When listing monsters from Doctor Who that are considered ‘scary’, there are dozens of examples of original monsters that are specifically designed to invoke fear in the viewer. Monsters like the Silence, the Weeping Angels, the Haemovores, even the Cybermen in their original form (although I’ve already done an entire article about that). However rarely will you ever hear anyone in the modern era list the Daleks among their picks for scary Doctor Who monsters. It is true that the Daleks used to be scary: the infamous ‘hiding behind the sofa’ catchphrase that is often seen in the papers when referring to Doctor Who is said to have come about due to 1960s children and their fear of the Daleks. This seems almost comical by today’s terms: the Daleks don’t look scary, but even something as ridiculous looking as the Stormtroopers from Star Wars can appear menacing if they are used correctly, and the Daleks have been menacing in the past, even in NuWho. But scary? Not really. But why is that the case?
One of the most important things to consider when assessing any villain is what kind of message the writer of the story is trying to relay to the audience through their villains. A villain can be used to demonstrate the worst of a political or religious ideology, they can be used to critique society through their actions, or they can be used as a means of forcing the audience to face the mirror, to see how humans affect the environment, animals, or indeed each other. When Doctor Who first aired in 1963, Britain was a very different place from what it is today. The Second World War was a recent memory; for many it was an experience that affected them personally in some way or another. The aftermath of the war lingered over the heads of the citizens of the nation for decades, and the Daleks perfectly captured a very specific fear that had begun to root itself in the hearts and minds of the British people: a fear of Nazism.
The creator of the Daleks, Terry Nation, was very specific about the exact nature of Dalek psychology and philosophy. The Daleks are driven by a pure, unadulterated hatred of all living things that are not Dalek. Their hatred of all other life parallels the classic representation of the Nazis, and Terry Nation harnessed the national fear of Nazism that erupted as a result of World War 2 to essentially create a fictional representation of the ultimate form of Nazism – and in so doing made the Daleks perfectly terrifying for audiences of the day. The Daleks were scary because they killed people – without mercy and without cessation. The Dalekmania that gripped the nation in the 1970s seems almost obscene to those in the know, since the Daleks essentially represent the ultimate in racial cleansing – their doctrine does, after all, involve total extermination of all life.
But times change. And as times have changed, the Daleks have not. Their physical design has been updated, the effects are better, the voices sound clearer and more menacing, and they have appeared in NuWho almost as much as in the Classic series – but they have adhered to the same ideology that Terry Nation wrote for them in 1963, and for whatever reason, people being mercilessly killed doesn’t seem to scare people the way it used to. So as a result of this, the Daleks – and their menace – faded from the public consciousness. To a 21st century child, the Daleks are not scary – and that in itself is pretty scary. You can argue that a child in the modern era will never be scared of a bulbous, practically immobile talking wheelie bin, but the physical appearance of the Daleks is irrelevant. They could just as easily be black-clad armoured troopers, or axe-wielding psychotic maniacs, or take the form of the Easter Bunny: it is their motives that makes them scary. Like the Blackshirts, the Nazis, the Klan or the Stormtroopers, the Daleks don’t care that people think they look stupid – one even says so in Doomsday. They just want to kill you. Whoever you are, wherever you live, no matter your race, gender, appearance, religion – they just want to kill you. How is that not scary?
The answer is apathy. People today – particularly children – have lost the fear of Nazism that was so quintessential to the British way of thinking in the 20th century. We see this all the time, with Nazis and other fearsome 20th century factions being seen today as a comedic device. Even Doctor Who itself is guilty of this. Anyone remember that episode where they crashed the TARDIS in 1930s Berlin and stuffed Hitler into a cupboard? The fear factor is gone, and in a way it’s our own fault. We laughed at the Nazis during the war out of fear; we laughed at the Nazis after the war out of relief. We laugh at the Nazis now out of apathy, a sheer ignorance to their true nature. And the same can be said for the Daleks.
So how can this be reversed? And more importantly – why should it? Surely its a good thing that the world has moved on, and that we have reached a point in time where we can live free of fear, free to point and laugh at those evil, stupid-looking fools from a century long departed. Perhaps. But we must also be cautious that fascism doesn’t take advantage of our lapse in fear and take the opportunity to sneak back into a society that firmly rejected it nearly 100 years ago. At the beginning of this article I spoke briefly about how if a good villain is used right then it can plant seeds of ideas in the minds of the audience, and the Daleks should be used in this way once again. They have proven they can be menacing, but we need them to be truly scary again, now more than ever, and that is where the relevance of the Daleks in the 21st century lies. They exist as a cautionary tale, regardless of what era you watch them in, but what is required now is for the writers of Doctor Who to take responsibility for this, to amp up the fear factor of the Daleks using any means necessary so that they can truly fulfill their function of making people fear Nazism, and indeed any extremist ideology – as Terry Nation intended, and as our society today desperately needs them to.