The Daleks: Looking Back

Into the Dalek was the best Doctor Who story we’ve seen in a long time, and certainly the best Dalek outing since the season-2 finale. This post ranks the entire Dalek canon: 14 stories from the classic era, and 8 from the new series. I pleased to say that Into makes my top half; after the abysmal season 7, I was sure the series was on its way out.

1. Genesis of the Daleks, Tom Baker. Setting: Skaro, 5700 BC. 5 jelly babies. This is the bleakest image of war ever seen in the history of Doctor Who. It introduces the Naziesque character of Davros, and develops him brilliantly across six episodes. It has one of the most famous and compelling character moments for the Doctor, as he agonizes over whether or not to commit genocide on the Daleks — his argument being that killing an intelligent lifeform would make him no better than they, and future worlds will become allies because of the Dalek menace. That many of us disagree with the Doctor only makes his alien way of thinking more fascinating. The conclusion is superb, as the Doctor fails in his mission: he’s unable to either destroy the Daleks or alter their genetic engineering, but he knows, as he assures Sarah, that “out of their evil must come something good”. No Dalek story will ever beat this one.

2. Dalek, Chris Eccleston. Setting: Utah, 2012. 5 jelly babies. The first Dalek story of the new series is a character piece above all, with a lone Dalek survivor of the Time War summoning opposite reactions from The Doctor and Rose. Unlike Sarah who in Genesis urged him to obliterate the whole race, Rose has to stop him from blasting the last Dalek to bits, as it acquires feelings of compassion from her DNA. It says something about the script that a single Dalek is able to terrify and reduce you to tears at the same time. Rightly hailed as the best Dalek story of the new series. In the space of only 45 minutes we are made to feel what it really means to be a Dalek, and that kind of transcendence is rare in Doctor Who.

power13. The Power of the Daleks, Patrick Troughton. Setting: Vulcan, 2220. 5 jelly babies. The next two Troughton stories survive in audio form with reconstructed stills, and the Loose Cannon team did a fantastic job with them. The Daleks are at their scariest, and in the case of Power, it’s the best example of a slow build in any Doctor Who story (let alone a Dalek one), where every single thing advances the story and escalates tension. A Dalek ship has crash-landed on a planet and they rely on the assistance of a human scientist to reactivate them, while pretending to be servants of the human colony. The “I am your servant” refrain is milked for all its worth; three Daleks ooze more Machiavellian terror than armies of them do in other stories.

Evil54. The Evil of the Daleks, Patrick Troughton. Setting: London/Skaro, 1966/1866/2120/4100. 5 jelly babies. If Power is the slow build, Evil is the epic blow-out. It starts as a mystery in the 19th century, with a wonderful Holmes-and-Watson act on the part of the Doctor and Jamie, and then moves into the far future on Skaro, where the dreaded Emperor Dalek is revealed — who is just as terrifying as Davros if not more. There is some twisted humor here, with some Daleks being injected with the Human Factor and playing childish games, and then manipulated by the Doctor to question their orders, which ends in the most explosive Dalek shootout in the series to date. I can’t choose between this one and Power; they’re both masterpieces.

5. Revelation of the Daleks, Colin Baker. Setting: Necros, 4610. 4 ½ jelly babies. Morbid and obscene by even classic Who standards. Like Genesis it’s more a Davros than Dalek story, and we get to see him in full control for the first time since he created the Daleks, now cultivating a new breed of Imperial Daleks from preserved cadavers on a mortuary planet. All that remains of him now (or so it seems anyway) is his head, preserved in a life-support vessel from which he gleefully watches over everyone in the comfort of his laboratory, orchestrating events with three times the amount of cunning and sadism we saw back in Genesis. I adore this story, and the only thing preventing a 5-rating is the incredibly annoying character of the DJ.

p00y0c9x6. Remembrance of the Daleks, Sylvester McCoy. Setting: London/Skaro, 1963/4660. 4 ½ jelly babies. Dalek civil war comes to Earth, and at the engineering of the Doctor, who is at his most manipulative. The pacing is flawless, and Davros is commendably held in reserve until the final episode. If Genesis contains the Doctor’s most compelling character moment, Remembrance features his most jaw-dropping, as he decides to annihilate Skaro. Far from being squeamish about wiping out a race of xenophobic killers, he has come to believe that the destruction of an entire solar system is worth an attempt to cripple the Daleks. There is the flawed bit about Daleks dependent on a battle computer for logic (they were never creatures of logic until Destiny of the Daleks, on which see #16 below), and the brief reintroduction of this trait prevents the story from getting a 5-rating. Otherwise it’s near flawless.

Parting_of_the_Ways7. Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways, Chris Eccleston. Setting: Satellite Five, 200100. 4 jelly babies. This apocalypse revolves perversely around reality TV, where on a satellite orbit people are forced to play games and losers get vaporized. There are awesome sights here — zillions of levitating and flying Daleks, chanting horrible mantras in defense of the Dalek God, “Worship him!”, “Do not interrupt!” — but held at a 4-rating due to the whacking plot holes. Most obvious being when the Daleks invade the station, which they no longer need, to stop the Doctor. Since they are melting entire continents on Earth, they could do the same to the station. But that wouldn’t allow the Doctor to face the moral dilemma demanded by RTD’s script: use the delta wave and kill the Daleks, but also every form of life on Earth; or let the Daleks live so that they can kill every form of life on Earth, which is exactly what they’re already in the process of doing by melting continents. Aside from blunders like this, the story is fantastic.

8. Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, David Tennant. Setting: London, 2007. 4 jelly babies. This is a rare case of fanwank that works: the two most popular villains, Daleks and Cybermen, invading Earth, and then fighting each other to see who’s best. The first time I saw this, the appearance of the Daleks caught me way off-guard; the cliffhanger to the first episode is classic genius. And I love the Cult of Skaro: four elite Daleks with names, designed to think as the enemy thinks. A great moment is when the Cyberleader proposes an alliance with the Cult, is refused, and demands: “You would destroy 5 million Cybermen with four Daleks?” Reply: “We would destroy 5 million Cybermen with one Dalek. You are superior in only one respect: you are better at dying. This is not a war, this is pest control.” As apocalyptic as Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways, and just as good, though similarly weighed down by certain RTD’isms.

p025byzd9. Into the Dalek, Peter Capaldi. Setting: Space Station Aristotle, future. 4 jelly babies. Between seasons three and seven in the new series, the Daleks were about as scary as Wall-E. (See the bottom three entries on this list.) This story took them seriously again, and actually delivered a body count. There are heavy shades of Eccleston’s Dalek, involving another loner captured by humans and showing strange signs of compassion. The Doctor and others shrink themselves microscopically, and inject themselves inside the Dalek for an anatomical road journey that harks back to The Invisible Enemy. It’s terrific stuff, as they get attacked by the Dalek’s antibodies and mired in organic soup. Meanwhile the space station is invaded by a Dalek army — the rogue Dalek ends up blasting then to atoms one by one, and then calls the Doctor on his own evil.

davros10. The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar, Peter Capuldi. Setting: Skaro, 2015. 4 jelly babies. This is the Davros episode fans had been waiting for in the new series. It’s complicated by the paradox of the Doctor having gone back in time a few weeks prior to this episode, and saving the child Davros from being killed in a minefield on Skaro. In the original timeline, Davros must have managed to get out of the minefield without any interaction with the Doctor, but now that the Doctor has interfered, Davros’ memory of the event is updated. Their dialogue sequences are the longest in the history of the show and drive strong ideas. It’s a bleak episode with nasty supplements (like the snake hive of Colony Sarth). We finally learn why Daleks cry “Exterminate!” repeatedly: the phrase reloads their guns. The chant of “I am a Dalek!” is an inarticulate howl from the creature inside the Dalek shell, a creature unable to express free thought, as Clara finds out when Missy traps her inside one and baits the Doctor to kill it.

The Daleks' Master Plan 111. The Daleks’ Master Plan, William Hartnell. Setting: Kembel/Earth/Mira, 4000. 4 jelly babies. The Lord of the Rings of Doctor Who. It mixes space opera, political intrigue, and betrayal in a 12-episode length that has never been repeated. Here the Daleks are trying to subjugate the solar system, and chasing the Doctor and his friends across volcanoes, jungles, deserts and futuristic cities. But unlike in The Chase, the pursuit carries purpose this time — to retrieve the core of the time destructor — and the Daleks are back to being smart and deadly. The story is also a landmark for the deaths of not one, but two companions (Katarina and Sara). Sara is actually killed by the Doctor, who mis-activates the time destructor, and Steven saves the day completely by accident. Which is another Tolkien-comparison: the Doctor is a failure like Frodo, and the Daleks (like Sauron) are stopped by a fluke.

p00y1gq912. Day of the Daleks, Jon Pertwee. Setting: London, 1973/2173. 4 jelly babies. It’s astonishing that a show about time travel went through eight whole seasons before using its subject matter as more than a device to establish setting. Nowadays we take stories like Father’s Day and Blink for granted, but Day of the Daleks was the first involving a time paradox. The Daleks aren’t really antagonists here, because they’ve already won in the far future. An assassin is sent from the 22nd century to avert this future, where humanity is enslaved, but the Doctor insists that murder even to prevent a horrible future isn’t justified. He frustrates us with his inhuman moral compass that’s nonetheless compelling. This one is very underrated.

first-dw_dalek-invasion-of-earth13. The Dalek Invasion of Earth, William Hartnell. Setting: London, 2167. 3 ½ jelly babies. The premise is a bit bonkers, but then so is lava unleashed by a drilling project to burn up the entire earth, and that doesn’t stop everyone from calling Inferno one of the best Doctor Who stories of all time. In this case, the Daleks intend to mine their way down to the earth’s core, destroy it and replace it with an engine that will allow them to pilot it anywhere in the cosmos. The imagery remains haunting: Daleks gliding around the landmarks of London, in a desolated earth, presiding over labor camps. And it’s Susan’s swan song, which is a moving send-off. It’s marred by some cheesy dialogue and awful design (the saucer-model work), but on whole it remains a cherished classic for good reason. It was the second Dalek story, and what really started the craze.

14. Resurrection of the Daleks, Peter Davison. Setting: London/Space Station, 1984/4590. 3 ½ jelly babies. Notorious for having the highest body count in the history of the show, this is an adrenaline ride that unfortunately involves messy plotting. The Daleks resurrect Davros to cure a virus that is crippling them, which is fine and well, but for all their insistence that “Without Davros, we have no future,” they suddenly reverse themselves and try to have him killed when he starts taking control — before he even finishes a cure. Their plan to immediately invade Gallifrey is another whopper, since they are at their weakest, and seems introduced only to provide a reason for their wanting to capture the Doctor alive. But with enough suspension of disbelief this action-packed story is a lot of fun, and shows Davros becoming increasingly volatile since the days of Genesis.

the-daleks-63-300x21015. The Daleks, William Hartnell. Setting: Skaro, 2164. 3 jelly babies. I’m conflicted over this one. As the first Dalek story, it’s aged both well and terribly. Well in terms of the characters: the Doctor’s relationship with Susan, Barbara, and Ian remain wonderful to watch (these were the days when the Doctor was fully capable of abandoning a companion by leaving her stranded in a hostile world; also when multiple companions played wonderfully off each other). Terribly for the Daleks themselves: all of the mythos established here got later changed, and rightfully so. Their dependence on static electricity in floors to be able to move completely reduces them; and the superficial history of their evolution was later overhauled in Genesis. As for the Thals, they’re positively dull, and not half as well scripted as they would be in later stories.

Victory_of_the_Daleks16. Victory of the Daleks, Matt Smith. Setting: London, 1941. 3 jelly babies. A rushed story (it should have been twice as long) set during World War II, which sees Britain training an army of Daleks to be thrown against the Third Reich. Churchill gets a nasty surprise when they show their true colors, and quite literally: the resurrected race has a new rainbow caste system. The space battle between Britain’s Spitfires and the Dalek ship is delightful (if a bit ludicrous), but the climax involving the neutralization of the android-bomb is too melodramatic. Alone worth the price of admission is the Doctor’s fury as he assaults a Dalek with a spanner. This is probably the Dalek story I feel most neutrally about: neither very good nor bad, just an enjoyable romp.

17. Destiny of the Daleks, Tom Baker. Setting: Skaro, 4500. 2 ½ jelly babies. A rather weak story to begin with, it sags under the weight of an unacceptable distortion. In contradiction to everything maintained throughout the Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee, and early Tom Baker eras, the Daleks are suddenly portrayed as logical robots. No longer the cunning xenophobic blobs motivated by paranoia and hate, they are reduced to the equivalent of rational Cybermen, locked in perpetual war against another race of robots as they continually outthink each other. The resurrected Davros should have been ashamed to find them in this state. This is worlds away from the Naziesque terror of Genesis. Thankfully, after Destiny the theme of logic was mostly dropped (though it briefly resurfaced in Remembrance).

Death to the Daleks (11)18. Death to the Daleks, Jon Pertwee. Setting: Exxilon, 2725. 2 jelly babies. Pertwee got the bad Dalek stories (aside from Day, see #11, which ironically isn’t “about” the Daleks). In this one, the Doctor and a handful of Daleks are stranded on a planet, along with an expedition from earth in search of a mineral which can cure a plague. The planet has a city that drains power from ship engines and weapons, and the gist is that humans and Daleks have to work together to mine the mineral and save themselves. It doesn’t work well, and doesn’t make the Daleks seem dangerous at all.

p01bqb6919. Planet of the Daleks, Jon Pertwee. Setting: Spiridon, 2540. 2 jelly babies. I can understand why Pertwee said he hated working on this story. First of all, there’s nothing in it that the Hartnell and Troughton Dalek stories didn’t do already, and far better. But there’s also the appalling script. Heavy-handed speeches go on forever, and you can tell Pertwee is having a terrible time acting through them. Basically the Doctor, Jo and a group of Thals have to make their way to the Dalek army and prevent it from wreaking havoc across the galaxy, and to get to that point overcome a boring set of challenges — Dalek guards, Spiridon slaves, tunnels of ice, etc.

chase_666420. The Chase, William Hartnell. Setting: Mechanus/Aridius, 2665/3900, 2 jelly babies. This was the third Dalek story, and very lame. In The Daleks and Dalek Invasion of Earth, the Daleks were terrifying sadists and showed cunning intelligence. In this one they’re blundering incompetents that, yes, cough and clear their throats (I kid you not) and hesitate to exterminate people. They’re ineffectual in the extreme, and the chase through time and space gets tiring. Fast. The Chase is essentially a comedy, a mistaken approach to any Dalek story, and as result ends up feeling like a parody. The departure of Ian and Barbara at the end is the story’s best part.

01221. Asylum of the Daleks, Matt Smith. Setting: Skaro, future. 2 jelly babies. This one gets a surprising amount of praise. Its premise is ridiculous, that the Daleks are (first) too terrified to deal with uncontrollable Daleks that they lock up, and (second) that they don’t even really want to on grounds that admire the purity of the their fanatical hatred. Daleks aren’t scared of anything, period; they have never had reservations about obliterating their own wayward kind. The other problem is the soap opera. Amy and Rory’s romantic problems have become tiring and unconvincing by this point in the series. The Doctor is equally non-compelling when he tries to exploit love-friction by implying he might allow Amy to succumb to the Dalek nanogens. Then there’s the horrible way Clara is introduced. It’s a melodramatic mess of a story with laughably reduced Daleks.

3x05-Evolution-of-the-Daleks-doctor-who-19275930-1600-90022. Daleks in Manhattan/The Evolution of the Daleks, David Tennant. Setting: New York, 1930. 1 jelly baby. This one is painful to watch in every frame, and that’s unfortunate, because the setting of New York during the Great Depression is very cinematic. The Cult of Skaro — four elite Daleks introduced at the end of Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, designed to think like the enemy — had incredible potential, but the idea of them trying to evolve into humanoid form was doomed from the start. Dalek Sec looks and sounds ridiculous. I was applauding when the compassionate Sec finally got exterminated by his mutinous colleagues; he was enough to turn me into a trigger-happy Dalek myself. Then there are the embarrassing pig-men. On top of all that, I’ve never seen so many terrible performances from guest stars. But just when you think things can’t get any worse…

Davros-sans-trabasack23. The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, David Tennant. Setting: London, 2009. 0 jelly babies. This story isn’t just awful; it goes out of its way to be awful — tries with every atom of its being to be awful. In the first half everyone is just trying to telephone the Doctor, ending in the mother of all cop-out cliffhangers (the Doctor starts regenerating but doesn’t). The second part gets exponentially worse, with more cop-outs, mockeries of Rose’s closure in season two, mockeries of Donna’s character and fate, and (wait for it) a romantic duplicate of the Doctor who lives happily ever after with Rose. As for the return of Davros and the Daleks themselves, they’re in almost every frame, but not there. Meaning they never feel threatening, they don’t even kill anyone (save the indestructible Captain Jack), and are disposed of way too easily with a cloud of deus-ex-machina technobabble. Not just the worst Dalek story, but the worst of the entire classic and new series.

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