Having finished their prehistoric first adventure, the Doctor and his companions find themselves in the first futuristic adventure of the series.
This seven-part (!) serial first aired from December 21, 1963 to February 1, 1964.
This serial also gives us the Doctor’s archenemies, the Daleks.
This episode contains some interesting moments of character development dealing with Ian and Barbara.
Unlike future companions, these two school teachers did not volunteer to go galavanting about space and time with the Doctor. They unwittingly ended up on their first adventure in 100,000 B.C., and they want nothing more to do than go home to 1963 England.
Barbara, in particular, isn’t coping well and says she can’t rely on anything anymore, leading Ian to suggest that she can rely on him. (Yeah, he totally digs her.)
Ian also displays a practical turn of mind when he points out that the TARDIS will not be able to get them home if anything happens to the Doctor, so they need to go with him and protect him, even if he is marching into danger. (Apparently the idea that Susan could pilot the TARDIS doesn’t occur to them.)
This episode also has lots of science fictiony window dressing, which is good, and actually rather well done given the budgetary limits on the show.
The characters find themselves in a strange, white jungle, where all the plants have apparently fossilized in place, without being buried.
Susan finds a fragile but intact stone flower and is gushing about what she’ll do with it once she gets it back to “the ship” when Barbara screams and Ian thoughtlessly crushes the flower (huh?).
The reason Barbara screams is that she has found a threatening animal–also petrified, but made of metal instead of stone. The Doctor doesn’t know what it is, but he says it was always made of metal, even when alive, and perhaps used magnetic powers to pull metallic prey animals to itself for food. (That’s pretty cool!)
Encounters with dead metal animals give Barbara a headache, and so back on the TARDIS, Susan gives her a clear liquid drink that is apparently the timelord equivalent of aspirin. Either that or vodka. Either way, Barbara declares it delicious.
The Doctor and Susan also show of a machine that dispenses food which looks like slices of tofu but which taste like anything you want. Ian and Barbara say they want bacon and eggs, and so the timelords dial up slices of tofu that taste like bacon with one bit and eggs with the next. Barbara declares them delicious also.
Another device they show off is a pair of spectacles that have special disks stuck to the lenses and that function like binoculars. They use them to stare at a dead, futuristic city they spot in the distance.
The Doctor hastily and erroneously concludes that the planet they are on is entirely dead, which is nice because it shows he can make mistakes.
When Susan says some unknown person tapped her on the shoulder out in the jungle, the Doctor declares this impossible in view of the planet’s lifelessness, and nobody believes her, causing Susan to become a hysterical teenager.
To calm her down, Barbara gets to deliver the scintillating line of dialogue:
It isn’t that he [the Doctor] doesn’t believe you. It’s just that he finds it hard to go against his scientific facts.
Somebody starts knocking on the outside of the TARDIS, though, proving that the planet isn’t as dead as the Doctor said it was.
He’s determined to go explore that maybe-not-so-dead city, but the others want to go home, and he grudgingly obliges and starts the TARDIS. It refuses to take off, however, and the Doctor declares that a “fluid link” is broken and they need to get more mercury for it.
Ian suggests that they go to the dead city, because every dead city is bound to have an abundant supply of mercury lying around.
Emerging from the TARDIS, our heroes find a box of glass vials lying on the ground–apparently left by whoever was knocking on the outside of the TARDIS.
This is a staple of early Doctor Who: One or more of the characters gets separated from the others so that he/she can be threatened, attacked, captured, etc. In fact, that happened to the Doctor himself in the previous episode.
Now it’s Barbara’s turn, and she is appropriately menaced by an unseen thing which will soon be revealed to be a Dalek.
While she’s gone, everyone realizes that they are really not feeling well at all, and they soon discover that the environment they are in is highly radioactive.
The Doctor says that the presence of buildings in the radioactive environment is explained by the use of neutron bombs, which kill living things but largely leave buildings alone. (This is a surprisingly accurate statement for a children’s show in 1963!)
In any event, they’re all coming down with radiation poisoning and will die if they don’t get treatment.
Before they can sign up for Obamacare, though, a bunch of Daleks take them captive, shooting Ian so that his legs become paralyzed.
Eventually, they are reunited with Barbara in a holding room, where they explain to her about the radiation sickness.
The Doctor, in particular, is not feeling well. It’s interesting that, this early in the series, the Doctor is portrayed as a fail old man. In the previous episode, he lost his breath while running from cavemen and had to stop despite the danger. He suffers more than the others in this episode, too.
It’s understandable that the writers are trying to play him and Ian off each other with an old man/young man dynamic, but given that Bill Hartnell’s health problems would lead to his departure from the show just three years later, it’s hard not wondering how much this was affecting the show right from the beginning.
Soon the Daleks start interrogating the Doctor, assuming him to be one of a race of surface dwellers known as the Thals, who have an anti-radiation drug. They think that the Doctor and his companions have run low of the drug and have invaded the city to search for more.
The Doctor has no idea what they are talking about, so they helpfully tell him that “over 500 years ago” there were two races on the planet–the Daleks and the Thals, that they had a “neutronic war” and–well, you can fill in the rest.
The Doctor realizes that the glass vials they found outside the TARDIS may be “anti-radiation gloves . . . drugs,” he says, in a blown line (increasing problems remembering his lines would lead to his departure from the show in 1966).
Unfortunately, he is too ill to go get the vials, as is Barbara. Ian still has paralyzed legs, and so Susan must bravely go back to the TARDIS–though she is a terrified teenager–to get them.
It’s also good that she goes because, apparently, the TARDIS lock has a defensive mecha nism with twenty-one slots, and if you put the key in the wrong slot it will cause the entire lock mechanism to melt, stranding you in space and time. Nifty, huh!
The Thal explains that he was the one who startled Susan in episode 1 and that he left the supply of gloves–drugs–and is amazed that they haven’t taken them yet. He says he’s now come back to show her how to use them. (Um, right.)
In addition to being surprised to learn that the characters haven’t used the drugs that he didn’t stay to explain how to use, he’s also surprised to learn that there are Daleks living in the city.
Realizing that the Daleks will take the gloves–drugs!–for themselves, he gives Susan a second supply, when he says to keep hidden.
Next we know, she’s back in the city and everyone in the holding room is getting better. Susan tells us that the Daleks took one of the drug supplies and she thought they were going to take the second, but they changed their minds and gave it to her. (I guess that hiding things didn’t work out so well or something.)
Susan also gives us a rather lengthy lesson in Thal agriculture, explaining (to make matters brief) that the Thals are starving, have had to go in search of food, and that they will all die unless the Doctor and companions can work out a treaty with the Daleks on behalf of the Thals.
So the Daleks force Susan to write a treaty with the Thals in crayon, totally planning on betraying the Thals.
The Doctor and crew get wise to Dalek treachery, however, and manage to escape by having Ian impersonate a Dalek who is taking the others to be questioned. (Technically, they capture a Dalek by breaking its electrical connection to the metal floor using a Thal cloak as an insulator; then they use the cloak to scoop out the gooey creature inside the Dalek, allowing us to get a glimpse of a hideous Dalek claw; then Ian gets inside the Dalek contraption and they bluff their way through the halls.)
Eventually, everybody but Ian heads out to the woods, and he remains behind to warn the Thals that the Daleks are luring them into a trap when they come to pick up the food promised by the treaty.
He gives the warning and they escape back to the Thal camp in the woods, where we spend the rest of the episode.
The Thals are all blond, they wear silly costumes, and you can tell which ones are women by the weird wire headdresses they wear (also by the fact that they are played by women actresses).
One Thal woman shows the doctor some hexagonal plates that she says contain the entire recorded history of their planet, which the Doctor says is more than half a million years. These plates also contain maps of their solar system and other solar systems, as well as pictures of what the ancestors of the Thals and the Daleks used to look like.
The ancestor of the Thals looked like crude drawing of a medieval knight, and they don’t show us the ancestor of the Daleks (then called “Dals”).
Ian tries to convince the Thals to man up and fight the murderous, xenophobic Daleks, but they insist that they wont.
The Doctor is ready to ditch both the Thals and the Daleks, since their fates are, y’know, none of their business, but just as they are about to get into the TARDIS, it turns out that Ian doesn’t have the precious fluid link that the Doctor gave him for safekeeping. The Daleks took it from him when they searched him. Without the link, the TARDIS can’t take off, and so we get . . .
Barbara doesn’t care, though. She just wants to go home and is happy to use Thals as cannon fodder.The Doctor totally wants to use the Thals as cannon fodder to help them get the precious fluid link back. He’s totally heartless about it, as if the Thals will simply be tools in battle, which is really rather shocking. It’s so shocking that Ian confronts him about it and says he won’t have the blood of other people on his hands.
Susan proposes a balance: They’ll get the Thals to fight the Daleks both for their own good and for the precious fluid link.
The Thals, however, still don’t want to fight, stating that there mustn’t be any more wars because the last one devastated their planet.
Ian, however, is able to provoke one of the Thal men to violence, however, when he suggests taking his girlfriend to the city and offering her to the Daleks for experimentation.
Meanwhile, back at the city, the Daleks who have taken the Thal anti-radiation drug are getting sick and malfunctioning. This is probably because they are not Thals. It also may be related to the fact–which they state–that they need radiation to survive and need to increase the radiation in their environment, possibly by setting off another neutron bomb. (So naturally they were taking an anti-radiation drug.)
The Thals hold a war council and overcome their scruples against war. It is then decided that they will mount an assault on the city, with one party providing a distraction while the other sneaks around the back of the city and infiltrates it by going through a dangerous swamp filled with weird creatures.
One weird creature, which we don’t actually see, forms a cool-looking whirlpool and drags a Thal to a watery death (no budget for a rubber tentacle, I guess).
Lots of paint-by-numbers writing in this episode. Having made their way through the sooper-dangerous swamp, one party of Thals (with Ian and Barbara) skulk about endlessly in tunnels below the Dalek city.
Meanwhile, another party of Thals uses reflectors to shine light on a Dalek tower to create a distraction.
Also meanwhile, the Doctor and Susan discover that the city is run by static electricity and short out an electrical panel, causing them to be immediately captured.
The Daleks then announce their intention to kill all the Thals so that they can be total masters of Skaro (telling us the name of the planet).
An interesting moment comes when one Thal in the tunnels gets an attack of the willies and wants to ditch the mission, citing the fact that they are all doomed.
This same Thal later fails to jump across a ledge and ends up hanging from a rope that is tied around his body, yelling that he can’t hang on any more (which is . . . why it’s tied around his body?).
The Thal who is safely tied with the rope around his body then makes a heroic sacrifice by cutting the rope so he can fall to his death, preventing Ian and another Thal on the ledge above from falling to theirs as well.
It’s interesting, but up to now there hasn’t really been any discussion of what the teams are going todo once they get into the city–just that they’re going to fight the Daleks somehow.
Eventually, the whole gang gets together in the Dalek city and attacks the control center, upending and immobilizing lots of Daleks, who die. The Doctor also defuses the neutron bomb that they were going to set off.
The Daleks are, apparently, all dead, and their endless war with the Thals has ended. Advantage: Thals.
The Doctor bids the Thals farewell, talking about how they will now be pioneers rebuilding their planet, trying to learn about the Dalek machines and their secrets. He says he was once a pioneer among his own people, though he’s too old for that now.
Barbara shares a romantic moment with a Thal that she’s taken a shine to (so she’s into Ian maybe not so much right now).
Then they all take off in the TARDIS for parts unknown . . . and disaster strikes.
Despite its flaws, this serial is actually pretty good for the time. It’s certainly way more interesting than the caveman part of An Unearthly Child. There is also a lot less paint-by-numbers writing than I expected when I put in the DVD and saw it had a seven parts!
There is some nice character development, and, while it is much slower paced than it would be if made today, the story is fairly straightforward. It may even make more sense than a lot of later Dalek stories.
The Daleks aren’t fully formed in this episode. While they are clearly murderous and xenophobic, they don’t have the “Exterminate! Exterminate!” thing going yet.
They also aren’t invincible, time traveling menaces that have whole galaxies in their tentacles. They’re the last batch of a dying race that is confined to a single city.
It’s easy to see why they caught on with children in 1963. They have the whole Nazi-vibe going, which makes them menacing, and the sorta-tank-like metallic shell, but the very fact that they aren’t bipeds keeps them from getting over-the-top scary. If they were fully mobile actors in rubber suits, they would be much scarier for children.
The fact that Daleks “aren’t very mobile” is pointed out more than once in this episode, and its pointed out that this is where the humans (and Thals) have an advantage over them, despite their superior technology. This helps keep the threat they pose from being overwhelming.
In 1965 this serial was remade as a full-color motion picture, with a bigger budget and other improvements. It starred Peter Cushing as Dr. Who and was titled Doctor Who and the Daleks.
RATING: * * 1/2