It’s been fifty years since the war with the Daleks ended. The Universe is feeling like a much safer place these days and people are starting to forget the lessons of history. On board the spaceship Starfinder are two dangerous criminals awaiting trial on Earth. Harry Sline is a small, wiry, devious man who’d been arrested for slave trading between Mars and Venus and is also suspected of murder. John Ladiver is a tall, strong and intelligent man who’d been arrested for committing crimes on every planet in the solar system.
For the journey, the prisoners have been manacled together in the cargo hold. Ladiver is frustrated because Sline had gone to a lot of trouble to steal a file, smuggle it aboard and then wait for an opportunity to use it without being spotted, only to find it’s no good. They know that if the ship lands on Earth, they’re both finished. Ladiver will spend the rest of his life in one of the Atlantic’s underwater prisons, but Sline is almost certain to be executed. Ladiver is convinced Sline plans to betray him and reveal his escape plans to the wardens in return for getting off the death penalty, but as the two of them are chained together, it’s clear that wherever one of them goes, so does the other.
Ladiver says there‘ll only be two scheduled stops for refuelling at satellite stations, so they’ll have to make their escape attempt during one of those. He considers the possibility of actually taking over the spaceship - there are only three crewmembers, the Captain, the co-pilot and the radio-picture operator, plus two passengers, but they’re all well armed and there are seven safety pressure doors between them and the cargo hold. On the plus side, Ladiver used to be a space flyer and holds an astronaut’s licence, and Sline is able to calculate star positions. Before they can think of a plan, they notice the Starfinder is entering a meteorite storm. Sline panics as the ship is buffeted, and when he starts to become hysterical, Ladiver is forced to knock him unconscious.
Bob Slater, the officer who’s responsible for all the ship’s communications, arrives in the cargo hold with food for the prisoners. He reassures the recovering Sline that the meteorites aren’t actually hitting the ship but are bouncing off their anti-magnetic shield. He says he’s read Ladiver’s dossier and knows that he nearly started a space war. He mocks him and says that although he’s said to have stashed away about 30 million, he’ll never get an opportunity to spend it. Ladiver offers to split some of the money in return for help in escaping, but Slater turns him down, even though he admits that he’s tempted.
Captain Redway arrives and reveals that the meteorite storm has deflected the ship’s course, so they’re heading instead for the nearest planet. Ladiver complains about the lack of hot drinks with their meals, but Redway tells him water won’t boil at the speed of light. Rocket Smith, the co-pilot and navigator, joins them and informs the Captain that the radio-pic has gone dead and he was forced to turn off the power when smoke started coming out of the receiver. The crew are alarmed as they know the equipment was working perfectly a short while ago. Redway warns them not to tell their passengers as he hasn’t even told them they’re making an unscheduled landing yet. Smith says he recently bumped into Professor Vanderlyn’s assistant in the passenger lounge and tried to be friendly to her, but he found her to be aloof and frosty. Redway warns Ladiver that when they land on the planet his crew will be watching him twice as hard. He believes Ladiver likes to throw his weight around, so he reminds the prisoner what he can expect to find when he’s handed over to Atlantic Prison. There will be no bars on the cells, just solid glass walls with fish staring in at him. As he turns to leave, Redway tells Slater the ship’s auto-robot should have taken them into Skaro’s orbit by now. At first the name means nothing to Sline, but when Ladiver prompts him, he suddenly remembers where he’s heard it before - it’s the home planet of the Daleks!
The Starfinder lands on Skaro, on the outskirts of the old Dalek city. The place seems dead and overgrown with creepers from the nearby jungle, so the crew sets up a base camp two miles away, at the base of an ancient metal ramp surrounded by archways. On the walk from the ship, Professor Vanderlyn had an uncanny feeling they were being watched, but Captain Redway assures him that’s impossible as the few remaining Thals are wanderers and are probably hundreds of miles away. Vanderlyn wonders what it was like when the Daleks were alive, but Redway corrects him and says that strictly speaking the Daleks aren’t actually dead. After the war, their power was switched off, but they’re still dormant inside their casings and waiting…
Marion Clements, Professor Vanderlyn’s research assistant, joins the group and is pleased to be outside in the cool air while the Starfinder radio-pic is being repaired. Unfortunately Redway has had to bring the prisoners out too as they’d roast alive if they remained inside the ship. Because of the heat, the engineer will have to work on the repairs in short bursts, so Redway is pleased when Marion suggests they disconnect the communications set and work on it outside. Reassured that they should be safe here, Vanderlyn admits that he’s pleased they had to land on Skaro as it’ll give him an excellent opportunity to make notes. Rocket Smith arrives carrying equipment from the ship, including some of Vanderlyn and Marion’s cases. Deciding to take a few moment’s rest, he hangs his jacket on the nearest convenient object - a piece of metal protruding from the creepers - unaware that it’s actually the sucker arm of a Dalek!
Marion checks to make sure the equipment is safe and offers some water to the elderly Professor. Smith tells Redway the radio-pic is badly damaged and although Slater thinks he can repair it, he doesn’t know how long it’ll take. Redway doesn’t want to stay on Skaro too long, but Smith thinks they should be alright as no one’s seen a Dalek for years. Just as he says this, he knocks his jacket off its hanger and is alarmed when to see the motionless Dalek buried beneath the tangle of vines. After they get over the shock, Vanderlyn wonders why Redway didn’t just keep going until they found a more inhabitable planet. Redway tells him there was a danger of fire because travelling at the speed of light would quickly turn a small fire into a blazing torch. Also, they couldn’t risk trying to land on a planet with heavy air traffic while they had no means of communication to guide them down.
Smith finds Marion examining a test tube containing what he describes as a mermaid in a bottle, but she tells him it’s part of her work studying diseases on other planets. She’s critical of Smith’s laid-back attitude, but he assures her he has nerves of steel and is tireless when it comes to flying the ship. She makes a barbed comment about his lowly position as a co-pilot, but he reminds her she’s just an assistant too. She tells him to go away and he accuses her of being rude.
Escorted by Bob Slater, the two prisoners arrive at the camp, still chained together. Slater finds Redway examining the central arch and wondering if they’ve made their camp right outside the front door of the Dalek city. Slater has removed the entire workings of the radio-pic and discovered the breakdown wasn’t caused by a technical fault, but by deliberate sabotage. He reminds Redway that they used the equipment recently to communicate with a freighter they passed near Venus, so sometime between then and the moment they encountered the meteor storm, someone dropped a handful of iron filings into the transistor circuit. Redway asks him to find out who was near the machine, but is reminded that they had to identify themselves to the Venus freighter which means that each of them stood in turn in front of the radio-pic for ten seconds. This would have been ample time for any one of them to sabotaged the equipment unnoticed. Redway is sure they already know who the culprit is - Ladiver used to be a space pilot and would know exactly how to cause the most damage.
Slater helps Smith drag a heavy trailer into the camp and they notice the Professor‘s crates are marked with instructions that they should be kept cool at all times. This explains why they were asked to bring the crates from the ship as the temperature inside there is hitting the 90s. Assuming they contain more of the pickled creatures Marion was examining earlier, the officers order the two chained prisoners to give them a hand moving them into the shade.
Marion helps Vanderlyn clear the foliage away from the dormant Dalek. In some ways the creature is amazing, but it’s also terrifying. Vanderlyn assures Marion the Daleks are powerless, but she’s shocked to discover they’re not actually dead as she originally suspected. Redway joins them and explains that it’s an established fact that although you can destroy a Dalek, you can’t kill it. Vanderlyn takes this to mean you can’t imprison or rehabilitate them and he likens them to locusts - if human beings had to declare war on them, they might be defeated, but they could never be trained, and because their intelligence is of a completely different order to ours, they could never become our allies or friends. They would not fear death as it could never be final for their race as a whole. The same is true for the Daleks - as you destroy one of them, another simply takes its place. Not through courage or bravery, but because the Daleks only understand success or destruction. What sets human beings apart from other species is our compassion, even for a creation of evil like the Daleks. Marion disagrees and says they don’t deserve any mercy. Listening to their conversation, Ladiver recounts a rhyme that was popular after the Dalek war fifty years ago…
Remember, remember, the Dalek December
With Paris in ruins and London in ember
In times of the future when fears are abating
Don’t try to forget them, the Daleks are waiting
Quietly planning and scheming and hating…
Vanderlyn rebukes Ladiver for trying to frighten his assistant, but Smith says never mind her, he’s the one who’s petrified. Redway becomes ever more suspicious of Ladiver and accuses him outright of forcing them to land on Skaro by wrecking their communications system, knowing they’d have to land here. The Captain becomes aggressive and grabs hold of the prisoner roughly, but Ladiver mocks him for attacking a man who can’t fight back. Redway warns him he’ll be watched every single second and if he so much as raises an eyebrow when he shouldn’t, he’ll be locked up inside the spaceship where he can roast. The Captain storms off angrily and Slater decides to follow him, asking Smith to keep an eye on things here.
Smith asks Vanderlyn and Marion if they want the crate with their names on opened up, but they both deny having anything to do with it and claim they’ve never seen it before. They decide to solve the mystery by looking inside, but Ladiver warns them not to. He says he has no idea what’s in it, but once it’s been opened the contents will be available to any one of them. Vanderlyn finds this an odd choice of words and Marion thinks he’s using reverse psychology to persuade them to open the crate. Ladiver insists that he didn’t sabotage the ship or bring the crate aboard, but Smith thinks he could easily have arranged for the crate to contain something that will help him escape. Ignoring the others’ concerns, Smith uses a crowbar to open it up and finds it full of small black metal boxes. They’re smooth and don’t seem to have any joins on them, although each has a tiny hole on the base through which they can see a tiny plug. No one has ever seen anything like them before, but Smith suspects they might be explosives, so he orders Ladiver and Sline to move away.
Redway and Slater return and learn about the black boxes. Redway immediately suspects Ladiver arranged for them to be delivered to the ship inside a crate bearing Vanderlyn’s name and with instructions for it to be kept in a cool place, knowing it would have to be brought outside. Ladiver insists he had nothing to do with any of this and points out how ridiculous the theory is. He says it would be impossible for him to pull strings from inside the prison on the satellite as he wouldn’t have known which ship would be used to transport him and Sline back to Earth or when it would leave. Nor could he have known that the Venus freighter would cross their path and that they’d each have to stand in front of the radio-pic. Vanderlyn is forced to agree that he has a very strong defence, but Redway reminds them Ladiver is known to have millions hidden away, so he could easily have bribed people to arrange everything in advance and then deliberately allow himself to be captured by the police. He adds that Ladiver is now trying to throw suspicion amongst the rest of the group to improve his chances of escaping. He taunts Ladiver and says he’s only succeeded in adding another ten years to his sentence when they get back to Earth.
Marion wonders why Ladiver would deliberately want to come to Skaro and Vanderlyn suggests that if Ladiver did plan to bring them here, then discovering what the black boxes are for should answer everything. Redway agrees, but he’s reluctant to use lasers to cut them open in case there are explosives inside. However, when they open the crate again, they discover one of the black boxes is missing. Suddenly Marion notices that the Dalek, which had been forgotten by everyone, is starting to move. She shouts a warning to the others, but before they can react, the Dalek slides up the central ramp and disappears inside the metallic city…and on its back, they can see the missing black box!
The group handles the shocking news in different ways - Marion is horrified and Sline begins to panic at the thought of the Daleks burning them to dust. No one can hear themselves think until eventually Redway orders everyone to shut up. He says their priority is to get the communications system working again so they can call Space Security for help. He then warns Ladiver that if any of them are harmed by what he’s done, he’ll personally see that he suffers for it. Ladiver mocks the Captain, then Redway steps forward and strikes the prisoner. Sline rebukes him for attacking a chained man, but Vanderlyn steps in and says they can’t blame him for reacting the way he did. They now know that the black boxes contain some form of power, enough to reanimate the Daleks. Smith is sceptical, but Vanderlyn thinks the small needle inside the boxes can flood power into the Daleks like a kind of blood transfusion. The Daleks are powered by static electricity and the box seems to be capable of producing enormous amounts of energy. He believes each one of them can probably keep a Dalek going for days, perhaps even weeks.
Slater wonders who stuck the box on the Dalek and Ladiver sarcastically admits it was him, since that’s what everyone already thinks anyway. Redway takes this as a confession, but Slater points out that Ladiver couldn’t possibly have done it while he was chained up. Redway refuses to listen and says Ladiver would have known he couldn’t land on Skaro without being stopped and detained by security thousands of miles away, but if he allowed himself to be arrested, he could then have arranged the emergency landing. He accuses Ladiver of seeking to control the Daleks and, one by one, the others start to agree with Redway’s argument. When Ladiver protests, Redway threatens to have him gagged and bound. He orders Smith to keep an eye on the prisoners and tells Slater to take the crate of black boxes back to the ship where they should be safer. He also orders Marion to stay with Smith for her own safety, but she doesn’t take kindly to being bossed around and reminds him she’s a paying passenger, not one of his crew. Redway refuses to back down and tells her he doesn’t have time to worry about injuring her feelings and if she won’t co-operate he’ll have her escorted back to the ship and locked in.
He asks Vanderlyn to accompany him while he goes in search of the reactivated Dalek. They collect some weapons and Redway is relieved to discover that Vanderlyn is regarded as an expert shot. As the city hasn’t been disturbed for fifty years, the trail left behind in the dust should make it easy for them to track the Dalek. At the end of the war, the Daleks’ power source was believed to have been destroyed, but Redway is worried they may have another secret source of power and the reactivated Dalek may be planning to bring all the others back to life. After they leave, Ladiver tells the others the Daleks are twice as clever and four times as cunning as people gives them credit for. Slater returns to the ship to offload some more crates, but as he leaves, a Dalek is watching the group silently from the other side of the city archway. Unnoticed, it glides down the main ramp and heads straight for a wall, which slides open to admit it entry.
Smith assures Marion she’ll be safe with him, but she tells him she’s tired of having him fuss around her. He warns her that if she continues talking back to him, he’ll have her chained up with the prisoners. He tells her that last time he was on Earth, girls were still gentle creatures and were happy to be the weaker sex. Marion points out that she’s one of the few female space travellers and she doesn’t expected to be treated any differently to a man. He orders her to break out the food rations and give everyone something to eat.
Later, Sline congratulates Ladiver on his cunning plan to get arrested and divert the ship to Skaro and suggests they could work well together. His own slave trade business had been running successfully for seven years before he was caught. His method was to sell plots of land on Mars where there weren’t many people, then offer free transport to the people from Venus, which was over-populated. It was only when the Venusians arrived on Mars that they discovered they had to work on the land for 40 years before it became theirs. Unfortunately a special agent from Unispace started digging around and one morning, just as he was taking on board a cargo of “passengers”, he was arrested by a patrol. To Ladiver’s surprise, Sline produces a brand new file which he stole from the toolkit while the others were waving goodbye to Slater. It should be perfect for sawing through their chains, so they manoeuvre themselves into a position where no one else can see them and get straight to work…
The food is prepared and Marion gives Smith an unwanted lecture on the difference between vitamins and calories. Smith says he’s looking forward to an eight-course dinner, but Marion offers him just one cream cheese sandwich. He tells her she looks much better when she smiles and asks why she doesn’t do it more often. He apologises for upsetting her, but she tells him not to bother if he doesn’t mean it. She says men are all the same - they either treat her like a silly little girl who ought to know better than do a man out of a job, or else they treat her like Dresden china. In return, Smith says she reminds him of the 20th century groups who thought women were as good as men. Back then, everyone was talking about equal opportunities, but these days it isn’t necessary as there are seven men to every girl on Earth. Marion says that doesn’t mean they can’t be just as intelligent or do the same jobs, but Smith wonders why any woman would want to chose a difficult job out in space. He says he could understand it if she was ugly, but she’s not. Marion tells him she had a brother who died when he was quite young. Her father, the famous research chemist Philip Clements, who made space travel possible through his food packaging and the invention of compressed water, desperately wanted a son to carry on his work. He wonders if Smith can imagine what it’s like for a woman to have to compete with men - if they have a good idea, it’s dismissed as lucky, and if they make the kind of simple mistakes that anyone might make, it gets blown up out of all proportion. Out in space, a girl has to be twice as intelligent, three times as quick and four times as strong as a man. She realises Smith hasn’t understood a word she’s said and she storms off angrily.
Sline manages to release himself and Ladiver from their chains, but before his friend can stop him, Sline jumps up and runs for his life. Smith shouts out a warning, then opens fire. Sline is hit and crashes to the ground. Smith explains that he used an anaesthetic bullet and the prisoner will be unconscious for hours. He orders Ladiver to help carry Sline back to the camp and chain him up again. Ladiver tells Smith a thought has just occurred to him - the radarscope back on the ship should have warned them about the meteorite storm long before it hit them, so why wasn‘t Redway informed?
Captain Redway and Professor Vanderlyn race back to the camp and demand to know what’s going on. Smith explains that Sline tried to escape and is congratulated on handling the situation well. Vanderlyn says they didn’t have any luck with their search, even when they split up to double their efforts. They followed the trail that the Dalek made in the dust, but it just came to an end in the middle of a corridor. It was as if the Dalek had been lifted off the ground, but that‘s impossible as the ceiling above was solid. Suddenly a loaded trailer charges towards them at high speed down the ramp. They all dive for cover and fortunately no one is hurt. Slater was supposed to be taking the trailer back to the ship, but there’s no sign of him and Redway can’t understand why he would have disobeyed his orders. Marion calls the others over and shows them the track of a Dalek in the dust nearby that wasn’t there before. It seems clear the Dalek pushed the trailer into the camp, but what could have happened to Slater?
They spot a group of Daleks approaching from the city and they all hide behind whatever crates or equipment they can find. Redway orders the others to remain quiet, then he steps out from cover and challenges the Daleks under international space security laws. Ladiver and the others notice the Captain has both the armour disintegrating guns attached to his belt and they can‘t understand why he doesn‘t try to use them. The Daleks order him to accompany them inside the city and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them. Marion is furious with Smith, but the officer points out that his anaesthetic gun would have no effect on the Daleks at all. Ladiver noticed that the Daleks all had the little black boxes on their backs, yet they have the entire crate of boxes here in the camp with them. They open the crate - and to their horror discover it contains the dead body of Bob Slater! The black boxes have gone, which means the Daleks must have them all. They’re up against the entire race of Daleks!