Picture the scene. A survey team explores a dangerous planet. The air is toxic, the ground rocky and treacherous, and the plants seem to be moving around them. Suddenly, the undergrowth shifts: a familiar-looking eye stalk peers through a bush. Something that looks like an egg whisk follows, attached to the glistening body of a Dalek. The survey team panics. The slaughter is quick – it’s over in seconds. And this time, there’s no Doctor on hand to clean up the mess.
Final sentence aside, it sounds like the beginning of just about any Dalek story in the canon – but the Doctorless TV spin-off called (imaginatively) The Daleks came relatively close to fruition. When, in the mid-1960s, Terry Nation felt he had taken the monstrosities of Skaro as far as the confines of Doctor Who would permit, he began to envisage a life for them outside the TARDIS. The result was a pilot script in which Sara Kingdom (she of The Daleks’ Master Plan) was kidnapped by an invading Dalek force, while her brother mounted a rescue attempt. The script was pitched first to the BBC, and then to NBC – neither of whom were sufficiently interested to push the project to its completion.
Nation’s biography, Alwyn Turner’s The Man Who Invented The Daleks (a title that does something of a disservice to Raymond Cusick, but let’s not go there) summarises it like this:
“The concept for The Daleks, as the series was to be called, was fairly novel, pitching a team of security agents against a single race of alien monsters, with a female lead character, but it was not immediately clear how this could be sustained over an entire series. Certainly the pilot gave little indication of breaking new ground, relying instead on characteristic Nation elements: jungles, caves, killer vegetation. Considerably more problematic, from the point of view of the BBC, was that when Nation submitted his script in October 1966, it came with an estimated budget of £42,000, appropriate for an American production but wildly excessive by the corporation’s standards.”
It wasn’t much better across the channel, with American networks showing far less enthusiasm than Nation had envisaged. “Even if the show had made it on to American television,” Turner continues, “it seems unlikely that it would have lasted for more than one series, if only because the variations that could be wrung out of the situation were so limited. The formats of British shows that had translated successfully to America, such as The Avengers and The Saint, had a flexibility that made them capable of almost endless permutations; the Daleks, a purely evil creation with no shades of grey, were a much more restricted proposition.”
Terrance Dicks agrees. “The Daleks have no value outside Doctor Who,” he says. “They’re Doctor Who’s main monster, and they’re inviolable in that position, but that’s the only position they’ve got.” It’s no secret that the two enjoy a curious interdependence (the in-universe connotations of which we’ll explore in a bit), with Doctor Who being destined for an early grave – on Trenzalore, perhaps – before the bug-eyed monsters that Sydney Newman had previously vetoed turned it into an overnight sensation. As is traditional with all mammoth sci-fi success stories (cf. Star Wars, The Terminator), the early stages of Nation’s involvement with Doctor Who had been awash with cynicism, convinced as he was that “it couldn’t last but four weeks”. When he mentioned his “brilliant idea for some baddies” to wife Kate, her response was “Drink your tea while it’s hot”.
It’s very easy to scoff at things like this with the benefit of 50 years of hindsight, but nobody – not the BBC, not Newman, and certainly not Nation himself – could have predicted quite how big the Daleks would become. Is it any wonder that he got a little ambitious? Nation has always been fiercely protective of his work and its market value (a trait his family apparently inherited, leading to a series of very tense negotiations in the run-up to the 2005 revival) and the extent of Dalekmania naturally caused him to look to America, where the money was. Had he tried the same thing today, there’s a chance he might have succeeded – at the very least they might have granted him an internet series. Perhaps it was a simple question of bad timing, which is quasi-ironic.
In the meantime, Skaro’s finest had been seemingly destroyed for good in 1967’s The Evil Of The Daleks (a story written in deliberate anticipation of their transatlantic migration), only to be unceremoniously resurrected once the show had switched to colour. Pertwee’s Doctor encountered them four times (three if you count Frontier and Planet as one story, as I’m told some do) and every subsequent Doctor – Paul McGann aside – would face them on television at least once. While their popularity never equalled its mid-sixties peak, the Daleks were back – and, it seems, indelibly tied to Doctor Who.
But it wasn’t quite the end for the Dalek TV series – because Big Finish got hold of the pilot and turned it into a fully dramatised recording. Released a few years back as part of the Lost Stories series, it was tarted up by Nicholas Briggs (who also provided Dalek voices), working with John Dorney. The rewritten version of The Destroyers is notable for its character switching: in this, Sara Kingdom becomes the battle-hardened heroine, while it is her brother who is placed in jeopardy when the Daleks take him prisoner. There is also a cynical captain (Jason Corey, sharing his name with the trigger-happy space ranger in Nation’s Doctorless Mission To The Unknown) and android Mark Seven, in a role seemingly tailor-made for Michael Fassbender (who is not in it). Disappointingly, there is not one twisted ankle, although there is a reasonably exciting standoff with two Daleks on a retracting bridge. You can guess how that one comes out.
These things don’t always work on audio – as Ian Levine has argued frequently – but The Destroyers does a very good job. Dialogue is sparse, but decently performed, and the score is atmospheric without being intrusive. The descriptive narration is the cement holding the whole thing together – and Jean Marsh handles it with flair, creating a palpable sense of tension, even if some of the descriptions are somewhat elaborate. “Mark is handsome,” Marsh says of the android, “in the most classical sense. His features and physique are perfect, one in the mould of Adonis, Dorian Gray, and the Greek gods. A sculptor asked to produce the ideal male would design Mark Seven. Indeed this is precisely what has happened.”
Big Finish’s spin-off reputation has always been somewhat patchy, but while The Destroyers works well, it never rises above the mantle of ‘interesting anomaly’. You never get the impression you’re listening to the beginning of something, unless it was the first part of a Doctor Who story that happened to omit the central cast. None of this is the fault of Big Finish themselves, and there is a certain psychological factor to take into account: you know that this would probably never work as a series, because it never did. Nonetheless, The Destroyers is a dead end: two hours of excitement and fun, but something of a narrative cul-de-sac.
Because in the end, the presence of the Doctor – in some form or another – is essential to give the creatures any sort of meaning. He’s called to be either the yang to the Daleks’ yin, or more like a Dalek than he realises, according to the needs of the story. It is easy to portray the struggle of humanity against conquering aliens: H.G. Wells got there first, and irrespective of the Nazi allegory or their unique physical characteristics, the Daleks have comparatively little that elevates (sorry, EL-E-VATES) them above a hundred similar races, whether they crawl, stomp, or slither. The moment humanity brings out its guns, any sense of narrative deteriorates into the most generic of firefights: it becomes a story for survival, but nothing more interesting. The elephant in the room is that humanity is, on many levels, just another form of Dalek, minus the handwavium casing and angry toddler mentality.
No: NuWho arguably no longer needs the Daleks, but the Daleks certainly couldn’t exist in a vacuum. Because the best way to emphasise the cruelty of the would-be master race is to pit them against the one man who doesn’t carry a gun of his own. The alternative is an exercise in denial: a series full of pointless, time-filling dialogue by uninteresting people while everyone sits around waiting for the Doctor to show up. Or, as I like to call it, 2016.