It’s May 20th, 1967. Between now and July 1st, a department store in Brussels will burn down, killing 323, 72 will die in a plain crash in Stockport, 34 will die on board the USS Liberty in an accidental Israeli attack, and the Six Day War will happen, which result in a death toll on the order of 14-20,000. In addition Langston Hughes will die of complications from prostate cancer, both Dorothy Parker and Spencer Tracy will die of heart attacks, and the world will progress closer still to the eschaton. Also, The Evil of the Daleks airs.
For a certain brand of mysticism-obsessed Doctor Who critic that views the show mostly as an excuse to talk about mirrors (and occasionally chairs), The Evil of the Daleks forms something of an apex for the series. And this is entirely fair enough—it’s one of the most overtly magically-focused stories in Doctor Who history, featuring an antagonist whose motivation is literally “I want to do alchemy.” But in their rush to celebrate its magical weirdness there’s a frustrating failure to look with any depth or care at the precise details of what spell the show is weaving here.
Let’s consider Philip Sandifer’s essay on the subject, in which he contrives to read the story in terms of David Whitaker’s larger alchemical project in which the Doctor defeats the Daleks through his mercurial sorcery. Sandifer is very gung ho about this, spinning out an extended alchemical metaphor out of this, Whitaker’s other stories, and occasionally stories Whitaker had only a partial hand in crafting. Sandifer is here cribbing from Miles and Wood’s entertaining essay “What Planet is David Whitaker” on, and the reading makes a certain amount of sense when applied to Whitaker’s ouvre as a whole. But The Evil of the Daleks is a puzzling place for Sandifer to make his grand stand for Whitaker’s alchemical master plan for Doctor Who. The story features an alchemist, yes, but what Sandifer seems to miss is that he’s the bad guy, and his desire to transmute lead into gold is mad folly. As for mercury, Sandifer’s essay uses the word “mercury” seven times, which is, as it happens, exactly seven more times than David Whitaker’s script for The Evil of the Daleks. Simply put, this rather complicates any efforts to claim that the story is about it, and sentimental references to Whitaker’s larger ouvre don’t actually paper over the gap.
This is not to say that there is no magic involved in this story; it’s just that reading it as a utopian parable about the inventive powers of mercury is wishful thinking. Let’s instead look at what actually is in the story: the distillation of the human and Dalek factors. These are framed clearly as alchemical opposites, with the Dalek factor being found in the negative space of the human factor much as Troughton’s Doctor found himself in the negative space of the Daleks in their last story. For Whitaker, the Daleks remain what he helped Nation imply they might be in their original story—half-magical embodiments of death itself, as opposed to Terry Nation’s vision of them as deeply generic space nazis. And so humanity is defined in opposition to this in terms of a noble heroism, albeit clearly one that can be tainted by greed and hubris, as with Maxtible and Waterfield.
But for the moment let’s turn our attention to the process of distillation. The human factor is obtained over the course of the middle episode of the serial. This episode, widely viewed as filler among fans, features the Daleks studying Jamie as he attempts to rescue Victoria. Troughton has only a handful of short scenes, all pre-filmed so that he could take a week’s vacation, in which he sits at a large bank of switches and dials as he and the Daleks watch Jamie on monitors. The effect, especially given the visual similarities between the Doctor’s console and a vision mixer, is that the human factor is distilled by watching television, with Jamie starring in a sort of demented action-based game show.
In this regard it is necessary to turn to the passage that is why the quasi-mystical squad obsess over this story—the description of the time machine that summoned the Daleks. In their rush to delight over the glorious nonsense of the science involved here, critics like Sandifer miss what is actually the key detail of this time machine: the fact that it treats the image within a mirror as a real and substantive thing—in other words, it views mirrors as a form of screen. When taken alongside the use of television to distill the human and Dalek factors, there becomes a much larger theme here in which the Daleks are understood as creatures of television. This makes sense—they did after all spend much of their first story watching the TARDIS crew on their monitors.
The reading sustains itself further. As a number of critics have noted, this is a common dynamic for Troughton, who is often seen on television monitors. Indeed, it’s worth recalling that the TARDIS itself is initially described, in what is surely a passage heavily worked on by Whitaker, in terms of television. And so we are left with a tangle multiple competing philosophies of television, within which an alchemical opposition of human and Dalek is being staged. This is thorny, to say the least—the sort of semiotic jumble out of which multiple partially validated readings emerge.
One obvious path to cut here is hierarchical. The Daleks obviously treat the TARDIS as the most refined version of television available—they have time travel of their own, after all, and yet seek to use the TARDIS as their vector for disseminating the Dalek factor across time and space. This opens up an appealing satirical reading in which the story is mocking Terry Nation’s huff where he attempted to cut off the BBC’s rights to the Daleks in favor of seeking out a multinational TV deal for them to be the stars of their own show, with the Daleks seeking to steal a better and more powerful means of television in order to literally widen their audience. This is funny, but ultimately it favors pettiness over ambition. There are far bigger issues at play.
Let’s instead think about the triangle structure among the Daleks, the Doctor, and humanity. Within this structure the Daleks and humanity are cleanly opposed, with the Doctor existing tangibly outside it—a key plot point hinges on the fact that the Daleks’ machine to infuse humans with the Dalek factor fails to work on the Doctor. The Doctor mediates between the two, but exists outside and indeed above both. It is here that Sandifer’s reading of the Doctor as allied with mercury becomes least sustainable. If the Doctor is mediating between and indeed transmuting Dalek into human, he is not mercury which is a passive and feminine agent within alchemical symbolism—he is sulfur, the active solar force. He is the creator of change, not the thing which changes. But more broadly, he is simply the alchemist himself, manipulating the symbols and shifting their meanings. Seated behind his vision mixer, he is the avatar of television itself, with humans and Daleks his mere subjects.
With all of this in mind, it is time to finally turn our attention towards the actual process by which the human factor is distilled. On television, yes, and in a game show, but how exactly does this work? The answer in practice is that Jamie runs through a bunch of elaborate traps. Or, rather, Jamie and Kemel do. Kemel is one in a rather tedious chain of mute black strongmen during this period of Doctor Who—this time with the added “twist” of being Turkish, which is conveyed purely through stereotypes. His role is to fight and then team up with Jamie before being cynically killed off in the final episode. But his presence during the distillation of the human factor introduces troubling implications. Given the fact that the Dalek factor is derived through opposition, after all, it follows that the human factor must be as well. In other words, it’s not simply watching Jamie that establishes the human factor—it’s contrasting him to Kemel. And given that Kemel is a racist caricature that exists within a context of pseudo-scientific claims about the inherent intelligence and indeed humanity of black and white people, the implications of this are both clear and distressing.
And, of course, this is scarcely the first story in which Whitaker has leaned on the racial contrast of moral and heroic British people and noble but markedly and definedly lesser Middle Eastern people. The Crusade trades on the exact same contrast, albeit to less overtly audacious ends. Here, however, we get it in its most disturbingly complete form—a claim that white British culture is the very soul of humanity.
Another furious monologue about the damnation of the world could easily follow here, but we scarcely need to bring in the future to bear on the situation; the alchemy of the story itself provides plenty of horror. After all, alchemical progress, like dialectical progress, focuses on the union of opposites. And The Evil of the Daleks spends much of its final episode doing exactly that, first implanting the Dalek factor into Maxtible and then implanting the human factor into a ton of Daleks.
The former, obviously, is a bad idea—a corruption, rather than an elevation. Maxtible is essentially a Dalek with acting chops and some vestiges of human thought. The human factor-infused Daleks, on the other hand, are more complex. They are the agents of the Daleks’ ultimate destruction—a feat nothing else has seemed capable of since they became a cultural phenomenon as opposed to the bug-eyed monsters in Doctor Who’s second story. But they are also ultimately treated as a means to an ends—the Doctor creates them in order for them to destroy themselves fighting the Daleks proper. This is chilling in its way, but more than that, it suggests a barrenness to the human factor as well as the Dalek factor.
Simply put, all the alchemical union of opposites seems to accomplish here is death and destruction. Neither side of the equation can elevate the other. There is no ascension here—only death and carnage. Humanity cannot elevate the Daleks—each thing can only destroy the other. This is not entirely surprising—the one surviving interview with Whitaker suggests that he was wary of alchemy even as he was fascinated by it. That he would view it as only leading to destruction is entirely in keeping with his thought—another reason the doe-eyed mysticism brigade’s decision to embrace him is puzzling. The truth is that Whitaker is far more conservative than his most ardent fans would like to admit.
But if this dualism leads only to sterility, one escape exists: the Doctor continues to sit over the entire binary, transcending it all. And this is not Whitaker’s first version of the Doctor—the paternal figure observing the winding arc of history. This is his second, madder and more dangerous version—the mischievous and at times fundamentally untrustworthy figure who flits about the edges of things, always playing the dangerous clown. What are we to make of Whitaker’s decision to position him at the top of his system, transcending all its oppositions?
In the end, we must return to our observation that this is a story about television. The Doctor reigns supreme because he is aligned with the medium in which these stories exist. In the end, that is what matters. Terry Nation may be taking his ball and going home, but the show is quickly learning from his example—indeed it’s on the brink of rebranding itself into a fundamentally formulaic structure ideal for the export market. Never mind the ethics. From here on out, the real message of Doctor Who is the marketability of its aesthetics.