January 3: "The Dead Planet" / "The Survivors"

(The Daleks episodes 1 & 2)

As I sort of implied last time, episodes 2-4 of An Unearthly Child often get a bad rap, with the claim being that they're dull and uninteresting.  I wonder if that's because people are -- subconsciously or otherwise -- impatient to get to this story.  Because as good as An Unearthly Child is, The Daleks (or The Mutants, if you really must1) is even better.

The first episode is an exercise in mood.  Other than a hand there's no one present besides the four travellers.  Consequently there's a real sense of character at work as they explore this strange (and utterly fabulous-looking) petrified jungle.  We're starting to get a greater sense of who these people are -- and this may be where the idea of the "selfish Doctor" comes from, rather than An Unearthly Child, as here he's completely determined to get his way and see the city, no matter what.  It's a strange, eerie place that the TARDIS has arrived at, with the design and the soundscape contributing to something special.  There are also some nice directorial touches from Christopher Barry -- everyone mentions the shot of Barbara putting her hand on the camera, making us the silent observers, but the use of angles and different props inside the TARDIS is also very well done, giving the Ship a sense of space even greater than in the first episode.  And then there's the cliffhanger, where something comes at Barbara.  I assume it was composer Tristram Cary who pitched that musical sting as the same as Barbara's scream, but regardless of who it was, it's a stroke of brilliance.

THAT cliffhanger. ("The Dead Planet") © BBC.
It's the next episode, "The Survivors", that introduces the Daleks, and what an introduction!  Totally alien-looking, not even recognizably a man in a costume, you can see why they made such a visual impact -- Terry Nation may have thought them up, but Ray Cusick came up trumps in designing them.  But in some ways, The Daleks may be the best Dalek story ever, and that's because they're allowed to be characters, rather than just an unstoppable force.  The galaxy-conquering race are nowhere to be found here; instead we get a race of survivors (as the title says) who are simply concerned with trying to leave the city they've been trapped in, at the cost of all others.  They'll kill if they have to, but they don't yet derive pleasure from killing for its own sake -- note the way they merely paralyze Ian, rather than just exterminate him (one of only two times we see this happen2).  Their motivation is simple and understandable, and that's what makes them compelling: the idea that they were once people like us who were forced into desperate measures to survive.  Meanwhile, the radiation sickness afflicting our heroes works to sustain the tension, adding to a sense of desperation: will Susan make it to the TARDIS and back before it's too late?  And will the Daleks let her keep any of the drugs?

Oh, but then some lightning flashes as Susan's about to leave the TARDIS.  I guess all the cliffhangers can't be winners.

1 100,000 BC is enough of a losing battle, but using The Mutants as the "real" name of serial B has the extra problem of also being the name of a Pertwee serial. In case you haven't noticed, I've elected to go with the most commonly used title (and the one these things are known as commercially). Don't worry, this argument basically dies down after the next serial.

2 Planet of the Daleks (in many ways a color remake of this story) being the other time.