After 50 or so years of seeing these plunger-wielding pepperpots roaming about and screaming ‘Exterminate’, some may be wondering ‘What exactly makes the Daleks scary in the first place?’
In an interview with us, Robert Shearman, writer of the 2005 story ‘Dalek’, gave his opinion on why it’s dangerous to start to minimise what the Daleks represent.
“I think it’s more of a view of the Daleks, actually. I think that what always bothered me about the Daleks, and still does a bit, is that they were meant to represent Nazis. I mean, that’s why Terry Nation, the original creator, came up with them. It was, you know, eighteen years after the the second world war, and the big evil was the memory of Adolf Hitler, and therefore the Daleks are very much a reaction to that.
“And yet over the years they’ve become these lovable toys for children. And when Doctor Who was off the air… The Daleks were in ads, and they were just bits of laughable kitsch.
“I think that there’s a great danger in the world generally of kind of trivialising. I think it’s what we do. I think we make things safe. I think that things that are actually dangerous and dark and need confronting, over the years become things that we start to feel we can box into an area and say ‘well this is the past and the past is quite funny.’
“So, the way that Indiana Jones will represent Nazis as comedy villains but they’re not! I think that I wanted, with the Daleks, was to do a story, both in Jubilee the audio and in [Dalek] the TV version, of people not taking the Daleks seriously enough because they see it as kitsch. And it proving them wrong because, actually, there’s a real evil there.”
When Terry Nation first wrote the 1963 Dalek serial, he wanted to create a monster that was completely divorced from humanity. He compared it to his experiences as a child seeing horror films about Frankenstein’s monster or the Mummy, where they were scary, but because ‘you could see the legs’ that humanised them. You knew they were a man in a suit. So, for the Daleks, the legs were taken away. Thus, the Daleks took their first “step” towards their separation from humanity.
We later see inside a Dalek, and see that they have mutated into bubbling, tentacled lumps of hate. Once again, physically unrecognisable as humans. However, in the same story, we meet the Thals, fellow inhabitants of the Daleks’ homeworld, Skaro, and they look almost entirely human. They tell us that the Daleks were once like them, but the neutronic war mutated them and turned them into these monsters.
The Daleks were once like us.
That is one of the key issues with the horror surrounding the Daleks, that at first glance they seem so devoid of humanity, so separate from us that we cannot imagine them to be anything other than alien. Yet, deep down, they are us. They were once like us.
When Russell T Davies brought the show back in 2005, his grand finale of the first series had the revelation that the Dalek Emperor had been using humans to create a new race of Daleks. Now they were literally us. Forced into those miniature tanks, screaming their desire to exterminate all life. Hammering home the message that they are closer to us than we would like to think.
Back in Genesis of the Daleks (1975), we see the Daleks as they once were – humanoid Kaleds living under a totalitarian military dictatorship. They dress in much the same fashion as we have come to associate with fascist regimes, particularly the Nazis. They were human and they did things humans have done; they show us what would happen if we let it, and perhaps ask us to stop it before it begins. As the Doctor is sent back to stop the Daleks from being created in the first place, though he ultimately refuses. Then again, The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar (2015) ask whether he made the right choice after all.
So, the Dalek’s horror comes in two parts, I think. One, that they are so completely alien, and two, in that they are also frighteningly human. They could be us. If we let it happen.