You can tell when you’re talking to a real Doctor Who nerd if he* rolls his eyes when you mention the second-ever Doctor Who adventure, "The Daleks."
It’s not the content, but the title: back in the Sixties, as with the modern two-parters, every episode had its own name. If this story had an overarching title, it would have been “The Mutants,” but for several obscure and largely uninteresting reasons (the easiest of which to explain is that by the time this story needed a name, there had already been a story in the Seventies called "The Mutants") that title wasn’t an option. But only a REAL real nerd would attempt to argue that calling it "The Daleks" isn’t perfectly apt.
I roll my eyes at this one, but it’s because of the content. This thing is seven episodes long, which is around three hours, and it feels at least twice that.
Like the previous story, it starts off really well. The first episode, evocatively if simply called “The Dead Planet,” is wonderfully eerie and well-designed for the budget and the time it was made. The tattered petrified jungle is beautiful and strange, and the Dalek city is gorgeously minimal and weirdly angled. It’s all very expressionistic and evocative.
Unlike the modern series, which is slathered with annoying incidental music like a Paula Deen recipe is slathered with butter, this has a perfect minimal soundtrack. The planet itself is dead silent, and when they arrive at the Dalek city, there’s just a faint electronic hum that becomes that familiar, awesome electronic heartbeat sound when Daleks are in the room. The first episode ends with Barbara screaming at a sucker arm, and up to this point it’s just fantastic.
Then you actually see the Daleks themselves. Clearly they were something really special at the time and people loved them, and if we’re honest that’s no more than 25% Terry Nation (who came up with the idea) and 75% Raymond Cusick (who came up with the design), or maybe 55% Raymond Cusick and 20% the team that created their voices. Their bizarre shape and mode of speaking are as iconic as Tom Baker’s scarf and the TARDIS, maybe more so.
But as monsters, as villains, they’re maybe too iconic to take seriously these days, at least for me. It’s so hard to forget everything they’ve done since that time and put myself in the shoes of the people watching back then, when not only had there never been an episode featuring these eggbeater-armed salt shakers, but there’d never been any episode of Doctor Who featuring aliens of any kind and this whole “rise up and defeat your tyrants” plot was brand new to this show.
How scary, or at least dangerous, must they have seemed back when no one knew what to expect from them, when the pace of their dialogue was so unexpected and terrifically menacing?
Still, this is the only story when the Doctor can encounter these things without being sure how ruthless they are, and it’s definitely a little harrowing to watch our crew being vulnerable, especially after Ian’s legs are temporarily paralyzed. This isn’t so bad for four episodes.
Unfortunately, they have to go out and meet the Eloi-esque Thals and spend simply ages trying to convince them to rise up against the Daleks in the face of some plot to irradiate the planet that I couldn’t sustain any interest in. There’s endless speechifying and arguing, not unlike the caveman politics of the previous story, but it’s riveting entertainment compared to two episodes (that seem like twenty) of skulking about in caves trying to sneak into the Dalek city.
I remembered that part of the story losing me when I was a kid, but I thought I’d find it more interesting as an adult — that’s what happened for me with The Two Towers, after all. But no such luck.
Unfortunately I’ve always found Dalek stories boring sooner or later, even the ones that are among the best of the season they’re in (like "Revelation of the Daleks" and "Remembrance of the Daleks"). No matter their quality as drama (variable and debatable), there’s something monotonous about them for me. This isn’t the worst, but it’s far from the best, and I was relieved to see the back of it.
My girlfriend didn’t officially watch this one with me, but I know she was peeking from the other room while playing video games on her computer, partly because she loves Daleks. As in finds them hilarious and adorable.
In episode 7, when various Daleks start to melt down for various reasons, she was sadder for them than any of the ill-fated Thals. Meanwhile, when the Doctor lied about the fluid link in order to explore the Dalek city, she said, “What a douchebag!” She still has little time for this Doctor, and while I think he was perfect for the time, I’m inclined to feel the same way.
* You might be surprised how many Doctor Who fans were female even before 2005, but the pedantic ones still tend to be male.