“We’d better keep an eye on him. He seems to have a knack of getting himself into trouble.” – Ian
The Daleks: the Doctor’s most famous set of foes debuted in the second-ever serial of the series: 1963’s “The Daleks”. Far from a “Christmas special” (the first episode aired on December 21), the moody and tense first episode established a world far removed from the campier caveman serial that had just ended. They were no longer on Earth, and the possibilities of the series were endless.
Much has been written about the Daleks becoming the signature enemy of the series and the “Dalekmania” that spread throughout the UK as the series progressed. But what Terry Nation brought in this first episode at least was just as valuable: he set a tone and a status quo for the series, established “scientific facts” (to steal a term from MST3K) about how the passengers ate and slept on board the TARDIS, and generally laid the groundwork for the whole series in a tense, but not scary, 22 minutes. The final scene with Barbara being menaced by an unseen beast (with a plunger attachment) is rightfully one of the most famous of the show.
The Scanner – Episode Recap
Still disheveled from their encounter with the cave people, the Doctor suggests that he and his companions freshen up. Susan checks the radiation meter and all is reading normal, but as they walk into the interior of the TARDIS the readings increase into the “Danger” level. Cue the strange music!
Some time later, the Doctor and the companions are exploring the forest. It’s petrified– branches and flowers just crumble into their hands. The Doctor is fascinated and wants to understand what happened, Ian and Barbara are more concerned with whether they will get back home. The teachers resolve to stick with the Doctor as only he can get them back, and he may need them to keep him out of trouble. As they explore, they stumble on a dead animal, made of metal. It is unlike anything on Earth, evolved to take advantage of magnetic fields. The companions know that they are far from home now, and not just in a strange future.
“We started this journey too hurriedly to make any calculations.” – The Doctor
They reach the end of the jungle. Barbara confronts Susan about getting back and she replies that it is not that the Doctor does not know how to pilot the ship… but he is just “forgetful”. Not exactly a statement of confidence! In the distance, the group spies a magnificent city of futuristic buildings. Sharing a pair of binoculars, they see no sign of life. The Doctor wants to explore, but it is getting dark and they agree to head back to the ship. Ian refuses to let the Doctor wander off alone and risk getting injured. They need him to get home.
On the way back, Susan finds another petrified flower to keep but realizes that she is not alone. She screams– a hand touches her back, but we do not see who it belongs to– and runs straight into Ian. He calms her and they return to the TARDIS. The Doctor admits that he has trouble relating to Susan and sends in Barbara to calm her down while he and Ian consult some computers to determine where they are. They get into a heated discussion about Ian and Barbara being taken along for the ride, but the Doctor presses that it is equally Ian’s fault for barging into the TARDIS in the first place. He reluctantly agrees and asks about food. The Doctor admits that is a great idea and they head to where Barbara and Susan are.
Barbara has a headache and Susan prepares a headache cure while the Doctor demonstrates the food machine: makes bars that taste like anything you could ask for! Ian and Barbara have their bacon-and-eggs bars, but suddenly there is a knocking on the TARDIS. Everyone runs back to the scanner, but nothing can be seen. The Doctor wants to continue exploring the city, but the others convince him to leave. He adjusts something under the TARDIS console and the ship begins to take off… but stops a few moments later. With Susan’s help, the problem is identified as a fluid link, requiring a fresh supply of mercury. Ian is suspicious, but they agree to go to the city the following morning to find some.
In the morning, the group head out but discover that their knocking visitor left a package: a metal box that contains glass vials of liquid. They march to the city and agree to split up, meeting back where they are in ten minutes. Barbara does not return, instead seemingly brought deeper and deeper into the complex by doors that close behind her. She sense a presence and starts to run, but she is cornered. A mysterious creature with a plunger attachment approaches. To be continued!
I don’t say that Grandfather doesn’t know how to work the ship, but he’s so forgetful… – Susan
This episode does not get anywhere very quickly, but it does set a status quo for the team. We discover that there are places to sleep (Susan offers to show Barbara to her room), food to eat, medicine to take, and a few more details about the TARDIS’s operation, including how the Doctor can control it– except for his “forgetfulness”.
We also get some great character moments. Barbara bonding with Susan, and the Doctor’s admission that he has difficulty relating to her youth. Ian’s flirtatiousness when he comforts Barbara and tells her that she has someone to rely on. Susan shows her intelligence again by helping the Doctor to operate the controls and the food machine, and later helping him to diagnose the problem with the fluid link. The Doctor is seen to put his curiosity above the health of his friends, and Susan complains about his “scientific” approach. All in all, this episode sets the ground work for the remaining series far better than the preceding serial.
- The dead metal animal they find in the forest is a neat idea in xenobiology, and its reliance on magnetic fields could be an early idea for the Daleks’ need for static electricity (which we will discover in a future episode.)
- I also like that they presented radiation sickness in at least a reasonably realistic light, though they will undoubtedly cure it far more easily than in real life.
- The set design for the Dalek city was well done. I am not sure how the sloping ceilings align with Dalek needs, but it looked alien. The doors with the switches that you had to pass your hand by could, at least, have been activated by a Dalek plunger.
- Why the heck did they split up? We never saw any indication that the city was even remotely like a human one, so would they have been able to identify mercury at all? Ian says to look for a laboratory, but we get no indication that any of the spaces had functional purposes.
- Susan screaming.
- Not quite enough happens.
Previous episodes this season:
- E01: An Unearthly Child
- E02: The Cave of Skulls (An Unearthly Child, Part 2)
- E03: The Forest of Fear (An Unearthly Child, Part 3)
- E04: The Firemaker (An Unearthly Child, Part 4)