Doctor Who – Know thy Enemy – Top Questions about the Daleks answered!

All too often do you see fans of Doctor Who nitpick the show to no end. I do it myself, as anyone who has read any of my previous articles will know. However, certain aspects of Doctor Who lore are often criminally misunderstood by both general viewers and die-hard fans alike, leading to pointless discussion or criticism that is based on simple misunderstandings. To keep things simple, I’m going to focus this article on just questions relating to the Daleks, but any more I do in the future will certainly branch out to other aspects of the show. So here are my answers to the most common questions and criticisms about the Doctor’s most feared enemy – the Daleks.

Why do the Daleks always shout ‘Exterminate?’ rather than just shoot people on sight?

This is a question you hear all too often about the Daleks. In the lore, the Daleks are supposed to be intergalactic mass-murders who destroy cities, fleets of warships and sometimes even entire worlds in their spare time, and yet when you see them on-screen they appear to dawdle and get caught up screaming ‘Exterminate’ over and over again rather than actually just shoot people. Why is that?

Well, for a start, that isn’t necessarily the case 100% of the time. There are plenty of examples of Daleks shooting on sight, mostly to kill nameless characters or anyone not relevant to the plot. You could say then that the real explanation for the Daleks’ inconsistent behaviour is due to a classic case of plot armour – the Daleks can’t just shoot the Doctor, because then there’d be no Doctor Who, and wouldn’t that be a tragedy.

In-lore, however, there are actually two other possible explanations for this, the first makes its appearance in The Witches’ Familiar, in which Missy finally explains why the Daleks shout ‘Exterminate’ all the time – their weapons channel hatred, and their battle cry is how they reload. It’s an interesting concept, and it’s great that it comes from Missy – the Doctor would be much more likely to try and explain the Daleks’ ways in a more philosophical sense, whereas Missy just gets to the technical ins-and-outs. This not only provides a great insight into how Dalek technology functions (as well as perhaps paying homage to the psycho-kinetic mobility systems that are explored in their very first episode, The Daleks) but it also covers for several instances in Dalek episodes in which they seem to get stuck like a broken record, shouting ‘Exterminate’ over and over again until some convenient plot device comes in to save whoever is in danger (usually the Doctor).

The second explanation for this is slightly more simple, and relates to a concept that, for better or worse, is introduced in Asylum of the Daleks, which relates to how the Daleks view the concept of hatred itself. The Daleks admire anything that can hate as much as they can, and since the Doctor hates the Daleks, they actually admire him for it. Not only that, but they work themselves up into a frenzy over it – imagine each Dalek who tries to kill the Doctor agonising internally over whether or not to kill their greatest enemy, or spare him simply because of the raw untapped hatred that festers within. This can count for any hate-filled species, which might also explain the Daleks’ initial poor luck in their war against the Movellans – but we’ll get to that later.

Why were the Daleks set back by 1,000 years in Genesis of the Daleks, when all the Doctor did was blow up some fish tanks and collapse a corridor?

This one is interesting, to say the least. In Genesis of the Daleks, the Doctor fails in his mission to destroy the Daleks before they are even created, but he does achieve one small victory – he manages to destroy their embryonic growth tanks, and also destroy the one entrance into the Dalek bunker, effectively trapping them inside. But he then says that he estimates that these two actions have stunted Dalek development by a thousand years, which seems unlikely, particularly given their persistent nature. So why is this?

Essentially, it comes down to a cascading effect, and also relates to the death of Davros. In destroying the Dalek embryo tanks, the Doctor wipes out all of the Daleks growing inside, and also destroys their means of reproduction. Since the Daleks also kill Davros, their creator, as well as all the other Kaleds, they have no means of procreating, and basically have to start from scratch. Given the limited resources available, it’s a small wonder that the Daleks don’t just die out there and then, and having to rebuild a delicate and precise genetics laboratory with no arms is no simple task.

Why do the Daleks always seem to lose, when they have such a fearsome reputation?

Another common criticism of the Daleks is that they lose too much. I can definitely get behind that, it would be nice to see some proper Dalek victories on screen, even if it does blow the entire BBC CGI budget for that year. Whilst the obvious answer to this question is that ‘if the Daleks won all the time, there would be no show’, I like to look for potential lore explanation for problems like this rather than just take the easy option, so let’s break this down.

The Daleks aren’t invincible, even if they don’t realise it, and despite this, there is plenty of evidence on-screen to suggest that they have conquered a significant portion of the galaxy. We see humans in conflict with Daleks in the future in plenty of classic Doctor Who episodes, and we also see the Daleks subjugating alien races too, like the Thals, the Aridians and the Exxilons. We see an example of a Dalek prison camp in Destiny of the Daleks, giving us an idea of how the Daleks treat the residents of the planets that they conquer. But they never actually manage to destroy the human race. In The Parting of the Ways, the humans on Satellite 5 know of the Daleks from legend, but claim that they ‘died out’ thousands of years ago, relative to their time period of 200,100, obviously to fight in the Time War.

So the Daleks are spread out across the Galaxy, fighting what is essentially a war with infinite fronts – it is in their nature to attempt to destroy everything that they encounter, which is no easy task, even for them. And then you must take into account the instances where, by pure fluke, the Dalek expanse was halted or reversed, such as the Movellans devious virus, the Dalek Civil Wars, or their mass exodus out of time and space to throw all of their resources at Gallifrey’s planetary shield at the conclusion of the Time War. If the Daleks hadn’t suffered these setbacks, judging by what we have already seen on-screen, there is no doubt that they would have conquered the Galaxy.

Why do the Daleks change their appearance over time, when they regard themselves as the pinnacle of all evolution?

Again, the real-life answer for the Daleks’ changing appearance is due to the evolution of the BBC’s production values and materials, similarly to how the Borg in Star Trek change their appearance over time despite existing in their original form for millions of years. In-universe, the Borg appear to adapt when they encounter a race that benefits them, and the same can be said for the Daleks.

As far as the casings are concerned, the Daleks undoubtedly incorporate new materials and techniques into their design as they encounter them, such as the Metalert that was accidentally discovered and absorbed by the Dalek scientist Zeg, which was later used to create the casing for Dalek Sec. Although the Daleks constantly view themselves as supreme, they are not above altering certain aspects of their design when they feel that it was make themselves even more ‘supreme’.

As far as the actual physical appearance of the mutant is concerned, there is a simple in-universe explanation for this as well, although it requires some explanation. Although the Daleks central philosophy is maintaining their own genetic ‘purity’, their physical form does mutate over time. This stands to reason, as they were created using nuclear radiation, and it is very possible that by the time the Daleks go off to fight the Time War, they are practically a different species to the Daleks we see in the city on Skaro. This is proven by the alterations to the Dalek physical form that we see in Remembrance of the Daleks and The Parting of the Ways. One thing that is clear, however, is that following Victory of the Daleks, the Dalek Empire has returned to its original, ‘pure-bred’ state after surviving for years as half-mad hybrids or derivations, which the new Daleks dramatically destroy in the climax of that episode.

Why would a race like the Daleks ever fight a Civil War?

Speaking of Remembrance, that episode and its two predecessors, Resurrection and Revelation, introduce a fascinating new aspect to Dalek lore, and that is the concept of an all-out Dalek Civil War. It seems odd that a race as single-minded and fanatically loyal as the Daleks would ever fight such a war, since Dalek rebellions or dissent among the ranks are unheard of given their nature. But the seeds for this idea were sowed as far back as Evil of the Daleks, in which the Second Doctor causes a civil war to break out in the Dalek city on Skaro by infecting a significant portion of the Daleks with the ‘Human Factor’, making them able to express emotion and question orders.

In terms of the actual full-scale Civil War to follow, however, one must look to Destiny of the Daleks for the first stages of the answer. The Movellans, who are able to effectively combat the Daleks due to their development of a synthetic virus which is the only disease which affects them, reduce the Dalek Empire to rubble overnight, cutting dozens of Dalek holdouts off from each other, which continue to exist even after the Movellans are eventually wiped out. Cut off from the main Empire, and believing themselves to be the only survivors, these Daleks go on to adapt and change for the same reasons discussed earlier, leading to several splinter factions who regard all of the other factions of Daleks as inferior.

And then Davros gets thrown into the mix, and he takes this a step further by actually creating Daleks from different template species, such as humans, and also altering the Dalek base design by incorporating far more cybernetic elements to make them obedient to him, basically creating a race of Daleks that are more machine than organic. The result is a Dalek Civil War on many fronts, with many factions, that lasts for centuries as the main Dalek Empire focuses on wiping out all of the smaller splinter factions, which they consider to be an affront to their existence. It is even implied in Remembrance that the Daleks hate non-pure Daleks more than they hate humans, which certainly explains why they get so caught up in constant in-fighting rather than focusing on destroying humanity.

And finally, arguably the most pressing question of all…

Why do the Daleks have a toilet plunger?

Ah, the quirks of 1960s prop design. I suppose the idea of a totally inhuman appendage that defies our understanding and is made of the most terrifying substance known to man – rubber – must have scared people back then. In truth, the toilet plunger is a bit of a weird choice to have opposite the gunstick, and I’m frankly amazed that it has been retained, particularly in the new series. The Americans did away with the plunger for their Daleks, instead preferring a more sinister silver claw, but we Brits like to stick to our guns – or, rather, cleaning utensils.

In fairness, the revival did wonders for actually trying to make this appendage seem scary – it looks less like a toilet plunger with its detail, but still retains the same shape, and it is revealed in Dalek that it can not only morph to fit around panels and buttons to use a an actual manipulator, but it can also form a tight seal around a human’s face to suffocate them to death and also apply enough force to crush a man’s skull like it was polystyrene.

The in-lore explanation for the manipulator arm, as it is officially named, is that it is a catch-all device for performing as many tasks as possible with one standard attachment. The problem with the Daleks having a claw is that this is a recognisable human shape, a hand, and that detracts from the Daleks’ most chilling aspect which is their utterly unapologetic non-humanness. When one takes into account the fact that it can change shape, it actually makes a lot of sense, especially since the Daleks aren’t likely to carry spare tools around with them. It also doubles as a scanner, a brainwave-extractor, a tea-tray-carrier and, if the situation requires it, it can make quite an effective close-range weapon for ripping people’s faces off. I think I’d prefer a quick extermination, thanks.

So there we have it, the most pressing questions about the Daleks, finally answered. I hope you learned something, and maybe this explains some of those nagging doubts you had about the nation’s favourite genocidal cyborg warrior-race. Thanks for reading, and expect more articles like this soon!

Author: Cameron Walker

Writer, Painter, Dalek collector, Walker, General Idealist but Political Realist, Fan of Doctor Who, Star Wars, Halo, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek and Ghost in the Shell, among other things. All Doctor Who discussion particularly welcome, but be warned, I am a huge nerd.

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