The Daleks

After the recap, the episode opens with a shot of what could be an aerial view of a devastated landscape, but is in fact the trunk of a tree in the strange alien forest we saw on the scanner last time. The camera pans round, showing us this still, grey forest, as unsettling electronic music plays. Sound and vision combine to create an alien environment - and that's what this episode is going to be all about, the exploration of alien environments. The forest itself is surreal, a dreamlike version of a post-nuclear landscape. No, a neutron bomb wouldn't actually do that, but the stone trees, the metal lizard and the unnatural music feel like a world that has been terribly transformed by technology. Then we get our first glimpse of the city, a beautifully designed model of futurism, effectively shot thanks to some judiciously-deployed mist. It's a gleaming contrast to the dead forest, and it's no wonder Dr. Who wants to toddle up for a closer look. Meanwhile, however, Ian and Barbara are coming to terms not only with the fact that they are on an alien world, but that their dreams of getting straight back home after that awful business with the cavemen are starting to look wildly optimistic. It's a moment that's given a lot of weight by the script and the performances, with Hill in particular conveying a very credible sense of fear and uncertainty. Tristram Cary's music comes to the foreground when Susan is left briefly alone, and senses another person near her. We don't hear any naturalistic sound effects, like a branch breaking or a footstep, just this overwhelming electronic soundscape. Is Susan psychic, and do these sounds indicate a presence impinging itself on her sensitive mind? The third environment we explore, after Ian has prevailed upon the Doctor to leave the city alone, is the interior of the Ship itself. So far, we have only seen the area immediately around the central controls: now, the Ship opens out into a variety of spaces containing all manner of technology. The user interfaces are all very retro - now, at least - and neither the fault locator nor the food machine seem any more integrated into the gleaming white world of the Ship than the old clock that stands near the console. It's as if the Ship, in its current form, is a bit of a botch job, with bits of kit appropriated from who knows where in order to fix it up. This is particularly evident with the food machine, in which the Doctor takes an evident, selfish delight. Why does he need to refer to handwritten notes in what looks to be one of Susan's school exercise books in order to program the machine? Did he build it himself, or did he just get it without a manual and had to reverse-engineer the interface? Of course, the Doctor spins an utterly transparent lie about the fluid link. Ian sees through instantly, but has no option but to go along with it. (At this point, it seems that the Doctor's tale about having no spare mercury on the Ship could also be a fib, but it later turns out to be real enough. If you've ever discovered that you forgot to put the jump-leads in the boot, you'll know the feeling.) When we see the city close up, it's a magnificent piece of design. The shining metal structures with hardly a right angle in sight are ultramodern and otherworldly, the studio space is used effectively to evoke a vast metropolis, and Tristram Cary's music is a symphony of alien textures. The only real failing is the laboratory with the Geiger counter helpfully labelled in English. Later, Susan will write a message to the Thals in a language they evidently understand. Do all the people of Skaro speak English? Is Skaro a nightmarish future Earth? Speaking of nightmares, Barbara finds herself in the middle of one, as she is herded through anonymous corridors like a laboratory mouse being forced down certain passages in a maze. An apt induction into a world of scientific horror, and one that climaxes with her confronting some barely-seen mechanical terror... Having explored the environments, subsequent episodes allow the travellers, and us, to get to know their inhabitants. The Daleks are absolutely at one with their surroundings. They have created an artificial world, and artificial bodies with which to experience it. Indeed, they have gone so far in mediating all their interactions through metallic constructs that they exhibit a shrieking terror of being touched. They will discover in time that this constricted existence, which they had embarked upon as a temporary, desperate survival measure, is now they only way they can live. Their hope of returning to their previous way of life once the radiation had dissipated turns out to be an impossible dream. So, with the same ruthless drive that led them to adopt their metal shells, they decide to alter the entire environment of their planet to suit their own technological needs, even at the cost of genocide. A complex and powerful metaphor for our own culture, which increasingly encounters the world through electronic media, which requires complex technology to survive, and which is having a more and more profound effect on the global environment. But the Daleks are more than scientists: they are the 20th-century marriage of science and warfare. As they prepare to ambush Temnosus, they glide into position like tanks moving into defilade. They clinically exterminate those unlike themselves - and even raise their arms in Nazi salutes, in case we didn't make the connection. While there is culture here, it is in the form of architecture and public scuplture, with no room for the private or idiosyncratic. It is a society without freedom or individuality, where all enquiry is directed toward survival and military pre-eminence. Allied to the central concerns about radiation and nuclear weapons, Terry Nation seems to have the Manhattan Project in his sights every bit as much as the Third Reich. If the Daleks are a potent metaphor, the Thals are... less so. They are as incongruous in the dead jungle as the four travellers, clad in uniforms that suggest they have just popped in from a nearby fetish party that turned out to be a bit of a drag. The fact that the women are all subs can only reinforce this expression. Tal politics are considerably less sophisticated and dynamic than those of the cave people our travellers have so recently escaped from. Their embracing of the environment, and consequent mutation into specimens of physical beauty, sort of works as a contrast with the Daleks, but their rather feeble pacifism isn't well integrated with this metaphorical structure. It's also implausible - have they really never had a conflict over scarce resources in this post-apocalyptic world? Is Ian's threat to abduct Dyoni really the first time two men have squabbled over a woman? And where did Alydon learn to throw such an impressive right hook? These, and other questions, will never be answered. The Thals may have pseudo-Greek names, but these wet specimens would be disowned by Homer, Aeschylus or Thucydides. The Thals' struggle with their pacifist ideals is basically quite dull. Much more interesting is Ian's struggle with his conscience. He would certainly have done National Service, and might well have been commissioned as an officer. Had he seen active duty, perhaps in Malaya? His concerns about convincing men to march to their deaths seem too urgent and personal for them to be purely an abstract issue for him. Meanwhile Barbara seems to want to make love as well as war. When she's not emotionally blackmailing Ian into forcing the Thals to fight, she's getting cosy with a clearly besotted Ganatus, who clearly likes his women a bit feistier than the average Thalette. He even gets her into some shiny Thal pants - not that I'm complaining. Ian also becomes best buddies with Ganatus - is he oblivious to what's going on with Barbara, or is he hoping for a threesome? Sadly, we never get the chance to find out. Susan is less fortunate in romance: she may take a shine to Alydon, but her crush is distinctly one-sided. Indeed, she spend much of this story being patronised or ignored, not least by her adult companions after she first encounters a Thal in the forest. Even her heroic dash back to the Ship to get the much-needed drugs is only permitted once all other contenders have been disqualified through illness or injury. Dr Who, by contrast, is all too proactive, manipulating his passengers to come with him on a trip to the city, then proposing to bugger off and leave Barbara to her fate as soon as the radiation hazard becomes apparent. Even when he makes a more constructive contribution, such as sabotaging the Daleks' machinery, he seems to do so more out of a sense of naughty fun than the rightness of the Thal's cause. Yet he does, eventually, discover a moral centre when he is under interrogation by the Daleks. Will this be a lasting piece of character development? Speaking of that interrogation scene, Doesn't it seem very much like a TV show being recorded, with Dr. Who as the hapless actor and the Daleks as domineering directors shouting at him to stay in the light? The Daleks do seem to like their cameras, whether the CCTV that follows Barbara around and later lets them spy on their prisoners, or the telescopic stills camera with which they attempt to observe the Thals. They may be the ultimate scientists, but they are also the ultimate voyeurs. It's a bit of a shame for them that they never thought to station a camera or two in the back tunnels of their city. Not that it would have proved strategically decisive in any case. The expedition through the terrible swamp and the deadly tunnels is all very thrilling and well-produced, for all its roots in Moria and Cirith Ungol, but does it actually achieve anything for the attackers? The very first thing they do once they reach the city is meet up with Alydon: if they had just come with him through the front door, would Elyon and Atodus still be alive? Still, there's no time for mourning, as the Thals have a planet to regenerate, Gantus has to have his heart gently broken by a departing Barbara, and Dr. Who has a test-tube rack full of soil samples to get excited about. Perhaps he's going to try to figure out how this planet can maintain so much free oxygen in its atmosphere without any plant life. Still, however it works, the Thals now have plenty of Dalek technology to use in making their planet abundant once more, with Skaro following the same course of mutation back to a more perfect version of its original form that the Thals themselves have followed. Whether or not they'll succeed is left open - but at least that's the end of the Daleks. Of course, neither evolution nor nuclear weapons work the way they do in this story. It might seem churlish to nitpick the science, but there's a deeper point. The previous story took some more-or-less reasonable ideas about prehistoric humans, and fashioned them into a society that made sense in its own terms, based on credible technology. This second serial takes a very different approach. It pulls confused and half-understood scientific notions out of the zeitgeist, and uses them as the basis of an adventure story that resonates strongly with urgent contemporary concerns, while giving little or no concern to realism. If "An Unearthly Child" was science fiction, "The Daleks" is science mythology. Eleven episodes in, quite what sort of programme "Doctor Who" will turn out to be is still up for grabs.

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About the author

Iain Coleman

Science writer by day, screenwriter by night. Past exploits include gaining a PhD in astrophysics, researching the solar wind and the aurora, training and performing in experimental theatre, standing for Parliament, and helping to run a city council.