Synthesis of the Daleks: A Formula for 55 Years of Fear
by Christopher Horrocks
“I thought you’d run out of ways to make me sick. But hello again.”
— The Doctor, “Asylum of the Daleks”, Doctor Who
Few elements in a work of fiction can escape incorporating influences that a writer has consumed in print or other media, as well as themes and concerns of special interest. When something tangible like a character can be woven from absorbed, compelling ideas it can take on a life of its own and even become a cultural touchstone. The Daleks, the fictional extraterrestrial species that regularly threaten the cosmos on the long-running BBC television program Doctor Who, are a prime example of an interesting character incorporating elements and themes from different sources to create a greater whole. Daleks are — when examined closely — a redress of the Martians from The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, garbed by their creator, Terry Nation, in a new costume made from post-World War II fears of war and fascism.
More recent writers for Doctor Who have used the Daleks in ways that are fresh yet in keeping with their conceptual origins so they can speak to us about our own time, fifty-five years after their first appearance on television. In an era of rising intolerance and racial animus, the Dalek is a figure of horror: a warning of what might happen if our worst impulses to get the better of us.
From Mars and Earth to Skaro
Dalek creator Terry Nation (1930-1997) had a solid background in science fiction ideas as early as the 1950’s based on his work adapting SF tales for British television. It is from this grounding that we reach for the first significant influence on the creation of the Daleks: the Martians from The War of the Worlds (1898).
Like the Martians, Daleks have bodies that are essentially brains with vestigial organs and a clutch of tentacles for manipulating controls in their machines.
(Fig. 1) A Martian emerges. Plate from a 1906 Belgian edition of The War of the Worlds (La guerre des mondes), illustrated by Henrique Alvim-Corrêa.
(Fig. 2) A Dalek with its armor completely opened. Doctor Who, “Daleks in Manhattan”, 2007
Both Wells and Nation present their creations as evolutionary endpoints: for Wells’s Martian, this is the result of a natural evolutionary process where the parts of the body not necessary to support and nurture the brain have been shed, whereas the Daleks have been “force evolved” in the lab to have similar characteristics. Brief aside: “evolutionary endpoints” are one of those lazy and mistaken conceptualizations of real science that can only exist in science fiction.
Both the Martians and the Daleks are described by their enemies as holding the lives of other beings in complete contempt as a result of their self-perceived superiority to others. The Martians were realized by Wells as a caricature and reflection of the contemporary 19th century European ruthless urge to imperial conquest; the Daleks behave in a similar manner.
The most compelling connection between the Martians and the Daleks is their need for a mechanical body for survival and to manipulate their environment, and their ability to change body types to suit their needs. In The War of the Worlds, the most commonly depicted type of Martian machine is the tripod or fighting-machine, but low-slung spidery handling-machines and a flying-machine are also part of the Martian arsenal.
The Daleks have been seen in a variety of “travel machines” shapes over the years as well, the chief difference with their counterparts from the Red Planet being a matter of scale. Martians loom over buildings in their giant tripods. Daleks, in contrast, must be sized for television studio sets.
The evolution of the appearance of the creature inside the machine, the actual Dalek mutant itself, seems to have been an afterthought of the production team for much of the classic Doctor Who era. A smattering of glimpses in the classic series seem to confirm the Dalek as an amorphous tentacled green blob. The body plan was finally settled when a mutant is unambiguously seen in full in the 2005 episode of the revived series, “Dalek”. By this time, the unspoken association between the Martian and the Dalek mutant was so strong that any design other than one that called back to Wells’ description of the Martians might have felt wrong.
The influence of the imagination of H. G. Wells on Terry Nation stretches into the revised origin story revealed in “Genesis of the Daleks”. Events from in Wells’ 1908 novel The War In the Air and revisited in the 1936 film Things to Come inform conditions on the Dalek home planet, Skaro, during this look at their beginnings.
(Fig. 3) Soldiers dressed in ragged uniforms, furs, and gas masks fight the World War as it drags into its 20th year. Still from Things to Come (1936).
Both works, by committed pacifists, depict societies where non-stop violence over decades results in technological regress. A war that starts out being fought with the most modern equipment ends with technical civilization exhausted and society collapsed. Skaro — once as lush as our Earth, but now a rocky and irradiated wasteland — is the setting of a thousand-year war where the last survivors of two nations battle with increasingly primitive weapons, confined to the last two cities on the planet. One of these combatants, the Kaleds, are the ancestors of the Daleks.
(Fig. 4) Thal soldiers — dressed in ragged uniforms, homespun cloth, and gas masks — attempt to break through the Kaled lines in the last days of the Thousand-Year War. Still from “Genesis of the Daleks”, Doctor Who (1975).
The Nazi Connection
If Terry Nation had one idea consciously in mind that he wished to express in his creation of the Daleks, it was a dread of Fascism born of his childhood memories of World War II. This is evident from the very first appearance of the Daleks and from various elements of the Dalek creature — its uniformity and intellectual rigidness; the innate and unshakable belief in its own superiority and the complete and utter inferiority of all others; the repeated battle-cry heavy with obvious meaning: “Exterminate!” Even their immediate ancestors, the Kaled people, are seen in the brief and unsympathetic glimpse offered of them as a society whose entire existence has been perverted toward destroying an external enemy, the Thals, while maintaining an artificial standard of racial “purity” based on ideology and a harsh eugenics policy. The Kaled society’s resemblance to Nazi Germany is telegraphed further by uniforms and salutes. (Figs. 5, 6.)
(Fig. 5) Heinrich Himmler. Himmler, next to Hitler himself, was most responsible for the implementation of the Nazi’s eugenics and genocide programs. Photograph from the German Federal Archive, c. 1941
(Fig. 6) Nyder (portrayed by Peter Miles), a Kaled official in charge of security for the Dalek Project. His costume is a highly stylized and simplified black uniform reminiscent of the uniforms of the S.S.; the eye-and-lightning bolt symbol of the Kalek security forces stands in for the S.S. death’s head. The eyeglasses further link the character to Himmler specifically. “Genesis of the Daleks”, Doctor Who (1975).
Terry Nation’s Dalek story masterpiece, “Genesis of the Daleks”, can be interpreted as both a brief retelling of the general outline of the endgame of the Second World War and as a warning to the future. The Doctor, his companions, and allies among the surviving Thals and dispossessed Mutos of Skaro stand in for the diverse Allied coalition of World War II. Davros is Hitler by way of the mad scientist trope version of Dr. Frankenstein, right down to the screamed speeches about the racial superiority of his Dalek superbeings; Security Chief Nyder, his enforcer, is a transparent clone of Heinrich Himmler who implements Davros’s increasingly insane and immoral demands with cruel efficiency. The Doctor’s Allied forces succeed in sealing the Daleks into the Kaled bunker just as the Allies swept through Germany and forced the Nazi leadership literally underground. Davros is exterminated by one of his Daleks, dying like Hitler at the bottom of his final refuge — like Germany’s Fuhrer, Davros is himself destroyed by the out-of-control nightmare he has unleashed.
The Doctor notes, however, that the Daleks have only been delayed and that they would return — a warning to the audience that the forces of fascism, seemingly defeated in 1945, would come back in the future to menace the real world again. Surrounded by the corpses of those who had helped create it, a Dalek addresses the camera directly:
“We are entombed, but we live on. This is only the beginning. We will prepare. We will grow stronger. When the time is right, we will emerge and take our rightful place as the supreme power of the universe!”
Mutations for the 21st Century
While Terry Nation is typically (and rightly) credited as the “Creator of the Daleks”, this title is a bit glib. Nation is responsible for conceiving of the idea of the Dalek, its origins, and even had a vague idea of the machine’s appearance while scripting the first Dalek story for Doctor Who. The actual Dalek machine prop was designed by a BBC employee, Raymond Cusick; and while Terry Nation wrote most Dalek stories from 1963 to 1979, he did not write them all. Before their first decade was out, the Daleks were already becoming a group creation as writers, production designers, and others contributed to their growing mythology.
Being a creation of one person but now shepherded over the years by many hands, the Daleks have come to mirror the fears and concerns of those who tend to them in the present. Russell T. Davies used the Daleks in 2005 to make a pointed comment on the Christian doctrine of Original Sin in the Series 1 finale of the revived Doctor Who, “Bad Wolf” / “The Parting of the Ways”, in which a new genetic line of Daleks are driven insane with intense, religious self-hatred because they were created using human genetic material. This makes them, from the Dalek point of view, unclean and hateful of their own existence as a result. The human genetic component of the Daleks underlines the attitude of many Christians over the centuries in their relationship to the body and sexual reproduction, the odd and perverse ways that this doctrine of faith has influenced Western civilization, morality, and individual behavior.
The recent Doctor Who New Year’s Day special, “Resolution” (2019) written by Chris Chibnall, showed what a potent vessel for apprehension a Dalek is when something new could be added to its admixture. In this episode, a Dalek is seen to do something we have not seen before —the mutant, without a machine, takes control of an ordinary human being and uses her like a puppet just as deftly as it would control its own armored shell.
Body-snatching plots in science fiction have often been political. Both films that gave the genre its name, 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and its 1978 remake are easily and correctly read as warnings about the dangers of losing one’s personal freedom in the face of totalitarianism and conformity. The body-snatching in “Resolution” is more personal in scale, confined as it is to a single person made to do things by the Dalek against their suppressed human will. The highjacking of a human, female scientist by the Dalek — our best and brightest hopes for the future overridden by a creature that is an amalgam of much that is despicable in human nature — uncomfortably brings home for us the idea that external appearance can mask a secret heart.
This reflects an alienating phenomenon that many people have experienced in recent years: the disorientation that follows when parents, grandparents, friends, spouses, and other “reasonable” people in our lives reveal themselves to have repellant, reactionary opinions that we would never have suspected before the political prominence of people like Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, and Jair Bolsonaro made proto-fascist and fascistic ideas acceptable again for a large audience.
It is not at all flippant to say that a Dalek would understand perfectly the message behind “Make America Great Again”; to make the planet Skaro “great” again in the same fashion by enslaving or destroying anyone that is unlike themselves is their exclusive ambition. A Dalek’s inability to see others as having a right simply to be is easily translated to the present political arena:a handful of political actors presently use unfounded fears that refugees fleeing violence in their homelands will bring disease or terrorism into countries that have long offered asylum to the helpless and the oppressed in the post-World War II international order. The othering of refugees and persons who have typically been outside of the structures of power, denying them personhood and essential humanity — even breaking apart their families and having little interest in their reunion or eventual fate — is a very Dalek thing to do.
“We Are the Daleks!”
The Dalek is a well-crafted synthetic creation that draws deeply from the well of our fears and problems. It is a compound of ideas and concepts that are just as compelling and frightening in the 21st century as in the 19th and 20th: the idea, shared by Martians, Daleks, and Nazis, that the universe should be divided into the strong and the weak, and the weak deserve destruction; that freedom will always be threatened by totalitarianism; and even our loved ones may not be who they seem. They are the embodiment of the worst things that humans have invented with our cleverness, driven by our most ancient and terrible feelings and ways of thinking. It seems likely that the Daleks will conquer new worlds and frighten audiences for a long time to come because we recognize the Dalek in ourselves.
Christopher Horrocks is a writer and IT professional living in Philadelphia, PA. He is a passionate student of science, the arts, history, and their intersection. He holds a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. He has seen every extant Doctor Who serial at least twice, even the rubbish ones. firstname.lastname@example.org