Saturday, March 28, 2009
The series concept of Doctor Who was intriguing enough to warrant a healthy viewership, something which it wasn't necessarily getting after the first five broadcast episodes in 1963. What it needed was a hook. At approximately 5:21 PM on Saturday, December 28, 1963, it got that hook when the camera pulled back to reveal the Daleks.
Like An Unearthly Child, it's difficult to look at the Daleks in their first appearance without the foreknowledge of what was to come. Daleks have become second nature to the series itself, but back then, what a stunning sight it must have been for viewers young and old. Instantly immitatble, the playgrounds of Britain must have been abuzz the following Monday with kids imitating that wonderful mechanical voice (which, at this early stage, hadn't become annoying yet. Nor did it sound like Zippy from Rainbow). The show became a word-of-mouth sensation in the days and weeks afterward, and the ratings started to soar.
I often wonder what, if any, sketches and ideas the original designer Ridley Scott (yes, Sir Ridley Scott) came up with for the Daleks before he was reassigned to another program. That BBC internal decision to replace Scott with Raymond Cusick was a history altering decision, as we might not have had a memorable Dalek design, probably not had Doctor Who for much longer past 1964, possibly not have had some brilliant movies like Alien and Blade Runner, and so on. As it stands, Ridley Scott went on to direct Oscar-winning films. Raymond Cusick went on to live a modest life after designing one of the most iconic alien races in science fiction history.
The success of the Daleks is not only in their design, but also because they were a perfect adversary for the tiny sets that Doctor Who had to contend with in those early days. Any monster on legs and no extermination ray would have to slowly lumber after its prey, causing it, the fleeing heroes, and the show itself, to look silly. You might be quicker than a Dalek, but you can't run away from a Dalek. It will always exterminate you with its gun. Your only hope is to hide. What's more terrifying to a child watching the show than seeing The Doctor and his companions trying to hide from a Dalek that's slowly and silently gliding down a corridor, ready to exterminate them at a moment's notice? Also, what's more easy to imitate than this scene for a child watching the show in his parents' living room? The success of the Daleks was in eliminating the need for chase sequences, which allowed a cheap little show like Doctor Who to thrive on the basis of its minimalism.
Further nuggets in this episode include the first ever meeting between the Daleks and the Doctor (which is even more potent now thanks to the whole Time War arc of the new series), and some good radiation sickness acting from the regulars. The episode ends less convincingly, though, as, for the second time in three weeks, poor Carole Ann Ford is forced to run on the spot while stage hands whip her with tree branches in order to try and portray her fleeing from a mysterious pursuer through the jungle. If only she had been chased by a Dalek.
Posted by Steven at 6:23 AM