The Daleks have appeared in every series of Doctor Who since it returned in 2005, after being in 14 stories in the show’s original run. It’s understandable: without the success of the Daleks in 1963 it’s unlikely Doctor Who would be on TV today. The two are so intertwined that when people think of the Doctor, they can’t help but think of the Daleks. Being so closely connected in such a long-running show though, has its drawbacks: the Daleks always return, but their credibility as a threat has diminished.
Former showrunner Steven Moffat described the Daleks as “the most reliably defeated enemies in the universe”. Moffat (and Mark Gatiss) therefore gave them a victory, and then rested them, relatively speaking, with cameo appearances in series six and ten. Under Moffat’s predecessor Russell T. Davies, the villains reached their logical conclusion of trying to destroy everything in the universe that wasn’t Dalek. Recently, Chris Chibnall used the Daleks as a crowd pleaser in his New Year Specials. All three showrunners added new facets but ultimately that “reliably defeated” one is always there.
The much-heard argument that the Daleks need a rest stems from this over-familiarity, and the idea that there simply aren’t any more stories to tell using them. What do we know about Daleks? They want to destroy everything un-Dalek, they’re obsessed with genetic purity, they’re cyborgs born of war, they turn up looking weird and zap stuff… all things that have been thoroughly documented and explored. So you’d be forgiven for sympathising with the opinion that they need a rest.
You are, however, wrong. You’ve never been more wrong. The good news is that you’re just wrong about Doctor Who and not something important, but still: wrong.
The key thing here is that the Daleks are Nazi allegories. True, the fascism aspect varies depending on which story they’re in, but Terry Nation created them in a Cold War setting, with the Nazis and nuclear weapons key influences on ‘The Survivors’ (as the original pitch was called). In-universe (as seen in Nation’s ‘Genesis of the Daleks’) they’re very clearly created in a situation reminiscent of Nazi Germany and adopt the language and aspects of that ideology. There’s a real-world influence to the Daleks and similar ideas, language and fears are still with us. What we can also see from the real world – which is generally depressing as hell but quite useful in a storytelling context – is that hypocrisy and the far right go hand in hand.
In the UK, the Conservatives have a reputation for fiscal responsibility, but given the current cost of living crisis, the COVID pandemic having been used to hand out lucrative contracts to friends and financiers with no medical experience, and short-lived Prime Minister Liz Truss crashing the economy, their reputation is – at best – under scrutiny (plus, of course, they were led by famous liar Boris Johnson). In America, the “but her emails” and “lock her up” populist movement protests against the possible jailing of its figurehead Donald Trump. Hitler promoted the concept of the ideal Aryan physique and traditional family model while being a wee guy who was really into his niece. Put simply: there’s often a gap between the right’s stated ideals and actions, but they are able to make this imperceptible.
There is scope for drama, then, in this evident hypocrisy. Indeed, this is somewhere Steven Moffat has already gone: his Daleks have a parliament, they convert other lifeforms into Daleks. If this chafes against existing concepts of what a Dalek is, great. The apparent disconnect with Dalek ideology isn’t a bug, it’s a feature of the political movements they echo. The gap between what they say and what they actually do is full of storytelling potential, not least because – unlike the aforementioned political figures – the Daleks are sassy tanks who go on pulp adventure romps. They can say a lot, but there’s no reason to believe them: the self-proclaimed superior race in the universe has – in ‘Death to the Daleks’- a panic attack and self-destructs. Millennial Daleks presumably upload this to Instagram with the caption “It me”.
On a related note, Moffat also looked at the psychology of being a Dalek, noting that to be that monster you would need constant reinforcement and live in a state of fear which is literally weaponised. In isolation, these ideas might appear strange, but together they show a consistent approach to showing soldier Daleks as a tool, and how that dynamic is maintained. The conditions of being a Dalek are similar to living under the Nazis, and Moffat uses the Dalek travel machine (the life-support casing that surrounds them) to manufacture those conditions for its occupant.
There were already a few tentative steps in this direction, most of them written by Rob Shearman. His novelisation of ‘Dalek’ – the 2005 story which saw the creatures return to TV after a 17-year absence – has a recurring scene of a boy playing with a kite, which becomes a way to discuss how the creature in the Dalek tank is continually radicalised. It chimes well with Moffat’s writing for the baddies on television – the idea that the travel machine is constantly keeping its inhabitant on edge.
This connects with the original Dalek voice actor Peter Hawkins’ idea that they should sound trapped and afraid. Rather than conflicting with what we know about Daleks, these ideas unify different aspects of the creatures throughout the show’s 60-year history. But more than a psychological detail, these ideas reveal this possibility: the Daleks will do anything that they are told to do by whoever programmes their travel machines.
This would presumably be the Dalek Supreme or Davros or similar, and so if that person wills it, the Daleks can be made to do anything. It’s not hard to find real world examples of political leaders making people act against their best interests, and it gives writers scope to explore upper echelons of Dalek society.
There aren’t as many limits as some may think on what a Dalek story can be. Have them on a quest for the Holy Grail, or invade a planet where the inhabitants are immune to lasers but explode on contact with synth-pop. Or possibly better ideas. Go nuts. Have fun. The main thing here is that writers can take the shackles off and not feel limited by conventional notions of what a Dalek story is. The way has been paved, and this is territory the show should explore. Writers should not be beholden to the Daleks’ legend or canon.
Doctor Who returns in November 2023 for three 60th anniversary specials.