Who would think that a hoard of giant condiment sets that (until the late ’80s) could not even climb stairs would turn out to be some of the most potent, and enduring SF villains?
Even in that most venerable of series Doctor Who, which has even to this day something of a reputation for wobbly props, rubbery aliens, and a predilection for filming in the same quarry in South Wales, the Daleks stand head and shoulders (no pun intended) above all other grobbly monsters as the prime evil in the Universe.
Created by Terry Nation, and drawing from his own experiences of being a child in WWII faced with the seemingly mechanistic evil of Nazism, the Daleks embody all that is most malignant within our own psyches – uniform, xenophobic, intolerant, and often so incompetent that they foil their own plans out of sheer bloody-mindedness.
Planting Demon Seed
Terry Nation had worked for the BBC for over a decade before he came to the attention of Verity Lambert, who was in early 1963 preparing production for the upcoming family SF drama Doctor Who. He had initially turned down an offer from David Whitaker to act as script writer on other BBC SF programming, but was intrigued by Verity’s description of her conception of the new series: in which any planet, any epoch, and any story could be addressed through the lens of an ordinary viewer. Indeed, if one thinks about it, the story is not so much about the Doctor himself, but the many ‘companions’ who serve as the point of contact for the viewers, and whose mundane adventures, in very anti-mundane settings, give the show its real flair.
Thus, having been won over and given a general brief for a story in which the Doctor arrived on a ruined planet to encounter a self contained, totalitarian race of mutant aliens Nation, set to his task.
This brief developed very quickly into the story known as ‘The Daleks‘ (AKA ‘Dead Planet, or ‘The Mutants’), in which Nation explored the potential of the near total domination of a single ideology over a world. This would have been an interesting (even groundbreaking, considering the early days of television) story no matter the antagonists, but once Nation brought in Raymond Cusick to design his actual villains, the story as broadcast delivered a narrative blow which resonates even to this day, as the current seasons of Doctor Who still rally round the pepper pots again and again and again!
Cusick was given one more ‘simple’ instruction by Nation which makes the ‘pepper pot’ tag, which has followed the Daleks all these decades more grounded: make them as alien as possible.
There could be nothing that could be recognized as human about them, but at the same time, they could not simply be machines. It would have been too easy to accept the cold, clinical violence of a cybernetic antagonist, but the Daleks, being – at least to some degree – a sentient species called to the deeper, darker sides of ourselves. Thus, with Nation’s talk of a sealed city, high radition levels, and utterly inhuman foes, Cusick apparently really did take inspiration from the BBC lunch room pepper pots for his design. Adding weapons, unusual arms and odd surface textures, the final design struck our human sensibilities for the same reason that spiders do – so utterly beyond our own conception of ‘normal’ that we cannot easily grasp them.
Even if they were rather comic from time to time, they were still made of enough pure, unrefined NOPE for kids to love to hate them – from behind their parents’ settees, of course.
Interestingly, Nation was able to retain copyright on his creations, and over the course of the years, the Daleks turned up in a variety of Doctor Who and direct media sources (indeed, a US TV series was actually considered based on the Daleks themselves).
Most popular of these ’60s offerings were the comic strips which appeared in the pages of TV Century 21.
The strip went deeper into the history of the Dalek society, and with the authors (for Nation did not work alone on these, though often credited so) freed from the BBC’s concerns about ‘appropriate content’ it also gave us an unfettered look at the sheer brutality of the psychotic pepper pots.
An intentional look as well. After all, we all love a good villain unbound, do we not?
The strip filled in the lore that Nation was forced to leave out of the script for the first Doctor Who Story. It covered the history of Skaro, the actual creation of the Daleks in the Thal War, their first space voyages and their early conquests (including some elements which Nation had blended into into further work for the BBC, such as the Mechanoids from The Chase).
The Dalek Chronicles ended with the discovery of Earth, suggesting that this whole arc was the prelude to the ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth‘ storyline from 1964.
In Glorious Colour!
Developed by Amicus films as something of a non-canon cash-in for the US market (and possibly as a hook for Nation’s putative TV series), this rather campy retelling of the first Dalek story was, though not connected the the BBC drama, very popular owing to the nature of the Daleks themselves, which had been redesigned to some degree.
Indeed, so popular was the film that a sequel was almost immediately green-lit, and Dalek Invasion Earth: 2150 soon followed its predecessor.
Following the same basic plot of the BBC series, but again in a non canonical fashion, this film still retains much of its charm, and the Daleks depicted therein (the so-called Mk3 heavy base units) are still a fan favorite.
When UK model company Comet Miniatures (now trading under the Timeless Hobbies name) began looking at holes in the SF model market, one of the licenses they were able to secure was Doctor Who, producing a series of character models in various media. Comet produced two versions of the Dalek in the main – both TV and movie – and these kits have long been prized, and it was a real stretch to actually build the one that fell into my hands recently, as they are getting rarer and rarer as time goes on.
Not that much of a stretch, mind you… 😀
That’s all she wrote. Almost as simple in construction as a Polar Lights snapfit kit. 😉
Note the photocopied sheets and rough instructions? That’s one of the reasons we loved Comet Kits. No frills, no fluff, and no fuss. Just good-quality (for the price) kits of subjects no one else was touching.
Let’s see if I have the guts to risk ruining this legend of a kit! 😀
Nice review and history. Sorry Comet is no more (loved their catalog).