In 1963, Doctor Who was grasping in the vortex for its identity. Terry Nation stepped up and supplied one. Was it the right one?
“The Daleks” is largely credited for being the serial that is responsible for Doctor Who‘s longevity. It is interesting, then, that it is arguably a worse serial than the one that is widely ignored. “The Daleks” is best known for introducing the Doctor versus Monster dynamic, being the first unabashedly Science Fiction story in the show’s first season, and for introducing the Doctor’s most famous adversaries.
It is also a story that firmly establishes the show as needing a lot of growth. There is only a story here because the Doctor sabotages the TARDIS to get his way and go exploring. The Doctor then declares that “this is no time for morals” while convincing an indigenous race to go to war against the Daleks for the part that he stole, after supporting the Daleks previously. There is nothing near the complex characterization and team-building that occurred in “Tribe of Gum”, with the conflict revolving around things like the Doctor trivializing Ian so entirely that he doesn’t bother to remember his name or listen to him while he’s speaking, and Susan being reduced to being the teen girl that is accused of crying wolf and then duped by the villains.
It is also worth noting that these are not the Daleks as we come to know them. They can’t be. The Daleks that become the Doctor’s greatest threat would vaporize this bickering crew in a heartbeat. These Daleks are terrified that the world might lose enough radiation that they won’t be able to breathe and that they have to exterminate (a word that is never actually used, although variations of it are) all other life on the planet to have a chance at survival. A major theory about this episode is that it is set thousands of years after the Daleks themselves abandoned the planet and that mutants from a final war (possibly Thals) have climbed into the Dalek casings. Their ability to travel and power themselves is drastically reduced from anything else, despite being allegedly set millions of years in the future. This statement is by a clearly unreliable Doctor, however, so it’s just as possible to believe that these are 1963 Daleks, which some reference books postulate.
That said, it’s not a terrible story at all. This is one of very few seven-parters that is not heavily criticized for its padding. That’s not to say that there is none, but in the midst of introducing a petrified jungle, metal life-forms, Ray Cusick’s brilliant design and the Daleks’ unmistakable voices, the mutated-back-to-Aryan Thals, the Doctor scooping a Dalek out of its casing like the yolk of a boiled egg, etc., it’s much easier to ignore this. It certainly would be worth it to cut the almost-three-hour story to something more like 90 minutes (which may cut away some of the Doctor’s more…distasteful choices as well), but with a more or less solid first half and an escalating second half, this story more or less gets a pass from the fanbase at large for its 1963 pacing.
This is the duality of Terry Nation. On one hand, he is very successful at providing Sci-Fi adventures on an alien world in a serial format. On the other hand, he is among the ranks of Sci-Fi action writers who are not big on things like interesting and likable characters, which has led to criticisms that his last two Dalek stories (keeping in mind that the Fourth through Seventh Doctors had Davros stories rather than straight-up Dalek ones) were remakes of this one. He also has quite the penchants for Nazi stories, as everything to do with the Daleks will attest, which makes the muscular, blonde Thals just the teensiest bit uncomfortable to the student of history.
The end result is that while “The Daleks” is not the worst story in Doctor Who history, it really doesn’t belong on lists of the best as it seems to be placed either. It is an important story in history and necessary for anybody trying to have a grasp on the early days of the show to watch, but “The Tribe of Gum” is just as important for different reasons. It seems that mechanical bodies talking about “extermination” are just that much more of a draw than character development alongside parallels in the plot, when a good Sci-Fi drama should take them both part and parcell.