Where Do The Daleks Get Their Power From Anyway?

The Power of the Daleks is one of those clever titles. “Ah,” you think, when the credits to Episode Three have rolled. “It’s all about how they’re going to be the galaxy’s indomitable race again, even though they’re bleating about being your SER-VANT.” But it’s a different story when the Doctor skips off with Ben and Polly to the Highlands of Scotland: he’s used the power of the Daleks against them, reversing the polarity years before Jon Pertwee made it fashionable. At least they manage it without one of those dreadful namedrop-the-title things that Doctor Who does in abundance, particularly since 2010. Had the story featured Patrick Troughton clenching a fist and staring half into space, vocalising a light bulb moment with the words “Of course! THE POWER OF THE DALEKS!” I suspect the BBC would probably have decided not to bother animating it.

But there’s an elephant in the TARDIS, or at least patrolling the corridors of a BBC set, usually in groups of no more than three or four: how exactly do these mechanised abominations maintain a degree of autonomy? In other words, how do they keep moving when there’s no sign of a charging socket? Does such a thing even exist? If they’re visiting Europe, do they have to use those two-pin ones you get at airports while they’re parading round Bavaria bellowing “EXTERMINIEREN!”? Just where do the Daleks get their power?

A good starting point for such a question (in fact, the very starting point that Phil suggested when he asked me to look at this) is the Reddit thread that sprang up three years ago when someone thought to ask about Dalek power sources. I’m always wary about using Reddit threads as a basis for investigative articles, but it turns out that there’s a mound of information in there. A user who goes by the name of lordlaneus is at the top of the answers pile. “Daleks have utilized various power sources throughout their history,” he says. “When the Doctor first encountered them, they could only function while touching a special electrified floor (think evil space Nazi bumper cars)–”

Stop. Stop right there, because that’s a fantastic image. The BBC basically did this in The Witch’s Familiar, with that ridiculous scene where the Doctor nicks Davros’ motor – but who wouldn’t want a few Mk IVs racing round a grubby metal surface, sparks flying off the mesh roof and with a gum-chewing attendant in a leather jacket occasionally running over to give one of them a push? It would certainly liven up the funfair at Butlins Minehead (for which I will be packing when you read this), where the list of rules and regulations borders on the draconian: “These are the DODGEM CARS,” they tell you, “NOT the Bumper Cars. If you bump you WILL BE ASKED TO LEAVE THE RIDE AND BE BANNED FOR THE REST OF THE DAY.” It’s the sort of thing you could imagine in a Doctor Who script, presumably delivered by Nicholas Briggs in his token Dalek voice.

Essentially the concept of Dalek power sources is both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because a particular power source may provide a convenient way of killing them; a curse because it needs to be frequently revised according to the needs of the story. A studio-bound tale like The Daleks can easily explain away the concept of travelling machines (and it needs explaining; this was, after all, supposed to be educational) with static. The Daleks of the first story are imprisoned both within the metal cases they inhabit and the city in which they skulk. They contrast deeply with the jungle-dwelling, peace-loving, show-me-this-strange-Earth-thing-called-kissing Thals, and the contrast is greater still when we consider that both races shared – until recently – the same DNA.

But city-bound Daleks on smooth floors will get you only so far, and if you’re going to get the tin pepperpots out and about you need a new game plan. (Not that the production team were necessarily in favour of getting out and about, as the farcical location filming for Destiny of the Daleks proves in abundance.) Hence by the time we meet them in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, they’re sporting satellite dishes. The dishes channel all the energy they need to trundle around exterminating, and if you’re on the third storey or higher you can also get the Discovery Channel. And every Dalek has one. The net result of this is that post-apocalyptic London bears an uncanny resemblance to the council estate down the road from here, right down to the fighting.

The satellite dishes had a limited shelf life (having been outsourced to the same company that made the Samsung Galaxy Note), and by the time we get to The Chase, the design has altered to include a fetching set of vertical slats that looks like one of the pleated skirts my second year geography teacher used to wear. If it sounds like I’m over-egging the pudding here, it’s worth noting that having a discussion about Dalek design variants is notoriously difficult to do, because the changes were so cosmetic when compared to, say, the Cybermen. Really, the Daleks scarcely changed at all until they emerged, Power Ranger-style, from the Progenitor in Victory of the Daleks, and that just upset everyone.

Top: Daleks parade across Westminster Bridge in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, 1964; Bottom: The Power of the Daleks, 1965. Note the groovy slats.

It gets even more complicated when we get to 1988 and the notorious Coal Hill Basement Incident. Flying around on silver discs is one thing; having to develop small rocket boosters capable of lifting a Dalek off the floor at a perfect right angle (essential if you want to keep the teacup steady) is quite another. It makes you feel dreadfully sorry for the earlier models, who suffered a fear of balcony-free ledges and never got to sit upstairs on the bus. I often think the scene in Dr. Who and the Daleks in which Peter Cushing and his companions push a Dalek down a lift shaft would have been dramatically improved if the Dalek had suddenly risen up behind them again as they’re walking away, like Marty McFly does behind Biff in the second Back to the Future film.

It creates problems because it reminds me of Superted, a programme in which the Ordinary Teddy Bear is given special powers by Mother Nature that include the sudden growth of rocket-powered technology. In other words, Superted rips off his fur and he’s Superted underneath, and his costume includes rocket boots that have a (presumably renewable) fuel source hidden inside them. We know this because in one episode (the notorious Superted and the Magic Word) Bulk is temporarily granted Superted’s powers, and expends all the fuel in his boots. I could never figure out how any substance granted by Mother Nature, even a magic spell, could alter human DNA in this manner. And then along came Iron Man and his nano-powered Extremis armour, which I think owes more to Mike Young than Marvel would probably care to admit.

Somewhere in between, we have Exxilon, where energy is being drained from the TARDIS and the Great City, but conveniently not the would-be conquerors of the universe. Death To The Daleks (you remember, the one with the Patterned Floor of Doom) is in itself unremarkable but to those watching in 1974 the notion of sudden brownouts would have been as topical as The Curse of Peladon‘s social commentary on the Common Market. Exactly how the Daleks are able to avoid this is never fully explained, although Terry Nation drops in one of those half-baked solutions that later becomes canon through spin-off material:

SARAH: You mean they’ve got legs?
DOCTOR: No, they move by psychokinetic power.
SARAH: I see.
DOCTOR: Do you?

He’ll explain later.

Fast forward to the present, and the Daleks have upgraded themselves: the bumps now serve as a handy self-destruct facility (Predator, but on a BBC budget) and the Emergency Temporal Shift (see Lost in Space) is the metaphorical equivalent to sticking a pin in a map of the space-time continuum. There is no other possible reason to visit the end of the Time War unless it’s a horrible accident (I can relate to this: it’s how we wound up in Redcar). This sort of thing is really only possible if you can latch onto a black hole, which is presumably exactly what they’ve done.

But there’s an organic muckiness to some of the recent forays into Dalek power sources. When Doctor Who goes all Fantastic Voyage in Into The Dalek, the Doctor, Clara, and a group of supporting characters so inconsequential I can’t even remember any of their names wind up in the feeding tube, swimming in gunk that turns out to be a former comrade. A few episodes later, The Witch’s Familiar sees the Daleks actively cannibalise themselves, feeding off decaying Daleks to keep the city running.

If both these stories showed us a side of the Daleks we arguably didn’t need to see and hopefully never will again, what might the future hold? If the Daleks are an extension of humanity – taking their roots from the very worst of us, at least at a contemporary level – how might we see them evolve? And if the development of Dalek power systems mirrors mankind’s own understanding of how energy works, how might our future be translated to the screen in upcoming Contractually Obligated Dalek Stories? How might Skaro’s finest adapt to new environmental issues, or deal with energy crises? Might we see a faction of enlightened Daleks who have foreseen serious power shortages engaging in civil war with a privileged minority who have their eyestalks buried in the sand? Or will the future give us a new, caring side to the genocidal wheelie bins, as they begin to take responsibility for their actions?

One thing’s for sure: bumper cars or hovering angels of death, the Daleks get their power from somewhere. So be careful on those roads. Unless you have rocket boots.