The Enduring Appeal of the Daleks: A Love Letter to Skaro’s Finest

I’m a sucker for Daleks (pun intended) and always have been. One of my earliest and most vivid televisual experiences, as I think I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site, is of Skaro’s finest bursting through a wall and menacing the second Romana from Destiny of the Daleks.

Of course, I’m not alone. The Daleks are a massive pop cultural phenomenon and have been since the early- to mid-1960s, which was the height of Dalekmania. There have been times when they have drifted away from the public consciousness, but they have always returned. It should, therefore, have come as no big surprise when it was announced that the Daleks would be back in Doctor Who for its 2005 relaunch. The Daleks are an integral part of the show and probably always will be. To find out why, it’s useful to travel back to 1963 and the show’s origins. 

When Terry Nation was approached to write for Doctor Who, he initially refused. He was working as a writer for comedian, Tony Hancock and saw Doctor Who as a children’s show, which he didn’t want to be associated with. Things changed when Hancock and Nation had a falling out and the writer found he needed work. The scripts that Nation produced, his first featuring the Daleks, had an unexpectedly profound effect on his career and on Doctor Who. As did the input of BBC designer, Raymond Cusick, whose visualisation of the Daleks is a design classic. 

Sydney Newman, who oversaw the creation of the show, was adamant that Doctor Who would not feature BEMs (bug-eyed monsters) and felt that the Daleks fitted into that category. However, with no other scripts ready, the production team had little choice but to forge ahead with Nation’s offerings. That decision is arguably one of the most important in the series’ long history.

The Daleks were instrumental in turning Doctor Who from an educational show that could sometimes be a little slow and staid into the fast-paced action adventure series that we know and (mostly) love today. In their wake, the more obviously educative elements were filtered out and monsters and adventure came to the fore. This was not just about the Daleks. It was also about Nation’s approach as a pulp fiction-inspired writer who liked to stuff his scripts with numerous captures, escapes, chases, monsters, traps, ‘men and women in black hats’, fights, and countdowns. The popularity of the Daleks meant that they soon reappeared in The Dalek Invasion of Earth and have returned to menace the Doctor on a regular basis ever since. These regular appearances have meant that the Daleks, unlike most of the Doctor’s other foes, have become indelibly woven into the fabric of the show. 

Why, then, did Nation and Cusick’s joint effort capture the public’s imagination?  

Conceptually, the Daleks are a brilliant creation. The specific fears that informed their genesis do not necessarily resonate with a modern audience in the same way as with those viewers who first encountered them in 1963. This is maybe partly due to a certain kitsch value that the Daleks have accrued since that time (due to having been the subject of humour and because they are now a more familiar part of pop culture history). However, these fears are still worth examining for their part in the story of the creation of the Daleks, as factors that kickstarted their success and subsequent impregnation of popular culture.  

Fear of militarisation and the potentially de-humanising effect of technology sit at the heart of the Daleks’ genesis. The technological shells in which they sit cut them off (and protect them) from the vagaries of the external world. However, the price they have paid for this is that their genetic transformation and mechanical encasement has left them emotionally stunted. The irony is, of course, that the Daleks have, on occasion, sought to correct this emotional deficit, recognising their inflexibility and lack of imagination as a weakness and cause of defeat, as in The Evil of the Daleks, when they sought to isolate the so-called human factor.

Extreme militarism, meanwhile, is shown in Doctor Who in general to be a very ineffective way of solving problems (although, conversely, pacifism is also criticised in the first Dalek story). Even their creator, Davros, has fallen victim to the Daleks’ propensity for violent solutions, as in Genesis of the Daleks when he is mercilessly exterminated by his creations despite his effusive protestations and a desperate request for pity. (Okay, the Daleks are at this point exterminating Davros’s colleagues rather than their creator, but in my mind their comments were always meant for Davros and, after all, they do get around to killing him too, moments later.) 

Dalek: All inferior creatures are to be considered the enemy of the Daleks and destroyed. 

Davros: No, wait! Those men are scientists, they can help you! Let them live! Have pity! 

Dalek: Pity. I have no understanding of the word. It is not registered in my vocabulary bank. EXTERMINATE!

The Daleks also represent our fear of the loss of individuality. They are the extreme dark side of collectivism, with individual needs and identities completely subordinated. So, in Evolution of the Daleks when one of their kind does try to jump-start a fresh evolutionary – and perhaps more compassionate and imaginative – epoch for their species, the other Daleks soon turn on him. They reject change, which is integral to the Doctor to the extent that it is coded into her physically in the form of regeneration. The Daleks, though, seek a static universe in which they sit at its apex, supreme and completely unchallenged. This, of course, flies in the face of the fundamental nature of reality, which is entropic. 

Of course, another big part of the Daleks’ appeal is their visual aspect. Television is, after all, a visual medium and the Daleks looked, and still look, like nothing else on the box. In a show that would become famous for its ‘men in rubber suits’ approach to monsters and aliens, the Daleks are about as far from that aesthetic as it’s possible to get. The bare bones of this look lie in the description Nation gave in his scripts. The credit for its full and proper realisation, though, goes to Cusick. It’s significant that this basic design has remained effectively unchanged since the Daleks’ first appearance in 1963, bar an abortive attempt to update it in 2010.

One element of their success was that Cusick’s design was entirely in keeping with Nation’s characterisation of the Daleks. In that first story, they have retreated from the natural world, hiding out in a sterile, mechanised city. (Although this is perhaps understandable considering that said city is surrounded by a post-nuclear wasteland.) Cusick’s decision to house the Daleks in a non-humanoid chassis, although no doubt partly based on practical considerations, resonates thematically with Nation’s concept for the Daleks. The Dalek’s casing is like a smaller, mobile version of the city in which they have sealed themselves. This casing has no expressive features, bar a solitary eye sitting at the end of a stalk. It is impossible to know what a Dalek is thinking, unless it tells you; shrieking at you rather than speaking with a hectoring set of commands and threats rather than any kind of back-and-forth conversation. Daleks do not do dialogue.  

(Although I’ve attributed the success of the Daleks to Nation and Cusick, many other creatives have had a significant hand in contributing to and maintaining their popularity. As well as being visually striking, the Daleks are surely one of the most aurally arresting monsters to chase the Doctor across the universe. Kudos then to the many vocal performers, such as Roy Skelton and Nicholas Briggs, that have contributed to their legacy.)

The Doctor and the Daleks have, of course, developed since their first appearances. The Doctor was originally an old man hiding in a junkyard. Now, she’s a wanderer through all of time and space with a policy of intervention in the face of injustice. The Daleks were first found skulking in a metal city. Now, they are one of the most feared species in the universe (or so we’re told). What has remained true throughout is that both are the antithesis of each other. The Doctor is an individualist and eccentric who values self-determination and free will, with one eye kept on the needs of others. The Daleks, of course, have a hive-mind mentality and ideas about the superiority of their own species and its primacy of importance over all others. The Doctor and the Daleks have a complementary function in narrative terms and that’s one of the reasons the Daleks endure in Doctor Who, because their values are the opposite of the Doctor’s and so throw shade upon her light very effectively.

This is, no doubt, why the Daleks returned in 2005 and remain one of the Doctor’s key foes, and why she will, almost inevitably, run into them again at some point in the future, something that I, for one, am very much looking forward to.