Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Doctor Who 50 Years 50 Stories Project: #1 The Daleks

This is long, looooong overdue, but I plain forgot about this post until I was re-watching An Unearthly Child last weekend and remembered I have things to say about One, Susan, Ian, Barbara and a bunch of scary pepper pots. 

Link to masterpost

The Daleks
First Doctor, Barbara, Ian, Susan

So, I'm a bit all over the place when it comes to Doctor Who. There's a lot of 'must see' episodes that I'd never seen before I embarked on this project. I watched the series in a weird order that would probably make many fans cry (I didn't even see a single David Tennant episode for a really long time). But I have seen all 134 William Hartnell episodes of Doctor Who, including reconstructions of the 44 that don't exist anymore. Long story short, I watched them last year, when I was miserable and sort-of homeless while living in France. I didn't have an internet connection, and I do strange things when I'm bored. But I'm glad I did, because no-one ever told me how good it was going to be, how I would laugh and cry just as much as with the new series, only with more rubbish special effects and "WTF" moments.

As a big fan of the old series, I'm frustrated sometimes by die-hard fans of New Who who don't even want to try any old stuff. I mean, I know everyone can watch what they want, there is no such thing as a 'real fan' blah blah blah, but, guys, seriously, you're missing out. And I think this goes double for the Hartnell era- even 'proper' old school Doctor Who fans often skip Hartnell or only watch a few famous stories. These episodes are very dear to me, coming to me as they did at a very difficult time in my life, and contributed just as much to my becoming a giant Doctor Who nerd as any Tom Baker or David Tennant episode. Maybe even more.

Anyway. End rant, start review!

As the title might suggest, this is the very first Dalek story, and it’s pretty amazing how little the Daleks have changed really since then- compared with something like the Cybermen. They look pretty much the same, talk pretty much the same- and even talk about exterminating, though they haven’t got a… particular fondness, shall we say, for that word just yet.

So, the plot: The Doctor is trying to return Barbara and Ian back to Earth when they land on a planet that appears to be eerily dead and empty of all life. The companions are all keen to move on, but the Doctor wants to explore the city in the distance and tricks them into thinking they need to get a part from the TARDIS in the city. When they get there, they’re caught by the Daleks, slowly start getting sick from radiation poisoning, meet the Thals, try to inspire some fighting spirit into them, and more than a few Thals get killed in the process.

The Doctor’s still pretty antagonistic in this story. His companions (even Susan) are desperate to leave the planet, but he tricks them into staying- something which backfires when it turns out that the allegedly broken piece of the TARDIS really is broken. He’s extremely curious and inquisitive, but he hasn’t yet developed the compassion for his companions that he will in later years. He really doesn’t have much of a moral compass yet- like when he remarks that the Daleks must have a lot of knowledge and intelligence.

Ian: But what form does that intelligence take? How do they use it?

One: Oh, as if that matters!

It’s kind of fascinating seeing him before he became the man he is today.

Still, I think some of that is coming in. While he’s quite happy to leave the Thals to fight the Daleks (and probably lose), he does show some compassion towards them. The line “That’s sheer murder!” when he learns about the Daleks’ plan to release another neutron bomb is probably the first sign he’s shown so far of actually realising and wanting to change the fate of the places he travels to.

There’s a really sweet scene between him and Susan when he’s gleefully smashing up the Dalek equipment- Susan is also adorable in this- and instead of getting the fuck out of there when he’s done, he’d much rather stand around and talk about how clever he is- resulting in his capture. Oh, One.

I like Susan’s characterisation in this story too. She’s not quite the hysterical screamer just yet. She’s still delightfully odd and alien and loving. She laughs at inappropriate moments- like when Barbara reveals her nightmarish feeling that there’s something inside the Daleks, and she even basically laughs in the face of the Daleks in one scene.

She’s brave, going through a mutant infested jungle at night in a thunderstorm while suffering from radiation sickness to save her friends, and flinging herself right in front of a Dalek to distract it and save the day. We get early signs that Susan feels misunderstood and out of place when no-one believes her about the Thal in the jungle, and all she wants to do is keep a flower in a glass case, but no-one will let her. I wish we had more of this Susan than the caricature we get later on.

Susan is my faaaave. In case you couldn't tell.

It’s interesting that Barbara hasn’t totally developed as a character yet either. She’s not quite as headstrong and level minded as she is later on- she’s still a young woman a long way from home and terrified out of her mind.

Barbara and Ian’s relationship- I’ve always wondered about them. I believe that while they weren’t a couple (though good friends with a bit of flirtatious banter) at the start of the show, they were by the time they left- those photographs at the end of “The Chase” are in no way platonic. At the start of this story, they seem pretty coupley- when Barbara remarks in despair that she’s a long way away from anything familiar Ian pretty much says ‘you’ve got me’, but they seem to have a bit of a falling out in the middle, as Barbara disagrees with him on how to deal with the Thals and is so totally flirting with Ganatus- and kisses him at the end. Which I really love, because how much longer is it before we see anyone kissing anyone again? The TV movie?! Anyway, Barbara and Ian are endgame as we all know, so no worries there.

Spoiler: They get together in the end. Please note Barbara's feet appear to be not actually touching the ground.

The Thals are interesting. I’m sure they reappear though I can’t think of any instances where they do- oh, except for Genesis of the Daleks of course. They’ve changed quite a lot between now and then, but we’ll get to that when I get to Genesis. It’s interesting and maybe slightly concerning the way it’s set up, in a way the message of the story is about rejecting pacifism- on the surface anyway. Being a big pacifist myself I’m a little concerned about that message, but the story I think actually takes it in a pretty complex way. For example, they make a big deal about whether the Thals are really just cowards or if they have a point. But then there’s Antodus, who wants to give up and turn back when they’re in the caves. Some might see him as a coward- though I think there’s nothing cowardly about facing up to the reality that the Daleks would most likely kill them anyway- but then after he and Ian fall into the chasm, he sacrifices himself to save Ian- a guy he’s just met, who keeps trying to make him do things he doesn’t want to do, I might add. Antodus was the real brave one in this story.

At the end, too, when they’ve defeated the Daleks (for now, but we’ll not get into that just now) all they can say is “If only there had been some other way.” They’re free, but only some have survived to enjoy that freedom.

The story gets pretty dark at points. Doctor Who Magazine made a point I really like about this serial and season 1 as a whole- things are a lot grittier and a lot more bleak. These days- and even in the 70s or so- if the gang are captured, no matter how bad things are, there always seems to be more hope, they’ll not have a hair out of place or look any the worse for wear. Season 1 has the gang constantly dirty, distressed, hopeless. Maybe it’s the Doctor’s ineffectualness- these days the Doctor can get them out of anything, but not back then.

Also, it’s really unsettling. I’m not good with the idea of being trapped somewhere, so the part in episode 1 where Barbara runs helplessly around while doors slide shut around her kind of scares me, like, a lot. The music too is delightfully creepy and atmospheric.

I have just a few qualms, though. The story drags a bit somewhere around the last two or three parts, and the fight scene at the end is such a let down. Still, this is an excellent story and a really fascinating example of very early Doctor Who getting so many things so very right.

Next time: The Dalek Invasion of Earth. The Daleks are back! And this time they’re invading Earth! Stay tuned for bongos and sad companion departures!

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