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If you could boil the barnstorming early success of Doctor Who down to one element, it would be the Daleks. After their appearance in the Doctor’s second TV adventure – written by Terry Nation, who deserves eternal praise – they not only became a national obsession and a merchandising goldmine, they set the template for all stories to follow.
Without the Daleks, without the monsters that came in their wake, you’ve got a compelling science fiction romp about time-travel, with a hugely engaging premise, an enigmatic central character, cute touches like the police box and the ability to set your stories anywhere and anywhen. But once the TARDIS had landed on Skaro and happened upon the last stages of a thousand-year-long civil war between the planet’s two races, the Thals and the Kaleds, that’s when Doctor Who became what it still is today: a television horror show that you can watch with your kids.
Oh it might be hidden within the trappings of science fiction, but Doctor Who is the story of a man who battles monsters. It’s got more in common with Dracula than Star Trek.
In story form alone, the Daleks are already grotesque. They’re Kaled cyborgs, created by a mad genius called Davros, who has eradicated all emotion from their minds apart from hate. We don’t know this at first, it’ll take 12 years before the Doctor goes to visit Skaro at just the right time, to try and prevent their creation (Genesis Of The Daleks, 1975), but we already know there are organic beings inside those shells, and they are furious. They never get over their own creation, and seek to eradicate all life which is not Dalek based, partly as revenge on reality, but mostly because that’s the only way they make sense of the universe. They’re space Nazis, in other words.
Famously, in creating the movement of the Daleks, BBC designer Raymond Cusick found himself playing with a pepper pot and liking the footless swoosh across the table-top. This mix-up of the familiar and the strange is hugely important, because it means the Daleks are recognizable enough as an everyday shape to be truly unsettling when they start shooting people. They look like a combination of familiar household objects: cruet bodies, dustbin ribs, sink-plunger hand, even their heads resemble a kettle, with the eye-stalk as the spout. And yet they’re also entirely alien. So when the scarred, robotic bark shrieks out of them, when they start yelling “EXTERMINATE!” and frying everyone in sight, it sets off mixed signals and before too long, the children are behind the sofa.
George Lucas used a similar trick to make R2-D2 cute (he’s effectively a waste-bin with a kettle head), but if he’d had that Dalek voice, he’d be every bit as scary.
Here, for the sake of brevity, is a brief potted history of their many tussles with the Time Lord, taking us up to the Tenth Doctor:
So, they’re furious giant cruet sets with kettle faces, Steven Moffat says they’re the most defeatable monsters in the history of Doctor Who (because they have been so often defeated), and originally they couldn’t even travel across rough ground, so what is it that makes the Daleks so iconic? It’s simple: they are hard as nails. You can’t reason with them, you can’t divert them from their primary function. Turn your back on a lone Dalek and he’ll either shoot you or begin plotting to create more Daleks so that they can capture you and shout at you, and then shoot you and everyone you know.
The Daleks are the toughest of all the Doctor’s opponents, because they’ve had the most to overcome. They used to be wobbly and easy to man-handle: not any more. They used to draw the energy to power their movement from the electrified floor, like dodgem cars: not any more. They used to be foxed by stairs, or people putting stuff over their eyestalks: not any more. They are clever enough to improve themselves, but not clever enough to question their essential mission. So, over the years they’ve got tougher and tougher and angrier and angrier, until they were strong enough to take down the Time Lords themselves, and would have taken over the universe, but for the last-minute involvement of the Ninth Doctor.
And even though this Dalek appears capable of introspection, having been tortured into it, that is only because he has gone mad. A situation which only deteriorates after Rose Tyler resurrects him. Had one of his comrades seen any of this, they’d have shot him.
Within the story the Daleks are the toughest monster the Doctor has fought, and outside of it, they remain one of the most iconic creations in the history of British science fiction and horror put together. Scoff if you like, but there’s something gripping about the combination of unsettling design, grotesque back-story, brutal characterization (it’s no coincidence that the weaker Cybermen have started saying “DELETE!” to ape the harder, scarier kids on the space block), and that terrifying voice.
So, it’s probably fair to say that while the Daleks can thank the Doctor for their continuing existence, despite his best efforts, outside of the reality in the show, the reverse is also true.
Next week: The Yeti
See more posts by Fraser McAlpine
Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.
He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.
Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic