Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Old Who Reviews - Serial 002: "The Daleks"

"I believe the Daleks have discovered a way to exploit... static electricity! Very ingenious..."
~The First Doctor

Alright, here's something a little more substantial. The first ever appearance of the popular Daleks.

"The Daleks", originally known as "The Mutants" or "The Dead Planet", is 7 episodes long and is the second serial in "Doctor Who" history. If I were to be completely honest, I don't think this series would have been as successful as it ended up being if it hadn't been for this serial. Not only did it introduce an alien race that eventually took the nation by storm, but it established the potential for the series.

Terry Nation, who is primarily known as the father of the Daleks and also the creator of the lesser known show "Blake's 7", used the concept of a world broken by nuclear devastation to examine themes of war, peace, and racism.

Whereas "An Unearthly Child" only showed us a very boring glimpse at prehistoric earth, "The Daleks" takes us into a much more imaginative landscape beyond our own galaxy.

That's not to say this serial is perfect. It's not. But it does at the very least show a glimpse at the endless possibilities that the concept turned out to be capable of. And it's also very much entertaining if you don't mind a slower-paced story.

What makes this serial better than the first one is that its central theme is much clearer. Essentially, it's an exploration of how pacifism and diplomacy fails in the face of pure evil, and the only practical response to such evil is violence.

This episode was made in the 60's, quite a while after World War II, so it's fairly obvious that the Daleks (and to an extent, the Thals) were inspired by Nazis, a comparison that largely continues to this day. However, another strong influence on this episode was the Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis was only a year earlier and the fear of nuclear apocalypse was very palpable. So it's unsurprising that the planet Skaro (as it would eventually be named) would be a radioactive wasteland.

OK, enough historical context for now. There's a lot of silliness to get through first.

The Doctor and his companions begin by hilariously overlooking the radiation levels on the planet and go walking around to look at stuff.

They essentially find a wasteland, but then they see a quiet city in the distance. The Doctor, being the Doctor, wants to go investigate. The companions, still having their common sense, beg the Doctor to take them somewhere else.

Ultimately, the Doctor sabotages the poor TARDIS in order to find an excuse to go to the city.

When they get there, they discover two things. First of all, THEY ALL HAVE RADIATION SICKNESS. OOPS.

Second, they meet the Daleks who incapacitate them and imprison them.

I know what you're thinking. The Daleks? Incapacitating them? Why not just EXTERMINATE?

Well, because the Daleks have a greater plan in mind. They plan to use these strangers to get to their true goal, the Thals, and to that end they allow Susan to leave and get their radiation sickness treatment. Hooray! Susan gets something to do other than scream and complain!

Anyway, it's when she makes it back to the TARDIS that she meets the Thals.

The Thals are essentially dorks. Blond-haired, blue-eyed, tall and muscle-bound, they are seemingly meant to represent Aryan perfection. They also dress like LARPers. They're pacifist farmers who are suffering a drought and need to broker a peace with the Daleks in order to survive.

The Daleks learn of their desperation when Susan returns, and plan to keep the Doctor and his companions to lure the Thals into the city to finish them once and for all. Thankfully, our heroes deduce their plans and attempt an escape.

How do they escape? Well here's an interesting thing I didn't know before seeing this episode. Did you know how the initial Daleks powered their suits?

The same way a bumper car is powered.

That's right, their entire city is made of metal so that they can charge their armored suits through the conductive surface. Break their connection with the floor and they die.

Is this weakness ever brought up again? I guess we'll find out in future episodes involving the Daleks.

Oh, right.

Anyway, our heroes kill their Dalek prison guard by blinding him with mud and then driving him over a cloak, breaking his connection with the floor. They then open up the lid and remove the creature inside, which they wisely decided not to show.

Then -- and this part I love -- Ian gets inside the armor and pretends to be a Dalek.

This is actually pretty amusing and clever, watching Ian deliberately talking in the broken monotone to fool the other Daleks.

However, just as they're about to leave, the Thals show up to broker peace. Their leader goes in with open arms, believing a peaceful approach is their best chance. The Thals offer to use their resources to restore the planet to its former glory and create a better world for the two estranged species.

The Daleks respond in the only way they know how. Murder!

Our heroes and the surviving Thals return to the forest and assess the situation. The Thals have long believed in pacifism, but Ian tries to convince them to strike back.

I can only assume what the motivation behind this episode was. After Gandhi had used non-violence to drive the British out of India and the constant threat of war became more pervasive in the wake of WWII and the Cold War, the idea of pacifism and non-violence started to take traction. However, the prospect of using non-violence as a tool to face an enemy like the Nazis seemed ridiculous.

There are two major misunderstandings at work here. First of all, non-violence and pacifism are not the same thing. One can be against violence but still resist oppression. This was what Gandhi did. Stand your ground and refuse to fight back. Don't retreat or concede, simply never fight back. The idea is that your opponent's human nature will eventually come forth and they'll realize they're doing something evil, causing them to stop of their own volition and ending hostility.

The second major misunderstanding is that non-violence can't work against an opponent who believes that a people is less than human. This is simply not true. We saw non-violence work during the civil rights movements that helped make the first great strides in confronting racism in America. Gandhi had been asked if he believed that Hitler could be defeated with non-violence, and he said that he believed so, just that it would come at significant cost, a cost that probably would have been much higher than the already great cost we already faced. Non-violence may have worked against Hitler, but it may not have been possible to execute effectively without heavy losses and sacrifices that are difficult to argue in favor of.

When the Thals realize the Daleks are after them, their first instinct is to run away. The Doctor suggests they fight back. What upsets me is that Terry Nation, the writer of this serial, seems to think those are the only two options. Fight or flight.

Granted, yes. The Daleks are without human emotions. They would likely murder all of them. I'm not saying non-violence is a wise option for the Thals.

I'm mostly just saying that Terry Nation is trying to make the case that pacifism is naive, cowardly, that it, as Ian puts it, "...only works when everybody feels the same," and that the only logical alternative is violence. He associates pacifism as being the same thing as non-violence, and therefore makes non-violence seem like a childish outlook.

While I applaud the show for attempting to tackle a complicated subject so early on, I just wanted to state my own misgivings about the thesis of the serial. Non-violence has its values and is not something only for peace-time. It may not work against the fictional Daleks, but it's arguable that it can work against any human foe, no matter how evil we assume them to be. After all, many who we consider evil believe themselves to be good. There's a certain amount of cognitive dissonance when you are forced to kill a person who refuses to fight back and you are told it's the right thing to do.

Anyway, back to the silly plot.

Essentially, just as they were about to leave, Ian realizes he forgot the thing the Doctor broke (and decided to take with them on the expedition for some reason) and that they have to go back into the city. To this end, they try to convince the Thals to give up their peaceful ways so that they can ransack the city. This apparently doesn't take much convincing as they head out pretty quickly.

This is where the plot REALLY slows down.

Ian, Barbara, and the Thals go spelunking trying to find a way into the city while the Doctor and Susan get there first and sabotage their... *sigh*... static electricity generator with a TARDIS key in a move that would make Mr. Wizard proud.

He is then immediately captured by Daleks.

I'm going to start counting how many TARDIS keys the Doctor carelessly abandons in this show. This is the first.

The Doctor finds out that the Daleks intend to pump Skaro's atmosphere full of radiation to kill the Thals and save themselves since they breathe radiation or something.

Wait, if radiation is GOOD for the Daleks, then why do they have a radiation meter with a "Danger" label? Also I'm not entirely sure why the Daleks didn't just do flood the planet with radiation as soon as they found out about the Thals, but whatever.

Not much happens until Ian, Barbara and the Thals finally get to the city. Of course they defeat the Daleks by knocking out their power and give the Thals a new lease on life (for now). Then they head off in the TARDIS on their next adventure... directly before it breaks down.

Overall, I think this serial is significantly more interesting than the first, but it's way longer than it needs to be. This could have been 4 or 5 episodes long, cutting out a lot of pointless spelunking scenes. After they escape from the city the first time, the serial really loses its momentum. I think it treats the concept of non-violence very cynically, but at least it addresses a problem of interest. Also, one cannot ignore that this serial gave us the Daleks. And it also gave Susan and Barbara more to do and developed them as characters who do more than scream and get Ian and the Doctor to do everything.

I give it a 7/10. Definitely worth checking out if you're a fan.

Join me next time for a much shorter serial, "The Edge of Destruction".


  1. Ooh, it'd be super fun if you listed the best/worst episode of each serial. Then one could expect to have a pleasant and shortish Who-watch party, skipping the crap!

    1. The problem with that is that each episode has SOME element that's required for the plot. I suppose you could skip episodes 5 and 6 and miss the Doctor and Susan getting kidnapped and talking to the Daleks. Granted, that adds up to maybe 5 minutes of screen time and the rest is just Ian and Barbara spelunking with the Thals, but I imagine fans of Ian and Barbara would enjoy those scenes for whatever character development they provide. There were one or two bits of dialogue between Barbara and the Thals that I enjoyed quite a bit. Ian mostly disinterests me, though.

      For me, the best episode of this serial was probably the 4th episode and the worst was the 5th, but I would recommend watching the whole thing beginning to end.