“If they call us mutations what must they be like?” – Thal leader
The story that really kicked off the popularity of Doctor Who. The entire first episode is an exploration, not just of the mysterious dead planet but of Ian and Barbara’s new reality: how they will relate to the Doctor and how they will accept their loss of home (Barbara’s brief blank stare when she confirms that “We’re not on earth then?” is quite striking.). It’s even their first look at the domestic workings of the TARDIS—extra rooms, banks of dials and buttons, and even a food machine—all sixties sci-fi to the hilt. It could even be argued that Susan’s ESP starts to show itself here since she somehow senses the Thal being present before he touches her, not seemingly by having heard anything but rather by just a terrified feeling. (I love the gritted teeth delivery of “There was somebody there!” when it turns out she was right.)
We continue to see the anti-social side of the First Doctor, especially how badly he reacts to being told what he cannot do. Yes, he behaves like a petulant child to get his way, but I do like the unsheepish practicality with which he brushes all that aside once danger arises. Despite his faults and the arguments they bring, his likability is obviously coming through as there are many moments of light-hearted banter with the others also. Later on, at the very end of the story, he also makes a statement about his mysterious past that I was surprised to have never noticed before: “I am much too old to be a pioneer—although I was once among my own people…”
Of course, the story takes off with the cliff hanger and reveal of a Dalek. I’m not sure what feelings the first look at them would have brought for viewers, but the perfectly played cliff-hanger reaction of Barbara sets us up to know that whatever it looks like we should be terrified of it. The best underscoring of this comes when they open the casing. Ian’s face when he sees the flesh-and-blood Dalek—and even more so his eagerness to spare Barbara and Susan from seeing it too—speaks volumes about how horrific they truly are. If they had only used the cliffhanger of the misshapen claw under the blanket for that purpose I think it would have had a lot less impact.
As the story goes on, I find it very odd that almost every “trick” that we think the group is cleverly coming up with to fool the Daleks is immediately undercut in the next scene by having The Daleks actually figure out—and then bizarrely let them get away with it anyway. I suppose it serves to show the Daleks are not some easily duped and easy to defeat enemy? Anyway, it gives several nice chances to see the new TARDIS crew working and thinking together as a team.
The fourth episode “The Ambush” has some very effective moments of suspense—not just the extended scenes with the elevator escape but much moreso the build up to the Daleks’ attack on the innocent Thals. Temmosus’s words to his compatriots are so noble: “You must throw off these suspicions. They’re based on fear…and fear breeds hatred and war. I shall speak to them peacefully. They’ll see that I am unarmed. There’s no better argument against war than that.” And yet the next scene of a Dalek, lurking menacingly in the doorway in front of the food proffered falsely in peace, immediately sets us on edge to know it won’t work. This leads to some agonizing minutes of us knowing his death is coming yet hoping he can be warned. The episode also highlights the allegory of the Daleks as supremacists in Ian’s realization that they kill not out of reason or gain but simply for a hatred of that which is different. Definitely the best episode of this story over all.
It’s been noted by many that the latter episodes of the story are more of an adventure saga as the group scale cliffs and work out plans to sneak into the city to a rather abrupt concluding battle. But there are some great moments that cement the character of the Daleks. The kaladeiskopic point-of-view shot of the wailing and disorientated Dalek is wonderfully done, and the dispassionate response of the leaders–willing to experiment on their own kind—underscores their ruthlessness. Their unyielding drive for domination comes across in the monotone delivery of the line: “We do not have to adapt to the environment. We will change the environment to suit us.” And the ultimate sense of superiority that drives them to kill all who are different comes through no better than in their correction of the Doctor’s admonishment: “That’s sheer murder!” “No. Extermination.”
Best unsettling moments:
The grim look between Ian and the Doctor at how horrific a flesh and blood Dalek mutation actually is.
The strange keening of the Thal women off camera at the death of their leader—mostly because it’s not even referred to as they continue their conversation
- Multiple rooms in the TARDIS
- The Daleks’ ‘negative-image’ blasts
I wish we didn’t have the few moments where Doctor seems perfectly willing to leave Barbara behind on an alien world. (Maybe he didn’t really mean it?) It’s also a shame that some sloppy editing or directing or whatever makes it seem like Ian waits so long to run in with his warning to the Thal’s for no reason.