Doctor Who: a celebration of the Daleks

Andrew reflects back on Doctor Who-induced childhood trauma, and celebrates what makes the Daleks such unique villains…

 

It’s easier being afraid of things when you’re a child.

Mysterons, for example. 999 with Michael Buerk. That video we got shown in school about farm safety with the ghost and the girl getting her arm wrenched off in a threshing machine. These are the things that made me stare at the ceiling at night, wordlessly replaying them in my mind’s eye.

Daleks didn’t always scare me. Sure, they weirded me out with their appearance and voices, like someone plugging your ears with brillo pads during the Nuremburg rally, but I was never kept awake at night by them. Then, at the village fair, a local Doctor Who fan was showing his models at the church hall, including a home-made life-size Dalek. It said in the Hamilton Advertiser that you could have a go in it, which was news to him, but it’s hard to thwart the relentless enthusiasm of a nine-year-old me, and so I trundled round the hall, narrowly avoiding flower arrangements and oil paintings of Bothwell Castle, shouting ‘EXTERMINATE’ and pushing the gun stick so that the little flares of metal came out of the nozzle.

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Then, during a particularly enthusiastic death cry/gun stick push, there was a blinding flash of light, and a small but terrible silence. My initial thought was not ‘Oh, somebody’s taking a photo,’ but ‘Oh. Wow. I have actually exterminated someone.’

Technically I’m in a paper clipping from the Daily Record somewhere in 1996. It’s just that you can’t see me because I’m inside a Dalek, menacing its maker and an old lady. If you could see me, I’d look bloody terrified, because I thought I’d just killed a church hall full of auld Lanarkshire wummin, who are notoriously hard to kill even with the liberal application of time and Scottish weather. From this point on I was more freaked out by them, and the concept of them. 

In their very first story you get a very good sense of what it is like to be trapped inside a Dalek machine, unable to leave, unable to escape. That’s the effect that voice artist Peter Hawkins was going for when he invented their sound, and the size of the studios that Doctor Who filmed in lend the story a complimentary claustrophobia, despite the various treks through radioactive jungles, caverns and cities. Whenever a Dalek went on an insane rant, or became so crazed that other Daleks judged it to be a bit weird, I felt a slight chill at the thought of being inside a Mark 3 Travel Machine, looking at the outside world longingly, and going slowly mad.

Terry Nation’s creation of the Daleks involved a strong central idea that gave other writers room to develop, and a key note in its descriptions of the creatures that stemmed from Nation’s desire to avoid a monster that was obviously a man in a suit. Hawkins’ voice was integral, but so too was the design work of Raymond Cusick, which was so strong as to remain essentially unaltered over 48 years later. A post-war icon was born, and it persisted. The Daleks had completely captured the public imagination, culminating in the Dalekmania phenomena’s hundreds of toys produced and Peter Cushing films.

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The show was decidedly for children when it began, albeit in a way that can look very adult to contemporary audiences (with its slower pace, morally ambiguous anti-hero as its lead and much larger scale), and Daleks are immediately scary for a child. They’re weird, first of all. They look like nothing else on television, or in reality, their voices alone are enough to scare people (some of their appearances in Big Finish plays are excellent), and they EXTERMINATE people. This is very important. Turning the image negative to signify a Dalek ray gun effect is very simple, but it is yet another trick that lends the Daleks their nightmarish qualities, because it’s so odd. It was the opposite of right, another wrong to add to the list of many wrongs the Daleks have already provided us with. When, a mere 25 years later, the Doctor announced that being hit by a Dalek laser scrambles your insides, that just made it all the more horrible. Everything about the Daleks is wrong, and that’s why they work.

Also they work because ‘Cyborg Nazis’ is a brilliant concept for a race of hysterical metallic bastards. We, as fans, like to see them kill, scheme, outwit, kill, manipulate, goad and kill people. Lots of them. Power of the Daleks is a masterclass in delivering this. Not only are the Daleks immensely creepy, but their malevolence is enough to cause the humans in the story to turn on each other so the Daleks don’t have to, but do so anyway. 

Sixties’ production teams reserved big changes in the show for Dalek stories, so that their presence became associated with big impacts on the main characters. Several companions leave during Dalek stories, some arrive, some die, and in Power the new Doctor’s identity is confirmed by his greatest enemies, as if to twist the notion of reassuring the audience so that it comes from the bad guys rather than the Doctor’s friends.

Evil of the Daleks manages to invent the modern day series finale style story in 1967, with its endearingly rubbish science, convoluted plotting, and an epic battle to finish the story, featuring an imposing Dalek Emperor and a showdown on their home planet of Skaro. Power of the Daleks is perhaps their greatest story because they first scheme and plot, and then unleash the insanity with chanting and wholesale slaughter. The balance is spot on. After their creator Davros arrives and their timeline is altered (for more details why not try James Goss and Steve Tribe’s excellent Dalek Handbook?) the Daleks are often relegated to the background of the plot until 1988’s triumphant Remembrance of the Daleks, which manages the neat trick of being epic-battle-among-the-gods, prod-buttock-action-thriller, and thematically-driven-sci-fi all at once. The Target novelisation remains deservedly sought after.

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What many of the great Dalek stories understand is that they are creatures borne from experiences of war, specifically the Second World War, and of the Third Reich’s concepts of supermen, master-races and racial purity. It’s an especially savage depiction, as a race of humanoid creatures are evolved by Davros into various types of blob over the years, placed in a life support/travel machine, and programmed to believe that they are the superior race, ironically fighting a race that evolves into the Aryan ideal. It’s no wonder they’re insane, given the discrepancy between what they’re told to believe and the evident reality of their situation, or that they’re highly strung, even committing suicide after failing simple tasks. This is when they’re less of a threat, when they go a bit wibbly and hysterical. Their cold and calculating side is more memorable.

Compare Dalek to Journey’s End. There are more Daleks in the latter, and they do kill a child when they blow up a family home, but they still seem scarier in Dalek, not least because they haven’t imprisoned their mad scientist creator in the basement with the off-switch to the entire fleet in that story. In the 2005 series the Daleks are integral to the arc, and Journey’s End borrows from that legacy to give it a sense of being really epically epic, but really it could be any old monster trying to blow up the universe and the story wouldn’t be significantly different.  

So, if you’re ever lucky enough to be writing a Dalek story, remember this: They’re trapped and desperate, full of self-loathing, but they’re also incredibly cunning and utterly ruthless. Plus, if they kill lots and lots of people in incredibly sick ways, your job is half done.

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