Daleks! A nonsense word, leaping off Terry Nation’s typewriter in 1963. A name for an alien species to feature in upcoming science-fiction serial Doctor Who – a name that has now ingrained itself for the foreseeable in the consciousness of the world, the British consciousness especially. Emerging from the troubled pre-production of that first-ever season (for clarity: production blocks of Classic-Era Who are referred to as ‘seasons’, production blocks of Revival-Era Who are referred to as ‘series’), in defiance of producer Sidney Newman’s disdain for “bug-eyed monsters”, and deliberately invoking the terror of the recent past (the Daleks are emphatically Nazi) and the perceived future (nuclear armageddon), the Daleks immediately transformed Who from a quaint and curious oddity to must-watch Saturday night television.
Dalekmania, like Beatlemania, is a well-trodden subject, so we’re not here to talk about it. We’re here to talk about the function of Daleks; how their curious design is informed by that function, how the function informs this shap, and how their ever-recognisable geometry has evolved to suit evolving audience tastes.
Obligatory trivia first: the Daleks were a hair’s breadth away from being designed by a BBC man with whom most of us are familiar, one Ridley Scott (yes, that Ridley Scott), but scheduling conflicts led to them being developed by Raymond Cusick. Nation wished to avoid the archetypal ‘man-in-a-suit’ design and thus described them sparingly in his script, although he specified they would not have legs. Rumours and myths abound about what inspired Cusick’s design work – prima ballerinas, men in chairs, the ever-popular pepperpot – but the ultimate result was a squat array of angles and curves, of sharp faces and smooth bumps. A single bug eye poking out of a big dome, almost certainly intended to invoke WWII-era military helmets… A Dalek.
The core Dalek design is broken by enthusiasts into a series of sections. From the bottom up: fender (on the floor, above real-life wheels), skirt (with bumps), shoulder (with arms, collar, and usually, slats), neck (with rings) and dome (with lights and eyestalk, on which sit rings and a toffee-apple eyeball). They have no real ‘face’, no real ‘limbs’. The eye, which sometimes features a dilating camera-style iris, sometimes a solid pupil, and in modern times a two-tone blue glow, is for all intents and purposes the only recognisable feature to ‘look at’. To look at it is to make eye contact… Uncanny and unblinking eye contact. You couldn’t shake hands with it – it has no hands, only a plunger-like apparatus (on an extending arm, for making oh-so-fascist salutes) and a lethal laser gun.
This core design serves an array of purposes for the ultimate target audience of children and teenagers (Doctor Who originated as a pseudo-educational drama for children, and while it has broad appeal, it is firmly intended for children to this day). It is, to paraphrase Tom Hanks as Colonel Parker in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, a carny thrill – a vector to allow children to feel something they’re not ‘supposed’ to be feeling. They are entirely not like people. Their voice, run through a ring modulator (or digital equivalent), constantly conveys a frightening tone, usually anger or hysteria (triumphant or defeated). Sometimes they rock to and fro in an unsettling manner but usually, they simply move, without visible wheels or propulsion. As Hank Hill would say – “they ain’t right”.
And kids love this; love, love, love it. They’re peerless boogeymen, not only because they are so carefully-calibrated to frighten weans, but because they are so entirely incapable of causing the same special spooky feelings in an adult. Kids love the Daleks because they’re safe to be scared of – because Mum, Dad, Uncle Jim, or Auntie Fran, any carer or guardian, can immediately point out that they’re obviously a bloke in a fibreglass can. They reinforce the security and safety of the adults in a child’s life.
All of this is emphatically present from that first serial, which has many names (Doctor Who is weird, guys) but generally goes by “The Dead Planet” or “The Daleks”. In this story, the creatures are also given their essential background: that they’re the horrendously mutated survivors of a super-war, dependent on their tank-like shells for survival. Crucially, they’re also portrayed as dependent on a consistent flow of static electricity from the floors of their domed city. This will inform their portrayals across the next two stories – the much-loved “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” and the extremely wacky follow-up “The Chase”.
“Invasion” sees the Daleks receive their first modifications. One – the dish-shaped array on their backs – is an early example of Who’s design being led by the diegesis, and functions in-story as a remote receiver for electricity. Meanwhile the larger, rounder, fender section is entirely practical, concealing the necessary gubbins for getting the Daleks around on-location. These builds directly informed those that appeared in the 1965 Gordon Flemyng-helmed Dr. Who and the Daleks (from AARU, BBC-TV, and Amicus), a Technicolour/Techniscope adaptation of “The Daleks” that was not connected narratively to the programme. Among other things, the Doctor, who was nearly a complete enigma at the time but emphatically not from 20th Century Earth, is a cheerfully eccentric human man named Dr. Who.
The Flemyng duology (he would also adapt “Invasion of Earth” under the gloriously silly title Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150AD) are significant pieces of the overall Who puzzle. They were the very first colour presentations of any element of the series (the BBC wouldn’t broadcast in colour, period, until 1967, and many Brits did not have colour televisions until the 80s), and the first with a real ‘name’ star in the title role. Their impact on successive iterations of Who and Dalek design will be discussed later. Their builds were – unlike the TV versions that were designed to ‘pop’ in black and white – truly luminous, with three discrete colour schemes. There were blue/silver/gold Daleks, a black/gold/silver Dalek, and most importantly, a red/black/gold Dalek.
To this day, most people of a certain age will tell you Daleks are red. The impact of the red Dalek cannot be understated. I threw the question ‘what colour is a Dalek’ to a wide array of 40something adults, and the overwhelming result was ‘red’. Daleks are red – a notion buoyed by the long-running comic strip in the magazine TV Century 21.
“The Chase”, meanwhile, ‘finalised’ the evolving Dalek structure by replacing the dish array with a series of twenty-three rectangular slats over a mesh ‘waistcoat’ – again, to serve the narrative function of ‘how do these Daleks get power’. Invasion Earth 2150AD would follow suit while adjusting the myriad colour schemes – the blue/silver Daleks were now silver/silver (with blue bumps), better matching the TV props, while the red/black/gold design became red/silver. A gold/black Dalek also featured.
The designs remained fundamentally unchanged in televised Who from “The Chase” through to their ‘final end’ in 1967’s “The Evil of the Daleks”. However, adjustments were made to simplify the gunsticks, and touch-ups/repaints occurred. “Evil” was intended to write the Daleks out of Who altogether – allowing Nation to pitch a Dalek-centric show to American networks. Between then and their return in 1972’s “Day of the Daleks” (which has a plot eerily similar to James Cameron’s Terminator), BBC1 had switched to a ‘full colour’ service, prompting the next major revamp of the props.
As mentioned, the TV props were designed to ‘pop’ in black and white transmission. They were predominantly two shades of silver, with rank denoted with the addition of black to the dome and/or skirt panels, while the bumps on the skirt and the rings on the eyestalk (initially nine, later five) were blue. For “Day”, two schemes emerged, both focused around concealing the many dings and dents the props had sustained. The rank-and-file Daleks were a military grey, while a commander was a vibrant gold.
(Additionally, a unique Supreme Dalek appeared in “Planet of the Daleks”, but that would be a long digression.)
The seafoam grey paint job became the de facto Dalek look for the following decade-plus, particularly after “Genesis of the Daleks” – Terry Nation’s sprawling story about the Doctor’s attempt to assassinate the species in its cradle. Genesis was and remains extremely popular, with the humanoid supporting cast allowing the ever-present Nazi parallels to be made much more clear, and the stakes and moral dilemmas (does the Doctor have the right to commit genocide, even when it’s the Daleks?) are significantly felt. It also introduced Davros (Michael Wisher in “Genesis”, then later played by David Gooderson, Terry Molloy, and in the Revival, Julian Bleach), the mad scientist who played genetic frankenstein with his own people and so birthed the Daleks. Davros quickly became ‘the face’ of the Daleks in subsequent stories, affording the writers more elegant, complicated dialogue than a Dalek can issue in staccato screeches.
By the time Davros and the Daleks made their last appearance in “Remembrance of the Daleks”, a fundamental change had occurred in Who. The children of 1963 were… The adults of 1988. 25 years had passed. And these young adults were part of the show. They were writing it. And they were, for want of a better term, self-conscious.
Self-consciousness is the bane of Doctor Who. This is a programme made on the limits of a BBC budget, for young people and their parents. It is not – likely never will be – an adult drama. Certainly, from the 70s onwards, there was greater consideration for the adults in the room… But there were also increasingly loud, obnoxious calls from ludicrous self-appointed moral guardians to get it taken off the air altogether. Baroque rules entered the production to keep ‘risque’ content at a minimum (famously described as ‘no hugging, no kissing’) but the violence – or the perceived intensity of it – kept amping up as successive producers became more enmeshed in a desire to goose the ratings by appealing to those most dry and dusty creatures, grown-ups.
“Remembrance of the Daleks” is weird, is what I’m getting at. It’s simultaneously:
- A component of the never-completed ‘Cartmel Masterplan’, which would have revealed that humble old space kook Doctor Who was actually a reincarnation of a figure from his planet’s own mythology.
- Part of the show’s 25th anniversary celebrations, meaning it is set entirely around Shoreditch in 1963, the day after the First Doctor departed in the very first story, “An Unearthly Child”.
- A commentary on the racial tensions present in Britain at the time, directly comparing the Daleks to British Nazis and including a duologue between the Seventh Doctor and a Black cafe owner about the consequences of single actions.
- The last Dalek story of the Classic Series, going so far as to have the Doctor blow up their planet to resolve a civil war among the ‘Renegade’ Daleks (the usual seafoam grey suspects) and the ‘Imperial’ Daleks.
And these Imperials have entirely new builds that largely serve to ‘rationalise’ the design elements that had been around since “The Chase”. Straighter skirts, layered fenders, moulded-in slats and collar. The plunger arm was a single component resembling a bugle. All this in ivory white and gold. These are space racists, after all, in a story commenting on white supremacy to boot. They were ostentatious, perhaps intentionally a little garish. They were outgunned (because of budget reasons) by the Renegades and thus resorted to utilising the extremely silly Special Weapons Dalek, which – while exhibiting a delicious layer of grime and grunge – was also a giant mobile gun.
A year after “Remembrance”, the show was cancelled, and despite a series of attempts, it was not until 2005 that it returned to the screen under showrunner Russell T. Davies.
Well. First, there was an enormous amount of mess during production. The Terry Nation estate has a firm grip on the rights to the Daleks and their image and was not about to let some upstart from ITV (where he’d made The Second Coming, which is about, well, the Second Coming – in Manchester) or Channel 4 (where he’d made the seminal work Queer as Folk) get his hands on the rights so easy.
This led to unexpected developments in the story of Series 1, which largely orbits a kind of earthy sci-fi Gnostic mysticism. I won’t get into all that, but the key thing to note is that the overall series arc that emerged during this period of ‘no Daleks allowed’ was about how a mad false god controlled the human race through propaganda and fake news in order to propagate its own post-human species from the refugees and the dispossessed (all alarmingly similar to Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers, which was developing at the same time – what was in the British water?). And this whole setup remained in place when the Daleks were signed off on. They mapped neatly over the post-human time pirates, who were later recycled in Series 3 as the Toclafane.
And thus enters Bryan Hitch.
You probably know who Bryan Hitch is! He’s the guy who ‘invented’ widescreen, blockbuster-style comic-book art! He’s the one who redesigned every single classic Avenger and their supporting cast for Mark Millar’s Ultimates!
I don’t like his work!
Okay. That’s not fair, on me or him. I do like his work, when it’s in Ultimates – when it ultimately (fnarr fnarr) serves the pranky, wanky purposes of Mark Millar, when it’s a key ingredient in a pie being thrown at the face of American cape comics.
I do not like that his work went on to be stripped of context, meaning, and any presence of tongue-in-cheek to be foundational design language for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
And I don’t like his Dalek.
Again, clarifications. Hitch wasn’t a solo flyer here – Edward Thomas and Matthew Savage were key players – and it’s not that the design is bad. It’s pretty strong. It’s got a lot going for it…
But it’s self-conscious. It’s reflexive. It’s (lowercase r) reactionary. It’s the result of people who Demand To Be Taken Seriously. It belies the truth that this is a show for children – that the Dalek is Baby’s First Nazi Analogue, that it’s supposed to scare kids and amuse adults. Festooned with bolts and fiddly embellishments, the ‘New Series Dalek’ (NSD) ends up sans identity, defined only by what it isn’t. That first story, Robert Shearman-penned “Dalek”, is bogged down with rebuttals to dead-as-a-dodo jokes about how Daleks can’t climb stairs (it can, by floating!) and how one arm resembles a kitchen plunger (it crushes a man’s skull!).
And yet sheer inertia – and the archetypically insecure adult Who fandom going absolutely bug-eyed bananas for them – means the NSD remains active to this day. The props are now as old as the Classic Daleks were when they were refurbished for “Genesis”. They don’t look especially good in UHD or HDR, or the anamorphic format the show has been shot in since 2018. But, crucially, the bug-eyed bananas fans do not like it when they’re changed. The only attempt ended badly. Even the showrunner at that time, Steven Moffat, has ‘admitted’ they were ‘a mistake’. Depressing.
Moffat’s attempt, the ‘New Paradigm Daleks’ (NPD), were, to be fair, also reflexive and reactionary designs. Moffat’s initial three-season run with Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith featured a colossal array of new design work. The Sonic Screwdriver (the Doctor’s handy fix-it-all gadget), interiors and exteriors of the TARDIS (the bigger-on-the-inside space-and-time machine that whisks us from plot to plot), and the Daleks were all retooled to suit a specific nostalgic vision – the vision of the AARU films. Remember them?
Introduced in Victory of the Daleks, penned by Mark Gatiss, the NPDs are reflexive designs – their shapes all smooth and seamless, to rebut the angular and bolted/welded NSD – and nostalgic designs, with pop-art colour schemes and tall, rounded fenders drawn from the AARU designs. They’re also designed to keep eye level with Matt Smith, whereas the NSD was designed to keep eye level with companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper). The show had ceased to be about the companions to a significant extent beforehand, but this feels like a very crystallising moment for the modernised show. The Daleks weren’t there to menace Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) or Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) – they were the Doctor’s nemeses. Reflexive! Self-conscious! “The Daleks can’t be short because then we can’t take them seriously, and we are adults.”
This may well be intentional. Series 5 is heavily focused on the intersection of the beautiful mundanities of adulthood with nostalgia for the fantasies of the past. If there is a narrative purpose to all the refitting and redesigning, it’s to create a certain ‘timeless’ quality for everything, to suffuse the setting with exaggerations of childhood memory.
The NPDs were phased out, and fast. Barely present in Series 6 (although still present in cameos), they were given a metallic repaint and served as an ‘officer class’ in “Asylum of the Daleks” (Series 7) and then were never seen again. They were considered for inclusion in “The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar” (Series 9), which, like “Asylum”, did its level best to include as many historic Dalek designs as possible, but didn’t make the final cut.
An addendum – there was a lot of guff about how heavily merchandised the show became during the early Moffat run, and the NPD got a lot of that guff. Lots of rumblings about how the decision to redesign them came from BBC Worldwide (the merchandise wing), and so on. I bring this up because during Series 7 or thereabouts, licensee Character Options began releasing toys of all prior Dalek designs… And these designs all appeared in “Asylum” and “Apprentice / Familiar”. Which makes me go ‘hmm’.
Under outgoing showrunner Chris Chibnall (Series 11-13), the Daleks were given new designs… But not in the conventional sense. Instead – as with much of Chibnall’s run – the design work was an outgrowth of the story. Story driving form again! Like with the satellite dishes and the slats! “Resolution” featured a lone ‘Recon’ Dalek that, absent a shell, built one out of odds and sods in keen parallel to the way the Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) built her own Sonic Screwdriver out of spoons and spare parts and her outfit out of charity shop finds.
Later, in “Revolution of the Daleks”, a Trumpian business mogul (regrettably played by Chris Noth) acquires the remains of this Dalek and mass produces ‘Security Drones’ for the British police, which goes as well as you’d expect. These designs are interesting because they aren’t redesigns, but iterative designs. They’re not intended to replace the NSD as ‘the Dalek’, but to represent Daleks subject to the circumstances of the story. Likewise, this is true for “Eve of the Daleks”, which introduces Daleks with rotating gatling-style laser cannons. Nice.
What I’m trying to get at – and hopefully, I’ve gotten at – is that the Dalek design is a pretty special thing. It’s a product of the precise matrix the show was conceived in, a product of the time it was made in, and it resists ‘fixing’. It cannot be ‘made adult’, despite the efforts of RTD and Moffat, because it is so inherently goofy. It needs to be goofy. It’s not a horror movie monster. It’s not the Thing From Another World, it’s just a thing from another world. You can embellish, you can gussy up, but it ends up shining a light directly on the thing so many adult Who fans won’t admit: that they’re grown-ups, trying to tell children playing that actually, Raphael would never hang out with Wolverine, because, well, they’re not even owned by the same company, and anyway, they’re both famous lone wolves, and besides, etc.
Daleks are kitsch. Daleks are silly. Daleks are spooky, like a Jack-O’-Lantern or the parlour game where you put your hands in spaghetti. They’re for kids. Let’s let them be for kids. That way, we can tell them “no, look, there’s a bloke in there on a tricycle”. And that feels good, you know?
Cybermen, though? Fucking terrifying.
2 replies on “Little Green Blobs in Bonded Polycarbide Armour: Daleks, Design, Diegesis, and Dramaturgy”
Really enjoying the History behind this. Sometimes you forget that Daleks are literally old as hell. They’re important British culture!
Fascinating article. Really persuasive.
Regarding the return of the Daleks under Russell T Davies, and my own part in it by writing that first script – I suppose that there was a self-consciousness to it, but I’m not sure that was entirely avoidable. The cultural landscape of Doctor Who’s wilderness years was all about seeing the series as something of a joke: cue documentaries hosted by talking anoraks, and Daleks on the commercial channels advertising chocolate biscuits. I don’t think that for the first few months of working on the revival that the BBC were at all convinced that it was wise it was being brought back at all, and we were very aware that it had to be a reaction against the perceived idea that it was all a joke. It had been that way a long time, too – just consider the 1996 TV Movie, all dark lighting and X Files atmosphere. I honestly think though that we tried very hard to make sure that the series wasn’t as po-faced as that: we open with farting aliens, and the future Earth being destroyed to the sound of Britney Spears. It was because we resisted the temptation to bring back the Daleks in the very first episode – as the BBC suggested – and waited until the sixth, after some lighter comedy stories, that made us feel we’d earned some right to get a bit darker. It wasn’t really about some posturing need to look “grown-up” – it was just about trying to kickstart a new mythology.
It’s probably true that the mythology of the Time War rather forces the Daleks into that position of being regarded as icon first (and needing to undermine the inevitable jokes). But there was reasoning behind it. It wasn’t just some kneejerk fanboy need to be taken seriously. And we tried, I think, to suggest something much more emotional within their make-up – something, too, much more conniving in their dialogue than the traditional rant. I stand by the approach, and the script, all these years on.
The human pirate storyline was never just papered over with Daleks, by the way, as you assert. That was simply never the original idea. It was always the Daleks, right at the centre of the Time War, and the Doctor’s backstory. (No matter how predictable that might seem.) Around draft five we lost the rights to the Daleks and so I wrote a new script in which their place was taken by what would become the Toclafane in series three – but it was only for a few weeks before negotiations sorted everything out.