True story: When I bought the Target edition of Doctor Who In An Exciting Adventure With The Daleks in 1985, I read the first chapter… and then returned it to the bookstore. At age 12, I was so confused by the fact that the book deviated so greatly from the television episode, that I didn’t want to own it. True story. That happened.
With the passage of time, knowledge of Doctor Who‘s print pre-history, and some semblance of maturity, I’ve come to appreciate the novelization about as much as I have the TV episode on which it is very loosely based. Without the rights to An Unearthly Child, the publishers of this 1964 adventure chose to rewrite history so that The Daleks (and, depending on which corner of fandom you inhabit, you may know this story better as The Dead Planet or The Mutants) came first. In the first two chapters, the TARDIS, the Doctor, Susan, and Ian and Barbara are all given alternate introductions and backgrounds, never to be used again, and after that the story rejoins roughly where the televised episode begins, albeit told from Ian’s first-person narration, and thus losing a lot of Ian-free scenes from the TV broadcast. The book ends with real tension over whether or not Ian and Barbara will leave the TARDIS and remain behind on Skaro to “build a planet” — a tension we’re deprived of on TV.
I expect the reason that all this bugged me when I was 12 (if I can recreate that mindset now, on the eve of turning 40) is that I knew The Daleks was supposed to be an important story. You can imagine the air-quotes around important if you like. I couldn’t imagine anyone rewriting the story. After all, it introduced the Daleks. It put Doctor Who on the map. It turned Terry Nation from second-rate hack writer into a second-rate millionaire hack writer. Of course, all that is established history now. 28 years later, I can finally view The Daleks with a clear head. I no longer have to give it brownie points for having been there first; I no longer have to robotically praise Terry Nation as a great writer. I can enjoy the novelization as an example of unusually literary mid-’60s children’s fiction, and would no longer return it to a confused teen-aged cashier in a Long Island shopping mall simply because it didn’t match up with Nation’s TV scripts.
What’s most striking about The Daleks on TV now is how much it feels like a second pilot for the series, rather than an episode that’s firmly part of the canon. If An Unearthly Child introduced the four regulars and the TARDIS, and brought us a look at the series’ early historical/educational remit, this one gave us our first alien world and our first alien species. However, these aren’t the same Daleks whose 50-year history was celebrated in last year’s Asylum of the Daleks. And it’s not the same Doctor, either – this is still Hartnell in full-on anti-hero mode. No hint of Matt Smith breezing into the room, wittily announcing that our trouble, on a scale of ten, is “… Eleven!”.
Everything William Hartnell’s Doctor says in the opening episode, The Dead Planet, is wrong; not any Doctor-ish trait that we recognize now in 2013. He says Skaro is dead — as we soon find out, it’s anything but; it’s brimming with weird and wonderful life forms, humans and robots and monsters and even a magnetic basilisk. He says the TARDIS’ fluid link is broken. He refuses to offer Ian and Barbara food out of the machine; when Barbara goes missing in the Dalek city, he has to be prompted to go back and look for her. In the following installment, The Survivors, he’s stunningly disinterested in Ian’s musings about what intelligence lies behind the radiation measuring machines. And he delivers his first famous fluff: “anti-radiation gloves.” When he soon gets deathly ill, we, the audience, are supposed to be glad.
By the middle of Episode 2, most of the TARDIS crew has radiation poisoning, and they spent the better part of two weeks listlessly slumped over in a metal-walled cell. This is shockingly grim stuff, for a Saturday afternoon tea-time family audience, a few minutes’ removed from watching sports scores.
Meanwhile, these are not yet the Daleks we will know come to later, either. They are manipulative and selfish, yes, but they don’t get actively evil until late in the story, when they assassinate the Thal leader (in Doctor Who‘s first symbolic death, Temmosus dies face down on the piles of food he was hoping to negotiate from the Daleks), or when they scheme to release radiation into the atmosphere and exterminate all the Thals. For the first couple of weeks, they are pleasingly ambiguous, in a way the Daleks never will be again. The drama in later stories like Power of the Daleks and Victory of the Daleks comes from the audience knowing they’re actively evil long before the characters on screen do, but here, if you’re watching this live in December 1963 or January 1964, it’s still a guessing game as to whether they’re evil in the first place.
Of course, this story is as much about the Thals as it is about the Daleks. Tall, blonde, starving farmers, radiation-dodging refugees, and mid-20th-century Englishmen with impossibly straight teeth, these are the unlikely characters that the TARDIS crew eventually allies with, and tries to cajole into fighting the Daleks. They’re kept ambiguous too, for a bit. We see a human hand startle Susan in Episode 1, and in Episode 2 we’re startled again by an enormous tree-shaped cloak that later turns out to be good-guy Alydon. When we first meet Alydon properly in Episode 3, he appears to be 8 feet tall, until we see that he’s just standing on a ledge. There are a handful of named Thals with distinct character traits. Temmosus, the noble but doomed leader; Ganatus, the practical man of action who helps Ian lead the strike force on the Daleks; and Ganatus’ brother Antodus, whose fear of the dark mentioned off-hand in Episode 3 is a nice but uncharacteristically early foreshadowing of the character’s prolonged demise in Episodes 6 and 7.
Although most of this is pretty adroitly written, that’s not to say that Terry Nation still isn’t making this stuff up as he goes along. In the late middle episodes (Episode 5, The Expedition, I’m looking at you), the Daleks devolve into talking heads who don’t interact with any other characters but just spew out banalities amongst themselves. Depending on which episode you watch, it took the Thals either one year or four years to journey from their plateau to the Dalek city. Also, in a mark of bad writing, characters start acting baldly against their own interest just to fill out the story’s seven-episode running time; in Episode 6 alone, Ganatus and Antodus fight hard enough to provoke a plot-changing rock fall, and the Doctor gloats so long over a bit of technical sabotage that the slow-moving Daleks (so the script keeps telling us) manage to capture him with ease. Finally, in what almost seems like meta-humor complaining about the technical limitations of the production’s antiquated Lime Grove studios, the Daleks keep griping about the poor nature of their audio and video feeds…
Episode 7 (The Rescue, a title so startlingly original that the production team would recycle it the following season) is the finale, which invents many future Who cliches: the noble self-sacrifice of the tertiary character (Antodus); a character apologizing for the small budget & studio by announcing that “all these corridors look alike”; the plot resolution being boiled down to the pushing of a single button; and a character wishing there had “been another way”. Watching the series in sequence, however, The Daleks works we’ve never seen these tricks before. These cliches, along with Raymond P. Cusick’s design work, helped make Nation a millionaire, and the show’s earliest go-to writer. He unfortunately never evolved much beyond these cliches, but it’s clear here why he helped make the show the surprise success that it was in the early years.
The Daleks also ends with the slightest hint that the Doctor will soon evolve, from shifty, untrustworthy anti-hero, into… Matt Smith making heroic gags about “Eleven” with a wink toward the camera. While he wrongly accepts all the accolades for the Thals’ victory at the end of Episode 7, he also gets wonderfully philosophical and expansive, revealing himself to having been a pioneer amongst his own people, and saying he never gives advice. However, when Alydon announces that their last war is over, the Doctor very gloomily states: “No doubt you will have other wars to fight”… With a tag line like that, how could the Daleks not return?