Synthesis of the Daleks: A Formula for 55 Years of Fear

September 5, 2019

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.)