On the surface of it the plot of the Daleks is similar to the last adventure. They arrive, are captured by the Daleks and eventually escape. Just as before their escape is delayed by getting involved with affairs of the locals, although this time they find their own fate tied in with the others.
Early on the Doctor had removed the fluid links from the TARDIS to provide an excuse to explore the Dalek city. After they have escaped the Doctor is keen to leave the Daleks and Thals to resolve their differences themselves. It is only when they remember the Daleks took the fluid links from them do they realise they will have to go back.
It is at this point that a new plot is put in motion, that of the quest. It is hard to watch the following episodes now without calling to mind Lord of the Rings. Both share a perilous journey, a lake monster, underground caverns and a final battle between the forces of good and evil.
Doctor Who would revisit the quest plot several times over the years, notably in ‘The Keys of Marinus’ and the ‘Keys of Time’ arc. In those stories the Doctor and his companions must recover multiple items but the quest works just as well with a single item or aim.
The most important element in the quest is the journey itself. Just getting to the objective is a challenge, often with several stages. The way is either hidden or so dangerous that most people never attempt it.
This could be due to the extreme conditions of the environment, such as the heat of the desert or the biting cold of a snowy waste, or due to predators in the area such as the lake monster in this story.
During this journey success and failures can be used to change how quickly reach their destination. ‘Yes but’ can be used to indicate that while they have overcome an obstacle they face further delay or a dead end while a ‘No but’ could indicate that they have failed to meet the challenge but also found a short cut.
An example of this is presented in the story when a Thal falls down a crevice only to find a new tunnel that takes them closer to the Dalek city.
An added complication is usually presented by agents of the antagonist who will hunt the characters down and attempt to prevent them from completing the journey. In this story the Daleks are confined within their city but still present a threat thanks to their ability to view the outside area. It requires the Doctor to block their signals to give the others a chance of sneaking into the city unnoticed.
Such journeys are not usually taken alone. Often a group of locals will aide the heroes and may even loose their lives in doing so. They can act as the games masters mouthpiece, providing information about the threats they face and act as cannon fodder, their deaths reinforcing the danger they are facing.
Arguably the most important scene in this story is where Ian convinces the Thals to overcome their pacifism and help fight the Daleks. Without them they would not have learnt about the rear entrance into the city or overcome the obstacles in their way.
The most important scenes in any adventure should similarly be social challenges, changing minds rather than taking lives. This is because it isn’t just the player characters’ actions they are influencing but also the actions of those around them.
A time limit gives a quest a sense of urgency. In this story the Daleks are planning to blanket the planet in radiation that will kill the remaining Thals. The main characters don’t know this but what they do know is that a confrontation between the two species inevitable. The Thals can’t just go back to farming while the Daleks are in their city plotting.
Once the objective of the quest is reached there is normally a final confrontation. This is where things come to a head. This normally takes the form of some physical confrontation but it possible to have a very tense social conflict where everything is at stake.
In a larger sense the Daleks is a post-apocalyptic story. Skaro is a world almost destroyed by a neutronic war. Hundreds of years later both sides are barely surviving and when they learn of each others existence they threaten to finish what the war started.
Post-apocalyptic stories are quite common in science fiction. It is the concern that science, while capable of providing wonders, could also cause the end of life as we know it. This doesn’t have to be a neutronic war. Fear mongers provide plenty of ideas for how science could be abused such as deadly viruses, genetically engineered monsters or the creation of anti-matter particles that could eat reality itself.
Whatever the cause the result is the death of most of the population with only a few survivors left. Things are reduced to the level of the stone age where the only thing of importance is to survive.
Ultimately it is how science is used that determines if it is good or bad. The Daleks have used their science for evil, creating metallic shells fitted with weapons and devices to spy on those around the city. At the end of the story the Doctor encourages the Thals to use the science of the Daleks to rebuild the world and predicts that within a single generation birds may return to the forest.
The key then, for a Doctor Who version of the post-apocalyptic story, is hope. That as long as there is life there is a chance for regrowth and that with hard work there will be a tomorrow.