“… hideous, machine-like creatures. They are legless, moving on a round base. They have no human features. A lens on a flexible shaft acts as an eye, arms with mechanical grips for hands.” Terry Nation’s script for ‘The Survivors’ (aka ‘The Daleks’ Part Two)
The Daleks, along with Judge Dredd, are fictional fascists beloved by a wide audience. At their heart is a combination of terrifying concept – Nazis who always return (imagine) – with a triumph of design. The greatest Dalek stories tap into this uneasy alliance.
A quick summary of the thinking behind this article:
A. We thought people would enjoy it.
B. If a story features the Daleks in a small cameo role, I’ve not included it (for example, ‘Frontier in Space’, ‘The Wedding of River Song’, ‘The Pilot’). I’ve removed ‘The Day of the Doctor’ and ‘The Time of the Doctor’: it seems silly to rate them based on their Dalek content.
The rankings are not based purely on how entertaining I find the stories, but also on how the Daleks are used and developed, the Doctor’s response to them and what that says (within both the larger context of the show’s history and the stories surrounding it). As this only covers television stories, I should mention that I think the best Dalek story of all time is the Big Finish audioplay ‘Jubilee’ by Rob Shearman, which you should know as little as possible about before listening to.
24. Planet of the Daleks
Having not seen this until its DVD release, I don’t have any residual affection for this story from childhood (unlike other stories on this list; I thought ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’ was great when I was nine).
‘Planet’comes across as lazy now. To be fair to Terry Nation, no one could rewatch episodes in 1972, and so his first script for the show since 1965 drew heavily on his old stories. The result is a rote traipse through the familiar.
It’s not without positives: The Doctor’s grief and rage when he thinks Jo is dead is very well acted, although the oft quoted “Courage isn’t just a matter of not being frightened” line works better in isolation than in the actual scene, which feels like HR has invited Jon Pertwee in to do a motivational seminar.
23. Destiny of the Daleks
Terry Nation’s final script for Doctor Who clashed with Script Editor Douglas Adams. Adams tried to zest up what he regarded as tired Nation standards (including radiation poisoning, overambitious monsters, a rare mineral, a quest, things named after their primary characteristic, invisible monsters, jungle planets, aggressive vegetation, flaky Daleks, unfortunate comedy episodes and plagues). The lack of budget is obvious, with knackered Dalek props and an ill-fitting Davros mask (actor David Gooderson also cannot lift Davros’ generic villain dialogue).
Some jokes land (‘Ooh look! Rocks!’) as does some of the Mild Peril (Episode 3’s cliff-hanger especially), but the story about inertia reflects its subject. K9 doesn’t appear because Nation didn’t want him to distract from the Daleks, then reduces them to impotent robots in thrall to their creator anyway.
22. Daleks in Manhattan/ Evolution of the Daleks
It’s not that this re-treads ideas from ‘Evil of the Daleks’, or that the science strains credulity even by Doctor Who standards, it’s that this story feels strangely perfunctory despite its ambitions. This is a shame because there are some great moments in the first episode where the Daleks plot, skulk and lament. It feels salvageable, but Russell T. Davies was ill and unable to perform his usual rewrites on the scripts, and the result feels like ticking off items on a Tenth Doctor Bingo card.
We do get the mental image of the Cult of Skaro sneaking around 1920s New York trying to kidnap a pig though, so you can’t say that it’s all bad.
21. The Chase
‘The Chase’ starts off well and cosy. Terry Nation sets the initial action on a desert planet called Aridius where some aliens from RADA are menaced by a giant ballbag. The regulars are all enjoying themselves. Then we getawkward comedy skits, a poorly judged trip to the Marie Celeste, and a sequence in a haunted house where everyone is stupid for some reason. The momentum never fully recovers from this.
Giving the Daleks time travel to pursue the TARDIS is an important development, and it’s a fantastic set for the interior, but the middle of this story lets it down.
20. Resurrection of the Daleks
From this point on, using the Daleks required approval by Terry Nation or his estate. Nation had been unsatisfied by other writers’ version of the Daleks, which is quite the take, and refused to allow another writer to tackle them until a convention appearance changed his mind. Nation’s feedback on an Eric Saward script meant that the story was revised and became overfull to satisfy both writers’ visions.
A delay in production gave time for streamlining, but nonetheless ‘Resurrection’ is messy and ultimately doesn’t seem very interested in the Daleks (focussing again on Davros and Saward’s mercenary characters). Indeed, the Daleks here seem even weaker than in ‘Destiny’, relying on mercenaries to take over Davros’ prison ship and being insecure enough to give them little Dalek decorations on their helmets.
In its defence, Matthew Robinson directs it with gusto, somewhere in there is a critique of its own violence, and Tegan’s departure is excellent.
19. Revolution of the Daleks
This is not a story that uses the Daleks on more than one level, and yet also possibly the nearest thing its era gets to political satire. We have someone using the remains of a Dalek to build security drones, associating a representation of fascism with law enforcement and connecting it to government, but the story moves away from this idea into cloned Dalek mutants hijack the drones and kill people, and then the original Daleks turn up to kill them because they’re not genetically pure. The Doctor’s solution to the remaining Daleks is good, but while this one doesn’t do anything outrageously wrong, it doesn’t do anything especially right either.
Likewise, this story is just sort of there, like Shed Seven or thrush. The Daleks have a new form of controlling people, with the mutant wearing them like the title creatures from ‘Planet of the Spiders’ (as strong an image as it was in 1975) and the DIY Dalek shell mirrors the Doctor’s rebuilding of the sonic screwdriver.
The Dalek also demonstrates its firepower quite impressively, but contrasting this with ‘Dalek’ shows what’s missing: this doesn’t have anything like the personal stakes of that story, and so we have some pulpy and familiar thrills but little depth.
17. Into the Dalek
The main job of ‘Into the Dalek’ isn’t getting under the skin of the Daleks, but setting up the Series 8 arcs. We have a good Dalek, which turns out to have a damaged inhibitor allowing it to feel compassion, and a Fantastic Voyage-style journey through its interior. This lacks existential dread (in contrast to Clara being trapped inside a Dalek during ‘The Witch’s Familiar’), but Ben Wheatley directs the Daleks in combat extremely well.
It’s very busy, ambitious and patchy: the gag where the Doctor keeps finding Clara unattractive gets old quickly, the dialogue is of variable quality, and everyone has to be stupid for the plot to happen. There’s an interesting story to be had about a broken Dalek and the Doctor’s response to it, but this isn’t it.
16. Victory of the Daleks
Another riff on a Troughton-era story, in this case ‘Power of the Daleks’, this is easier to criticise now separate from the outcry over the New Paradigm design.
And it is… okay. The twist that the Doctor’s hatred of Daleks is what progresses their plan is a better use of this than the usual abyss-gazing. The Daleks win, but this doesn’t land with sufficient weight as the meat of the ending is given over to the ongoing series arc.
It’s a hybrid of Dalek event story and Companion Proves Themselves (with all the iconography of Churchill, World War Two and the Daleks) and is so by necessity somewhat pat in its resolution. Also, by Printing the Legend of Churchill a more interesting story is compressed into the line “If Hitler invaded hell I would give a favourable reference to the Devil”.
Putting aside the Dalek designs, which didn’t work for most people, this story fulfils a function and attempts to disguise this amiably enough.
15. Death to the Daleks
This is a story that, thanks to it being four parts rather than six, we could afford on video. I can’t say for sure how much this impacts my preferring it to ‘Planet of the Daleks’, but I do think it stands out slightlyfrom other Terry Nation stories despite the familiar elements (rare minerals, quests, a first episode featuring just the regulars).
Carey Blyton’s score, along with Arnold Yarrow’s performance as Bellal, has an endearing quirkiness. There are little flourishes like the Daleks using a model TARDIS for target practice, and the Doctor’s melancholy at the destruction of the city. Its oddness occasionally overcomes the quaintness of Nation’s approach to Doctor Who, which doesn’t seem to have changed since 1965.
14. Army of Ghosts/ Doomsday
Having successfully brought the Daleks back, Russell T. Davies held off on using them again until the Series 2 finale. We have the Daleks versus the Doctor and – for the first time – the Cybermen. The Dalek threat is resolved fairly swiftly as a mechanism to separate the Doctor and Rose, but what we do get is the Cult of Skaro (the return of the Black Dalek! Daleks with names! I don’t know why these are exciting but they are!) and the joy of subverting the two biggest monsters finally meeting by – instead of a huge space battle – having four of them read each other in a corridor with sassy putdowns.
13. Revelation of the Daleks
Eric Saward’s second Dalek story features Davros turning humans into a new race of Daleks leading to the stirrings of a civil war with the originals.
There are always garish edges to Saward’s writing, but the sequence where a character discovers her father’s body inside a glass Dalek – and he alternates between ranting about genetic purity and begging him to kill her – is at its core such a terrifying idea that it succeeds where the horrors of ‘Resurrection’ seem shallow. It does share that story’s lack of interest in the Daleks for the most part though, but this scene makes them scary for the first time since ‘Genesis’.
This also features Alexei Sayle fighting Daleks with a ray gun that fires rock’n’roll. If you don’t like that then we’re probably not going to agree on much about Doctor Who.
12. Day of the Daleks
This is an example of the Daleks’ importance to Doctor Who. After talking to Huw Weldon, who had been responsible for the length of ‘The Dalek Master Plan’, producer Barry Letts decided to bring the Daleks back for the Season 9 finale, with Terry Nation’s permission, only to decide that the show instead needed a hook for the opening story of Season 10. As a result, the Daleks were inserted into the story planned for that slot. This is a common feature of Dalek stories: it’s hard to write something original that they’re intrinsic to.
The production suffers from the small number of Dalek props available, and director Paul Bernard not using the ring modulator effect for their voices. This is a good story (though maybe not a good Dalek Story) with a then novel time paradox plot and Aubrey Woods’ Controller is a really strong performance. Viewing figures broke the 10 million mark for the first time since ‘The Dalek Master Plan’, so the decision to bring the Daleks back was absolutely vindicated.
11. Mission to the Unknown/The Daleks’ Master Plan
Essentially a longer and darker version of ‘The Chase’ with higher stakes – it’s not simply that the Daleks want to kill the Doctor, it’s that the Doctor stole part of their superweapon – with a subpar comedy episode and lots of hostile planets (deadly plants, invisible monsters, a rare mineral: such familiarity!). Extended to twelve episodes, it loses its way but commits to its scale with an incredibly downbeat ending that uses jungle planet cliché for contrast: Kembel is reduced to sand and dust.
A highlight of this story is the alliance of Outer Galaxy emissaries who join with the Daleks, a group of Doctor Who villains who inevitably bicker and betray each other. This, rather than the Space Security Service, is what Terry Nation should have focussed on for his spin-offs.
10. Asylum of the Daleks
Steven Moffat’s first proper Dalek story was part of Series 7A, an attempt at weekly blockbusters driven by high concepts. Here, then was the promise of a Dalek asylum with old and replica props, while also attempting to unify both the New Paradigm designsand the lack of emotional fallout to Amy and Rory Pond’s baby being kidnapped. Moffat also threw in a surprise new companion appearance and it’s this, combined with a nano cloud weapon that turns people into Daleks.
It’s not that the others don’t get resolved, but it’s done swiftly in another busy story. While the Daleks have previously controlled people, the idea of actually being turned into Daleks is both macabre and slightly jarring. It feels like, considering their last story involved a plotline about genetic purity, this isn’t the right fit. What does work better is the concept that the Daleks have a concept of beauty, and it’s based around hatred. While this episode does fulfil its blockbuster ambitions it also feels like it needs more room to breathe in order to do justice to all its concepts.
9. The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End
This is the logical conclusion of the Daleks’ return to the show: invading present-day Earth with a huge fleet (complete with Davros backseat driving). Also here, on top of the scale and sheer pace of the storytelling, is the logical conclusion of the Daleks: they attempt to destroy all other life in the universe in one go.
However, there’s also a sense of their ‘Day of the Daleks’role. They’re the Big Guns, so out they come for Doctor Who’s version of Infinity War. They’re developed here by virtue of Davies giving some of them distinct characters (Hello Dalek Caan, hello another stellar Nick Briggs performance). The Daleks here are aggressive and powerful (until Donna finds the off-switch in their basement), but the Doctor’s storyline is more tied up with the companions’ fates than the Daleks.
Davros is also here, trying to suggest to the Doctor that his friends trying to kill Daleks – the most evil race in the universe who are currently trying to obliterate all other sentient life – is bad (this idea worked once in a specific context and no one else has managed it before or since). On the other hand, Davros recognising Sarah Jane again is a thrilling way to bind Doctor Who to its past.
8. The Daleks
On the one hand, I find this story drags towards the end after a strong and uneasy start, but on the other Doctor Who doesn’t exist as we know it without ‘The Daleks’.
It’s hard to imagine the impact of this story on a 1963 audience, especially as we’re so familiar with what the Daleks and Doctor Who were to become. Consider, then, a story with the fear of the bomb writ large (broadcast a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis) and the Daleks in that context. That’s the existential fear angle for the adults covered, which meant they were happy to watch along, but more important was the response from children: love.
Many people contributed to the story and to the Daleks. Nation’s desire to avoid a Man-In-A-Suit monster is important, but key is the work of designer Raymond Cusick, voice actor Peter Hawkins and the Radiophonic Workshop’s Brian Hodgson. What the initially sceptical BBC found was that by the third episode, children who had watched the show were impersonating the Daleks.
There’s a lot to be written about the ageing geek audience who take their childhood toys with them into adulthood, and this article is written by a 35-year-old man who grew up when Doctor Who was off-air. However it’s worth stressing: next time you complain about the show reaching out to primary school aged children, remember that without kids in the playground, Doctor Who would simply not have survived.
7. The Evil of the Daleks
This is an excellent four-part story. Unfortunately it’s seven episodes long.
After a ludicrously convoluted scheme to get the Doctor into the actual plot, amid subplots that go nowhere, there are great parts of David Whittaker’s tale: The Daleks have kidnapped the Doctor and Jamie in order to isolate the Human Factor – the quality humans possess that enables them to regularly defeat the Daleks – to enable them to finally overcome humanity.
Firstly, if Russell T. Davies had written this the forums would never stop complaining about its scientific accuracy. Secondly, what this concept does is allow Whittaker to put the Doctor and Jamie into conflict, with the Doctor’s trickery leading to the unnerving scene of Daleks acting like children and then ultimately a Dalek civil war. We also see the first appearance of the Dalek Emperor, with a huge prop built for the story. When ‘Evil of the Daleks’ is good, it’s electric. You can see this in the surviving episode when the Doctor realises just before they appear that the Daleks are involved.
It’s a shame that the superfluous padding significantly detracts from the rest.
6. The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar
A story which is primarily about the relationship between the Doctor, Davros, Missy and Clara, but which also casually drops in several new concepts which get under the skin of the Daleks more successfully than anything since ‘Dalek’. The focus is on Davros, but as the Doctor observes ‘Everything you are, they are.’
Firstly, there’s an elegant piece of writing from Steve Moffat where Davros narrates the moments before a Dalek fires, explaining they are waiting for Clara to run. Not only does this explain the Daleks not immediately shooting people, it offers a glimpse into their sadism and malice (as exemplified by Davros). Similarly, the idea that the creature inside the Dalek clings on outside of their life-support system, as they cling onto their home planet, ties into what we’ve seen on screen before.
Finally, anything in a Dalek casing trying to express individuality will have those words and thoughts twisted into the opposite meaning. This returns to the idea that original voice artist Peter Hawkins had for the Daleks – that the creatures inside were trapped. It’s an insidiously nasty idea, perhaps explaining behaviour such as the Dalek that commits suicide in ‘Death to the Daleks’when it sees its prisoners have escaped.
5. The Dalek Invasion of Earth
This and ‘Genesis’ confirm that Terry Nation’s strengths were in war stories rather than the pulp science-fiction adventure story he relied on. ‘Dalek Invasion of Earth’ is a thriller full of post-war fears that forever intertwined the Daleks and The Doctor.The production team pull out all the stops to show a conquered Earth with harrowing matter-of-factness, but the Doctor takes delight in opposing them (Hartnell is great here, taking the edge off with a twinkle but playing Susan’s leaving scene with great pathos too). The last episode is little rushed but overall this is well balanced.
The Daleks here are more mobile and powerful, their regime oppressive, their plans for turning the Earth into a spaceship bizarre and ineffable. As Nation puts it ‘They dare to tamper with the forces of creation’, the sort of boldness that would seep out of his own storytelling in future stories.
4. Genesis of the Daleks
‘Genesis of the Daleks’is another war story realised extremely well. The production does not pull many punches, and is atypically grim for Doctor Who: The Doctor loses but clings on to the slim hope that he hasn’t.
This is clearly Terry Nation’s best script, and is still clearly a Terry Nation script: radiation poisoning, over-ambitious creature requests – I don’t think Doctor Who could ever do a giant clam well, even now – and the endearingly-crap naming conventions (the mutants in the wastelands are called ‘Mutos’ and their dialogue could slot effortlessly into The Mighty Boosh).
Outgoing producer Barry Letts called Nation on his bullshit when he attempted to hand in a similar script for the second time, and suggested an origin story. From here Nation developed the war of attrition, Nazi parallels and the character of Davros (created to have a Dalek-like character who could be given interesting dialogue). Nation commits to making the origins of the Daleks plausibly horrifying. Contrast the halfway stage of ‘The Chase’ – with its misplaced comedy episodes that sap the momentum of the story – with the halfway point here: Davros willingly destroys his entire race to ensure the survival of the Daleks.
Where it feels lesser in comparison is that it is neither connected to an everyday, material reality (unlike ‘Spare Parts’, the story exploring the Cybermen’s origins) and its famous scene where the Doctor asks if he has the right to commit genocide, which looms large in later stories.
And yet, this scene only works in isolation. In context it’s jarring. In surrounding stories, the Doctor kills a sentient robot, a Sontaran, and some Zygons; he will later poison someone with cyanide, all without any qualms. Here, though, he compares destroying Dalek mutants – which are already attacking people – to killing Hitler as a baby. The Doctor worries he’d be as bad as the Daleks if he wipes them out. A few scenes later he has changed his mind, trying and failing to kill them. If it was linked to Davros’ aspirations of godhood, fine, but it’s neither written nor played that way.
It’s not as if the Doctor hasn’t already instigated attacks that seem to wipe the Daleks out, but there other people did the dirty work. It’s this, going forward, that becomes the key aspect of the scene for future writers.
3. Remembrance of the Daleks
‘Remembrance’takes the brewing civil war situation of ‘Revelation’ and connects it simultaneously to Doctor Who and British history. The Doctor is trying to trick the Daleks into using a superweapon hidden in 1963 London, knowing it could result in people dying. The Doctor’s trap feels like a response to ‘Have I the right?’ – clearly he feels he has but doesn’t want to directly press the trigger. It’s both a significant change and logical development in the series and the character, with Sylvester McCoy wanting to play both the weight of the character’s years and actions.
The Daleks are here because it’s an anniversary series but also because if you want a demonstration of power then potentially defeating the Daleks is a clear statement. Writer Ben Aaronovitch doesn’t just involve Daleks with a view to blowing them up, but addresses the reasons for their civil war: the hatred for the unlike that has defined the Daleks but also been part of British culture the entire time Doctor Who has been on screen and beyond, explicitly linked to the most evil creatures in the universe. Not only that, he places that hatred in the supporting cast: the ostensible good guys, the UNIT precursor, the family home.
This has scale, depth and feels important on different levels. This is Doctor Who back to its playground-influencing best.
2. The Power of the Daleks
As Terry Nation was unavailable, David Whitaker wrote the initial scripts before Dennis Spooner’s uncredited rewrites. The Daleks are in this story to bring viewers back on board after the first regeneration, and they also legitimise the new Doctor in contrast to the Daleks. The Mercury swamps that bookend the story also evoke Terry Nation in terms of putting the characters into a hostile alien environment.
The action takes places on a human colony, Vulcan. The Daleks are introduced as a potential solution to their problems, with an insurrectionist faction interested in using them as weapons and the scientist restoring them obsessed with his discoveries. The Doctor’s lone voice of dissent comes across as lunatic ravings, but the audience know the Daleks are manipulating everyone else.
Daleks obviously have the power to kill, but ubiquity had already removed their uncanniness until this story. The suggestion of deeper thought and intelligence builds, and this story gives the lie to the notion that you can’t give the Daleks good dialogue: “Why do human beings kill other human beings?” is full of chilling curiosity, “Yes, you gave us life” a future echo of their capacity for destroying father figures, the almost mocking repetition of “I am your servant”, and the cacophony of “Daleks conquer and destroy” that becomes a disorientating swirl of hatred.
This culminates in a final episode of mass slaughter. The release of tension is colossal. The very end suggests this is not over. The Daleks will never be more unnerving.
1. Dalek/Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways
This isn’t a three-parter in the usual sense, but these episodes are inextricably linked, with Russell T. Davies using a series arc to delay and distract the audience from their connection.
What’s key to all three episodes is Christopher Eccleston. He sells the threat of the Daleks better than any other Doctor, elevating the already strong scripts. These are the best performances against the Daleks there will ever be.
If you’re reading this website there’s a strong chance you know that the Daleks were seen going upstairs in the 1980s, but for most viewers ‘Dalek’ was the one that took all the jokes and weaponised them (Indeed Rob Shearman asked his partner what she thought was silly about the Daleks before writing his script): they not only go upstairs but crack skulls with their sucker arm, with added revolving weaponry and force field.
The carnage is well-realised, with director Joe Ahearne letting the Dalek take its time to build the tension, Shearman’s script taps into Russell T. Davies’ new Time War mythology and companion dynamic to allow the Dalek more intelligence in terms of dialogue and emotional manipulation. This Dalek has the threat of those in ‘Genesis’and the intelligence of the ones in ‘Power of the Daleks’.
Their redesign is a microcosm of why ‘Dalek’ works so well: it doesn’t change much, rather it takes what already works and improves upon it. I can’t imagine the return of the Daleks being handled better, while stealthily setting up the stakes of the previously unimaginable series finale.
Over this article I’ve talked about different aspects of the Daleks’ appeal. Children love them and fear them. They tap into adult fears of death, fascism and the uncanny (exemplified by the cacophonic chanting of ‘Exterminate’). That they can appear comical can be weaponised, as can the fact their hatred is not unique to them. Their reach extends into the mundane.
The reasons these episodes work so well is partly because they tap into these strengths, but also that they tell more than anything tell the story of the Ninth Doctor. He’s already committed a double-genocide, as far as he’s concerned, and is barely keeping it together without the prospect of having to commit another one. This is contrasted with the fact of one Dalek being demonstrably dangerous, and now there are hundreds of them. We know what they can, what they will do, and the only way to stop it is for the Doctor to kill Daleks and humans alike. It’s a much more effectively constructed and persuasive dilemma than the one the Doctor proposes in ‘Genesis’.
This story also puts in work with the supporting characters, and rather than being soldiers the staff of the satellite are office workers put into a desperate situation, or people who just wanted to be on telly. While ‘Bad Wolf’isn’t as Dalek-heavy, its satire is subtly devastating. If you look back at clips of The Weakest Link now you can see casual and sadistic cruelty meted out, so connecting this to the Daleks is a stroke of genius (especially with celebrity voices unwittingly joining in their own condemnation), bringing their evil to the everyday.
The Doctor’s closest friends here are merely the people who die last; he knows they’re going to die, and he hears it happen. It becomes increasingly personal, while also satiating that morbid fannish desire to see the Daleks kill someone. Here they seem sadistic, devious, and unstoppable. The need to stop them is obvious, as is the cost.
So rather than an unearned moment of moralising here we have a situation where the Doctor’s decision makes sense, is not abstract to him. This also, in the first series back, makes an important statement: Doctor Who can be dark, and nice people can die horribly, but it is not a series where the grimness becomes overwhelming. Here the Doctor’s decision not to kill is one he knows will also cost him his life, and then his ideals inspire his salvation: it is Rose, not Davros or the Doctor, who is set up among the gods, and her instinct is not – to paraphrase another franchise – to destroy what she hates.
The reason I love this one is because it delivers on so many fronts: these stories define this Doctor. The story is epic but steeped in the everyday. The Daleks are terrified and terrifying, silent and shrieking, devious and brutal. They feel unstoppable here in a way they simply haven’t since. For a story to do this many things is impressive, but to do them all well is astonishing.