Classic Who – The Why of the Daleks

The Daleks just got that much cooler...

Right, after a lengthy Twitter conversation involving the lovely @knuckle_salad, I figured I’d do a post or eight-hundred aimed specifically for the new fans of Doctor Who, the ones who came in some time in the last six or seven years and know little to nothing about the original series.

Now, if you have no interest in the original series, that’s fine.  I don’t know what the heck you’re doing here reading this, but it really is fine.  We all have different likes and dislikes.  For instance, I love the original series of Star Trek, I think Next Generation is mostly good, I adore Deep Space Nine once it gets moving, Voyager was like having my mouth washed out with chunky diarrhoea, and Enterprise was one of the worst screwed up opportunities I have ever seen, except for Season Four which was really clever and interesting.

Point is, different things appeal to different people.  Despite the claims of some fans, you’re actually allowed to not like the original series of Doctor Who.  It’s not a perfect series.  Its strength was always story-telling, characters, and ideas.  But some stories are severely lacking in one or more of these elements.

Also, huge chunks of the first six years are missing.  There are some television shows from that era where nothing at all exists.  Where Doctor Who fans are unbelievably fortunate is that all the missing bits still exist on audio.  And while audio isn’t an ideal format for some stories, it’s better than nothing at all.

We also have telesnaps [1] from some of the missing episodes, so combined with the audios, we can hear and see what was going on.  Again, it’s not ideal, but we’re very lucky to have even that.

I think I’ll try recommending some stories for new Doctor Who fans next time around, unless someone out there throws me a topic too yummy to resist. Which is very likely. So don’t wait for the list, but if you have questions, write to me and I’ll do my best to answer them without lying too much making too many errors.

But this time I want to talk about the Daleks.  There are a lot of people who simply cannot understand the fascination with them.  They’re short little robot [2] dudes.  What is it about the Daleks that made them such a success right from the beginning?

Okay, to address this, you have to try to understand where they come from, from a media and cultural perspective.

At the time the Daleks appeared on screen, there was nothing even close to them from a visual perspective.  Apart from the fact that the series Doctor Who is totally unlike anything else around at the time from a conceptual stand point, it was also visually very different.  And nothing was more different to the norm than the Daleks.

When we talk about the Daleks’ design, it’s worth looking around at the robots and monsters that appeared on TV and in the cinema around that time.  From the 20’s on, and even up until the 80’s and 90’s, robots were mostly people in suits and so almost exclusively bipedal in form.  And an awful lot of them looked really cheap, very silly, or both.

Obviously there are design exceptions, like Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still [3], Robbie from Forbidden Planet, the Lost in Space robot, Huey, Duey, and Louie from Silent Running, Johnny Five from Short Circuit, the Maria robot from Metropolis, and C3PO and R2D2 from that low budget 70s flick.

Oh, and Mechani-Kong.

However these really are the exceptions.  Mostly robots looked like silver boxes with tubes for arms and legs in feature films, and especially on TV in the sixties with its lower budget, robots were people in odd clothes with silver painted faces or metal heads.

Then, this new SF show started.  And after a bizarre and very different first episode, we were given three more episodes based around the politics of cavemen.  Even this was visually different to what was around at the time, as the cave folk didn’t have perfect teeth, nicely designed fur clothing, or access to soap.

Then the next story starts and we get a whole episode of world building on an alien planet.  There are mysteries all around, and an alien city where many of the doorways are shorter in height than our humans, and the controls are different to our expected norm.

And right at the end, we see one of our heroes being herded about, then finally trapped as something with a sucker comes towards her.  In a first episode that is already quite cleverly done and with an interesting design sense, the real genius of it was not showing the full Dalek.

Finally, a week later, the audience is greeted with these babies.

Now, go back and look at the pictures of the other robots again.  I’ll wait here.  Not only do these look totally unlike the majority of them, they are also well made, and an interesting design.  And this was on television!

For a number of years the BBC didn’t allow photos of the actors inside the Dalek suits.  People honestly didn’t know what was inside them.  That may seem naive, but again, look at what had come before.  They’re so small, and they don’t look like a person in a suit.  Many people concluded that these were in fact remote controlled devices, something the BBC deliberately fed into later by referring only to “Dalek Operators.”  It wasn’t until 1966 and Power of the Daleks that we got a behind the scenes picture that showed a human being inside the casing.

So visually there was nothing else like them, and really, there still isn’t.  We’ve sort of jumped a generation in some ways.  We didn’t get a period of clever and unique television robot design before computer graphics became cheap enough to allow all sorts of amazing things to be seen on the small screen.  It’s a bit of a shame, as it would have been nice to see a televisual equivalent of Johnny Five from Short Circuit.

Then we get to the cultural aspect of what made the Daleks work. Here’s what they represented to the British people in the 1960’s.

You have to remember that the end of the second World War was only 18 years before, and that even some people who had served in the first World War were only in their mid-sixties when this aired.  Some of them had been through two World Wars against the same enemy.  Some of them had seen the early German machine guns and tanks first-hand, the impact of a race trying to utterly obliterate not only their enemies, but anyone who stood against them, and they were a race that was organised and technologically superior on so many levels.

While Britain in the 40s fought, and fought, and fought, they really did feel like it was only a matter of time before they were invaded.  The Nazis had taken most of Europe.  Hell, the Nazis were using unbelievable ‘super’ science to attack them by sending rocket bombs across the English Channel.

So memories were still fresh when it came to an unstoppable, technologically advanced race that wanted to kill or subjugate everyone unlike them. The ideology even runs through the Dalek dialogue with words like ‘extermination’ and ‘the final solution’ being bandied about for years.

Dalek Invasion of Earth of course took it that step further.  The robot space Nazis had conquered England!  This wasn’t far distant lands being ravaged by an implacable enemy, this was happening in their own country. There were many shots throughout the story that showed the Daleks not only at easily recognisable London landmarks, but giving their equivalent of the Nazi salute.

Even for those who somehow missed all the obvious references, there would have been a feeling of dreadful familiarity.

And of course last, but by no means least, I’ve ignored the final aspect that made them an ‘attractive’ baddie.  They looked like robots, but in fact had something living inside them.  It added a whole new level to them.  Science fiction TV and cinema had had evil aliens, and evil robots, but these were evil people in metal suits.  It’s the whole Nazi tank metaphor again.  The creature inside is weak and easily harmed, but first you have to get past the armour and the gun.

The thing with the Daleks is, it could have so easily gone so very wrong.  The story Dead Planet replaced, the Masters of Luxor, is a much more traditional style SF robot story, complete with some very ropey ideas.  And by the nature of the story the robots in Luxor would have been people dressed up.

Then there’s Raymond Cusick’s design.  This is the design of somebody who cared enough to fight to do a good job.  He immediately started thinking about it from the perspective of ways to break up the human shape, to make the Daleks glide (as Nation had specified), and to make sure the people inside the props were comfortable, since they’d be in there for hours.  This led to him basing the shape on someone sitting down, immediately shortening and shifting things away from the standard humanoid silhouette.

He’s also the one who would have started bleeding from the eyeballs when one of the producers suggested that the Daleks could be done by an actor standing in a cardboard tube, and with two more cardboard tubes over their arms.  Even with all the other ideas presented, I doubt the Daleks would have been the hit they were if that had gone ahead.

And the good design goes beyond the creatures.  In that first story we have controls that are made for Dalek suckers, doors that are Dalek height, not human height.  Even the numbering on the elevator lights is in a sort of faux binary.  Yes, there are some props that have knobs that are obviously made for human hands, but the majority of the visuals fit with the way these beings work.  This is a production that people cared about, done on a tiny budget, in a tiny studio, and they did a superior job to many feature films.

Of course I’ve harped on about those first few Dalek stories, but that doesn’t necessarily explain their ongoing appeal.  The thing is, Terry Nation often forgot what made them work himself.  He’d get bored with them, which is why we get some of the odd moments with dumb Daleks in things like The Chase, and Nation’s later assertion that the Daleks were boring talkers, and so needed a human spokesperson.

I think that the ongoing appeal is that every now and again we got a story that was worthy of the Daleks.  One that took advantage of some aspect of their character, or showed them in a whole new light.  Basically a story that either couldn’t be told using another race, or was enhanced because the Daleks brought a fresh perspective to the concept.

So here are a few Dalek highlight stories, off the top of my head.  Naturally they are my personal bias, and you’re free to disagree [4].

The Dead Planet – The Daleks are intelligent.  If they can’t adapt to the planet, they’ll adapt the planet to them.  They are also a proper alien race here, not monsters.

Dalek Invasion of Earth – Utterly ruthless, to the point of turning humans into zombiefied slaves against their own kind.

Daleks’ Master Plan – It’s The Chase redux, but done seriously and with some solid stakes.  It’s 12 episodes long, and mostly only exists on audio, but it’s a story I still think works, partially because the Daleks are forced to work with Mavic Chen.  Chen becomes increasingly egomaniacal, even to the point of abusing the Daleks, and they can’t kill him because they need him.

Power of the Daleks – shows a level of Dalek guile and cunning that we never knew they were capable of.  Six episodes of tension building and it works so very well.

Evil of the Daleks – Not as strong a story as Power, but it does show some other sides to Daleks, and introduces their leader.

Planet of the Daleks – a big old fashioned war story with the Daleks making use of a couple of discoveries on the planet Spiridon.

Death to the Daleks – The Daleks being clever once again, and adapting to changing situations using that intelligence.

Genesis of the Daleks – We meet Davros, creator of the Daleks.  And the whole Nazi aspect is turned up to 11.  Even more interestingly, the Thals are shown to be warlike bastards who are practically as bad as the Kaleds.

Revelation of the Daleks – After Genesis we got stories about Davros that merely happened to feature the Daleks.  This is one of the better ones, a pitch black comedy with Davros experimenting on creating a new Dalek race.

Remembrance of the Daleks – Takes the Daleks back to their roots.  Purity of the species, dislike for the unlike, and a love of advanced technology.

And because people will wonder what stories from the new series I’d recommend…

Dalek – Rob Shearman sweated blood over this, and it shows.  A great re-introduction of the classic enemy, updated.

Bad Wolf / Parting of the Ways – The Daleks return, the Emperor is insane, and they’re using the human race in quite ghastly ways.

Army of Ghosts / Doomsday – Pure fan wank, but fun to watch.

The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End – There’s chunks of this I hate (six people to fly a bloody TARDIS indeed, and the Daleks are weakened and made to look silly near the end), but as a big ballsy return for Davros, who is now as mad as a cut snake, it’s fabulous.

So that’s it, a quick run down on the why of the Daleks.  I will suggest that even now though, almost 50 years later and with computer graphics technology being a regular addition to TV, that Cusick’s design and Nation’s original idea still make them something special and unique.

Though like any great villain or monster, if the story isn’t worthy of them, it’s very easy to mess them up.


1. Telesnaps were a process by which a photographer was paid by a director or a production to take photos of the images that appeared onscreen when the TV show was broadcast. Naturally the photographer had no idea what was coming up, and so would simply take a photo roughly every thirty seconds and hope it was a good shot.  Then the director would take around a portfolio of the photographs around to show off his work and hopefully get other directing jobs.  John Cura was the main person for telesnaps in Doctor Who circles.

2. Yes, I know they aren’t robots.  But to a large percentage of the general public, they were.  Look, if you’re going to nitpick everything I say, we may as well start seeing other people now…

3. The original version, not the remake with Keanu.  As with so many remakes, they missed the point of the story, and what made both Klaatu and Gort such iconic characters.  Also, it just sucked.

4. But we both know you’d be wrong.

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