Evolution of the Daleks: the evil geniuses behind Doctor Who’s greatest foes

Tom Fordy
·14-min read
Tom Baker as Doctor Who
Tom Baker as Doctor Who

As the Doctor Who legend goes, Sydney Newman was furious when he saw Terry Nation’s scripts for ‘The Daleks’. For Newman – the BBC’s head of drama and a key figure in the creation of the series – the Daleks were the very thing that Doctor Who shouldn’t be about: bug-eyed monsters.

But Terry Nation, a former furniture salesman and gag writer for Tony Hancock, was adamant that his Daleks wouldn’t look like men in rubber suits. “I wanted to take the legs off, to take them away from any kind of human image,” he later said about their conception.

It was a sentiment shared by the production team, including BBC staff designer Ray Cusick, who ended up designing the actual look of the Daleks after the original designer – a chap called Ridley Scott – had a schedule clash. Nation explained to Cusick over the phone that he was partially inspired by the Georgian State Dance Company, whose ballerinas seemed to glide across the stage thanks to large hooped skirts which covered their legs.

Despite Sydney Newman’s reservations about the Daleks’ bug eyed-ness, no other scripts were ready. ‘The Daleks’ – sometimes called ‘The Mutants’ or ‘The Dead Planet’ – went into production and was brought forward as the second ever Doctor Who serial (following a meandering caveman story). Broadcast between December 21 1963 and February 1 1964, the seven-part serial peaked with 10.4 million viewers. So popular were the Daleks that Britain was soon in the grip of Dalekmania – a merchandise-spinning, quintessentially Sixties fad.

“The Daleks made Doctor Who,” says actor, comedian and writer Toby Hadoke. “They were a last-minute expedient and an immediate hit. Now it seems almost too good to be true that they were the first ever monsters in Doctor Who. It feels like there should have been a few stumbles before they found the magic formula.”

In the story, The Doctor (William Hartnell) and his companions arrive on Skaro, a planet ravaged by a radiation war. Our first glimpse of a Dalek is its sucker arm, which comes into shot to pursue poor Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) with a strangely sexual menace. It’s hard to imagine how scary it was at the time.

In the six decades since, the Daleks have been ridiculed with every clichéd joke about pepper pots, sink plungers, and not being able to climb the stairs. (It’s just as clichéd to point out that, actually, Daleks have been going up the stairs for 32 years, ever since one followed Sylvester McCoy up a particularly troublesome flight in Remembrance of the Daleks.)

But the design of the Daleks – mutated creatures trapped within the confines of their technology – was a masterstroke: they are utterly inhuman.

“There’s something that’s just right about the design,” says John Smith, host of The Trial of a Time Lord Podcast. “They are alien – they are not a person in a rubber suit. They look robotic but have that grating horrible voice that’s filled with hate and rage. That juxtaposition makes them frightening.”

Almost 60 years later, The Daleks are still the star attraction in the Whoniverse. They’re set to return to screens – with an upgraded neon-lit design – on New Year’s Day for the Season 13 premiere, Revolution of the Daleks.

The Daleks’ original big return happened back in November 1964, less than a year after their debut, with The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Also written by Terry Nation, it was another ratings hit and peaked with 12.4 million viewers.  

Day of the Daleks
Day of the Daleks

In the story, The Doctor and his gang discover that Daleks have taken over Earth 200 years in the future. Scenes of Daleks scooting around London kicked off the Dalekmania craze – a Dalek emerging from the River Thames, and Daleks patrolling the Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square and Westminster Bridge – but also played out like a vision of Nazi-occupied Britain.

As well as debuting their snazzy new “Exterminate!” catchphrase, the Daleks used the term “final solution”. Just like the eternal fascination with seeing the squelching organism beneath the metal casing, there’s something truly frightening at the dark heart of the Daleks: literal tin-pot fascists with atomic anxieties.

“Conceptually, they sit right on the edge,” says John Smith. “They are recognisably Nazis and there’s that fantastic shot of them crossing Westminster Bridge with their sucker arms raised in a Nazi salute.

“But at the same time, they’re children of the Cold War and the atomic age – these radioactive mutants who have been destroyed by their own technology and have to be imprisoned in these little cages forever. They came right after the Cuban Missile Crisis, so they’re looking back to the fascism of the Thirties and Forties but also looking into a future of radioactive hellscapes. They hit just at the right time.”

The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1965) - PA
The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1965) - PA

It’s a terrifyingly dark concept to have captured kids’ imaginations. But the Daleks spawned a major merchandising fad: toys, books, puzzles, sweet cigarettes, board games, soaps, 3D viewers, stationary, inflatables, and even a high-ticket Dalek playsuit. A battery-powered Dalek was the must-have toy of Christmas 1964.

For that generation of fans, The Dalek Book and Dalek comic strip – which was originally published in the TV Century 21 comic – were vital parts of Dalek mythology. There was also a stage production, Curse of the Daleks, written by Terry Nation and his Who script editor David Whittaker, which ran at Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End.

“Dalekmania is not to be underestimated,” says Toby Hadoke. “Daleks infested popular culture. William Russell [who played original companion Ian], said he knew they had a hit on their hands when he saw a cartoon in the newspaper depicting Charles de Gaulle as a Dalek.”

The 2020 model seen in Revolution Of The Daleks - BBC
The 2020 model seen in Revolution Of The Daleks - BBC

The fad peaked in August 1965 with the ultimate cash-in: a glossy film adaptation, Dr Who and the Daleks, which starred Peter Cushing as a human ‘Dr Who’ (now an actual name, not a question). In the film, Cushing’s eccentric scientist builds a time machine in his back garden and journeys to the Daleks’ home world with Roy Castle.

A sequel, Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 AD, followed in 1966 – an adaptation of The Dalek Invasion of Earth – which replaced Roy Castle with Bernard Cribbins as comedy foil.

“They were about seeing the Daleks in colour, on the big screen,” says Hadoke. “As the trailer said: ‘So close you can feel their fire!’ There was no pressure on them to be part of the official continuity, so you could just enjoy them for what they are.”

Despite their big screen credentials, Hadoke remembers the films as a “staple” of TV during his young fandom. “You’d pray for the cricket to get rained off because you knew they’d wheel one of those out,” he says.

By 1966, Dalekmania was over. The fad had made Terry Nation rich. As a freelance writer with a formidable agent, he retained copyright on the concept and name of the Daleks. He made money from every piece of merchandise sold and every Dalek appearance in the series. He was also namechecked as the Daleks’ creator (not in a Davros-type way) in the show’s credits. On a few occasions when the production crew neglected to include his name in the credits, the BBC’s continuity announcer had to remind the viewers at home.

Ray Cusick, however, was a BBC staffer, so the copyright for the Dalek design stayed with the BBC. “I think Cusick had a right to be aggrieved at fate, in a way,” says Hadoke. “Cusick eventually did get an ex gratia payment from the BBC. Not the millions that Terry Nation made but still an acknowledgment that his contribution was important.” Cusick’s reward was little more than a few hundred pounds and a gold Blue Peter badge.

On TV, the Daleks were still a hit. “Every year, more or less, you got a ratings boost with the Daleks,” says John Smith. “When they changed the lead actor to Patrick Troughton – a big gamble at the time – what do they stick in the first story to make sure everybody turns up? The Daleks.”

For the Troughton-Dalek stories, David Whittaker took over the writing. “Terry Nation always said that he always felt Whittaker didn’t understand the Daleks,” says Toby Hadoke. “But the Daleks under Whittaker are conniving and sly and actually more interesting characters.”

Despite their fascist, genocidal leanings, the Daleks were also purveyors of some truly hare-brained schemes. In the Dalek Invasion of Earth, their ultimate goal is to hollow out the Earth and use it as a giant spaceship; in The Daleks' Master Plan, they team up with other alien races (which is asking for trouble; the Daleks can barely go a serial without squabbling among themselves); and in The Evil of the Daleks, they charge The Doctor with isolating ‘the Human Factor’ so they can better understand people – which is actually a ruse to infect human history with ‘the Dalek Factor’.

The Daleks also been prone to using slaves for their dirty work – including lump-headed Orgons and helmet-clad Robomen – and subjected themselves to self-defeating bureaucracies: their own Supreme Council; colour coded hierarchies; the Cult of Skaro; and various Emperors and Dalek Supremes.

Christopher Eccleston in 2005
Christopher Eccleston in 2005

The Dalek Emperor – a giant static, wired-in Dalek – was first introduced in 1967’s Evil of the Daleks. The story ended with a Dalek civil war and was devised as a potential farewell to The Daleks, with Terry Nation aiming to launch a Dalek series in the US. Doctor Who producer Innes Lloyd was reportedly keen to cut the cost that came with using the Daleks, and was lining up the Cybermen as replacements for the series’ top monsters. But Sydney Newman suggested they didn’t kill off The Daleks for good.

“Sydney Newman called down and said, ‘Just in case, give us a glimmer of hope,’” says Toby Hadoke. “So there’s a light pulsing from the Emperor at the end.”

It was five years before the Daleks returned to the series, this time to face Jon Pertwee's dandy Doctor in Day of the Daleks – a perfunctory adventure from 1972 with the Daleks shoehorned in. Its big set-piece sees the Daleks attack the gardens of an English stately home – the most delightfully Jon Pertwee thing imaginable.

As the Who legend goes, Pertwee didn’t like the Daleks. “On Day of the Daleks, it looked like Matron had just let them out of an old people’s home,” Pertwee’s companion star Katy Manning told me last year. But Pertwee battled them several times more.

Jon Pertwee meets the Daleks - BBC
Jon Pertwee meets the Daleks - BBC

It was Tom Baker’s first Dalek story – Genesis of the Daleks in 1975 – which reinvented the Daleks. In the story, the Time Lords send the Doctor to Skaro to destroy the Daleks before they are created. The Doctor meets the Daleks’ creator and megalomaniac scientist, Davros (Michael Wisher).

“The Daleks do lose a bit once Davros comes in because he’s so good,” says Hadoke. “He’s like a Dalek but you can have a performance from him.”

It is, as described in Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood’s About Time book series, “a new era of Dalek Nazism”. The Daleks are more explicitly about racial purity. “They have a scientific elite in a bunker, and there’s this war with the ‘Thals’ – these blonde-haired Aryans – on one side and Daleks on the other,” says Hadoke. “There’s a Himmler-type character called Nyder who even had an iron cross. But it was a bit too much so it got removed between studio sessions – they were ladling on the Nazism.”

Tom Baker in Genesis of the Daleks - BBC
Tom Baker in Genesis of the Daleks - BBC

Tom Baker would face the Daleks one more time. Afterwards, each ‘classic’ Doctor got one Dalek adventure apiece. “It’s like all of Doctor Who – there’s something for everyone's tastes,” says John Smith. “If you want a good old fashioned derring-do, there’s John Pertwee. If you want a really brutal story, there’s the Peter Davison one, Resurrection of the Daleks. If you want a black comedy, there’s the Colin Baker one, Revelation of the Daleks.”

Arguably, the best of the later classic Dalek serials is Sylvester McCoy’s Remembrance of the Daleks, a nostalgia-charged story about the show's own history and warring Dalek factions.

When the series was rebooted in 2005, Russell T Davies had an inspired idea to refresh the show’s mythos: the Time Lords and Daleks had wiped each other out in the Time War and The Doctor was the last surviving Time Lord. The mid-season episode ‘Dalek’ revealed that a single Dalek soldier had also survived – held captive, waiting for orders, and no idea that it’s alone in the universe. 

Remembrance of the Daleks 
Remembrance of the Daleks

After decades of tired gags, the episode made the Daleks frightening again. “Robert Shearman very cleverly asked his wife, ‘What are all the things you think are silly about the Daleks?’” explains Hadoke. “She said, ‘They’ve got a sink plungers and they can’t go upstairs!’”

The episode flips the silliness around: the Dalek – now a bulkier, industrial-style design – hovers up stairs while squawking “ELEVATE!” and crushes someone’s face with its plunger. What really makes it scary is the searing performance from Christopher Eccleston, who crumbles when he finds himself trapped alone with the Dalek.

“He’s the cocky Mancunian lad in the leather jacket,” says John Smith. “He’s not been fazed by anything for the first half of that series. As soon as he hears the Dalek's voice he’s banging on the door, begging to be let out. He’s terrified.”

Realising that the Dalek is powerless, The Doctor reveals a darkness: he gloats in the face of the defenceless Dalek and boasts about exterminating the entire Dalek race (“I watched it happen… I made it happen”). The exchange makes the Dalek unexpectedly human (also thanks to a great voice performance from Nicholas Briggs) and raises the age-old issue of The Doctor’s morality. At the mere suggestion that they're somehow similar (“We are the same,” croaks the Dalek), The Doctor is up for murdering the Dalek.

It was a set-up for a season end twist, of course, with the reveal that an army of Daleks had survived – the first of many returns, invasions and schemes against The Doctor in the ‘New Who’ era.

But the face-off with Eccleston remains the Daleks’ finest moment in the modern series. It captures what the Daleks do best: hold up a mirror of fractured morality against The Doctor. See Patrick Troughton engineering a Dalek civil war (“Just whose side are you on?” asks companion Jamie); Tom Baker moralising about whether he has the right to prevent an entire race from existing – even if they turn genocidal; Peter Davidson preparing to shoot Davros in cold blood; or Sylvester McCoy hinting that he might in fact be a god.

When images of the new-look Daleks were revealed a few months back, there was the usual quibbling from some never-satisfied corners of Who fandom (Toby Hadoke has a rule: “Never judge a Dalek until you see it in motion!”). Upgrades and variant designs have been a part of the Daleks’ evolution: Emperor and Supreme Daleks; a tank-like Special Weapons Dalek; Churchill-approved ‘Ironside’ Daleks; colourful, Sixties-inspired Paradigm Daleks; a bulbous-headed Imperial Emperor; and even a human-Dalek hybrid.

What's crucial is that the Daleks continue to do what they've always done, dating back to that very first story in 1963. “Without the Daleks you don’t get The Doctor,” says John Smith. “The Doctor as he or she originally appears is unsympathetic — a mechanism to get the main characters of the series into problems. But once the Daleks turn up as this universe-spanning threat, The Doctor has to become a hero. The people who have worked on the new show — Russell T Davies, Steven Moffat, and Chris Chibnall — understand that.”

Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks is on BBC One at 6.45pm tonight. For more on Toby Hadoke, visit tobyhadoke.com