vol 8, issue 8

Classic Projects: the Daleks

12 August 2013
By Nick Smith
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Dalek artwork

50 years on: the Daleks

Date: First appearance 1963

Engineer: Terry Nation and Raymond Cusick (fictional creator Davros)

Forget about modern upstarts such as the Terminator. For half a century one genetically modified fictional cyborg has been the doyen of 'hiding behind the sofa' terror. Virtually wiped out by the Time Lords in the late 20th century, the Daleks have fought back to appear in almost 100 installments (including movies) of the BBC's iconic 'Doctor Who'. Devoid of conventional human emotions – although seemingly overloaded with the alien equivalent of hate – their mission is nothing other than the ethnic cleansing of the universe.

The Daleks are now as much a part of British culture as the Routemaster bus or the Beatles. But they got off to a shaky start, with their apparent inability to negotiate anything other than even terrain a source of much amusement to their terrestrial critics. But their ability to strike fear into an entire civilisation both on and off the screen means they are paradoxically the best-loved of all Earth's enemies and nine out of ten British children can successfully identify a Dalek: considerably more than can tell you who is the President of the USA.

Perhaps as a result of their instantly recognisable exterior shell, what's often forgotten is that the Dalek is the mutant inside the saltshaker-shaped armour. The Doctor once described them as "little green blobs in bonded polycarbide armour". In the 97 episodes of 'Doctor Who' in which the Daleks appear, the mutant is rarely seen, leading to the popular misconception (reinforced by the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary) that the Dalek is a robot. It's not: it's a cyborg, with many of its key characteristics pre-figuring the biomechanical interface.

Incapable of complex intelligible speech, the Dalek's simple language (consisting mainly of violent threats) is presented via an electronic voice synthesiser, further reinforcing the impression that it is non-biological.

There have been two principal eras of the Daleks, the first extending from 1963 until 1996, followed by their post-2005 renaissance under the stewardship of 'Doctor Who' revival guru Russell T Davis, who wrote them back into the 21st-century consciousness with a technologically beefed-up and aesthetically superior incarnation.

Davies was responsible for giving the emotion-free automatons a sense of humour. While once their most famous catchphrase was 'exterminate!', in a 2005 episode entitled 'Dalek', when confronted by a flight of stairs, with self-aware humour previously unknown, the Daleks showed that they were unable to take themselves too seriously as they barked out the word 'elevate!'.

One of the reasons the Daleks are so frightening is that they are not predicated on human biology. Neither humans nor Daleks are symmetrical in either the coronal or transverse planes. But the key, defining difference is that Daleks are also asymmetrical in the sagittal plane, making them appear to the human brain very, er, alien. That their limbs have a machine-like functionality – one for vision, another for digital manipulation and a third for wielding a blaster gun – separates them from our biological evolutionary expectations.

It's often thought that their crowning design flaw is that they can only operate on level surfaces. But over the decades their mobility has developed from the initial conveyance over conductive metal flooring. For those who think that the mutants can't climb stairs (they can), it's worth remembering the old joke that real Daleks don't need to: they just level the building.

NEXT MONTH: Retractable ballpoint pen

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21st-century Daleks are made of fibreglass

Daleks have appeared in 97 episodes of 'Doctor'Who'

The original Mk1 Daleks were built by Shawcraft Engineering

The Dalek design is based on dancers in the Georgian National Ballet

In early episodes, Dalek armies were filmed using commercially available toy Daleks

The word 'Dalek' is Serbo-Croatian for 'distant'

Appeared on a British postage stamp in 1999

The word 'Dalek' is in the Oxford English Dictionary

Voted 'greatest ever monster' by readers of SFX magazine

Early versions glided on nylon casters

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