Posts Tagged ‘The Natural History of Evil’

It would be misleading to suggest that the original producers of Doctor Who did not intend to make any Dalek stories other than the first one. The original producers of Doctor Who did not intend to make any Dalek stories at all, and only ended up using Terry Nation’s original scripts because there was literally nothing else available to fill that particular slot. This did not sit well with Doctor Who‘s godfather, Sydney Newman, one of whose founding principles was ‘No bug-eyed monsters’.

However, to be fair to Nation, on their first appearance the Daleks are hardly that: these are not really the familiar liquidate-all-opposition space conquerors, but an alien race specifically written to suit the particular story the writer had in mind. It’s still not particularly well-known that in the very first script outline for the story which will forever be known to us as The Daleks, The Dead Planet, The Mutants, Dr Who and the Daleks and/or Doctor Who In An Exciting Adventure With The Daleks, the Daleks are not an immutable force for evil who are soundly defeated in the final episode.

The original scripts make the point that neither the Daleks or the Thals are entirely sure who started the war that devastated Skaro all those years ago, and in the final episode the mystery is solved: a third group of aliens appear and reveal it was all their fault – sorry! The Daleks and Thals resolve to live in peace and rebuild the planet.

Would Doctor Who have lasted half a century if the scripts for The Masters of Luxor not fallen through and The Dead Planet gone unmade? Would it still be here if Nation’s original outline had made it to the screen intact? (I seem to recall that it was only the paucity of the budget, which wouldn’t run to a third set of aliens, that forced Nation to rewrite his ideas.) Well, Doctor Who isn’t here now solely because of the popularity of the Daleks, but I strongly doubt it would have made it through its first six years without the rocket boost of Dalekmania and the associated media attention.

And things were never the same again.

And things were never the same again.

A final-act redemption of the Daleks (how long before a story called Redemption of the Daleks actually hits our screens? It couldn’t be any worse than Asylum of the Daleks) would be almost impossible to pull off in any other story, but in The Dead Planet you can just about imagine it working: if these Daleks are intent upon killing everyone else in the story, it’s because they are in a literally them-or-us situation. These Daleks are dependent on a heavily irradiated environment to survive, something which is toxic to the Thals and the other characters. For the first part of the story, at least, it’s surely easier to identify with the Daleks, who are doing their damnedest to stay alive, no matter what, than the Thals, who seem quite prepared to roll over and die rather than breach their own principles. Sure, a few Thals get exterminated along the way, but this should by no means rule out an eventual rapprochement – there are other equally implausible accounts of warring parties putting hostilities behind them with improbable speed elsewhere in Doctor Who.

In short, the Daleks of The Dead Planet are fundamentally different creatures from the ones we are familiar with today. There’s no real sign of the over-riding Dalek imperative to kill all other life on sight, and they are physically very different too: limited in their mobility by the need for an external power supply, and dependent on a radiation-saturated environment for their survival. Neither of these latter things is ever the case again, although there is a sort of hand-wave concerning the former in their next appearance. Simply from a continuity cop’s point of view, it is very difficult to explain exactly why these Daleks should be so unique – the Doctor later suggests that these are members of some sort of degenerate, relict population in the distant future, but Planet of the Daleks appears to indicate it is set considerably before the mid-26th century, as the events of the story have become Thal legend by this point. This is only compounded by the origin story given for the Daleks on their first appearance, which involves a war lasting a single day and a neutron bomb attack. The Daleks’ on-screen origin story, when it arrives 12 years later, actually features a thousand-year war and a distronic missile attack (whatever one of those is). For a long time it was customary to assume that everyone on Skaro is just very bad at history, and the two wars and attacks are the same – but given the conundrum of the physical distinctness of the Dead Planet Daleks, continuity-wise it really does look like two separate groups of Daleks originated on the same planet, sharing only the same basic appearance.

But what an appearance. It’s an odd fact that any Dalek story, no matter how plodding or repetitive or silly, is somehow lifted when the Daleks themselves are on screen and in action. Both the design and the voice are arresting and compelling, and it is very obvious why the makers of the series chose to bring them back in late 1964 for The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Having said that, it’s pretty much just the design and the voice that get brought back, because nearly everything else about the creatures has been tweaked, wholly rewritten, or invented from scratch to suit the story.

Rather than crippled survivors of an apocalyptic war on a devastated planet, the Daleks of this appearance are much more recognisably the ambitious would-be universal overlords with whom we have become so familiar: they are much more mobile (there’s a small-but-sufficient explanation given for this), appear to have no particular environmental requirements, and are clearly extremely capable technicians and engineers. Is this, then, our first sighting of the True Dalek characterisation?

Well – I would argue not. There’s a brief but illuminating bit of dialogue which is often overlooked, wherein the Doctor and his soon-to-be grandson-in-law discuss just why the Daleks have conquered Earth. According to the Doctor, the existence of humanity is a matter of supreme indifference to the Daleks – man is a work machine to be exploited, nothing more, and one they would ignore if it weren’t necessary to their plan. This does not sound very much like the Dalek characterisation we are familiar with today – modern Daleks don’t seem to be supremely indifferent to anything, except possibly the quality of the scripts they appear in, and the series makes a point of showing them going out of their way to terrorise and kill innocent life-forms. One is of course inclined to wonder just where the Doctor’s getting his insights into the Dalek mind from, but nothing on-screen in the story contradicts his analysis. No explanation is given as to why the Daleks want to spread their presence throughout the universe, either.

The Chase gets round the problem of explaining the motivation of the Daleks (another possible future story in the offing: ‘Now on BBC3, it’s Motivation of the Daleks, and terror ensues as the evil pepper-pots capture Constantin Stanislavski and force him to give them acting lessons’) by being a revenge-oriented plot, albeit one that does interesting (I am being very charitable) things with the concept of the Daleks as a diverse race – so we get such experiments as a stupid Dalek, and a speech-impedimented Dalek. The Daleks’ Master Plan puts them back in the position of space conquerors again, this time willingly teaming up with a bunch of other aliens to take on Earth and the rest of the Solar System. Once again, the story is in no way interested in why the Daleks are behaving as they do, or how their culture functions – it just trusts to the reliable magic of the Dalek design to hang together.

However, Dalek characterisation takes a quantum leap forward in The Power of the Daleks, which I recently wrote about at some length. This is a story in which characters interact with the Daleks on a number of levels, rather than simply running away or hiding from them, and it genuinely seems interested in the idea of what it means to be a Dalek and how they view the rest of the universe – it’s here, for the first time, and not in a Terry Nation script, that we get the first proper glimpse of the Dalek characterisation that has since become so dominant – while rabid xenophobia had been part of the Daleks’ psychological make-up from The Dead Planet onward, here it is coupled to the pathological homicidal mania that gets its most powerful expression in the ‘Law of the Daleks’ and ‘Daleks conquer and destroy’ sequences.

The standard stays high for Evil of the Daleks, even though this is a story I’m rather less impressed with – again, this is a story about the essential natures of things (specifically Humans and Daleks) and what it is that makes them different. Whitaker’s treatment of this idea is just a bit too allegorical-fantastical for me, and the story makes a few too many demands of the audience’s credulity, but it does introduce a concept which has echoed down through the series for much of the intervening period – that of the Daleks at war with themselves. For a race which (the standard characterisation tells us) is fundamentally driven by hatred, it always feels oddly appropriate to have that hate turn in upon itself and destroy them. I’m still not sure this story would live up to its legend if it were found, though.

Five years on and we find ourselves in the wilderness years of the Daleks – the magic and specialness of their sixties heyday over, they appear in a number of bland and repetitive stories with the third Doctor. Probably the most interesting of these is the first, Day of the Daleks, which at least does novel things with the notion of time travel and the ethics of terrorism. Unfortunately these are the two elements of the story which involve the Daleks least. The makers of the story have admitted the Daleks are just there as a big hook for the audience, and narratively it’s not especially about them – any old alien invader or authoritarian bloc could be swapped in for them and it would not make very much difference. The other two stories are both generic B-movie SF tales, but it appears that Terry Nation did perceive the need to come up with some kind of gimmick to make the Daleks fresh – invisible Daleks in Planet of the Daleks and disarmed Daleks in Death to the Daleks. However, on both occasions the gimmick is briefly toyed with but rapidly abandoned in favour of more of the same old stuff in sandpits and corridors – the Daleks as an unquestionably malign force whose motives, methods, and morality are so simplistic as to need no explanation. (Although, for our purposes here, it’s interesting that in Death to the Daleks the Daleks have infected the galaxy with a lethal plague, not to wipe out the other races as you might expect, but to give them some leverage over them and force them to comply with the Daleks’ demands – but we never find out what these are.)

Given the relative sophistication of the treatment of morality in the third Doctor’s era, it’s not surprising that the old-school villainy of the Daleks makes for some of the least interesting stories of this period, nor that the makers of the show were reluctant to keep using them. In 1975’s Genesis of the Daleks we finally get another properly intelligent and thoughtful look at them, and if the price of that is a story in which the Daleks themselves barely make an appearance, it’s surely worth paying in the long run. Here the elements of the classic Dalek characterisation finally get articulated as a cohesive whole, not to mention explained – the progeny of a madman, himself mutilated by a devastating race-war, the Daleks are depicted as being genetically programmed to have a fundamental belief in their own supremacy – the desire to wipe out all other forms of life seems a logical consequence of this. Genesis‘ morality is complex and ambiguous, however, extending beyond this – despite the Time Lords having predicted the ultimate triumph of the Daleks, the Doctor famously rejects the option of destroying them in their infancy on ethical grounds, while elsewhere the story makes no bones about how successful Davros is as a strategist – the Doctor and his friends can do nothing to impede his plans beyond destroying a single tape (and this is a subplot, anyway), it’s Davros’ own overreaching ambition that results in his ultimate downfall.

The series’ treatment of the Daleks after 1975 is interesting. There seems to have been no legal reason for the creatures to be unavailable to appear in stories, as was the case for several years following 1967, yet four years pass between Genesis of the Daleks and Destiny of the Daleks, and another four between Destiny and their next proper outing in Resurrection of the Daleks (we appear to have reached the point at which story titles have crossed the line from portentousness into actual absurdity) – although, inevitably, they were initially scheduled to appear in the closing story of season 20 a year earlier. Terry Nation was actively talked out of contributing a second Dalek story in 1975, eventually submitting The Android Invasion instead (and I’m tempted to say that, without the brilliance of other people’s Dalek designs to grab the attention, it’s The Keys of Marinus and The Android Invasion that give the fairest impression of the general standard of Terry Nation’s scripting for Doctor Who). It’s tempting to draw the conclusion that the makers of the series had concluded that there were no especially interesting stories left to tell using the Daleks, and they were only rolled out when a producer felt the need for a comforting hit of publicity. Even then, the stories are always about Davros rather than the Daleks.

It’s not really surprising that the series should return to Davros time after time in subsequent stories – he gives the Daleks a voice and a face, and allows the Doctor to engage with their philosophy on a deeper and more narratively interesting level. The ongoing story of the Dalek civil war instigated by Davros also serves as a useful hook to hang the various stories on, although Destiny of the Daleks has the interesting concept of the computer stalemate between the Daleks and the Movellans. (Here again Nation appears to either have forgotten the original nature of the Daleks or be attempting to casually revise it: there’s virtually nothing in the broadcast version of Destiny to indicate the Daleks aren’t a totally robotic race.) Ultimately, though, we’re left with a situation where the Daleks are routinely a support act for someone else, with accordingly limited screen-time, or more interested in killing each other rather than threatening anyone the audience might care about. The best of the post-1975 stories, to my mind, is Remembrance of the Daleks (possibly a candidate for most-misspelled story title in the original run), which at least explicitly addresses the standard conception of the Daleks as Nazi-analogues (through their alliance with a group of Fascist humans, for example).

As I’ve said before, the real change in emphasis between the original run of the series and the one starting in 2005 is that one is a plot-oriented undertaking and the other is character-oriented, and one would expect that the presentation of the Daleks might benefit from this. The 21st century series’ approach of assimilating the original series and producing a synthesis of the best of it seems to have been in effect, and the Daleks benefit from this – their characterisation is both deeper and more broadly consistent than in most of their earlier appearances. Bearing in mind my suggestion that the basic Dalek casing design is essentially the only real constant across their many stories, it’s interesting that the meeting of creative types to discuss the revamp of the creatures (apparently known as ‘Resemblance of the Daleks’, according to Rusty Davies) rapidly concluded that there really wasn’t very much to be done beyond reinventing the wheel.

Most of these 21st century stories do adhere to the ‘classic’ characterisation of the Daleks as pathologically homicidal where other races are concerned, and driven to kill members of their own species (even themselves) should they become contaminated with alien genetic material. The Parting of the Ways, though it ducks this issue a tiny bit, interestingly has a go at conflating the Daleks with religious fundamentalists, which actually works quite well as a concept – the Daleks were turning themselves into suicide bombers as far back as Destiny of the Daleks, so it’s not a completely new idea.

Another novelty: mix 'n' match Daleks.

Another novelty: mix ‘n’ match Daleks.

One of the characteristics of Moffat era Doctor Who is its willingness to tinker with the established format and structure of the show, and comment on things which previous regimes wouldn’t really have engaged with. In this vein, Victory of the Daleks isn’t the first time a new Dalek design has been introduced (leaving aside colour variants and one-off individuals, there have been at least five previous Dalek designs), but it’s the first time the revamp has been addressed in the actual story itself – in fact, the story is largely about the revamp. Quite why the new Daleks are so reviled by many fans is a bit of a moot point (for me it’s a combination of the garish colour scheme and the distortion of the traditional Dalek silhouette), but at least their personalities seem to have remained unchanged.

There’s another departure in Asylum of the Daleks when more than one model of Dalek casing appears on screen, with designs from across the history of the series appearing (if you squint at the background, anyway). Possibly this is intended to indicate the Daleks are a diverse culture where groups with different levels of technology work in concert – but this does go rather against the generally monolithic and conformist nature of the classic characterisation.

The true nature of Dalek society and culture is, perhaps sadly, something the TV show has never really concerned itself with – we don’t even really know where little Daleks come from. Are they a clone species like the Sontarans? Are the Daleks still in fact a gendered race? Do they occasionally slip out of those uncomfortable casings for a little intimate time together? (Asylum of the Daleks presents us with the somewhat-awkward revelation that the Daleks occasionally ‘convert’ humans if they have useful skills, something which is hard to reconcile with the standard xenophobic characterisation, but then if you made a list of all the things in Asylum that are hard to make sense of…)

Culturally, the Daleks of the original story still have sculptures in their city, but apart from this they are presented as a supremely utilitarian race. Just assuming they had won the Last Great Time War and gone on to eradicate all other life forms in the universe, what would they have done then? Freed from the pathological fear and hatred which (it seems a fair guess) has motivated most of their actions, what direction would their civilisation follow? Gareth Roberts, in his novel I Am A Dalek, actually has someone ask a Dalek this question, and the answer is that they would devote themselves to art and science and philosophy (which is apparently all they really want to do anyway). It’s a curious concept and one you could imagine them getting a story out of, somehow.

On the other hand, stories exploring the nature of Dalek culture and society could prove problematic – fundamentally, the Daleks aren’t an alien race to be examined, but monsters whose job is to be a threat and scare the audience. One of the brilliant things about the Daleks – perhaps the single most brilliant thing about them – is the fact that they are so visually and verbally iconic, unmistakable as anything else, and this iconic status means not only that we don’t actually need to know very much about their background as a species for them to work as an adversary, but that their goals and methodology and – occasionally – their very nature can radically shift from story to story without it impinging too much on the audience’s attention. It is the very weakness of the Daleks’ characterisation that makes them such a brilliant all-purpose recurring monster and the undisputed leaders of the Doctor Who adversary pack.

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I’ve frequently said that one of the most striking things about the original run of Doctor Who and the revived version of the series we enjoy today is not the difference between them, but the level of similarity and continuity – and that’s continuity on a thematic and tonal level, rather than in terms of in-universe history (though this is also true).

Nevertheless there have been changes, and probably the most central and important is the genuine shift in the emphasis of the storytelling. Original-run Doctor Who is, like practically every other action-adventure-fantasy series of the sixties and seventies, a plot-driven enterprise – stories aren’t initiated by or derived from the characterisation of the regulars, or indeed anyone else. The revived series, on the other hand, is much more character-driven: exploring the relationships and personalities of the characters is the primary motivating force behind many of the episodes. The Doctor’s Daughter was written mainly to explore the Doctor’s attitude to parenthood, The Girl Who Waited is a fairly off-the-wall character study of Amy Pond, and Doomsday – seemingly a vehicle for the long-awaited Dalek-Cyberman showdown – merely uses this as a spectacular backdrop before which the Doctor and Rose say their somewhat protracted farewells.


The closest original-run Who gets to anything like this is in a few of the later Andrew Cartmel-commissioned scripts, and – much earlier on – The Green Death, which is the old-style series’ most creditable attempt at writing out a companion in a satisfying manner. Most of the rest of the time, the plot is paramount, with the characters just there to serve its demands more often than not.

Characters in old-style Who are really defined by their plot functions, which is why so many of them end up feeling a bit samey once you dig past the surface detail. There’s a case for arguing that most old-style stories are populated by characters drawn from a Tarot deck of archetypes: the Renegade Time Lord, the Plucky Girl, the Scientist Destroyed By His Own Hubris, and so on. Look at the Brigadier, and then compare him to Captain Hart from The Sea Devils, Lieutenant Scott from Earthshock, and Group Captain Gilmore from Remembrance of the Daleks: these characters are all variations on the same theme (most of them even have the same moustache): the Military Ally.

Nothing very exceptional there, I suppose, but given that the characters are there to serve the needs of the latest story’s plot, it’s not very surprising that – in the earliest stories at least – many elements of the series are jarringly different, in some cases so as to be unrecognisable.

For example, the TARDIS, these days, is a wondrous, almost unquantifiable piece of alien magic-tech – internally vast, sentient, indestructible, possessed of near-mystical powers on occasion. Other than the sentience, most of the rest of it doesn’t really get established until a few years into the show. It suffers dismayingly banal circuitry problems in Marco Polo, there’s a casual reference to searching ‘everywhere’ inside the TARDIS in another of the first Doctor’s stories (which doesn’t seem to take that long!), while in The Sensorites the eponymous aliens happily cut the lock out of the TARDIS door (one of those awkward moments people seem to avoid talking about).

The Doctor, also, famously undergoes a radical and fairly swift transformation across the course of the first two seasons – the hostile, cantankerous, startlingly ruthless and self-interested alien of the initial couple of stories rapidly mellows into someone much more approachable, and finally into a genuinely heroic figure whose first impulse upon meeting the Daleks on 22nd century Earth is to ‘pit [his] wits against them and destroy them’.

But it’s with the Daleks themselves that the demands of the plot-driven approach become clearest. Doctor Who monsters seem to have their own section of the Tarot deck of archetypes, from Slavering Beast (Aggedor, the Magma Beast, and so on) to Robotic Servitor (Vocs, Chumblies, Quarks, etc) to Belligerent Vegetation (Krynoids, Vervoids, Vaaga Plants, et al).

What is the Daleks’ place in the deck? For most fans the answer will come with a reflexive speed that should make us suspicious, to say the least: they are the embodiment of unthinking racial hatred, an allegory for Nazism and the horrors of ethnic cleansing. The overriding obsession of the Daleks, we are assured, is to kill all other forms of life, and they will go out of their way to exterminate any other living creatures they encounter.

This is the modern characterisation of the Daleks – well, up to a point, and this is something I’ll come back to – but, upon going back and looking at many of their older stories, what’s striking is how little this is referenced, and how often it is directly contradicted.

I would argue that the Daleks’ place in the hierarchy is simply as the Chief Recurring Monster. As such they are the quintessence of the Shorthand for Evil which I discussed in the early installments of my look at the Natural History of Evil: when what the monsters are doing is more important than who and what they are, or indeed why they’re doing it, then you can call in the Daleks.

Of course, I may be getting that backwards in terms of how the scripting process worked, but the end result is more or less the same: Terry Nation’s later Dalek scripts, with one obvious exception, aren’t that interested in the Daleks themselves except as a sort of all-purpose menace. He hasn’t put any thought into the creatures themselves, about how their essential nature influences their behaviour and makes them monstrous.

It is interesting, though, that exactly the same can often be said of the Cybermen, and it is surely indicative that the Cybermen have only really been successful as a recurring adversary during those periods when the Daleks have been off the scene: the five year gap at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, and again in the early 80s. Both races are cyborgs, both (usually) appear robotic, both epitomise conformity. Surely it’s arguable that they both default to the same archetype, and as a result can’t both prosper at the same time? With the Daleks on the scene, the Cybermen really are superfluous to requirements (which the Daleks’ easy slaughter of the massed Cyber-forces in Doomsday may be an acknowledgement of).

(Which also leads me to wonder if something similar may be the case with the Ice Warriors and Sontarans: both essentially default to the Alien Warrior Race archetype, and one makes their debut in the same year the other makes their final appearance. But I digress.)

In terms of imagery, of course, the Daleks and the Cybermen are quite different, and this does a splendid job of hiding just how similar they really are in terms of their narrative function (often, but not quite always). I would go further and argue that it is the imagery of the Daleks – that iconic casing, that unforgettable vocal treatment – which is central to the creatures’ success, and indeed the only constant in their presentation across nearly 50 years of TV.


They have had wildly different origins, philosophies, motivations, and plans in this time – the essential nature of what supposedly lies inside that armoured shell has also been radically reconceived at least once. By modern standards, the characterisation of the Daleks has been shockingly inconsistent, and yet still they endure. It is because of that design, and that voice, more than anything else.

Possibly I may sound as if I’m overstating a point. But I don’t think I am, and in the second part of this essay I’ll try to prove it. We will start by going back to examine the first Daleks ever encountered, and observe how they are very different creatures to any others later fought by any of the Doctors…

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