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'Doctor Who' and the Perfect Antagonist

June 22, 2016

 

The first episode of the fifty-year-old series Doctor Who had established a unique set of parameters. The juxtaposition of intentionally-odd images - an abandoned police box in a junkyard, a child who appeared to know more than her teachers, a sinister grandfather and a room which was larger inside than it was outside, capable of travelling in time and space in defiance of the most basic physics, coupled with the oddest-sounding theme music and weirdest-looking special effects credits that had ever been seen - had purposefully unsettled and excited audiences. What followed - a rather perfunctory story about violence and prejudice the Stone Age - was an anti-climax by comparison. Fortunately, it was followed by possibly the most important story in the whole history of the show: ‘The Daleks’, originally aired between December 21st, 1963 and February 1st, 1964.

 

‘The Daleks’ was acceptable in itself as a story, but by coming so close to the beginning of the show as a whole, it was able to do something unusually significant: it actually added to, and changed the direction of, the programme. We have to examine the fact that it became an instant hit, and sparked a ‘Dalek-frenzy’, accompanied by cheap toys and records, alongside other elements of story-telling in order understand fully what was happening. 

 

It wasn’t that the show needed its direction changed or was desperate to have anything added to it: it was already off to a good start and possessed enough interest to sustain it. The Doctor had been established from the outset as a fascinating outsider, both exile and rebel, cloaked in mystery; the ‘grounded’, respectable characters of Ian and Barbara had already formed a working bridge with the audience of the day, along with the ‘unearthly’ but recognisably emotional Susan; and the imagery of the show had tapped into the symbols and motifs of its time - police boxes, a fading deference towards authority figures, modern schooling and popular music. In fact, the BBC, as personified by the Head of Drama Sydney Newman, had wanted to avoid what were seen as the standard trappings of science fiction, horrifying alien creatures and robotic monstrosities. The show was supposed to be partly educational and historically-based rather than conventional science fiction. A series of logistical difficulties held up other scripts, however, and Newman reluctantly allowed the serial to be filmed even though the concept of the Dalek encapsulated literally both the ‘bug-eyed monster’ and ‘tin robots’ that he wanted to avoid.  

 

Doctor Who's first producer and script editor, Verity Lambert and David Whitaker, defied Newman and commissioned writer Terry Nation to put together a story about a race of mutants who had survived a nuclear war by living in tank-like metal casings. Once the show was broadcast, though, Newman could see that he had been wrong, and admitted as much to Lambert: the core idea of what Doctor Who was supposed to be, Newman’s brainchild, the somewhat educational and quirky programme with a serious slant and depth of characterisation, was fundamentally altered by this one adventure. Audience figures shot from a respectable 6.9 to 10.4 million over the seven weeks of ‘The Daleks’. Doctor Who had become a national phenomenon.

 

But what had happened in terms of story dynamics?

 

These early stages of Doctor Who are like the ‘engine room’ of something that, though no one knew it at the time, would grow into one of the most successful long-term stories of all time. The first serial, beginning with ‘An Unearthly Child’, had kept us on a razor-edge in terms of the sheer survival of the characters involved - they are threatened with death and pain repeatedly, as though the writers are afraid to lower the level of tension even an iota. Though the plot of ‘The Daleks’ drags somewhat as it develops, stuck in long journeys through swamps and caves, the characters are in more or less constant mortal danger of one kind or another. It actually takes about three months of stories until ‘Marco Polo’ slows the overall pace to a degree: in these first serials we see the Doctor acting out of self-preservation rather than moral heroism, for the most part, which adds to the complexity of the character but also stresses the quite severe situations in which the Tardis crew find themselves almost continually. 

 

From 1960s London we journey to the Stone Age, then, and then to the quite spooky alien landscape of a petrified forest with a strange city in the distance. Here the story pace gives us a chance to glimpse Susan’s naivety, Ian and Barbara’s vacillation between fear and curiosity, and the Doctor’s continuing aloofness and secrecy. Radiation poisoning is introduced to the plot, as well as drugs that cure it - both powerful images in a time when nuclear oblivion had come to threaten the audience’s Cold War world. Significantly, in terms of strengthening the show’s foundations, the Doctor is not the central protagonist; arguably the centre of attention is Ian and Barbara: the Doctor is actually a troublemaker and untrustworthy. He sabotages the Tardis in defiance of everyone else’s desire to leave, his curiosity overcoming his fear: in effect, his dangerous behaviour causes the plot to occur by placing them all in danger. This is important on many levels: making the Doctor the lead protagonist begins to happen much later. When the writers came up with the idea of regeneration, replacing William Hartnell with Patrick Troughton, it was a kind of visible symbol of the transition towards ‘protagonisthood’ which was occurring for the Doctor as a character in the programme. Hartnell’s ill-health prevented him from continuing, yet the writers couldn’t quite do without the Doctor by that stage.  

 

But in these early stories Ian is the ‘dashing hero’ with the moral sense. Had something happened to Hartnell earlier on, had Ian become familiar enough with the Tardis’ controls, it would have been feasible for the show to have gone in an entirely different direction, similar to the science-fiction serials of the 1950s or earlier, programmes like Flash Gordon in which an intrepid moral warrior tackles inequities across the universe, piloting his trusty starship. Though inconceivable to us with the power of hindsight, the pull was certainly towards a more ‘standard’ hero as soon as more ‘standard’ elements like bug-eyed monsters and robots were introduced: these were the conventions of the sub-genre of popular science fiction, especially when made for television. 

 

Instead, we get the Doctor breaking the ‘mercury links’ on purpose, necessitating a gruelling journey to the city to try to find a way of repairing them and thus the ship. Though not quite the antagonist of the story, the Doctor has villainous shades here, which we will see the real profundity of later. 

 

When we arrive at the mysterious city, the sinister suggestion is that something inhuman dwells in it. In fact, the architectural design of the place continues the programme’s unsettling nature - the place is twisted, like something from a feverish dream. Then we get the first, iconic glimpse of the city’s inhabitants: something, as yet unseen in full, moves towards a lost and alone Barbara with a sucker appendage - and we get fade out to black and the credits.

 

This image is a haunting one and important for several reasons: firstly, it parallels the fear-inducing image at the end of ‘An Unearthly Child’, the black shadow that falls over the Tardis after its first screen journey; secondly, it generates a tremendous amount of power in terms of concern for the female companion, threatened with a strangely alien (and phallic) instrument.

 

But thirdly, and as a result of these reasons, it virtually invents the effective television cliff-hanger. In today’s world of downloadable episodes, DVDs and collected serials, we have to remember that television as a medium was different then: it was simply technically impossible to re-watch an episode or even part of an episode. Television was a broadcast medium - it was sent out from a central point to a watching population in a constant, ephemeral stream. Its only hope of holding onto audience’s attention was to create enough dramatic pulling power that they felt compelled to return to the set to watch it again at its prescheduled showing time the following week. Viewing populations had to be manipulated quite brutally to view again. This is partly why the tension had been so high throughout the first story set in the Stone Age: unless you put your characters in terrible danger again and again, how could you possibly hope to grip audiences in their own homes, where they were surrounded by a multitude of comforts and distractions? Similarly here: the audience had to be so enthralled with the suspense and mystery surrounding this first, partial appearance of a Dalek that they would make a point of revisiting the programme next time it was on. Of course, as things went on, cliffhangers were inserted artificially into plots so that an episode could end on a dramatic point, but in these early days it was often done perfectly in harmony with the narrative and carried proportional dramatic impact. 

 

When we do finally meet the Daleks - in an episode that was apparently filmed just after the announcement of the assassination of John F. Kennedy - they resonate with contemporary power too: they clearly resemble the Nazis, defeated at great cost only 18 years prior to the screening of this tale, authoritarian, extreme, driven by hatred. Essentially, though, they are as yet impotent, trapped in the city, afraid that their enemies the Thals will return to wipe them out. It’s a strange irony that the Thals look like an Aryan master race, while the Daleks are weak, abject and robotically restricted. (In another irony, Ray Cusick, their designer, replaced the original choice of designer, Ridley Scott, who went on to make Alien with its horrendously hideous monster and Blade Runner with its echoes of a dystopia.) There’s also a powerful resonance with the Morlock/Eloi races in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine; in fact, the same author’s War of the Worlds is also hinted at with the Daleks being tentacled horrors inside mechanical shells. Just the kind of standard science fiction paraphernalia that Sidney Newman was so keen to avoid. But the thing that caught on about them with contemporary audiences was their non-human-ness: there were no actors visible (except in occasional accidentally poor camera shots) in their working. They were the most alien of aliens that television had ever seen. Whereas Wells’ Morlocks were depicted as humanoid, and his Martians were monsters but left to the imagination of a reader, here was television doing something extraordinary: credibly presenting a thoroughly inhuman creature. The toy market sky-rocketed on sales of Daleks and their associated bits and pieces; children used sink-plungers (as had the BBC!) to portray the creatures, shouting ‘Exterminate!’ as they chased their friends around school playgrounds. 

 

The Daleks’ claim to be universally racially superior was at first ironic: they are attempting in this first story to steal the drug that the Thals use to defeat the radiation poisoning that has deformed them. But they learn that their survival depends upon the mutating radiation. They have evolved into creatures that thrive upon it. Not only their appearance but their biology runs contrary to human expectation. They create their perfect survival environment, the inhuman city operated on static electricity, in which they are both menacing and dominant; it is a kind of second Dalek shell for them, both supporting their introverted hatred and hiding its deformity. 

 

They are, in many ways, a perfect antagonist.

 

But it is at another level of narrative entirely that their true power and effect is found. What that is, and what it meant for the show, is discussed for part two of this article…

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