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Ten top stories from Classic Doctor Who

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The Daleks

Reg Hardware retro numbers

By modern standards The Daleks - née The Mutants - is overlong and slow, but it remains the defining story of the show’s first season, and in many ways set the pattern for the show as a whole, thanks to the input of Story Editor David Whitaker. You have to wonder, how much of The Daleks is really Whitaker rather than credited writer Terry Nation, especially given how his famous creations so quickly became the yelling pantomime baddies we’ve come to know and love.

Not so here. In their debut story, the Daleks are calculating, scheming intelligences, their voices staccato but their dialogue purposeful and considered. There is a very real sense of their origins as people who, simply in order to survive, had to let go of much of their organic selves, and ultimately their sanity, to shelter in their metal shells.

Doctor Who: The Daleks

Dalek revelation: the first time we see them in full
Source: BBC

Hidden below the surface of Skaro all these centuries, they’ve become isolated from the world above. Unsure whether it’s safe to pop open the hatches of their glorified nuclear bunker, they don’t know that life has managed to cling on up there, and it’s a shock when they find out it has. An existential shock too. If the Thals were able to retain their humanity despite the blasted environment, why the heck didn’t we? That’s a question too shocking in its implications to face - easier, then, to exterminate the beings that pose it.

The Doctor and his companions stop them, of course. War is bad, but giving in to oppression is worse - that’s the moral here, and it’s not surprising coming less than 20 years after the end of World War II. The Daleks is seen as a nod to the fight against fascism, and the creatures’ dislike of the unlike becomes manifest through their encounter with the lead characters and, later, the Thals.

And Doctor Who itself gets its first story in which the Doctor has to fight the baddies because it’s more important to stop evil than to maintain the integrity of one’s own anti-violence or non-interventionist philosophy. From this point on, for all the Doctor likes to trumpet his loathing of violence and force, he’s nonetheless always able to use it for the greater good.

Genesis of the Daleks

Reg Hardware retro numbers

The trouble was, the Daleks just got silly. Originally, intelligent well-realised beings, by their second Doctor Who appearance they had become shouty comic fascists beloved by kids and Terry Nation’s bank manager. In the late 1960s, Nation attempted to free them from the Doctor and launch them in the US. He failed but it kept the Daleks away from Doctor Who until they were shoehorned into a almost cameo role in 1972’s season opener, Day of the Daleks.

By the time of Tom Baker’s first season, Producer Philip Hinchcliffe and Script Editor Robert Holmes knew that the punters still loved the Daleks, and that nothing would stake Baker’s claim on the title role like an encounter with them. But neither wanted yet another daft runaround like the baddies’ previous outing, Death to the Daleks. So they went right back to basics and commissioned Nation to write the story of the Daleks’ creation.

Doctor Who: Genesis of the Daleks

Davros and the Mk.III Travel Machine
Source: BBC

The result was the debut of Davros, the wheelchair bound boffin not only willing to contemplate what the outcome of a thousand-year war might do to his fellow Kaleds but to devise a means by which they might survive. Of course, when the Doctor arrives, sent by the Time Lords to hinder the Daleks’ development, he triggers a series of events which puts Davros directly in conflict with his own people and arguably precipitates the worst of the Daleks’ tendencies.

Played with admirable and spot-on restraint Michael Wisher - this Davros is not the cartoon of his later incarnations - the Kaled chief scientist is an intelligent rational being who has weighed morality against survival and found the balance favouring the latter. Especially when it then becomes a matter of personal survival. He’s ruthless, sure, but even he hasn’t entirely lost his humanity, as his final act, at attempt to blow up his bunker and destroy the first Daleks, reveals. He realises right at the end he has raised his offspring too well. They don’t need dad any more.

And, of course, the Doctor, for once, can’t win either. In one great scene, the Doctor questions whether he should kill all the Daleks, no matter how many future lives it will spare. Sarah’s all for it of course. The decision is literally taken out of his hands, but we all know the Daleks have to survive if the Doctor’s first incarnation to meet them hundreds of years later.

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