It’s 50 years since the Dalek’s last big screen outing. The 1960s were packed with science-fiction invasions, but this was something else. Riding on the unexpected wave of Dalekmania, the fiendish pepper pots of hate were ascending through pop-culture awareness to immortality. Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. released 50 years ago this month.
Print the neg-a-tive!
“I didn’t want any bug-eyed monsters and the Dalek is what made Doctor Who” – Sydney Newman
AFTER BEATLEMANIA, THERE WAS DALEKMANIA. THEY ARRIVED ON SCREEN AT THE VERY TAIL OF 1963, FAMOUSLY THOSE BEMS SNEAKING PAST PRODUCER SYDNEY NEWMAN’S BLANKET BAN. And classic, early production issues with their resulting risky decisions by a producer, in this case the inimitable Verity Lambert, is what phenomenon is made of. True enough, by the end of their first serial in February 1964, the Daleks were a hit, and Doctor Who with them. Come the end of that year the pepper pot tyrants had seeped into popular consciousness, happily employed in newspaper cartoons and headlines. They would return the following year, for not one but two seven part serials. None of the other early Who monsters earned a repeat, let alone triggered a cultural shock. Those quick returns, all penned by their creator Terry Nation, remain the perfect comebacks against which all of the Doctor’s foes must be measured. Perfect escalation.
After the travails of that first story on their home planet of Skaro, the show’s first alien world with its distinctive petrified forest, deadly whirlpools and gleaming city, they then made it to Earth. It was an planet, a country, very familiar to the one we knew, but set in the exotic reaches of the 22nd century. An utterly alien and yet a terribly familiar environment where the monsters had… Won. And everyone, after years of occupation looked like they were from the 1960s. That Wyndham-styled sequel was followed by a third story in the show’s second year that saw the Daleks build on their mastery of space to tackle time, pursuing the TARDIS crew through various points of history and future.
Simply named, The Chase was the Doctor’s first odyssey, a lightweight but spectacular blockbuster tale completing a set and thrilling the viewing public. It’s a miracle of the show, but testament to the power of the Daleks, that each of those first three serials survive in their entirety. Sadly, the same is not true of their fourth and most extravagant story. The 12-part Daleks’ Masterplan sought to tie up winter for the third year in a row. Now almost entirely missing, it was an epic journey of galactic politics and suitably imposing McGuffin, the Time Destructor: a devastating weapon that could do just that. Combining intrigue and invasion with the multi-location approach of The Chase, that adventure would conclude the monster’s first age. Credited with half the episodes, something rather scoffed at by then script editor Donald Tosh, it would be Terry Nation’s television swansong to his creations during the 1960s. He had other plans for his deadly creations.
The Daleks barely changed…
No one mind produced the Daleks full-formed and ready to exterminate like Victory of the Daleks’ Progenator. Their design was typically fortuitous. Nation’s script directions had been light, really only specifying that they should not have legs, apparently inspired by dancers Nation had seen glide across a dance floor. When young BBC designer Ridley Scott wasn’t available, the job fell to Raymond Cusick who had mere hours to formulate their look. The classic anecdote that the distinctive design came from the designer sliding a pepper pot across a canteen table is apparently apocryphal. That happened, but only when Cusick demonstrated the movement of his design, already based around the idea of a man encased in a sitting position.
The final design would become a 1960s classic, and it had staying power. Cybermen came to be defined by upgrading and change, other monsters would return during the classic run with vastly different designs (Sontarans) or when they arrived in the 21st century New Series new budgets and design allowed them to update (Ice Warriors, Zygons)… But the Daleks barely changed. That’s not to say there haven’t been considerable attempts to do so. But the spider modification that would have met brought the Daleks to the mid-90s American series were ultimately pushed into expanded universe fiction. The poorly thought through New Paradigms of 2010, while not as huge a change as they first appeared, were quickly dissolved in the in-continuity spats of renegade factions and racial purity that dogged Dalek culture since the 1960s.
It’s of crucial importance that the Daleks have retained the same, undeniably distinctive shape and design for over 50 years. With most Doctor Who monsters, any lay man would struggle to identify one from its shadow. Not so a Dalek. Everyone knows that.
And soon to become science fiction’s premier recurring fascists, it’s fitting they looked ridiculous from the start. Continue reading “1966: Invasion Earth 2150 – Movie Daleks at 50”