When now-iconic BBC series Doctor Who was created, it was a purely educational fantasy romp. The elderly Doctor was supposed to dance around various historical dates with his students in tow, explaining the context like some time-traveling Mr. Wizard. After just a single story, though, the writers decided the series needed some spice. The Doctor needed an adversary.
Writer Terry Nation conceived the armored menace, but he almost didn’t happen. When producer Verity Lambert handed over the episode’s script, the powers that be were seriously pissed. Doctor Who series creator and then head of BBC Drama, Sydney Newman, was not on board with the Daleks. Years later, he explained his initial reaction to Nation and Lambert’s idea:
“I laid down the rules to [Lambert], that she was not to have any bug-eyed monsters. None of these creepy-crawly things from out-of-space, the usual nonsense of science fiction stuff… And then she came up with this Dalek business and I was livid with anger.”
Of course, Newman’s anger was moot because production had already begun on the serial. More to the point, Lambert and her team hadn’t prepped anything else, so it was either use the Daleks, or take the show off-air for a few weeks.
While they were introduced (and their origin explained) during the initial appearance in 1963, Terry Nation retconned the Daleks origin for the 1975 series, Genesis of the Daleks. In that story, the Daleks became the heir to a legacy of hate, begun by a species who was totally not based on the Nazis at all:
The prosthetic-wearing invalid Davros, an evil geneticist who — at that moment — is working on the creation of another phase of evolution for his species. His ultimate goal is the destruction of the Thal and an end to their thousand-year war. In order to achieve this goal, Davros mutated his own people to create a master race. Of course, Davros here didn’t count on the pinnacle of evolution looking like something that would happen if Krang had sex with a squid.
In a word?
The Daleks are a militant race with a rigid social hierarchy and very little culture. They’re essentially a hive mind consumed by an unquenchable rage and an all-consuming thirst for destruction. Because they don’t spend a whole lot of time on the liberal arts, their technology is incredibly advanced. Their little armored motor scooters double as both life support and tank.
Daleks communicate in brief monosyllabic exchanges characterized by uniform, repetitive phrases, screeched at loud volumes in their patented menacing nasal whine:
Basically, the Daleks are complete pricks who are hell-bent on the total destruction of every race — that isn’t them. They will fight to the last man for that goal, and they have dogged persistence that would be admirable if it wasn’t fucking terrifying. Sure, Daleks might look like angry trash cans, but when something is dead-set on killing you and it has the technology to withstand pretty much any onslaught, you can learn to fear it pretty quickly.
Their bodies might be frail, but that’s only because all of the Daleks genetic importance was placed on aggression and intelligence — remember, they were created during war time. In other words, what you have in the Dalek is a purely functional glob of shit that’s only there to super a super-powered brain floating in a barrel of rage juice.
Of course, it’s not the squishy monster inside that people see when they picture a Dalek; it’s the giant metal traffic cones they roll around in. According to legend, designer Raymond Cusick had only a single hour to design the creature based on Terry Nation’s specifications, so he designed the largely unchanged Dalek tank based on a pepper shaker he found in the BBC offices.
Because a Dalek is always on the job of genocide, they’re rarely, if ever, outside their individual containment units, which are state-of-the-art (assuming you’re not into speed or maneuverability). Made from a metal that’s four times stronger than steel, a Dalek’s containment unit is a solar-powered war machine that pisses on pretty much any technology that you can throw at it.
In 2010, Daleks were voted the best sci-fi monster of all time, beating the likes of Godzilla and Ridley Scott’s Aliens. It’s a distinction that was icing on the cake of these world-conquering aliens.
In the fifty years since the Daleks were forced onto the screen because of a production oversight. But they have spread to every corner of the pop culture universe. They’re nearly as synonymous with Doctor Who as the Doctor himself. Hell, they’ve been a bigger fixture on the show than even the longest running Time-Lord.
Not too shabby for a creature based on a pepper shaker. Even Sydney Newman, who had been so vehemently against the Daleks, eventually had to admit, “There again, is the wisdom of being a great head of drama group … I didn’t want any bug-eyed monsters and the Dalek is what made Doctor Who.”