Doctor Who: what can a Dalek story do?

Ruthless, power-mad killers, the Daleks are an iconic Doctor Who villain, but what can stories about them achieve in the show?

Doctor Who Dalek
Photo: BBC Pictures

After looking at the Cybermen in a previous article, today we take a look at the Daleks. While there hasn’t been a classic Cyberman-focused story on telly for decades, the Daleks have been comparatively well served, most recently appearing in the Ben Wheatley-directed Into The Dalek and killing lots of people with their innard-scrambling ray guns.

Dalek stories wouldn’t be Dalek stories if they didn’t kill lots of people with their innard-scrambling ray guns, right?

It’s certainly the most traditional demonstration of their power. For a regularly recurring race that exists to destroy all other species, they’re not actually the most perfect killing machines ever devised. That’d be a Raston Warrior Robot as seen in The Five Doctors, which probably hasn’t been seen again or explored further on telly because it is a perfect killing machine. The Daleks are both more and less than that. They invite allegory. They’re more human than something as ludicrously and terrifyingly efficient as the Raston. Their purpose isn’t ineffable; it’s based on hatred and tragedy.

This means that the purest Dalek story since 2005 is actually The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, where the Daleks are working towards their ultimate goal with unusual proficiency. Normally, they’re only conquering the galaxy incrementally, rather than something on a universal scale. It’s worth noting though, that in the show’s few jaunts to the end of the universe, they aren’t there. The Daleks, the most feared race in the universe, don’t make it as far as Orson Pink.

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Someone should tell them that.

That’s their entire reason for existing denied. It’d be interesting to see what they do with that knowledge, how they’d react and plan to change things, but Daleks being the instigators of a story doesn’t mean they’ll come out of it well. The Chase, for example, isn’t one to watch if you’re intent on seeing the Daleks being mighty conquerors. Likewise, Victory Of The Daleks has them winning, but even ignoring the redesigned Daleks it’s not regarded very highly. It’s not simply that its best aspect isn’t original (Into The Dalek is very derivative but tells its story more effectively), or that the day is saved by a Dalek facsimile malfunctioning (again), it’s that the Daleks in it are that most sapping of villainous traits: a bit rubbish.

More than being just visually problematic, the Daleks firstly rely on Bracewell – a robot disguised as a Scottish character actor – as if their history with unstable Robomen and duplicates has taught them nothing, and then tell everyone that Bracewell is first a robot and then a bomb.

It’s not textbook ruthless, is it? So, if you’re writing for the Daleks don’t write an overly complicated plan. If you do – and storytelling can lead you that way – distract people with memorable characters, and then kill them. It works for Evil Of The Daleks and – to a lesser extent – Resurrection Of The Daleks. Preferably, though, keep it simple.

Compare Victory Of The Daleks to Into The Dalek, where they’re merely hunting down rebels in space as part of their standard working day. There’s radiation, extermination, and a space-faring Dalek Empire. All very Sixties. The Doctor is being as charismatically abhorrent as he was in An Unearthly Child, and his hatred of the Daleks is no longer untrodden ground. Plus, obviously, it’s indebted to Fantastic Voyage. It’s like a Frankenstein’s monster of its influences, but as an individual story it was well received in a way that Victory Of The Daleks wasn’t. I have a simple theory as to why.

It’s because the Daleks are bigger dicks in it.

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They kill lots of people. Even the good Dalek kills two people and then explodes some Daleks. There’s an element of power and sadism in their actions that viewers want to see. We want to see the monsters be horrible and not make mistakes, so we know our heroes are clever and brave for beating them. That this has to be done with a relative lightness of touch is all the more impressive.

Doctor Who has always been superb at insidious PG horror.

In Remembrance Of The Daleks, Ben Aaronovitch adds the nasty little detail that their ray guns can scramble your insides, and Sylvester McCoy delivers it as a pithily brooding aside so it isn’t dwelt on for too long, but come on. These people’s screams are being caused by that. Yet that isn’t always enough. Daleks have always found other ways to be nastier still, but if you’re not looking to reinvent the wheel, a decent killing spree is recommended.

So Into The Dalek packs in the most carnage we’ve seen since The Parting Of The Ways. It also doesn’t clutter up the place with a complicated question-begging scheme (as Victory and Evolution Of The Daleks do). It’s a satisfying forty-five minutes of well-realised slaughter as a backdrop to the Doctor’s character arc. Perhaps it’s too derivative to be an out-and-out classic, and isn’t necessarily aiming for that level anyway, but another reason it won’t get there is that it never raises the stakes with regards its canon fodder.

Under Steven Moffat, Dalek-related deaths have undoubtedly become more gruesome – the nanogenes from Asylum Of The Daleks, for example, but there’s only Oswin standing out as an affecting death. In most Dalek stories, to be fair, there’s no Lynda with a Y. There’s no Kaled bunker. There’s no Vulcan colony. The best Dalek stories need great victims. Oswin, a character we were predisposed to like – being the surprise new companion and all – is not expected to have been turned into an insane Dalek, even though two of the new aspects created for the Daleks in this story specifically allow it to happen.

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The simplest and most effective way to realise the Dalek’s evil is to have them destroy something that evokes sympathy or love, but in addition to this something else needs to be added to the mix, be it their deviousness in Power Of The Daleks, or the contrast with the desperate humanoids of Genesis Of The Daleks, to the Doctor’s facing a repeat of his Time War dilemma in The Parting Of The Ways, some other aspect can really tip this ruthlessness into Classic Story territory, and it needs to be something new. If we’d never seen Daleks before, then Into The Dalek would most likely be thought of even more positively.

So, with that in mind, what else is there to compare and contrast the Daleks to? Would the show be brave enough to set up a contemporary political allegory? What aspects of human nature are there that are depressingly Dalek?

There’s still scope to explore new angles and comparisons, and it’s these that will raise the next bout of mutated-Kaled carnage into something more than the Daleks, back again, killing lots of people with their innard-scrambling ray guns.