by Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 334
"The Daleks" is the story which has arguably generated the most writing, from fans and others, of any Doctor Who serial before or since. Asked to define the story, most people focus on the thinly-veiled references to Nazism, its themes of nuclear war and arguments against pacifism. While all of these are present within the story, many of them are more complex than they are often depicted.
One thing to remember when interpreting "The Daleks" is the context from which it emerges. World War Two had been over for less than twenty years, but the reluctance of most nations to go to war in the aftermath of a conflict of such severity, and the relative prosperity beginning to be felt in the early nineteen-sixties, were meaning that, first, both governments and people were reluctant to do anything which might spark a rematch (despite the posturing of the USA and USSR on the nuclear issue) and, second, that a generation was growing up in Europe which, unlike the three previous generations in the twentieth century, had never known war (or, at any rate, had never experienced its effects directly). Consequently, in the period prior to the Vietnam War, both the war-weariness of the older generation, and the lack of experience of the younger generation, meant that many people were taking idealistic views of pacifism without considering what the consequences, both positive and negative, of these views might be. Others were, however, regarding this development with concern, recalling the situation in the 1930s in which war-weary nations were reluctant to take swift action against German excesses, and feared a recurrence of these activities, particularly given the development of authoritarian governments in the US, USSR and developing world.
It is also worth mentioning that Terry Nation himself was a product of the wartime and immediate postwar world. Old enough to have conscious memories of WWII, he has spoken in interviews about the impact that WWII had on himself and his family; much of his writing deals with themes of social catastrophe, trauma and the human cost of both warfare and resistance to totalitarianism. In writing "The Daleks," Nation is coming at the story from the perspective of somebody who had experienced warfare and was finding it difficult to come to terms with: far from being a simplistic warmonger, Nation is someone who has experienced both the war itself and the subsequent privations, and as such is hardly likely to recommend a militaristic stance without consideration.
Nation's story is thus a critique of the postwar ideal of pacifism, however well-intentioned. The Thals are not made out to be idiots or unsympathetic because of their fanatical pacifism: indeed, it is made quite clear that pacifism does not equal cowardice or lack of honour, which distinguishes it from the usual run of postwar stories in this vein. However, it is demonstrated throughout that peace at any price is not right-- that while reluctance to fight is not a bad thing, if it costs you your friend or partner's life, then the ethics become more complicated. Furthermore, another drawback of the Thals' pacifism is that, having never come to experience violence, they have no way of controlling or understanding their violent sides: Alydon confesses that when he hit Ian, he did not know why he did it, and later Ganatus fights with his own brother (then lies about it). Had the Thals understood the violent sides to their own natures, they might have been better able to control their impulses. The message of the story is thus not simply "pacifism bad, war good," but that, while pacifism is better than warmongering, being peaceful also entails knowing when, and how, to fight, and fighting with a degree of self-control.
The scene in which Ian actually persuades the Thals to fight is one which many fans of the programme, however fond they may be of the story as a whole, love to hate. Many have claimed that Ian is merely arguing for a simplistic, violent solution out of his own selfish motives. However, there are broader issues at stake: Barbara is, ironically, actually the one with the most selfish expressed motives in the scene, as she argues that Ian must convince the Thals to fight or the travellers will die (the Doctor, similarly, chimes in with "this is no time for morals,"), whereas Ian realises that the Thals will never act without an appeal to their own self-interest first. Ian also recognises that the Thals, as well as the travellers, stand to lose from their pacifist stance, and to gain from, albeit judiciously, taking violent action-- and, arguably, to gain more than the travellers, as the Thals are able to regain control of their own world and their own impulses. It is worth noting that Ian, if we assume him to be about thirty (William Russell was thirty-nine, though appears to be playing younger), would have been at least six at the outbreak of the war and twelve when it finished, making him roughly the contemporary of Nation himself, and would also have undergone National Service (as many have noted, this explains why Ian periodically gives casual displays of fighting skill). As Ian himself is aware, this makes him different to the Thals: they have never had their pacifistic beliefs challenged, but he personally would have seen that there are situations in which "peace at any price" is not necessarily the right attitude to take. Ian thus, in a way, takes on the role of Nation himself, speaking to a generation of children and adolescents who had not lived through the same things he had. The fact that the Thals succeed, and the Daleks are (temporarily, as it turned out) destroyed, underlines the message that sometimes fighting back in self-defence is the right thing to do.
The violence in the Thal nature is also there from before the start of the story, rather than being something introduced to their culture through Ian's actions in a kind of parallel to the Garden of Eden. The Thals are aware that nature can be hostile, as witness their reaction to the Lake of Mutations, and their qualms about violence are not general, but with regard to attacking intelligent beings. Later, Ian is to some extent pushing at an open door with his demonstration that the Thals are capable of violence: had Ian tried to do the same thing before the Thals had been shocked by the Dalek actions and brought to the awareness that some beings could attack them for seemingly no sensible reason at all, he would likely have got nowhere with them. The story of the Thals is not one of innocence betrayed, but of a people coming to new awareness of the perils of their situation.
Even the "cycle of mutations" described by the Doctor when he announces that, following the explosion of the neutron bomb, the Thals' mutation "came full circle," but the Daleks', "for one reason or another," didn't, is in fact an allegory for the pacifist situation. The science behind the Doctor's statement is patently wrong (although, to be fair to Nation, little was actually known about the nature of mutation in the early 1960s, and one can find no less preposterous treatments of the issue in works by such luminaries as Judith Merrill and Edgar Pangborn).
Taken from a symbolic viewpoint, however, what we have is a story in which two warmongering races, following their final conflict, become grotesquely mutated (i.e., emotionally scarred by their experiences). The first race, who were, ironically, originally warriors, overcome their warlike impulses as a result, and become a race of pacifists whose beauty (in the eyes of the viewer) symbolises their inner growth; they are willing to give outsiders the benefit of the doubt, however strange and ugly they may seem, and refuse to fight unless the provocation becomes extremely severe. The second race, however, are less emotionally able to deal with the consequences of their actions, and refuse to let go, continuing to despise their former enemies centuries after the event, and also unwilling to see anything positive in people who are different to themselves-- being originally scientists, and not warriors, it is possible that they were less able to come to terms with their warlike natures. Again, too, their appearance symbolises their nature to Western audiences: in contrast to the tall and blonde Thals, they are ugly, stunted things confined to tanklike machines whose arms move jerkily after the fashion of a Nazi salute. In a way, their situation is almost precisely analagous to that of Germany at the time: while the extensive denazification programmes in place meant that many Germans were adopting a pacifist philosophy, others were incapable of letting go or forgiving. The cycle of mutations is thus, in fact, an allegory of forgiveness and emotional growth, which, significantly, accords the greatest sympathy to the pacifist group.
Other aspects of the narrative highlight this. While neither group is in harmony with nature, and both have had to cope with the radiation-soaked atmosphere of postwar Skaro, the Daleks change their environment to suit themselves without any consideration for what this means for the other lifeforms on the planet, while the Thals change themselves to fit their environment, taking anti-radiation drugs. Equally significantly, as the radiation count is dropping on Skaro, the peaceable, accommodating Thals would ultimately have been the more successful species, indicating that those who come through a situation of warfare and learn and grow from the experience are the ones who succeed in the end.
This particular story was, of course, written early in Nation's career, and as a consequence is not as polished as some of his later works. The fact that "Genesis of the Daleks" is in many ways a reworking of "The Daleks," exploring most of the same themes and ideas but with greater complexity, subtlety and sense of atmosphere, suggests that Nation himself recognised the flaws of his earlier work. In particular, episode 6, "The Ordeal," is aptly named, as it consists of twenty-five minutes of characters in a holding pattern. Despite this, one can see early indications of Nation's abilities: the Thals, for instance, are not characterised as out-and-out pure heroes, but as generally good-hearted and likeable people who nonetheless show jealousy, lack self-control, have moments of cowardice, make stupid decisions, apparently favour males over females, and so forth. The fact that the science is problematic is not much of an issue: science was never Nation's strong point, and he tended to treat it, as in this serial, as a means of storytelling rather than an educational point in itself. The orignal ending of the serial, in which a third race came in and explained that the war was all an accident, is justifiably derided and should definitely have been abandoned; however, one might note in passing that it does tie into the wider themes of the story , dealing as it does with the senselessness of war and how random retaliation bears a higher price than the judicious consideration of when to fight and when not to fight.
"The Daleks" is also, incidentally, another story which scotches the popularly-held myth that sexuality never manifested itself in Doctor Who prior to the Eccleston, or arguably the McCoy, era. Alydon is stated to be in a relationship with Dyoni (sparking the slightly risque exchange between him and Ganatus: "We're all working towards the same end!" "Now there's a double meaning for you"); Susan visibly has a crush on Alydon, hugging herself at the mention of his name. Barbara and Ganatus get quite friendly over the course of the story, and Ganatus makes slightly pointed inquiries as to the nature of her relationship with Ian.
Mention must, of course, be made of what we learn from this serial about the Daleks. It is revealed from the outset that they were a race of scientists who are now warriors: they are dependant on both static electricity and high levels of radiation for their mobility and survival (while it is later explained how the Daleks are able to travel outside their city, it is never revealed how it is that they are subsequently able to exist quite happily on planets with less ambient radiation than Skaro: perhaps they carry small amounts of radioactive matter in their travel-casings). They take a fairly utilitarian view of everyone and everything (although they appear to have, or at least to have had in the past, a tradition of abstract art, as witness the sculpture which the Tardis crew, showing a distinct lack of appreciation for high culture, throw down a lift-shaft). Although they protect their own interests and dislike outsiders, they are also unemotional about the deaths of their own kind, clinically experimenting on the Daleks in Section 3 to demonstrate that they need radiation to survive. They are also established right from the start as clever and cunning, using the Tardis crew's need for anti-radiation drugs to fulfil their own needs and giving them better treatment to render them complacent; they also lack empathy, assuming inherently that the Thals will attack them as the Daleks would were their situations reversed.
Finally, the design and construction of the Daleks also contributes to their popularity. The basic design is simple and elegant, easy enough for a child to imitate or construct out of egg-cartons and cardboard (or for a toy manufacturer to produce) with a Sixties pop-art feel. In this serial, the design is enhanced by excellent direction (with eerie Daleks'-eye-view shots which stick in the viewer's memory as well as the lending of extra credibility to the petrified forest set by clever filming) and attention to detail: the Dalek city looks like it was built for Daleks, with Dalek-sized doors and no staircases. At the same time, too, they are clever plotters, frequently several steps ahead of the Doctor and the Thals, utterly indefatigable, and espousing a Nazilike appearance and philosophy (to say nothing of a strong resemblance to tanks) which imagery would have resonated easily with both the postwar generation and their parents. The combination of design and characterisation thus makes it easy to see why the Daleks immediately siezed control of the public imagination, and are still with us forty-three years later.
"The Daleks" thus not only provides us with one of the great icons of postwar Britain itself, but also presents to the viewer a message about war and violence which is less simple than it seems at first, as well as setting up themes and ideas to which Nation and other Doctor Who writers would return for the next four decades.
Effects courtesy of Maureen Marrs and Fiona Moore