A question I’m asked often by friends and family alike is, ‘Why the Daleks?’ In fairness, it is a valid question. To any average Joe the Daleks are frankly laughable, both in their design and their execution. They look like dustbins and are often described as such, they shriek impotent threats and inaudible screams of malice, often directed at nobody in particular, and their episodes range from pretty good (Remembrance) to downright awful (Asylum). And if the tone of this introduction seems somewhat pessimistic, that’s because any Dalek fan is aware of the never-ending uphill battle of not only trying to convince non-whovians to watch Doctor Who, but also trying to convince just about everyone that the Daleks are a viable threat, a well-crafted villain and an essential part of British culture. It’s like being the only person in town who likes Marmite, or the Star Wars prequels, or Tommy Wiseau. I could be shown a list of a hundred viable reasons why the Daleks aren’t cool, but I would never be swayed. But the question remains: Why?
Dalekmania – Britain and the Daleks
For one, whether we like it or not, the Daleks are embedded in British culture. Show a Dalek to anyone in England and they would be able to tell you immediately what it is, no matter where in the country they lived or worked, and there are very few fictional icons that have such universal recognition. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that Dalek imagery has permeated into every corner of the English-speaking world, and perhaps beyond. One must remember that the Daleks are old, they turn fifty-four this year, making them older than Darth Vader and Spock, giving them an edge over their franchise rivals. Any Brit who isn’t even a tiny bit proud of the Daleks is ignorant of how much of an impact they have truly had on the world, despite everything. As far as British iconography goes, there is nothing that can top the Daleks.
The Daleks don’t just form part of Britain, they also represent it. At heart, the Daleks are personified by raging impotence, they hate the universe and want desperately for it to just go away and leave them alone, and yet despite their claims of supremacy and ultimate power, their enemies continue to defeat them simply by surviving. Any post-imperialist British politician can sympathise with this stance, it mirrors how most Imperialists must have felt following the collapse of the British Empire, and in many ways any Powellite, Tory or Nationalist can relate to the Daleks. In the modern era, their link with Britain has changed but remained strong – the Daleks in the modern day are struggling desperately to stay relevant in a world that has moved on from them, and to many they seem almost comical in their futile attempts to cling to power. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the world’s view of the Daleks very much mirrors Europe’s view of Britain right now, and speaking of which…
Tinfoil Pepper Pots – The World vs The Daleks
In a world of cinematic superheroes, awe-inspiring CGI Death Stars, Lord of the Rings, and over 60,000 years worth of youtube videos, is there even any room in pop culture for the comparatively whimsical Daleks? I’ve already discussed how the Daleks must struggle to captivate their audience in the modern day, but even to a die-hard Doctor Who fan the Daleks can seem stupid. They trundle about, shout ‘Exterminate’, shoot their gun (usually missing their target) and get blown up. But what makes that so different from anything else on TV? For an example, let’s take the Stormtroopers from Star Wars. They are one of the most popular and well-celebrated fictional military forces of all time, and yet at any point following the opening sequence of A New Hope, they’re about as threatening to the viewer as Bob Ross in a Cookie Monster onesie. Their heads are disproportionately large, their aim is comically bad, and their armour looks like cheap plastic, and this is from a production with a budget hundreds of times larger than anything Doctor Who had seen at the time.
And yet, two years earlier, Doctor Who gave us Genesis of the Daleks, the six-parter that reaffirmed in the minds of the British public the idea that the Daleks are a nightmare, a metallic monster that deals death to dozens of innocents, all while the Stormtroopers couldn’t even catch a bin on wheels and a gold-plated diplomat in a desert. And it is true that both have experienced ‘villain decay’ over the years, to the point where during the 1990s both were appearing on comedy sketches, and Star Wars has since totally redesigned the Stormtroopers (in a manner similar to Doctor Who’s treatment of its primary villain 10 years prior) or ditched them entirely in favor of CGI robots or other stand-in soldiers. Doctor Who, however, stuck to its guns, and although the Daleks were heavily redesigned in 2005, they deliberately kept in those comical design choices that could have easily been eliminated, like the plunger. Is that a good thing? Well…
Victors of the Longevity Game
Of course it is. Any self-respecting remake of a classic work of art sticks to the design choices of that era, regardless of the consequences. Apart from anything else, deviation from classic designs invokes fan backlash of Vesuvian magnitude, just look at the new Marvin, the new Kryten, or the redesigned Covenant in Halo. Whilst the Daleks have undergone serious updates since 1963, the base design has remained the same, and they occasionally call back to their roots, bringing classic designs back in homage to the bygone eras of Doctor Who. In a way, part of what makes the Daleks so great is that they relentless, shamelessly and stubbornly continue to deal out death and destruction on-screen in the same way that they did 54 years ago.
Despite everything, it’s not even as if Doctor Who revolves around the Daleks. The show does not need the Daleks to be successful, and nothing has proven that more in modern times than the fact that all of the best Doctor Who episodes have almost certainly been non-Dalek episodes. That is by no means to say that there are no Dalek episodes, just that the show maintains a healthy balance of keeping the Daleks in the show and yet not leaning on them for success, like some other franchises do with their main villains. Out of the 275 Doctor Who stories, merely 40 or less actually feature the Daleks, and even fewer have them as the main villain. In many ways that is a testament to the type of show Doctor Who is, it doesn’t exist simply to tell one story, or even one set of stories – it crosses genres and styles of storytelling in a way no other show does – and the Daleks form just one part of a much greater pantheon, and have done for over 50 years.
So… Why the Daleks?
Alright, I’ll stop beating about the bush. Now that I’ve set the scene, here are just some of the reasons why I think the Daleks are so cool. Here goes.
- They’d definitely beat any other sci-fi race in a fight, hands down. They are so overpowered that the SpaceBattles forums, that deals in using community-based input to attempt to decide who would win out of sci-fi races from various franchises, often bans Daleks from discussions for being too overpowered and coined the phrase ‘Dalek-stomp’ as a one-word dismissal of anyone trying to post races that could beat them. Yes, I’m serious.
- The music. Their classic-era episodes had some good soundtracks, particularly Genesis and Remembrance, but Murray Gold has composed some truly awe-inspiring pieces of music to accompany the Daleks that rivals any John Williams score in the ears of all true Doctor Who fans.
- The sound effects, throughout their existence. The gunstick effect is always a feast for the ears, and the shrill, shrieking voices still strike fear into the hearts of children even today, like an electronically enhanced recording of the worlds most overbearing drill sergeant who also wants to kill you. Also, the Dalek heartbeat is one of the most ambient tension-builders in the history of television.
- The extermination effect – when it actually gets used its always cool to see, and usually its being dealt to some poor innocent bystander, a desperate soldier or sometimes even the Doctor himself, creating the constant fear that no-one is safe from the Daleks. They have no mercy or pity, and the extermination effect shows that – the skeletal negative effect momentarily removes all individuality and humanity from the victims, showing just how weak even the most morally empowered force is when compared with the Daleks.
- The CGI, and again, I’m serious. From something as simple as the plunger forming a surgical mask to crush a man’s skull, to the intricately designed swarms of endless Dalek assault squads pouring out of the mothership to attack Earth, CGI always seems to treat the Daleks surprisingly well, given the circumstances. Then again…
- The practical effects, from both the classic and the modern era. Doctor Who is a show forged in fire, or rather, trial by fire, in that adversity mires production around every corner. As the previously mentioned A New Hope shows us, however, that usually ends up with creativity tested to its limits, and aside from a few missteps in the classic era, this is definitely true of most Dalek stories. From an excess of TNT to a prominent use of silly string, the practical effects are a treat.
- The morality of it all. As anyone who has read my previous Dalek articles, I am truly fascinated with the morality surrounding the Daleks. All the best Dalek episodes deal with this concept, but the best thing is that there is so much more to be explored, and so much more to learn. 2015’s Dalek two-parter was packed full of brand new Dalek lore that fits in nicely with pre-existing Dalek mythology, and that’s what good Dalek stories in the future should hope to do. (I’m looking at you, Asylum of the Daleks.)And, finally:
- The foil. No, not tin foil, I mean they exist as the perfect foil for the show’s main character, the Doctor. Any good villain should show us the worst aspects of their hero yet still strive to be villainous, and this is definitely true of the Daleks. Nothing hates more than the Daleks, nothing kills more than the Daleks, and that is the perfect foil for the epoch of morality that is the Doctor.