Terry Nation’s invention of the Daleks is one key moment of genius that has shaped Doctor Who and help it survive for over half a century. This seven part story introduces the first Doctor to the Daleks for the first time and for the most part it is simply superb.
For a serial that was produced in 1963, it’s a piece of television that’s way ahead of its time. Skaro looked brilliant in an era with no green screens or CGI. The sort of x-Ray lighting when the Daleks fired their guns was also an excellent effect. So to was the water that consumed one of the Thals in a whirlpool. The story doesn’t just impress visually for its time though, the writing was also extremely good. Even so early in the show’s history, Terry Nation managed to fit in a few moral dilemmas for the characters. How often in sixties television do you see writing that actually poses deep questions? Well not very often, but Doctor Who was revolutionary to television in more ways than one. The most prominent dilemma was for the Thals, who had to decide if it was better to die in peace or try to live through fighting. They were a peaceful race, despite their war with the Daleks, so it was a big decision for them to decide if they wanted to reignite their battle with Skaro’s other occupants and it was fascinating to see them come to a decision.
The Doctor, Susan, Barbara and Ian were all terrific in this story too, Ian in particular. This was only the second serial of the show so Ian and Barbara were still getting used to life in the TARDIS, and they weren’t exactly willing companions to begin with. When you consider this, Ian on countless occassions throughout the story put others before the himself, even the Doctor who he had quite a frosty relationship with at the time. He showed what a brave and selfless man he was and put his unhappiness at being basically kidnapped to one side.
This was the story where I really started to warm to the first Doctor. In An Unearthly Child he was very moody and almost seemed like the bad guy. His evil chuckle as he told Barbara and Ian they wouldn’t be leaving the TARDIS did make him out to be unfriendly and not to be trusted. However some very Doctor-ish traits shone through in this story. Telling a lie to his companions so they would accompany him to the city was great. It showed that even though his body was old, he was still madly keen on adventure. Although he spent a lot of time in the early parts of the story lying down, he still had some good lines. His urge to care for his granddaughter Susan, and even for Barbara and Ian was evident. Despite a few wrong lines and being almost allergic to action, this is when William Hartnell truly first became the Doctor.
The first four episodes of the serial are when the story is at its best. Terry Nation wrote the Daleks perfectly, and when you compare this story to more modern Dalek episodes, you can see how far they’ve fallen. Here they were merciless and ruthless. I loved how they tricked the Thals into coming to the city and then lurking in the background as the Thals searched for food before being exterminated. Their manipulative side was so brilliantly evil and it made the first few parts of the story so intense.
Like a lot of classic stories that last more than four parts, it did lag a bit towards the end. Episodes five and six were quite slow, in fact the Doctor barely even feautred. Episode six in particular had a ten minute spell where the Thals and Ian jumped from the path to a ledge and that was all that happened. It did lead to an exciting cliffhanger where one of the Thals looked destined to fall into the pit and take Ian with him, but it took far too long to manufacture. Despite a couple of weaker episodes, the story was resolved in thrilling fashion. I loved seeing the Thals along with Ian physically overpower the Daleks and take command of their control room. It was a satisfactory end to a magnificent debut for the Daleks. The characters of Ian and the Doctor really began to be likeable in this story too and it’s definitely one of my favourite Hartnell serials.