The crew of the TARDIS prepare to leave the ship to explore their surroundings, but no one notices that a radiation gauge on the console has suddenly jumped from normal to dangerous. Outside there’s a petrified jungle (wasn’t it a swamp last time?), which the Doctor deems devoid of life. However, they do catch sight of a seemingly abandoned but perfectly preserved city in the distance. The Doctor wants to explore it, but Ian with his human sensibilities and British alpha male authoritarianism refuses to let the only person who can pilot the TARDIS (if barely) go off and possibly get himself lost or killed. While Susan is briefly separated from the group on their way back to the TARDIS, someone or something touches her on the shoulder, frightening her, but no one believes her. Back on the TARDIS, the Doctor, who has softened up just a little since the last episode, shows his human guests the basics of life on the TARDIS, by explaining that there are private rooms to rest in (which we don’t see) and by showing a machine that can generate food bars that will have the exact taste of anything the operator asks for. Barbara and Ian’s joy at discovering that there are perks to wandering aimlessly through infinity is short-lived, though, as they hear something banging on the TARDIS’ doors. This, along with Susan’s claims, is enough to cause all three to demand that the Doctor get the TARDIS as far away as possible as soon as possible. Although he still wants to see the city, the Doctor seems to acquiesce. Yet when he tries to get the TARDIS to “launch”, nothing happens, and the Doctor claims that the reason is because some vital part in the console has run out of the mercury it needs to function…but it’s obvious (except to Barbara, Ian, and Susan) that he’s not only lying but proud of himself for doing so. Now, the Doctor explains with feigned regret, they’ll just have to go down to the city and search for any laboratories that might have mercury since there’s no back-up supply on-board.
As they set out, they stumble on a box filled with vials of liquid, which were presumably left by whoever was knocking on the TARDIS’ door. The Doctor has the box placed in the TARDIS to study later, which soon enough proves to be the second massive mistake he makes. At the city everyone, especially the Doctor, feels exhausted, which they just chalk up to the lengthy hike from the jungle. Once inside the city, which has corridors that run underground, the four split up. Barbara, after finding some doors closing behind her, runs into a something that extends a plunger-like arm toward her (and thus pop culture history is made). Meanwhile the Doctor and Ian discover that they’re not just fatigued; they’re suffering the symptoms of radiation poisoning. Realizing there’s more at stake than just satisfying his scholarly curiosity, the Doctor sheepishly admits he lied about the whole “we need mercury” thing and that the part should work perfectly. Before Ian can get too pissed off, he, the Doctor, and Susan realize Barbara is lost…or worse. The Doctor insists that they just leave sans Barbara, but Ian takes the part the Doctor needs and blackmails him with it. While looking for her they run into the Daleks, who temporarily paralyze Ian with a laser when he tries to escape. At least they do find Barbara, if only in the holding cells they all now have to share.
The Daleks soon get around to interrogating the Doctor – who Willam Hartnell plays so well that you just know he thinks their situation is really the others’ fault, for not letting him satisfy his scientific curiosity, even though he never says the words – and accuse them of being “Thals.” Using the interrogation as a way to learn more about the situation, the Doctor realizes too late that the drugs he carelessly put in the TARDIS were antidotes to radiation poisoning provided by the Thals and discovers that 500 years ago the Dalek “forefathers” and the Thals, two “races” native to the same planet (which is soon identified as Skaro), mostly destroyed each other in an apocalyptic war using neutron bombs. The Daleks had to flee underground. The Doctor makes a deal with the Daleks: if one of his party is allowed to collect the drugs needed to save their lives, they’ll happily share the drugs with the Daleks, so they can use them to finally leave the city. The Daleks agree, but their fingers (plungers?) are crossed; they plan on taking all the drugs, replicating the formula, and leaving the prisoners to die of radiation poisoning. It turns out Susan is the only one healthy enough to make the journey, although she’s terrified of running into the Thals, who may or may not have come out of Skaro’s apocalypse even worse off than the Daleks. In fact, she does run into one on the way back, but he looks human and friendly, and even offers Susan his cloak (it’s a good time to point out that almost all the Thals turn out to be blond and hunky).
The Thal, named Alydon, comes from a society that had been so traumatized by nuclear apocalypse and so determined to adapt to the hostile, scarred environment that they’ve gone from being an industrial society to a culture of pacifistic, quasi-nomadic farmers. Alydon is surprised that the Daleks are still alive, and sees a golden opportunity for his people. If the Daleks are still able to survive, Alydon explains, then they may have ways of efficiently producing food, and the Thals happen to be facing crop failures that could finally drive them into extinction. Alydon isn’t naive enough to think that near-annihilation was as enlightening for the Daleks as it was for the Thals, so he gives Susan an extra case of antidotes in case the Daleks confiscate the ones she’s carrying. It turns out, once Susan returns, that he didn’t need to bother; the Daleks only take enough of the drugs to analyze and allow Susan to return to the cell with the ones she have, where once used they help everyone fully recover. It turns out that now that they know that the Thals survived the Daleks have a new plan to have Susan “volunteer” as an ambassador to the Thals and lure them into the city with an offering of crops the Daleks grew using artificial sunlight. From there it will just be a matter of “extermination” (no, unless I missed something, they only ever use the noun, not the verb). Of course, the Doctor and the others don’t trust the Daleks, especially after they figure out that they’re being monitored in their cell. Piecing together that the Daleks’ armor runs on static electricity run through the metallic floors (that concludes the science lesson portion of this episode), they use mud made from the water the Daleks gave them and the dirt from Susan’s shoes as well as Alydon’s cloak to both blind and de-power the next Dalek who brings them provisions. Tossing out the Dalek inside (whose real form we barely see, since Ian and the Doctor wrap it in the cloak), Ian fits himself inside. Even though Ian can barely work the damn thing, the Doctor and the rest hope they can pretend Ian is a Dalek escorting them to an interrogation.
After a few close calls, the Doctor and company actually do make it above ground out of the Daleks’ reach. Everyone wants to warn the group of Thals they see coming to the city…except the Doctor, who now wants to get away from the former object of his curiosity no matter what. They decide that while everyone else leaves Ian will stay and try to warn the Thals. He does, but not before the Thal chieftain, who was confident that the Daleks would help his people establish more reliable food supplies and repair the damage done to Skaro’s environment, gets killed for his idealism. Back at the TARDIS, where the Thals have made a base, the Doctor studies the Thals’ historical records, observing that the Thals were the militaristic instigators of the war that devastated their civilization while the Daleks were once a peaceful people dedicated to scientific study. Once they’re reunited, the group agrees that they feel sorry for the Thals, but really there’s not much they can do. Unfortunately, just as they get ready to board the TARDIS, Ian finds out that the part he took from the Doctor is gone, confiscated at some point by the Daleks.
The Doctor and, perhaps surprisingly, Barbara take the position that the Thals should be manipulated into fighting the Daleks so at least they’d have a chance of recovering the part. Ian is horrified at the suggestion, but finally he agrees that the Daleks will probably find a way to attack and wipe out the Thals anyway. In hot blooded Brit fashion, Ian challenges the Thals’ pacifism by threatening to take their historical records to the Daleks for an exchange. When that doesn’t work, he claims to be planning to take the girlfriend of Alydon, who has assumed the tribe’s leadership, to the Daleks. Then Alydon finally punches Ian, which opens his mind to the possibility of also fighting the Daleks. In the meantime, the Daleks make the unexpected discovery that the Thals’ drug is poison to them; because of a quirk of evolution they actually need the radiation blanketing Skaro to survive. Pragmatic to the last, the Daleks decide to deliberately explode some more neutron bombs, both to insure their survival by bolstering the planet’s steadily dropping radiation levels and to stamp out the Thals.
Back at the TARDIS, Alydon reasons that letting the Doctor and the others infiltrate the Daleks’ city for the part alone would be tantamount to killing them and that there’s nothing noble in letting themselves get wiped out, either through starvation or Dalek lasers (these scenes are more interesting when you consider that they were scripted by someone who lived in a country that faced invasion by the Nazis about a little over a decade previously). The decided strategy splits the Doctor’s party and the Thals into two groups: one group, with Alydon, the Doctor, and Susan, will approach the city the way they’ve come previously, to distract the Daleks and to try to sabotage their communications equipment; the other group, with Barbara and Ian, will try to find a path into the city from the rear, through a swamp and some mountains. Both groups run into nasty problems: several of the Thals in Ian and Barbara’s group are killed by a mutant monster in the swamp and while trying to cross a chasm, although they eventually make it into the city; Susan and the Doctor are captured after disrupting the Daleks’ communication network, all because the Doctor stood around and bragged to Susan about how clever he was in finding ways to do it.
The captured and shackled Doctor and Susan are (for some reason) kept in the Daleks’ control center, as they watch in horror as the Daleks, having seen the neutron bomb idea as impractical, plan to release radioactive fumes from their nuclear reactor into the environment. Luckily enough, both parties of Thals converge and fight the Daleks. Despite some casualties, the Thals eventually win by stopping the sole Dalek in charge of the “screwing up the entire planet’s environment” project and by destroying the power source for the entire city, which causes the Daleks’ armor to shut down, presumably killing them as well. One Dalek, just before its demise, asks the Doctor for help. He only replies, “Even if I wanted to I wouldn’t know how!” Later the Doctor prepares the TARDIS to leave, after giving the Thals some advice on how they can use the Daleks’ technology to grow food without relying on the all but barren soil and eventually revitalize Skaro’s ecosystem. However, as they take off, the console explodes and everyone passes out…
“He seems to have a knack for getting himself into trouble.”
-Ian on the Doctor
“Don’t you think he deserves something to happen to him?”
-Barbara on the Doctor
Alydon: “But why [would the Daleks] destroy without any apparent thought or reason? That’s what I don’t understand.”
Ian: “Oh, there’s a reason. Explanation might be better. It’s stupid and ridiculous but it’s the only one that fits.”
Ian: “A dislike for the unlike.”
It’s the historic first appearance of the Daleks, along with the first detailed look at their home planet of Skaro. Unlike the concepts behind the Doctor, the Daleks have changed quite a bit over the decades, namely in that they lose the limitations they have here. Still, arguably the idea of the Daleks hasn’t changed much, if at all, and there are definite thematic parallels between how the Daleks’ motivations are explained here in the dialogue exchange quoted above and how they were reintroduced in the 2005 series (“But why would it [kill everything it sees]?” “Because they’re different!”). It’s tempting to wonder if Terry Nation, as he set about his assignment to come up with a menacing but economical creature, was thinking about a real regime that also rose out of the ashes of a catastrophic war and based entire plans on their “dislike for the unlike” (if so, it creates a sort of unfortunate irony that all the actors playing the Thals are so…Aryan).
I suppose you want me to talk about how this episode stacks up to the years’ upon years’ worth of continuity that has accumulated since, but I won’t, although if I go through with this all the way the topic will definitely come up. For now it’s enough to say that the episode “Genesis of the Daleks”, which chronologically takes place before this one, doesn’t really contradict the continuity established here, which isn’t surprising, since both were written by Terry Nation.
Believe it or not, my lengthy synopsis actually left certain and important details out, like Barbara’s nascent and never-to-be romantic relationship with one of the Thals and the heroic self-sacrifice of a Thal who had before been terrified at the prospect of his death. Like arguably 99 percent of all old-time serials, “The Daleks” is guilty of padding, especially in the segments that involve Barbara and Ian and company’s adventures in the caves, but Terry Nation is more than good enough a writer to make it all for the most part seem to matter. For a show about entertaining kids and teaching them several scattered facts about history and science, Terry Nation packed in quite a lot of detail about the characters and their relationships, making even some of the Thals, who by rights should just be background material, seem consequential. I wonder if the Daleks would have made as much an impression as they did if their opposite number had been more one-dimensional.
That said, the seven episodes here have aged even worse than the previous serial, in large part because the Daleks here are just so…hobbled. Admittedly even in recent years it’s hard to convince non-Whovians that, yes, the Daleks are supposed to be utterly terrifying, but besides their dependence on static electricity these episodes’ Daleks also seem incapable of seeing anything out of their direct line of vision. During the climactic fight it’s easy to find oneself wondering why the Thals don’t just tip the Daleks over.
Also there are a number of fossilized sci-fi cliches, like the human looking aliens being the “good” ones (although there is a nice twist in that the Thals’ ancestors were responsible for the war) and a very fuzzy concept of evolution that ends up having very little bearing on the plot. Of course, it’s still fun to watch, even if just to see how the Daleks were first conceived, although it probably is best not to watch all seven episodes in one setting.