Daleks – Much More Than a Catchphrase

June 1st, 2014
Warning! This article and its comments may contain spoilers...

The Doctor and the Daleks have been enemies for centuries, and these hate-filled cans of mutant supremacy are as recognizable an icon as the TARDIS herself.  This is partly because Daleks are polar opposites of our hero—and you know what they say about opposites attracting.  Throughout time and space, the Doctor and his most hated enemies cross paths again and again, because they are destined to do battle forever, like darkness and light, cruelty and kindness, Microsoft and Apple.  As the Doctor has evolved (can you imagine Jon Pertwee asserting that “Bow ties are cool?” OK, actually so can I), so has his relationship with the Daleks.  To the Daleks, it’s all business:  Extermination of inferior (ie not Dalek) species and universal domination. For a long while, it was all business to the Doctor as well:  Stopping or generally interfering in the Daleks’ business.

But then, something changed.
There are two types of Dalek story:
1. The Daleks have a plan.  They have a very good plan, usually involving invasion of some sort, and the Oncoming Storm interferes again.
2. The Daleks do something so horrible, so reprehensible, so evil, that the Doctor takes it personally and *stuff* goes down.
a) This horrible, reprehensible, evil action is meant to be taken personally.

The Plan type of Dalek story is mostly fun and dominated the classic years.  It’s scary (The Daleks, 1963) or thrilling (The Dalek Invasion of Earth, 1964), (The Chase, 1965) or heartsbreaking (The Daleks’ Master Plan, 1965-1966). The Daleks are the villain we love to hate.  Their affinity for slavery (The Power of the Daleks, 1966) is repugnant and their ruthless will to dominate or exterminate (every episode ever) is offensive.  We root against the Daleks and their single-minded intolerance with aplomb.  And our Doctor always wins.  The Day of the Daleks (1972) was short because our hero did not give up, he never does, and it’s not necessarily the Daleks themselves he is fighting against as much as all they represent.

From Genesis of the Daleks (1975):
“Do I have the right? Simply touch one wire against the other and that’s it. The Daleks cease to exist. Hundreds of millions of people, thousands of generations can live without fear, in peace, and never even know the word Dalek.  But if I kill, wipe out a whole intelligent lifeform, then I become like them. I’d be no better than the Daleks.” – The Doctor

Some encounters are frothy (Destiny of the Daleks, 1979) or nostalgic (Remembrance of the Daleks, 1988) or just plain creepy (Revelation of the Daleks, 1985), but it’s okay because we know he’s going to be all right, even if Tegan did just scamper off on an appalled whim (Resurrection of the Daleks, 1984).

The Personal Attack type of Dalek story is not fun.  It’s terrifying and heartsbreaking.  When he reappears after a long absence, the ninth incarnation of the Doctor no longer views the Dalek simply as a galactic menace to all, a force to be opposed—he hates them.  Truly, truly despises them.  We first see this in “Dalek” in 2005; the lone Dalek has no master plan; it’s helpless, in pain, alone, and this is the Doctor’s reaction:

“I know what should happen. I know what you deserve. Exterminate!”

“Why don’t you finish the job, and make the Daleks extinct? Rid the universe of your filth! Why don’t you just die?”   Suddenly, we know—we know—that if he had another chance to touch those two wires together, he would do it.

It’s different now… it’s personal.  What happened?  What changed?  What has happened to our Doctor?  And then:   “I’ve got to do this; I’ve got to end it. The Daleks destroyed my home, my people. I’ve got nothing left.”

Ah.  The Doctor battled the Daleks many times in the old days and he saved not only the Earth, but hundreds of other planets from their machinations as well.  Although always a grim experience, never were the stakes higher than during the Time War.  Worst of all, most terrible, is what he was forced to do to truly and finally defeat them.  His revulsion and rage at the Dalek’s reappearance is powered by ultimate pain and a horrific realization that it was all in vain.

The Doctor started fighting the Daleks because of their atrocities, but he started hating them when he realized he would never be able to truly and finally defeat them, even with the ultimate sacrifice; that his victories over them would always come at great personal loss (think Doomsday, 2006).  No personal loss was greater than Gallifrey and they came… back… anyway.  This is the turning, when indignation on behalf of the cosmos takes a back seat to pure, unadulterated hatred.  The Doctor knows what the Daleks have twisted in him, he recognizes their effect on his psyche, and that makes him hate them even more.  “I’m gonna save Rose Tyler from the middle of the Dalek fleet, and then I’m gonna save the Earth, and then – just to finish you off – I’m gonna wipe every last stinking Dalek out of the sky! (Bad Wolf, 2005).

They’ve been there since his beginning and he was present at theirs.   Although Daleks never deviate from their mission, they have affected cataclysmic change in our hero.  They are the darkness to his light, the cruelty to his kindness, and so they have become more than despotic tin cans over the last fifty years.  This, more than any other reason, is why the Daleks remain the Doctor’s most iconic adversary.

“Prime Minister: It is offensive to us to extinguish such divine hatred.
The Doctor: Offensive?
Prime Minister: Does it surprise you to know that Daleks have a concept of beauty?
The Doctor: I thought you’d run out of ways to make me sick. But hello again. You think hatred is beautiful?
Prime Minister:  Perhaps that is why we have never been able to kill you.”

– Asylum of the Daleks, 2012

Editorial written by Dennie Kuhn

4 comments on this article
  1. Erin Kleim
    June 9th, 2014 at 2.35am | #1

    Brilliant and insightful!

  2. Sarah
    June 9th, 2014 at 7.09pm | #2

    Well-supported with many details. Makes me want to watch every episode referenced.

  3. Sherry
    June 14th, 2014 at 7.29am | #3

    I really enjoyed the whole article. I like your ending with that quote. That is a great quote. Makes you look at Daleks with a different perspective. Good writing

  4. teddybowties
    July 1st, 2014 at 10.12pm | #4

    I know, I know! They always excel in the planning department, but then they off and someone off and forgets their spare pantyhose where the Doctor can find em. It’s enough to make the Crucible cry. Even as the Comic Relief, they can still terrify. THat is the key to true terror.

    ;) nice article.

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