Due to the explosion – although on reflection I think it was supposed to be a flash or something – everyone is lying around the console unconscious. Barbara and Susan are the first to wake up and, for a moment, they can’t recognize each other. Also Susan feels a sharp pain in her neck and head. Once Ian wakes up as well, Barbara finds he also doesn’t recognize where he is, thinking that he and Barbara are back at the school they teach in. Wounded and still unconscious, the Doctor only mumbles, “I can’t take you back, Susan!” As Susan goes to try to find something to treat the Doctor’s head wound, which was caused by the fall, she discovers that the doors and other equipment on the TARDIS aren’t working properly. Susan panics and thinks some alien force has invaded the TARDIS. When she tries to operate the controls, she faints. Once she recovers, she reacts with suspicion and anger when Ian comes to check on her, threatening him with a pair of scissors until she collapses again.
Now fully recovered, the Doctor sets about deducing what happened, claiming that it would be impossible for the TARDIS to crash. Susan appears, again armed with scissors, and accuses Ian and Barbara of lying to her about something being on the ship, but Barbara calms and disarms her. Trying to rationalize with Susan, Barbara asks where an intruder would have to hide. Susan answers, “In one of us!” As soon as Susan finds out the Doctor is about to turn on the TARDIS’ scanner, she tries to stop him before he also collapses from trying to use the console, but the Doctor discovers that he can operate the device without any ill effects. However, the scanner only shows prerecorded images of England and a planet the Doctor and Susan visited before meeting Barbara and Ian. Suddenly the Doctor angrily accuses Barbara of plotting with Ian to sabotage the TARDIS in order to force him to return them to England in 1963. The resulting argument is interrupted when Barbara sees that the hands on the TARDIS’ timepiece are missing. Now calm again, the Doctor serves drinks to everyone, pointing out that they’re all “overwrought.”
Later the Doctor returns to the console, only to find Ian reaching out to him as if to strangle him. The Doctor reacts by once again accusing him and Barbara of deliberately damaging the TARDIS and threatens to throw them outside, even though they have no idea what the environment outside is. Before the Doctor can go any further, there is a loud warning signal the Doctor interprets as a sign that the entire TARDIS is about to be destroyed and that they only have ten minutes to live. Barbara proposes that the TARDIS itself has been trying to warn them about a problem and the seemingly random images and happenings have all been clues. The Doctor sends Susan and Barbara to the TARDIS’ doors – ostensibly so they can observe the environment when and if the doors open again, but really so they’d have a chance of surviving when the TARDIS disintegrates. However, Susan is horrified when she sees nothing out there but space.
The Doctor then realizes that they’re stationed at the formation of the solar system (his monologue becoming this episode’s science lesson). Later he finds that Barbara was right and that the TARDIS has been trying to tell them that a lever on the console was stuck, causing the entire TARDIS to malfunction and become stalled in one place and time. Ian guesses that the Doctor tried to return to London in 1963 but vastly overshot the mark and wound up at a time just before there even was a London – or an Earth for that matter. Feeling guilty over his earlier accusations, the Doctor (who actually never gets around to really apologizing) tries to patch things up with Barbara by complimenting her for figuring out the mystery, telling her that, “We all owe you our lives.” At first Barbara is quiet, but later, once the TARDIS finds solid ground, she softens and forgives the Doctor by having a short friendly chat with him before joining Susan in investigating their new surroundings. Outside the two find snow – along with a giant footprint.
As the extremely budget- and time-conscious choices of plot of backdrop suggest, this was purely a bottle episode for filler, filmed to cheaply and quickly round out the showrunners’ thirteen episode commitment. As such, it’s the only episode in the entire run of either the classic or 2005 series to take place completely inside the TARDIS.
Despite that, there’s actually quite a bit of important continuity established here. The plot’s implication is that the TARDIS is to an extent sentient and capable of operating outside the Doctor’s control and knowledge, setting up the constant theme that the Doctor’s TARDIS is unpredictable and even has a mind of its own. It’s also implied that the TARDIS has telepathic capabilities, explaining its ability to cause all the passengers to fall unconscious and affect their behavior (fans may want to argue that Susan and the Doctor seem to be more susceptible here because they are Time Lords, a species with telepathic senses, although obviously the screenwriter hasn’t thought that far ahead). These points are built on by later writers, but they become particularly important in the 2005 series, specifically in episodes like “Boom Town” and “The Parting of the Ways.” In fact, the First Doctor even refers to the “heart of the machine”, like “the heart of the TARDIS” that plays a key role in “Boom Town.”
An off line establishes that the events of “Daleks” took place sometime in the future. How in the future from 1963 isn’t really made clear, and I’d imagine trying to sort out the Daleks’ chronology in relation to Earth’s history is the casual fan’s worst nightmare (and the diehard fan’s most glorious dream).
I forgot to mention, but a running gag with the original cast’s episodes is that the Doctor constantly fumbles Ian’s correct last name. The joke at the end of the serial is that during the crisis the Doctor kept calling Ian by his real name, “Chesterton”, but his failure to remember later is an assuring sign that everything’s back to normal.
It’s kind of implied in the first episode, but here is the first definite reference to the adventures the Doctor and Susan were having before they ran into Barbara and Ian, when Susan mentions that she and the Doctor almost lost the TARDIS on a planet called Quillis of the Fourth Universe. Also the Doctor’s dialogue, quoted in the synopsis, suggests that the Doctor and Susan can’t return to their home world for reasons having nothing to do with the Doctor’s inability to precisely pilot the TARDIS.
Ian finds that the Doctor’s heart stopped, which, of course, contradicts later continuity that Time Lords all have two hearts. Helpfully, later stories also established that one of a Time Lord’s hearts stop when they’ve suffered a severe physical trauma. So the downside to a decades-old continuity is that you will run into such contradictions. The plus side is that you can always dig up some other bit of continuity to explain it away to most fans’ satisfaction.
Last but not least, we learn that the Doctor keeps an extensive wardrobe on board. He even shows off to Ian a coat he was given by Gilbert and Sullivan.
I’ve written three of these things without mentioning the acting. Aside from flubbed lines, which William Hartnell is particularly guilty of and which, as I explained before, was pretty commonplace in low-budget TV shows with demanding production deadlines, the acting is actually pretty good. It’s what I love about British actors; unlike their American counterparts, they usually bring their all to the table, regardless of what the material is. Whether it’s Othello or Fu Manchu, the British will normally approach either role with the same level of gravitas. This is true here, although Ian and Barbara, as the audience’s identification figures, aren’t allowed to display as much personality as William Hartnell or Carole Ann Ford (Susan). Speaking of Susan, she probably is the one character that might grate audiences, since her outbursts seem a bit too theatrical for what long-time fans would expect from a Time Lord. Still, I think I’ve gotten used to her somewhat over-the-top scenes; it definitely helps to keep in mind that she’s supposed to be a teenager from the mod generation.
Apart from that, this is on the whole a weaker serial than what we’ve seen so far, one that doesn’t quite hide its late-night-writing-session origins. For one thing, early 1960s gender issues, which really weren’t that pronounced before, somewhat come to the fore. I was willing to let the Doctor’s act of chivalry slide, even though there really wasn’t a reason to try to save Ian by sending him to the doors too given how generally useless he was in this episode, but the part where the Doctor tried to compliment Barbara for pushing her “intuition” over his “logic” bothered me too, especially since Barbara’s train of reasoning was mainly empirical and inductive. But I suppose in another time one sex’s logic was the other sex’s intuition.
More noticeably, the plot really doesn’t make much sense and the resolution feels like a cop-out of nearly legendary proportions. It’s possible Susan’s suggestions of an intruder were meant to be a red herring or to set up the irony that the “intruder” is actually the TARDIS itself, but the hints are at times so strongly laid out it seems like it was more of a last-minute rewrite than a deliberate decision on the part of the writer. Also while Barbara and the Doctor’s explanations do work to a degree, it still doesn’t quite explain how the TARDIS is helping by, well, causing the passengers to go insane, which again supports the “rewrite” theory. It’s never even made clear if the Doctor was acting under the TARDIS’ influence when he accused Barbara and Ian of sabotage, if he was trying to goad them into helping him figure out the problem (as one bit of dialogue toward the end hints), or if the pressure had really turned him paranoid. It just doesn’t seem to be a terribly efficient way to handle user repairs. And for all the build-up, it turns out that the whole nightmare, which could have ended with the utter annihilation of the characters we’ve grown to love, was because of a jammed lever – one that, in probably one of the series’ most famous production errors, has the words “FAST RETURN” written under it with a felt-tip pen.
Still, for all the script-level flaws, there are elements that work – and work well. For all the inconsistencies and lack of explanations for their behavior, the cast handle the material with zeal, giving depth to their characters and finally giving Barbara, who has with several exceptions been allowed to fall on the margins of the plot, some moments in the spotlight. The Doctor is also given more dimensions as well, showing him as a person capable of paranoia and cruelty but quickly yet believably redeeming him as well. Above all, there’s actually a strong sense of mystery and suspense, especially in the first episode. If only there was something more to the mystery than a jammed lever, but I guess it just goes to show that the TARDIS is a really delicate machine. Allow the tiniest mechanical problem to go unaddressed and it will drive you crazy, make you paranoid, and kill you, all before lunch.