Hello again. We seem to have gotten out of order here — my colleague was reduced to such a state of torpor after watching The Daleks that he pleaded an inability to write on the topic. My reaction was much more positive, so I have taken it upon myself to set down a few words on the series. I will focus most of my discussion on the first two episodes, as they set the tone for the whole thing.
What set The Daleks above An Unearthly Child for me was the keen air of foreboding that it established in the first episode. The TARDIS flies out of control and ends up in a mystery location. Not even the Doctor knows exactly where or when they have arrived. Susan reports that all environmental sensors check out normal. Except that we see the radiation detector rapidly increasing after Susan looks away from the display.
A brief exploration outside leads to the first mystery: the explorers discover a dead forest, turned entirely to stone. In addition, they find a strange creature, made of metal — a robot? If so, who made it, and why?
The second mystery comes when they reach the edge of the forest, and look out over a strange city, unlike anything any of them have seen before. Like the forest, it appears completely lifeless. Unlike the forest, it is clearly made by intelligent beings. Who constructed it? What happened to them?
The Doctor’s curiosity is piqued. This is the first glimpse we get of the irrepressible curiosity that will become the Doctor’s hallmark, and a clear change from the grumpy Doctor of the first series. Unlike An Unearthly Child, when he was trying to keep Ian and Barbara from nosing into his business, the Doctor is in his element here, even if he sorely misjudges the danger of the situation.
On the way back to the TARDIS, Susan lags behind, and becomes alarmed when she feels somebody touch her from behind. We see a shadow, flitting out of the shot. Who is it? Is it one of the builders of the city? An ally, or an enemy? The mystery deepens when the rest of the party discovers a mysterious box lying on the ground outside the TARDIS, containing a number of glass vials. What could they be for? Were they left there deliberately, or dropped accidentally? Is there a connection with Susan’s visitor?
The fourth plot point comes when the team return to the TARDIS. After messing about with the TARDIS’ controls, the Doctor announces that one of its components is damaged, and that mercury is needed for it to become operable. Only we have seen the Doctor remove the component from the TARDIS, deliberately sabotaging it. It is clear that the Doctor does not yet trust his companions, and is willing to behave selfishly to meet his own priorities.
The Doctor and his companions then proceed to the city, which appears to be completely deserted. The floors are smooth metal, apparently bearing a consistent static charge. Why? The set designers did a bang-up job here, creating an architecture that looks truly alien. The doors are not sized nor shaped for human entry, and there appear to be no stairs or definable spaces, just elevators and corridors. While wandering through the maze-like interior of one building, Barbara becomes trapped in a room, which turns into an elevator, carrying her downwards, to a fate unknown.
While searching for Barbara, the Doctor, Ian and Susan find a room containing scientific equipment. Finally, something the Doctor can understand! Unfortunately, the message is deadly: the planet is bathed in radiation, and the party has only a short time to live. Shortly thereafter, they finally meet the inhabitants of the complex: a strange group of beings who call themselves the Daleks. For fans of the series, this moment is pregnant with ill omen.
What are they? Robots? Or living things within a shell? Their voices suggest the former, but the Doctor and Ian find out the latter is true.
So at this point, we have encountered an amazing number of plot twists and developments:
1. The dead forest and its mystery.
2. The dead city and its mystery.
3. Susan’s visitor
4. The strange box found outside the TARDIS.
5. The Doctor’s treachery — does it conceal a hidden agenda?
6. The odd alien architecture of the city — what does it indicate about those that built it?
7. The imminent threat of death by radiation poisoning.
8. A new and powerful enemy — the Daleks.
This is a very high level of suspense-building, and it is done masterfully. We don’t know how, or whether, these things interrelate, nor their true significance. The rest of the series is dedicated to tracing the web of clues introduced during the first two episodes. Now, my colleague will say that the denoument was a bit tedious. There is, I admit, a lack of tightness to the remaining five(!) episodes, and a certain amount of dramatic padding. (Really, being captured and escaping not once, but twice?). As well as some unfortunate wardrobe choices:
All that aside, however, the sheer brilliance of the beginning is easily enough to put The Daleks above both An Unearthly Child and Edge of Destruction.