An on-going series of thematic essays exploring the icons of Doctor Who during its 50th year
The First Monsters
Doctor Who wasn’t supposed to feature any monsters. That was one of Sydney Newman’s clearest rules, as explained to the show’s first producer Verity Lambert: No B.E.M.s—Bug Eyed Monsters.
However, he’d hired a rule-breaker, so Newman shouldn’t have been too surprised when Lambert decided to do the exact opposite of what he’d stipulated and introduced the Daleks into the show’s second serial. Newman’s mission for Doctor Who was to bring literary science fiction to the screen and to provide for the education of a generation in science and history. There was no room in his formula for alien monsters or killer robots. Verity Lambert had the gumption to think otherwise. She wanted the Daleks in Doctor Who, even if it meant risking the wrath of her mentor.
It can be difficult looking back 50 years to understand the huge cultural impact the Daleks had on British children. They first appeared at Christmas 1963 and the following Christmas saw the beginnings of a merchandise onslaught that continues today. There was little advance hype, so the fact that the Daleks caught on so immediately with viewers was an almost entirely organic event. The new attention being paid to the fledgling show was apparent in the ratings. The debut serial, An Unearthly Child, had concluded with a respectable 6.4 million viewers. By the end of the second serial the show was attracting in excess of 10 million viewers. Newman simply couldn’t argue with numbers like that, so he had to let Lambert produce the show in her own way.
That she’d gone ahead with Terry Nation’s Dalek serial solely because everything else planned had fallen through is now a well-rehearsed part of fan lore, as is the wartime origin of Nation’s fascist tanks (they’re simply space Nazis), and designer Raymond Cusick’s unique take on the writer’s desire to avoid the creatures looking like men in suits. Combine that distinctive shape with the grating voices provided by Peter Hawkins and David Graham, and no wonder kids up and down the country were imitating them in the school playgrounds.
The initial strangeness of these creations—armoured mobile personnel tanks for mutated creatures of hate—was quickly absorbed, understood and recapitulated in play by the show’s younger viewers. The creatures inside the armour are both the victims of and the perpetrators of a destructive war, something that resonated with older viewers who recalled the Second World War that influenced much of Nation’s science fiction, and with the teenagers in the audience who perhaps understood something of the new Cold War and the consequences of a possible nuclear conflict. However, it was the youngest members of the audience, those in primary school, who took to the Daleks immediately and reclassified them as “monsters” in a form they could understand and reproduce with the minimal of props or effort.
Importantly, particularly for this younger audience, the serial shows very clearly how these Daleks can be defeated. Although the city has been configured to incorporate their deficiencies (no stairs, corridors and doors that mirror their own shape), they have not prepared for an incursion of intelligence from outside. The series depicts the Thals as somewhat primitive (the second primitive tribe in only two stories), as if the effect of the war has been to return them to a simpler time, technologically and intellectually speaking (an old trope now, of course, but this was the first chance the series had to tackle it, even if Nation owed a huge debt to H.G. Wells). It’s the Doctor and his companions (the outside intelligence the Daleks hadn’t reckoned on) who work out how to immobilise and so defeat them, thus offering reassurance to younger viewers at home who’d go on to happily play the “monsters” in the playground.
There’s a lot, conceptually and visually, packed into the Daleks. They can be many things, from unthinking destroyers to Russell T Davies’ religious fanatics (in The Parting of the Ways). They’ve evolved and changed across the series, but theirs is a design that resists fundamental reinvention. Emperor Daleks come and go (in Evil of the Daleks, Remembrance of the Daleks and The Parting of the Ways), but attempts to significantly alter the basics of the Dalek shell have been doomed to failure (Victory of the Daleks). In devising a truly alien creature that was not obviously a “man in a suit”, Doctor Who hit on the perfect formula first time.
What the Daleks mean for Doctor Who is the opposite of the central character. They stand for what the Doctor is not. It took time for both the Doctor and the Daleks to completely fulfil those positions (in the early serials the Doctor is selfish and manipulative, while the Daleks in their first outing are rather trapped and helpless, unlike their later time-and-space travelling brethren). The series rapidly became popularly known as “Doctor Who and the Daleks”—it seemed you could not have one without the other, as if, in the words of Jerry Maguire, one completes the other. Yes, the Doctor would confront many more monsters and villains in the years to come, but few would ever be simply evil and most obviously connected directly to the Doctor as the Daleks.
With Newman’s “no bug-eyed-monsters” edict torn up, the series attempted several times in the early years to replicate the Daleks success (Mechanoids, Chumblies, War Machines) to no avail, while repeatedly falling back upon the Daleks (The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Chase, The Daleks’ Masterplan) before coming up with another iconic monster that could match them for staying power.
The Cybermen would prove to be more adaptive, more open to radical redesign while—crucially—continuing to hold on to their humanoid shape. While the Daleks appear to have retreated to their protective “travel machines” in one fell swoop, the Cybermen gradually replaced their human limbs and organs with machine parts, losing their humanity in the process. In their first appearance, The Tenth Planet, they still sport recognisably human attributes, including hands and cloth-covered faces, and they occasionally display human emotions and retain individual names (Krang, Krail, Talon, Jarl, Shav, and Gern). They are as much a reaction to the Daleks as a solution to the problem of how to create another set of monsters just like them.
All that would change, though, as each subsequent appearance presented different looking Cybermen as they evolved and changed (the 1980s presented the most consistent series of looks, until the “Cybus-men” of the relaunched series). Where the Daleks felt they had arrived at their “ultimate form” and so would do whatever they could to preserve it, the Cybermen—both in the text of the stories and in the real-world production context behind them—constantly changed as new technology became available, whether in the form of cybernetic enhancement or costume developments.
Like the Daleks, the early appearances of the Cybermen had them rapidly assume the role of the “heavy”, the villain to be defeated. The “base under siege” trope of the Troughton years took in several appearances of the Cybermen (The Moonbase, The Wheel in Space), but it was The Tomb of the Cybermen that fully engaged with their alien otherness and their intention to make us like them. These revived Cybermen, possibly the last of their kind, want to perpetrate their race and the only way to do that is by conversion of humans into Cybermen. It’s a development that no doubt caused a frisson of horror among those young viewers who’d grown up with the Daleks—they just wanted to exterminate you, not turn you into a Dalek.
The Daleks, though, would later steal this notion from the Cybermen’s playbook. It is in Revelation of the Daleks that the notion of conversion first rears its head as Davros (creator of the Daleks), in the guise of “The Great Healer”, tries to recreate Daleks (the first from non-Kaleds) from the deceased residents of Tranquil Repose. It is an idea that has regularly reappeared in the new series from the use of humans to rebuild the race in The Parting of the Ways to the human-Dalek hybrid in Evolution of the Daleks. These developments may have changed the internal biological make-up of the Dalek creature, but they did little to the outward appearance of the Dalek casing, other than in their “tribal” colouring.
The same cannot be said for the ever-changing Cybermen. They are a race seemingly suffering from constant attrition, locked in their tombs then struggling for survival following a war with humans in Revenge of the Cybermen (and developing a sudden aversion to gold). Each time they reappeared, they looked significantly different. When they came storming back fully revitalised in the 1980s, Earthshock presented a completely fresh look for one of the Doctor’s oldest foes. The visible chins harked back to their first quasi-human appearance, while the clear emotions (anger, frustration) they showed also echoed The Tenth Planet. Little was to change in these Cybermen until their reintroduction into the new series. This variation, though, came from an alternate universe where the Cybermen had developed on Earth. With only a few cosmetic alterations they remained largely the same until Nightmare in Silver once again provided the metal giants with a significant upgrade. Unfortunately, that upgrade (courtesy of Neil Gaiman) turned the Cybermen into clones of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Borg with their on-the-run “upgrades”. They were, however, sleeker than before and had been returned to the status of scary legends that’d lost a costly war (as in Revenge of the Cybermen, so possibly these were another version of the original series universe Cybermen, briefly seen in A Good Man Goes to War).
As the Daleks slowly became more like the Cybermen, some among them also adopted individual names (as if to emulate the original Cybermen in The Tenth Planet). The Cult of Skaro consisted of Daleks named Caan, Sec, Jast and Thay. They were specifically tasked with thinking beyond the usual Dalek paradigms (to think outside the Dalek casing) in order to further the evolution of the species. Perhaps the “new paradigm” Daleks created from the Progenitor device in Victory of the Daleks was one result? These colour-coded Daleks are also defined by their specialisms: Scientist (orange), Strategist (blue), Drone (red), Eternal (yellow), and Supreme (white), although what the “Eternal” is all about we have yet to discover (maybe a Dalek philosopher?).
The upshot of this convergence between the Daleks and the Cybermen was to have them confront one another in a television episode (so fulfilling may long-standing fan dreams). The confrontation takes place in Doomsday, the finale of the second series of the revitalised show. The two species refuse to recognise the other or to give in to each other’s demands. It is the Cybermen who offer an alliance, suggesting the Daleks join them in “upgrading” the universe. This is rejected by the Daleks (the individualistic Cult of Skaro, led by Dalek Sec). The resulting battle is seen as “war” by the Cybermen, but the Daleks conceive of the conflict as little more than “pest control”. In the end, it comes back to the Doctor—it is his appearance that truly terrifies these Daleks, not a horde of faceless Cybermen. The Doctor is unpredictable and emotional, so the Daleks continually and consistently underestimate him and so are repeatedly defeated by him. This is the core of Doctor Who—human (or alien) individuality against the machine mind (whether it be the organic remnants of the Cybermen and the Daleks, or true computer-derived artificial intelligences).
At heart, the series has always been Doctor Who versus the monsters, something Verity Lambert clearly recognised.
Next: History vs. Science Fiction