What Makes a Dalek a Dalek?

Recently, when I see complaints about the Daleks it’s to do with them being overused. The Daleks appear in the thousands now, zipping all over the screen and firing the Doctor at planets. They’re just not as scary as they used to be. But there’s something else, too. They’re not quite as Dalek, either.

So today, I’d like to rewind. I’d like to go back to the beginning, and take a look at just what makes the Daleks … well, Daleks.

You could live in the city, and the others could. But why do you have to destroy? Can’t you use your brains for right?

— The First Doctor (The Daleks)


Evolution of the Daleks

The Daleks were introduced in Terry Nation’s 1963-1964 story The Daleks, which was the second overall serial of the show. In this story, the Doctor and his three companions arrive on the planet Skaro and, while exploring a nearby city, are captured by the Daleks who turn out to be its inhabitants. While locked up, they start to grow very ill from the radiation in the atmosphere.

The Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan, is the only one well enough to return to the TARDIS to get medication. While out, she encounters the other race that lives on Skaro: the pacifist Thals. She discovers how dire the situation truly is.

Long ago, the Daleks and Thals fought a neutronic war that almost destroyed both races. It also caused mutations to both. The Daleks and the Thals are struggling to survive, the Daleks confined to their city, and the Thals living as starving wanderers in the radioactive wasteland. The Daleks are dependant on this radiation to survive and are planning to launch a neutronic bomb to give them enough radiation to live, but doing this will kill every Thal.

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!

— The Daleks (Genesis of the Daleks)

Whenever I think of The Daleks, I soon think of the 1975 serial Genesis of the Daleks too. Here, the Doctor is tasked by the Time Lords with destroying the Daleks at their creation, preventing them from becoming conquerers—or, failing this, finding some weakness which can later be exploited.

Genesis of the Daleks expands more on the story of the Daleks. Davros, the creator of the Daleks, is fighting a Thousand Year War against the Thals with his fellow Kaleds (referred to as the Dals in The Daleks). The situation has become so desperate that the Kaleds are propping up corpses in the trenches to make it seem like they’re manned.

This is why Davros created the Daleks. This is why the Thals referred to the Daleks as mutations of the Dals. Through his experiments, Davros has created a form of Kaled that will survive, and always survive. The real problem with the Daleks, though, is that the plan to survive is to destroy the Thals. In fact, in the end, it’s to destroy everyone who isn’t Dalek. But Davros doesn’t see this as evil.

Evil? No. No, I will not accept that. They are conditioned simply to survive. They can survive only by becoming the dominant species. When all other life forms are suppressed, when the Daleks are the supreme rulers of the universe, then you will have peace. Wars will end. They are the power not of evil, but of good.

— Davros (Genesis of the Daleks)

These two stories, I think, show us what the Daleks are. At their core, the Daleks are survivors.


Daleks and Cunning

The Daleks were created in the most desperate period of their people’s history. To survive, and always survive.

This is why the Daleks are often compared to the Cybermen. As we were shown in the New Who story World Enough and Time / The Doctor Falls, the Cybermen were also created out of necessity. The Mondas, seeing that evolution didn’t happen fast enough for them to adapt to their hostile living situation, turned themselves into the emotionless Cybermen to ensure their survival.

The difference between the Daleks and Cybermen is in how they see survival. To the Cyberman, the best way to live is to forever upgrade and improve themselves. To the Daleks, survival means wiping out everyone else so there’s no competition for survival. They were born out of war, after all.

This is not war. This is pest control.

— Dalek Sec (Doomsday)

I’ve spoken before about an element of Daleks that was lost in the Moffat era so I won’t go over the whole thing again. There is, however, something else central to their nature that I want to talk about.

Given that the Daleks are built to survive, they must also be able to plan. They have to be smart, and they have to be cunning. It’s no good just shooting your way through whatever planet you invade. To be an effective conquerer, you have to outsmart your opponents.

The Daleks are introduced as plotters in their first story. While carrying out their plan, they monitor the Thals on screens so that they’re always aware of their movements. They learn the signal Susan set up so that they can lie to the Thals. They trick the Thals into coming to the city entrance with the promise of food.

This is fundamental to what makes a Dalek a Dalek. The show can talk all it wants about how they kill without remorse, and how they think hatred is beautiful, but in more recent stories their cunning was missed. And their cunning is important. If the show is so desperate to compare the Doctor to Daleks, then why does it keep missing the important fact that they’re both really, really smart?

This cunning of the Daleks is why the Cult of Skaro exists. This collection of four Daleks—Sec, Jast, Thay, and Caan—was designed to “think how the enemy thinks.” They were the Daleks’ ultimate strategists, and they were above the Emperor himself. The Daleks created a secret order of strategists and made them more important than the Emperor.

See, the Davies era got it.

I believe that the Daleks are at their best when they’re plotting in the background, attempting to outsmart the genius Doctor before he outsmarts them. Take their plot in Army of Ghosts / Doomsday, when in secret they plan to free all the Daleks that the Time Lords imprisoned. In Daleks in Manhatten / Evolution of the Daleks they orchestrate the construction of the Empire State Building to that it will be hit during a gamma storm and the radiation will bring to life their created Human-Daleks.


So, what makes a Dalek?

The Daleks are, very importantly, weak creatures inside their suits. But they’re strong because of those suits. They’re also strong because they’re cunning and merciless, not just because they’re armed with weaponry that will reduce you to dust. They’re strong because they’re patient enough to wait in the shadows until the perfect moment. They’re scary because a single Dalek can tear through a facility and wipe out everyone in its path.

The Daleks were created in the desperation of a seemingly endless war. They exist to survive, and to survive by wiping out everyone and everything that may oppose them. Yes, the Daleks are creatures of hatred. And yes, it’s important to understand that. But it’s also important to understand that they’re smart, and an enemy a thousand times smarter than you is scarier than an enemy with a lot more guns.

And, if I may say, I think that the real comparison, at least in New Who, between the Doctor and the Daleks is directly related to this desire to survive. The Daleks will destroy everyone else in the universe to make sure that they survive. The Doctor, on the other hand, was assigned survival by the Moment as punishment. The Doctor would never see his life as more important than anyone else’s.

See, all those years ago, when I began, I was just running. I called myself the Doctor, but it was just a name. And then I went to Skaro. And then I met you lot. And I understood who I was! The Doctor was not the Daleks!

— The Twelfth Doctor (Into the Daleks)

Thank you as always for reading. If you have any thoughts about Daleks, I would really like to hear them. Drop me a comment. If you’re interested in my other thoughts on where the Moffat era let Daleks down, then check out Dalek vs. Into the Dalek. I go into some detail there.

Oh, and have you seen my response to the Season 11 trailer? It’s here!


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