Oh, Grandfather! Couldn’t we stay a bit longer? The Thals are such nice people!
And the Daleks are not, which is more important, my child!
From the loinskin clad cave dwellers of “100,000 BC”, the Doctor, Susan, Ian, and Barbara move on to, well, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, padded vest- and leather pants-wearing Thals of “The Mutants” (Story Production Code B). A slight improvement, at least on a hygienic level.
But no one ever spares a thought for the peaceful Thals and their worship of history and penchant for wearing foam rubber, because the Daleks make their debut:
This story, also known as “The Daleks” for somewhat obvious reasons, transformed Dr. Who from that show that came on before Juke Box Jury to phenomenon. As Howe and Walker put it in Doctor Who: The Television Companion:
Virtually overnight, this gentle, partly educational family series for Saturday teatimes was transformed into the show that, for many people, just had to be watched at all costs.
Stretching over seven episodes, “The Mutants” featured the Daleks quite prominently from episode two onwards, and the mystery of just what hid within the machine monsters is stoked by the appearance of a claw peeking from under a cloak where the Doctor and Ian unceremoniously dumped the contents of a disabled Dalek at the end of episode three. Such hints at greater mystery undoubtedly kept viewers riveted.
But the Daleks aren’t the only stars of this show, and “The Mutants” sets up several lasting Whovian themes.
The Doctor’s origins begin to unspool, slowly, with the Doctor telling Alydon, the head Thal, “Oh, no, no, no! I’m afraid I’m much too old to be a pioneer. Though I was, once, among my people.” How he was a pioneer dangles before the viewers, and it becomes clear that the Doctor spends much of his time wandering the stars.
William Hartnell’s Doctor seeks knowledge above all else in this story. He sabotages the TARDIS by removing the apparently vital “fluid link” and claiming it needs to be filled up with mercury, which of course can only be found in the Dalek city that he desperately wants to explore, leading to everyone splitting up (groan) and a Dalek capturing Susan in the initial revelation of the Doctor’s ultimate nemesis:
The Doctor shows chagrin when confronted with the damage his knowledge seeking has caused, but at no point does he actually apologize for wanting to learn more about the unknown.
Gadgetry also makes an initial showing in “The Mutants” with the delightful food machine that creates bacon and eggs for Ian and Barbara and the Doctor’s binocular glasses. Even the “fluid link” that the Daleks later confiscate from Ian to drive the latter half of the plot speaks to the growing focus on technology in the show. Perhaps this fascination with gadgets, dovetailing with a futuristic city inhabited by ray-gun armed, neutron bomb chucking Daleks, should be expected from the pen of Terry Nation, but the remainder of the series features an ever expanding inventory of thingamabobs and technobabble. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.
The Doctor’s traveling menagerie earns the title of companions yet again. The Daleks recognize his sidekicks’ role, noting to the Doctor,
<dalek>You And Your Companions Need A Drug To Stay Alive</dalek>.
Later, the Doctor himself, while pleading for the Daleks to take him to the TARDIS, yells, “And you took a part of my ship away from one of my companions, the young man!” The companions continue to make a name for themselves that will stick around to the current iteration of the series. And of note, Susan wears her key to the TARDIS around her neck on a chain, where later companions will also stash the key once they’ve earned the right to carry it.
One tradition that doesn’t continue beyond the first several seasons is the presence of a strong-willed adult male companion. Ian takes over several times in “The Mutants,” demanding that the Doctor abandon his idea of searching the city and ordering a recalcitrant Doctor to look for Barbara rather than escape without her. It’s almost as though Ian serves as a moral compass for the Doctor, balancing his incessant curiosity. Still, to have the Doctor essentially scolded feels somewhat off; the tension between the two detracts from the Doctor’s “specialness” for me. Later adult male companions seldom take such an authoritative approach to the Doctor.
No moral compunctions end the story. The Doctor, though powerless to prevent the destruction of the Dalek species, nevertheless would not save them if he could, telling the last surviving (ha!) Dalek, “Even if I wanted to, I don’t know how.” And so, the Daleks die:
They come back, of course, but that’s next season. The Doctor, Ian, Susan, and Barbara have more pressing matters to attend to, for while leaving Skaro, the TARDIS malfunctions (feign shock and surprise here), sending them to “The Edge of Destruction”!
(Previous Episode: 100,000 BC/An Unearthly Child)
(Next Episode: Inside the Spaceship/The Edge of Destruction)
Post 2 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project