Television series can sometimes present a bit of a challenge when it comes to classifying their genre, as their episodic nature, pool of different writers, and need to keep their stories “fresh” can result in them blurring the lines between genres more often than shorter form works like movies. This is especially true of long running TV shows, and few are longer running than Doctor Who. While it is generally considered a science fiction show, I would be far from the first person to note that many Doctor Who storylines dipped further into horror territory than they did into sci-fi, while other times it mixes the two into a nice even blend. This ICHF focuses on a monster from the latter case: the notorious daleks!
I consider the daleks to be the heirs apparent to one of my other favorite monsters, the martians of H.G. Wells. Like Wells’s martians, daleks were once not too different from human beings in form and mindset. However, a prolonged civil war drove them to experiment on their own bodies, and to make a long story (well, technically several long stories) short, they became stunted, drooling little squids that depend on pepper shaker-shaped traveling machines to survive. Daleks also became vicious war mongering monsters in the process, with a culture that is hellbent on destroying all percieved threats to dalek life – which, according to their understanding, is all life in the universe.
There’s a little bit of Wells’ second most famous group of monsters in them as well; the daleks’ ancestors were originally peaceful scientists while the faction they warred with were more militaristic, but over time the tables turned until the daleks became genocidal fascists and their enemies peaceful victims, a role reversal not unlike the one that takes place between the morlocks and eloi of H.G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine.
Like the martians, the daleks are defined to us by their imperialist mindset and the sheer devastation they leave in their wake. Like the morlocks, their history of originally being the oppressed class does little to remove the terror they inspire. Like both monsters, daleks represent a dark future that humanity may one day experience first-hand. Driven by an all-consuming need to survive at all cost, and honed into terrors by the doctrine that all non-dalek life is worthless unless it somehow serves dalek survival (and even then is worth very little), the dalek mindset is not dissimilar to how humans often view non-humans. The dalek belief that all who are not daleks must inherently pose a threat to dalek kind is also a clear reflection of modern bigotry.
In other words, Daleks are the personification of a black and white, us vs. them mindset, and total unrelenting cruelty such a mindset unleashes. They’re a particularly apt metaphor since everything about them is artificial. Their iconic metal shells are a rather obvious bit of symbolism; many people unfamiliar with the show mistake them for robots at first, as the public face of a dalek is that of a faceless, unfeeling machine. Inside their little tin cans daleks are a twisted collection of oozing, sore-covered flesh, a literally raw nerve. Most insidiously, the machine shells specifically limit the organic dalek’s mind from experiencing things like sympathy and mercy. Daleks are humans that have been ground, stretched, and pulped into a malleable paste and inserted into a war machine to serve as its brainwashed nerve center. They take all the dehumanizing imagery Wells used so well with his tripod driving martians and crank it up to eleven, creating a monster that is as pitiable as its actions are revolting.
One thing I particularly like about daleks are their voices. While at first they sound like the typical monotone robot, daleks actually screech each line with pure fury into their electronic filter, creating one of the most distinctive screeching voices this side of Starscream. It drives home how nightmarishly demented these little tin plated squids are.
Another thing I like about daleks, and likewise another thing that makes me view them as spiritual successors to Wells’ martians, is that all the horror and carnage they leave in their wake is rarely if ever separated from our own behavior. Daleks may have no sympathy for others, but we sadly do feel it for them. They are us at our worst, and several Doctor Who arcs have emphasized that fact. Likewise, more than a few arcs have played with the idea of redeeming the daleks. After all, if we could pull such fargone, wretched monsters from the brink of their bloodlust and selfishness, couldn’t we also finally steer our own civilization into a more humane path? Of course it never works out – the continued adventures of the Doctor require daleks to stay villainous forever, just as the Joker will never be permanently rehabilitated in Batman. Still, it’s a nice idea.
And, on a perhaps less thoughtful note, you have to admit that daleks are damn adorable and loveable for genocidal cyclopean pepper shakers. It’s hard to look at them and not think about how fun it would be to have one as your grouchy little pal. I mean, until they use their plunger to suck a person’s face off before disintegrating a dozen people with a few shots.
If you’re still doubting that daleks belong in the pantheon of horror icons, please watch the 2005 Doctor Who episode “Dalek,” which was intentionally written to take everything people claimed made daleks “not scary” and show just how wrong that view was. They may be adorable pepper shakers, but they’re murderous little blood thirsty pepper shakers.