Tony picks the six most logical Dalek stories from over fifty years of universal on-screen domination.
Ahhh, the Daleks. Saviours of Doctor Who, perennial pepperpots of doom and one of the best marketing tools ever devised by a TV show.
We all have our own lists of the Dalek stories we enjoy most, but there are several ‘kinds’ of Dalek stories studded through Doctor Who history. There are the stories where the Daleks have credible motivations in and of themselves, there are stories which aren’t really Dalek stories at all, but Davros stories, and then there are stories which, to be honest, exist because the Production Team needed to a Dalek story in the run.
The most enjoyable stories and the ones that have proper, Dalek-sensible plots aren’t always the same stories. Sometimes they are, but not always. Let’s take a look at six of the best Dalek stories in terms of the logic of their plots and motivations.
1. Power of the Daleks
Potentially a predictable response, given that we’re spoiled enough as a fandom to have just had one of the most sought-after missing stories returned to us in both black and white and colour, through the work of a bunch of insanely dedicated animators, but Power really is as good as everyone says it is. The reason is quite simple – it shows the Daleks re-learning the trick that made them powerful in the first place. In their first story, they were interestingly duplicitous, double-crossing the Thals with offers of food, only to exterminate them when the peace-lovers gave them the benefit of the doubt. That was a key part of why they were initially so successful, their willful turning against the opportunity for peaceful co-existence was breathtaking. Since that original outing, power had rather gone to their domes, and they’d become pretty much the trundling shooty exterminators of the universe. They’d become a kind of shorthand for everything bad, without necessarily showing us the evil of which they were capable. Power of the Daleks, ushering in a new Doctor, restored that personal sense of slyness to them, made them pretend, and serve, and genuinely help the colonists of Vulcan, all in the knowledge that none of it mattered at all, because as soon as they could, they would be exterminating them all. Power of the Daleks made the Daleks genuinely terrifying again after – lest we forget – they’d been destroyed by the likes of a fairground Frankenstein and the never-a-serious-challenge that was the Mechanoids in The Chase. Power is a story strong enough to anchor the very first ‘new’ Doctor into place, and it restores the Daleks to their pre-eminence in the halls of the Who villains, immediately after a surprisingly strong showing from the new boys from Mondas.
2. Remembrance of the Daleks
When Ben Aaronovitch was tasked with opening the 25th season of Doctor Who, it’s fair to say he blew the doors off the assignment with this multi-layered story of racism in humans and Daleks alike, updating the by-then-standard idea of ‘Daleks=Nazis,’ while taking Doctor Who back to the era in which it was born and showing a dark thread that ran through the society of the day (as, we’ve subsequently discovered, it still runs depressingly through our own). The idea that Daleks would even hate Daleks had been brewing since The Evil of the Daleks, with ‘pure’ Daleks and ‘Human Factor’ Daleks. It had since evolved, over the time of the Fifth and Sixth Doctors, into ‘pro-Davros’ and ‘pro-Supreme Dalek’ factions, essentially showing the pure folly of racism – once it’s succeeded in destroying all the things and people it sees as different to itself, it will turn increasingly inward and find more and more idiotic differences to feed its hate. Aaronovitch’s story gave each Dalek faction a solid reason to do the things they did, while also radically rewriting the nature of the Seventh Doctor and beginning the ‘Cartmel Master Plan’ to make McCoy the ‘darker, more mysterious figure’ he was expressly hired not to be. Arguably, it never worked as well again as it did in Aaronovitch’s story, which stands high in the Dalek hierarchy even to this day, over 25 years later.
3. The Dead Planet
The impact of the original Dalek story is difficult to overstate – after the stumble of the pilot episode, the wonder of the first broadcast episode and the ghastly luck of being overwhelmed by the assassination of President Kennedy, An Unearthly Child had tapered off into a by no means bad, but hardly groundbreaking story about cavemen and the rediscovery of fire. What’s more, series creator Sydney Newman had explicitly ruled out any stories about BEMs – Bug-Eyed Monsters – but when a planned second story fell through at a late stage, Terry Nation was hired in a hurry to provide seven episodes. Yes, as a story, it has a lot of what became Nation’s Dalek-story hallmarks: much toing and froing en route to somewhere else…and then, frequently back again… but in terms of the Daleks’ motivations, it’s the masterwork, the Alpha. It shows the Daleks at home, minding their own business until events force their way to their attention, and it shows us what the Daleks are fundamentally about – born as a product of war, they ‘retreated into their machines’ and made their city work. The war with the Thals, while not aggressively fought for some time, is still a conflict on which they will not turn their backs, even though the Thals have now evolved into almost self-indulgently pacifist people. And if you come looking for the Daleks, you rouse a metal-plated, gun-stick-waving tiger that is intent on your total extermination. Dalekmania is an entirely understandable phenomenon once you’ve watched The Dead Planet, and it repays repeat viewing to this day.
4. The Dalek Invasion Of Earth
That said, The Dead Planet could well have been a one-off, a flashpoint of interest in the Sons of Skaro that was never to flower again – plenty of the show’s most memorable villains have been one-offs, including Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars, and until comparatively recently, the Zygons. The Dalek Invasion of Earth is the story that really set the seal on the Daleks as the series’ first and foremost villain, bringing the pepperpots of doom all the way across the cosmos and shockingly, using them to create an Earth-based dystopia that made them very much more of a threat than they ever were sliding about their own city on their own planet. Crucially, the Daleks have won, right from the beginning of this story – the conquest is over, and we’ve lost. The notion of what the Daleks are up to, mining the core of the planet to install a drive system to pilot it around the cosmos might be on the verge of barmy, but that’s only really what the story’s about inasmuch as it needs an end-point to reach. This is really the Daleks doing overtly what they’d done covertly in their first story – being the Nazis, showing young viewers what the impact of racial hatred could really look like. It elevated the Daleks to a whole new level, and made them an unstoppable force in the minds of children everywhere.
The only New Who story to make it into the Top Six, Rob Shearman’s Dalek is a revivification of the classic monster, and a statement of intent for all of New Who – all the things for which the Daleks had been ridiculed in the past are addressed, dealt with, and dismissed, as they will no longer apply in the modern era. We see the lone Dalek assimilate the whole of the internet, float upstairs, use its ‘sink plunger’ and slaughter people in a highly strategic way. Dalek also touches on some Classic themes, including the ‘Human Factor’ – this time picked up from Rose Tyler – and the idea from Remembrance that without superiors, inferiors and the structure of Dalek command, this insane, intensely powerful agent of destruction has no reason to exist. Yes, it sometimes looks precisely like a rehearsal of established Dalek ‘weaknesses’ and their dismissal, but it sets up the Daleks in the 21st century on a level of power and potential they have seldom matched since.
6. Genesis of the Daleks
Yes, technically, this is a Davros story not a Dalek story, but on the other hand, it acts as the pitch-perfect prequel to The Dead Planet, showing us exactly where those original Daleks came from, how they came to be and think, and even how little choice they had in becoming what they became. While Davros and Nyder rule most of the story, the Daleks, when they find their true voice, are utterly captivating in their Genesis story, delivering ten minutes of breathtaking horror that set up everything we’ve ever known about them, and still take them forward for future adventures, giving us a new level of understanding of what they are and how they work.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk