Friday, September 16, 2011

The Keys to the TARDIS: The Daleks of Old

Daleks...! Wherever I have travelled in time and space I have met no deadlier adversary. Their single-minded destructive instinct has terrorized more peoples on more planets than I have time to mention. They are my greatest enemy! - The Doctor

DaleksThose of you who have only watched the revived episodes of Doctor Who cannot fully appreciate the extent to which the Daleks are an integral part of the whole Doctor Who experience. Without the Daleks, Doctor Who would never have survived the programme cuts of the BBC. Without the Daleks there would never have been the “hide-behind-the-couch” fear induced in viewers. Without the Daleks there would never have been the fan-fiction writers who are now the scriptwriters for the current episodes.

For Whovians of my generation, all the other monsters pitched against Doctor Who are simply place holders reserving the programming slot on Saturday evenings until the Doctor once again meets his nemesis. If we didn’t believe the Daleks would return, no matter how many times they have been totally wiped out by the Doctor, we would give up watching the series.

To understand the history of the Daleks, one must know a thing or two about the BBC’s intensions for Doctor Who when it created the programme. The channel never expected the series to take off. It was Science Fiction, after all. Who would watch that?

Hence, in 1963 the mandarins of the BBC launched a series that they thought would last one or two seasons and, consequently, they never put much money into the production, which explains all the scenery that shakes as actors brush against it.

The audience reaction was unexpected. Doctor Who was absorbed into every schoolboy’s being. The Daleks were the bee’s knees. Everybody wanted to be a Dalek in the school yard: invincible, ruthless, and with real cool death rays, albeit with a toilet plunger for a right arm and no ability to climb stairs or travel over rough ground. But that didn’t matter. The boys playing the Daleks got to screech out, “Exterminate! Exterminate! Exterminate!” as their schoolmates crumpled to the ground in reverse-video slow motion; or else they shouted, “That’s not fair! You’ve been Daleks for too long. It’s our turn now.”

The Daleks first made their appearance on 21st December, 1963. In the pre-2005 Doctor Who series, the stories would be spread over several episodes, and it was not uncommon for a given adventure to take up six or more episodes. The final episode of the first Dalek adventure was on 1st February, 1964. Every episode ended with a cliff-hanger to ensure the viewers tuned in next week for the next exciting installment.

This first Dalek adventure had a clever, profound, and really enigmatic title: “The Daleks.” Ok, so it was a simple title. That’s all it had to be. Nobody had ever heard of a Dalek before.

In the opening episode, the TARDIS lands in a weird forest. (Well, it was easy to see that it was a studio with cardboard trees and rocks. But that made it all the more fun, because it made it more like every child’s make-believe games with their friends, which also excused the dreadful acting and the somewhat banal dialogue--but we still loved it!) There was a distant city and the companions headed towards it to find some part the Doctor needed for the TARDIS. (As far as I recall, the Doctor had deliberately, and unknown to the others, taken out a piece of the TARDIS’s machinery so he could fake an excuse to explore the city.)

Of course, as they wandered through the forest it became clear they were not alone.

Bottom line, there were two surviving intelligent races on the planet. Living in the forest were the Thals. They were the humanoid survivors of radioactive contamination caused by a nuclear war some 500 years previously. The other race was, of course, the Daleks, who had taken to their mechanised transport as protection from the radiation. They lived in their city, unable to traverse the surrounding terrain because of their need to run on smooth, electrically conductive surfaces.

The Daleks did, however, have great weapons that they could use to subjugate the forest’s inhabitants.

In this story the Doctor joins with the Thals to wipe out the Daleks. Job done! No more Daleks.
However, as the popularity of Doctor Who, and especially Doctor Who and the Daleks, started to sink into the minds of the programme planners at the BBC, it became obvious that the Daleks had to return. But how do you bring back a race you’ve just erased?

Who cares? We’ve got time travel. Scare the viewers enough and they won’t notice disjointed timelines, changed technical details, or the re-appearance of an evil race of bio-mechanical monsters that’s been totally wiped out.

In November 1964 the Daleks were back and had invaded Earth. Of course, in the story it was the middle of the 22nd Century, but London still looked like 1960s London.

This was a key episode in building up the horror that is the Daleks. No longer were these robotic demons on an imaginary planet somewhere light years away, but they were in London; in the Underground; on the familiar streets of the city loved by so many of the viewing audience.

These Daleks had dishes on their backs that acted as power receivers meaning they didn’t have to travel on conductive surfaces.

“Ah!” I hear you say, “The Daleks have advanced since we last saw them.”

I can see how you might think that, but at one point the Doctor explains that the Earth invasion is one million years earlier than when he and his companions encountered them on their home planet.

Don’t think about it too much. It’s all part of the BBC having to remake things up when it hadn’t expected that they would ever appear again.

Over the years there were more exciting adventures involving battles against the Daleks. The next significant episode was “The Genesis of the Daleks.”

This episode sees more re-writing of the history of the Daleks and the appearance of Davros, the creator of the Daleks. The Doctor has been sent back to this point in time to prevent the creation of the Daleks. Needless to say, he succeeds, or does he?

It appears that no matter how many times the Doctor manages to eradicate the Daleks from every part of the space time continuum, and every known and unknown universe, the evil programmers in the BBC still manage to regenerate his fiercest, most ruthless enemy and give the beasts more new powers and knowledge to enable the bio-mechanical hate-machines to outwit the Doctor, at least until the final thirty seconds of the final episode when he turns the tables, or more appropriately, “reverses the polarity.”

And long may it last. As I said above, without the hope, fear or dread that the Daleks will return I wouldn’t bother watching the programme any more. Long live the Daleks! Exterminate! Exterminate! Exterminate!

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