Doctor Who fans worldwide are once again grappling with an age-old question that every Doctor Who fan asks themselves before a new series airs, and that is: ‘Will the Daleks be in this series?’ Unlike any other of the Doctor’s enemies, the Daleks have appeared in every single series of the revival and so it may seem obvious that they will return… or does it? And if the Daleks do return to antagonise Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor and her trio of new companions, will they fill a prominent role? Or will they take to the sidelines? To answer this question, it might be useful to just recap how the Daleks were used by various showrunners throughout Doctor Who’s history.
The Classic era of the show used the Daleks relatively sparingly – in over 150 stories only 16 were dedicated to the Daleks, and that includes both Mission to the Unknown and Frontier in Space. The Daleks were often held back for big reveals and a great deal of effort was put in to keeping surprise appearances a secret, unlike in NuWho. Remembrance of the Daleks even goes to the trouble of using the pseudonym ‘Roy Tromelly’ to hide the presence of actor Terry Molloy in order to keep the eventual reveal of Davros a secret. This sparing use of the Daleks led to long gaps between appearances that would sometimes span as long as 5 years, particularly since Tom Baker’s era has only 2 Dalek episodes out of 41 total. After taking over as showrunner, John-Nathan Turner seemingly limited the Daleks to one appearance per Doctor, either by accident or design, keeping Dalek appearances in the 80s limited. But when the Daleks did appear, fans could be certain the episode in question would be dark, violent and sometimes even horrific.
When crossing over the vast canyon that is the Wilderness Years to the idyllic oasis of NuWho, however, an obvious change in the utilisation of the Daleks in Doctor Who becomes apparent. Russell T. Davies certainly succeeded in revitalising the Daleks with a much-needed redesign and excellent first reveal in Dalek, but after that a pattern seems to emerge. It is worthy of note that there is not a single series of the Davies’ era that does not contain a Dalek two-parter, and whilst this was fantastic for my 10-year old self, this means that the shock factor of a Dalek reveal that was present in the classic series as well as the first series of the revival has now considerably diminished. Russell seemed intent on the Daleks being the ‘big baddies’ of the series, which in itself is a logical direction to take the show in, but it did introduce one significant element to the Daleks that they could definitely have done without – predictability.
It is for this reason that, upon reading the title of this article, a common reaction would probably be “Of course the Daleks are going to return, they always do!” and you wouldn’t be wrong for thinking that – Russell even included a line in Evolution of the Daleks in which Dalek Thay states “We always survive.” It’s as if at some point off-screen Russell had turned up in the Dalek base and read them the script for the next series in advance. But Doctor Who has been without Russell T. Davies since 2010, so how has Steven Moffat handled the Daleks in his era of the show?
The answer is, with all due respect to the Moff, that he has handled them badly. Very badly indeed. In 2010, Moffat stated that he intended the Daleks to be ‘retired’ for a few years, in similar fashion to the brief hiatuses of Dalek activity in the late 60s and the late 70s. However, he did not follow up on this promise. Instead what we got was an era of Doctor Who peppered with sparse and meaningless Dalek cameos, and although some of the later ones were done right (as I have discussed further in another article entirely), the end result means that Matt Smith’s era of Doctor Who can be described as ‘almost Dalek-less’, since we don’t talk about Asylum of the Daleks. If Moffat had truly removed the Daleks from the show then as he originally intended, we would have been set for an epic and long-awaited return of the Daleks during Peter Capaldi’s era which would have given Moffat the time necessary to complete the 14 rewrites to the script of Asylum that were necessary to make it watchable, and it might have been good – maybe even awesome.
So this brings us to 2017, and after 7 years of pitiful Dalek appearances, how will Chris Chibnall handle the Daleks? Surely they will at least cameo in the series for the eleventh time in a row? Well, perhaps not. Recent evidence has come to light that suggests that Chibnall may be going Dalek-lite for Series 11, for better or for worse. Following the sacking of longtime Dalek operator Nicholas Pegg for hiding an offensive message in his a column published in Doctor Who Magazine, the BBC claims that Pegg was not due to be involved in Series 11 anyway, and there has still be no news as to whether or not the voice of the Daleks himself, Nicholas Briggs, will be involved either. Could this be a clue suggesting that the Daleks will be absent in Series 11?
Well, probably not. Even if Chris Chibnall is taking the series in a radical new direction, chances are the Daleks will still appear in some form or another, particularly since this series of Doctor Who has proven controversial for some and Chibnall will need to gently convince fans that this is still the same Doctor Who that we know and love by bombarding them with imagery of innocent people slaughtered by alien death machines. For the Daleks to succeed as effective villains it is vital that Chibnall, unlike Moffat, decides on how he wants to use the Daleks and sticks with it – either a Russell-style epic Dalek finale or an extended period of Dalek absence could benefit Terry Nation’s creations, and Chinall certainly has the writing skill. Let’s just hope he puts two and two together to either bring the Daleks back in an epic space-opera style episode that they deserve, or to give them much-needed downtime in preparation for whoever takes the reigns next.