Neale Monks charts the redemption of the Daleks
I’m a big fan of the Daleks. As science fiction monsters go, I think they’re among the most brilliantly invented yet. But reflecting back on the last season of ‘Doctor Who’, I’m wondering if they’ve been a bit misused over the years. It’s not that their recent outings haven’t been entertaining, but that their role as the arch-enemy of the Doctor now rather overshadows their literary function as characters within the mythos: characters that combine hatred of others alongside an equal measure of self-loathing at what they have become.
If that sounds pretentious, let’s pick their origins apart a little. Terry Nation’s intention was to create some sort of non-humanoid alien monster. That much is well known, but what is perhaps less widely appreciated is that Nation didn’t design the Daleks, that was mostly down to a BBC designer called Ray Cusick. Between them though they came up with something completely unique, a monster that didn’t look like someone in a rubber suit, which was, of course, pretty much standard operating procedure at the time when it came to portraying aliens on TV or in films.
Daleks aren’t mechanical monsters
Where Nation’s struck gold was in the Dalek backstory. It wasn’t simply that they were killer robots or weird looking monsters in metal shells, but rather that they looked like human beings once, but the effects of nuclear war had so mutated them that they had been transformed into deformed beings that could only survive inside the Dalek casing. The Dalek isn’t the mechanical monster you see, that’s just where it lives; the Dalek is a gibbering, floundering bubble of deformed tissue inside, angry at you for being different, and hating itself for being deformed.
Nation was of course tapping into a definite sort of zeitgeist there. This was the early 60s, with memories of the Second World War still fresh in the minds of many people. Fascist states had wreaked havoc on three continents, and the war against them had lead to the obliteration of cities and the loss of millions of lives. People still remembered the way the soldiers of the Axis powers seemed to blindly obey the commands they were given, swearing loyalty to monolithic states bent on domination no matter the cost in lives, exterminating anything that didn’t conform to their nationalistic ideals.
But alongside memories of the Nazis and the Second World War there was now the added fear of nuclear war between the USA and USSR. Whatever else people knew about the aftermath of a nuclear war, they certainly understood that anything that did survive the initial blasts would be poisoned with radiation and subject to the ravages of mutation. Those mutations wouldn’t be fun ones like the X-Men enjoy, but rather the grim knowledge that babies born after a nuclear war would be horribly deformed and sickly. It didn’t take a huge leap of imagination to see how such mutations might indeed need machines to keep them alive — quite possibly machines not so very different to those occupied by the Daleks.
So what Nation had created was something that combined a terrible memory of the past (fascism) with an horrific fear for the future (nuclear war and mutation).
Daleks aren’t goons
Once you understand what Daleks represent it’s a lot easier to see how the show frequently gets the Daleks wrong. They aren’t cannon fodder you chuck at the Doctor to make his life difficult. They may be nameless and it may well be difficult to empathise with a Dalek, but the point is that every single Dalek has a goal. Well, two really. Firstly, it wants to survive, and the way it does that is by dominating everything and everyone around it. Extermination is a shortcut to that, but Daleks don’t do physical labour, they need slaves for that, or at the very least subject worlds they exploit without any thought to the welfare of its citizens or the quality of its environment.
If that sounds familiar, it should; a Dalek Empire is all about ‘lebensraum’ — living space. The Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe is the model here, but extended to the Nth degree. Daleks need raw materials, fuels and food to survive, and to do that they’d strip mine a planet in much the same way as the Nazis envisaged strip-mining Poland, the Ukraine, and the rest of Eastern Europe once their Thousand-Year Reich was firmly established. The natives would be cheap labour of course, to be used or exterminated as required.
But after survival, the second goal of a Dalek is a much less obvious one. It’s to ‘get better’, to undo the effects of the mutations that have so crippled them as organic beings. Tellingly, their casings not only accommodate their bodies in their deformed condition, but as we’ve seen any number of times in the show they also house a normal human being perfectly well. From their first appearance in 1963 right through to their latest outing, we’ve seen human characters get inside a Dalek machine, and you must wonder how that’s possible given the much smaller, blob-like shape of the Dalek creature normally inside the casing. The only logical explanation is that the Daleks have designed their casings that way, in the hope that over time they will rebuild their humanoid bodies until one day they can step outside of their shells as healthy Kaleds once more.
Indeed, again and again we’ve seen Daleks reinvent themselves, trying to establish a new paradigm or a humanoid Dalek or whatever else they choose to call their next step forward. And this is, I’d argue, the point at which we can sympathise with the Daleks. They didn’t choose to be mutants; they were made that way — by Davros.
It’s not hard to see why the Daleks have such mixed feels about Davros (and any Dalek who tells you it doesn’t have feelings is lying; they do). On the one hand he turned them into the most dangerous beings in the Doctor Who universe. The brilliant 2005 episode ‘Dalek’ shows beautifully just how lethal a single Dalek is, easily able to take down as much of 21st Century planet Earth it wants to. But on the other hand the Daleks must know that he tweaked their mutations to make them into a more dangerous, hateful creature, whereas he could have chosen to reverse their mutations and turn them back into something more like the humanoid Kaleds they once were. In a sense he’s the classic abusive parent, both giver of life and tormentor of souls.
Here the Doctor is, quite literally, a doctor. Several times he’s tried to heal the Daleks, going back to Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor introducing the ‘human factor’ in ‘The Evil of the Daleks’. We see this again in the new series episodes ‘Daleks in Manhattan’ and ‘Evolution of the Daleks’ where the Tenth Doctor tries to help (now humanoid) Dalek Sec create a new generation of more humane Daleks, and yet again in ‘Inside the Dalek’ where the Twelfth Doctor gets Rusty to see the universe from another, less hateful perspective by sharing his own memories with it.
In short, even if you can’t see a Dalek’s face, there’s something inside them you can relate to. In the same way that German or Japanese soldiers during the Second World War certainly did terrible, terrible things, Daleks unquestionably behave even worse in the ‘Doctor Who’ universe. But just like those human soldiers, Daleks are people, with the potential to change. After the war those Axis soldiers put down their guns and went home. One of the things the Doctor understands about the Daleks is that the potential is there for the Daleks to do precisely the same thing.
Daleks aren’t pointless
Hopefully I’ve convinced you that Daleks are among the Doctor’s more interesting adversaries because as dangerous as they are, they also have the potential to be redeemed. In fact we’ve seen that happen a few times in the new series already, and arguably it happened in ‘The Evil of the Daleks’ as well, though it’s a lot less clear there because the Daleks that have the human factor simply rebel against the Emperor Dalek rather than actively becoming allies of the Doctor. In any case, the basic idea that Daleks can change is hard-wired into the show, even if it’s something as slight as a Dalek asking for mercy.
It should also be clear that there are lots of interesting things the producers of the show can do with Daleks beyond simply wheeling them out once a year to boost the ratings a little. For sure everyone likes watching Dalek episodes, and they usually come off as a lot more competent (and dangerous) than the Cybermen or Sontarans. But they could be so much more!
What would the Doctor do if he found himself inside the Dalek Empire somewhere? Perhaps a planet with a now catastrophically degraded environment barely supporting what surviving population there is, eking out an existence as slaves to the Daleks? There were always plenty of collaborators and quislings within the Nazi’s short-lived empire, and the Daleks presumably would use (and discard) such characters every bit as effectively. Indeed, we’ve seen a hint of this in the Third Doctor story ‘Day of the Daleks’ in the shape of the Controller, a human being overseeing aspects of Dalek operations on Dalek-occupied Earth and in the process earning himself and his family a rather more comfortable life than those below him.
How do Daleks feel about Davros? They clearly don’t trust him (again, parallels with an abusive parent are obvious) but at the same time feel some sort of respect for him. It’s sometimes been observed that introducing Davros in 1975 demoted the Daleks to underling status, and there’s something to that. Before Davros, Daleks were usually portrayed as scientists, solving problems and inventing traps. It’d be interesting to be reminded of that cunning and intelligence, to see the anger inside the Dalek subtly directed at their creator, as both abused child and abusive parent come to terms with their situations. There may even be an element of guilt on Davros’ part, or at least regret, and ‘The Magician's Apprentice’ and ‘The Witch's Familiar’ certainly made clear that Davros himself experienced a miserable childhood (and again, we see the Twelfth Doctor trying to heal that, in the same way as he’s tried to heal the Daleks).
The bottom line is that the brilliance behind the Dalek idea is as fresh today as it was when they were invented in 1963. If memories of the War have now mostly faded into the history books, and the threat of nuclear war largely retreated, we still worry about our need for resources and the environmental damage that usually leads to. We’re also a lot more aware of how adults influence the children around them, occasionally in such unpleasant ways the child’s life is ruined or at least blighted. Truly, is there anything more scary you could have in ‘Doctor Who’ than the idea of an angry, abused child armed to the teeth and hating everyone around them? I think not.
Neale Monks mostly writes about fish, fossils and old computers, but in his
downtime can often be found feeding Daleks or rehoming unwanted