this tragic time on Earth becomes faded in the future and the Daleks are forgotten; it just becomes a nameless alien attack in the history books and this is what the Doctor knows of it. Or, on a higher concept level, this is a newly created Earth history since we will discover later that the future Daleks eventually get the secret of time travel. It was never supposed to be this way on Earth but it is now. This idea fits in with the modern version of the show in highlighting just how destructive the Daleks become across time and the need for the eventual Time War.]
As for our principal characters, you can see that the Doctor has fully transitioned to being the central character of the show. Not only does he work out a lot of strategy and planning for himself, but several people throughout the story have ‘what would the Doctor do?’ moments and constantly reference his influence on their actions and decisions. The moment of him facing down the Dalek in his confidence that his granddaughter and her newfound boyfriend will complete the task he set for them in time is also significant. Barbara also shines in this story as she is on her own throughout much of it, both running from the Daleks and fighting them head on. The moment that she and Jenny plow a truck through a roadblock of them makes you want to cheer. I especially love the scen in the main base where she uses her history teacher knowledge to ramble on in a mishmash of history to distract the Daleks while trying to get to their control panel. It’s a very Doctorish move, and this whole story really just shows her to be smart and fearless.
I thought I remembered Susan’s leaving as having been rather abrupt, but actually they build up to it throughout the whole story. There are several foreshadowing references in her discussions with David about her never having had a home. (“One day you will. There will come a time when you are forced to stop travelling and you’ll arrive somewhere.”) Soon we see her girlish fascination with this dashing young man, his playful teasing of her showing his interest, the two of idealizing the future and finding their shared values. There’s a progression in their physicality and body language that builds to a kiss. This is interrupted when the Doctor and the others return and, though it is not at all played up or highlighted, there is no way that his comment about the meal (“Quite, quite. I can see something’s cooking!”) is not meant to indicate that the Doctor is suddenly aware of their tryst. I thus take his sardonic admonishment to them later when they go to fight the Daleks (“Don’t stop to pick daisies on the way!”) as a tacit recognition and approval of their budding romance.
It’s nice that the story closes with the Doctor understanding that he has to let his granddaughter start her own life by leaving her behind. He realizes that he has instilled such a feeling of obligation in her that she can’t make the choice to do so herself. “You’re still my grandchild and always will be. But now, you’re a woman too. I want you to belong somewhere, to have roots of your own. With David, you’ll be able to find those roots. Live normally like any woman should do. Believe me, my dear, your future lies with David. And not with a silly old buffer like me. One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine. Goodbye, Susan, goodbye, my dear.”
Best unsettling moments:
Any story where the first thing you see is a sign saying not to dump bodies in the river has to be heading somewhere interesting, right? Just the sign is unsettling enough and then there’s a great shot of Barbara seeing it for the first time and you can see that she immediately realizes what a bad omen that is. The same episode closes with the great image of a Dalek rising up out of the water of the Thames and, for viewers of the time who would have had no idea to expect the Daleks to be in the show, I am sure that was a quite startling revelation.
- First returning villains
- First differently colored (in this case Black) Dalek
- First mention of the Dalek Supreme (or in this case Supreme Controller)
- First mention of Dalekanium
- First goodbye for a companion leaving
It’s really a shame that the special effects of the space saucers, the Robomen headsets, the Daleks’ discs, and the Slyther couldn’t live up to the horror that those things represent in the story. It detracts from what really should be a strong storyline. The eventual reason given for the invasion of Earth by the Daleks is also rather shaky.