EXTERMINATE: Are the Daleks scary? (Part 1)

A comic by Peter Birkett, from Punch magazine on 5 August 1981. The image is a simple black line drawing on white. In it, a small group of Daleks are at the bottom of a short flight of stairs, looking toward the top of the stairs. At the bottom text reads, “Well, this certainly buggers our plan to conquer the Universe.” The comic is signed “birkett.” Source.

I’ve never much understood fear of the Daleks. They’re clunky and awkward, and way more adorable than frightening. (As a friend pointed out, the cutest thing about them is the way they sound increasingly frustrated. “Explain. EXPLAIN! EXPLAAAAIIN!!” Adorbs.) But the show and many fans insist that they are scary. They were even voted the scariest Doctor Who villain in a 2007 BBC poll. I find this confusing, because so many fan works (like crafts, fan art, cosplay) represent Daleks are humorous, cute, and/or silly. And it’s not like all villains are vulnerable to this. How many crafts do you see that make the Silence look adorable? Or that dress up the automatons from “The Girl in the Fireplace” as tiki-themed? Do people make plushies of the water monsters from “Waters of Mars”?

And it would be possible to read cute fan-made versions of the Daleks as studies in juxtaposition. We can create humor by making something truly horrifying look loveable or sad.

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A photo shows one of the Silence sitting at the end of a table. The table has a birthday cake on it, as well as several brightly colored paper plates and cups set on the table. The Silence wears a brightly colored striped party hat, and sits beside a bunch of colored balloons. He is the only one at the table. Text at the bottom reads “no one every remembers my birthday…” Source.

The humor of this image comes from two different contrasts. It riffs on the fact that the Silence can’t be remembered by anyone, and that would make it difficult for them to have normal lives. They couldn’t have friends, or dates, or jobs. But imagining villains (and particularly monsters) having normal lives is a weird contradiction, and that contradiction is funny. Imagine the Joker buying toilet paper, or the Silurians walking their dogs. Further, by giving the Silence the same kinds of feelings that normal people have, by making it seem vulnerable and lonely, the picture invokes the same kind of humor. A sad Silence is also a contradiction. Taking evil villains and monsters outside of their evil-doing contexts is funny, but not because it makes the actual villain/monster any less threatening. It works because they’re frightening; if they weren’t, there wouldn’t be any contradiction, and the humor wouldn’t be there.

Some Dalek fan works operate with the same kind of humor, but most do not. Popular themes are mocking the Daleks’ lack of motor functions, ridiculing the Daleks’ appearance, and poking fun at the Daleks’ catch phrase.

Can the Daleks do anything? Unlike the Silence picture, which makes fun of the Silence’s inability to have normal lives (not actually necessary for villainy), Dalek works often make fun of the Daleks for being clunky and awkward. The comic at the top of the post is a prime (and rather famous) example of this. The comic makes it explicit that the Daleks’ inability to navigate stairs would actually make them incompetent (and not that frightening) villains. One doesn’t need to have memorable birthdays to conquer the world. Stair-navigation, however, is probably necessary. We can see another example of this type of humor below.

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The detail on a dark grey t-shirt. In the image, a bronze-colored Dalek stands confused over a boxed light bulb on a table. His plunger and whisk “arms” are poised over the light bulb, and a think bubble above his head reads, “…how the heck?” Source.

While Daleks don’t need to change lightbulbs to be good villains (probably), the t-shirt is ridiculing the Daleks’ lack of motor functions. I mean, they have a plunger and a whisk. No fingers. No hands. They can’t pick anything up, or manipulate anything manually. That makes them a little less threatening as villains, which this t-shirt picks up on.

Why do they look like that? The Daleks’ clunky and low-budget appearance has been made fun of almost universally. Even people who think the Daleks are scary rarely think they look scary. The Daleks literally look like they were put together with scrap metal, stuff lying around the house, and some tape. It makes them hard to take seriously.

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The detail on a bright blue t-shirt. The image is a simple white line drawing. It shows a salt shaker, a plus sign, a plunger, a plus sign, a whisk, an equal sign, and a Dalek. Source.

This popular t-shirt posits that the Daleks are literally slap-dash. They humor comes in part because each of the objects is a domestic object (a salt shaker, a plunger, a whisk), which places the construction of the Daleks (or at least the aesthetic of the Daleks) squarely in the home. This makes them feel less threatening, because they are portrayed not as alien machines, but as objects that are extremely familiar. Further, the objects chosen here are, individually, so benign it would be difficult to imagine someone hurting you with them. How would you even attack someone with a whisk?

This kind of fan work doesn’t normally rely on contradiction; it’s a straight-up mocking of what the Dalek looks like and what parts he’s made of.

EXFOLIATE! ELUCIDATE! PONTIFICATE! The catch phrase for the Daleks is, I think, supposed to represent their horrifying, single-minded focus on killing all non-Daleks. But when you repeat a word enough, it starts to lose it’s meaning. I think this is what has happened to EXTERMINATE. Partially because the Daleks are so ridiculous, fans have easily and frequently taken the catch phrase and played with it for humor.

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The detail on a dark blue t-shirt. The image is a simple bright blue line drawing. It shows a a Dalek lounging on a recliner. He is watching TV, using a remote, and eating popcorn on a side table. There’s a can on beer on its side on the side table, and one on the arm of the recliner. On a bulletin board next to the Dalek are pinned three different sheets of paper. One shows the sonic screwdriver, one is a technical drawing of the TARDIS, and one is a “To Do List” with three items, all reading “EXTERMINATE!” Source.

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 The detail from a handpainted white greeting card. A bronze-colored Dalek sits in the suds of a bathtub, with soap hanging from a rope on his plunger arm. Text above the image reads, “EXFOLIATE!” Source.

These examples rely somewhat on the contradiction of Daleks having normal lives (watching TV, taking a bath), like the Silence example. They are also showing, though, the ridiculousness of the way the Daleks approach actions. If the Daleks want to do something (or want someone else to do something), they just yell commands. (Explain! EXPLAIN! EXPLAAAAIN!!) By showing how humorous it is to do that in real life (PROCRASTINATE! EXFOLIATE!), these fan works reveal the ways in which the Dalek catchphrase is silly, in part because it unnecessarily narrates the Daleks’ actions. Instead of just, you know, shooting the Doctor, they yell EXTERMINATE about 10 times while looking at him first. That’s about as stupid as screaming EXFOLIATE while you’re in the bathtub. The PROCRASTINATE image is even funnier, because it seems to directly comment on the way the Daleks say actions to delay doing them, as the “To Do List” on the wall makes clear. This is certainly a characteristic that makes a villain less threatening (like a Bond villain who explains his whole plan to you and walks away after putting you in a slow-moving death trap).

Soft Dalek, warm Dalek, little ball of hate. There are, however, some fan works that seem to resemble my Silence example, that rely on the contrast between scary killer monster and domesticity/everyday life, snuggliness, and/or vulnerability and loneliness.

spastasmagoria

A screenshot from spastasmagoria’s Tumblr blog. The post, from 4 May, has an image that is a close-up of a bronze-colored Dalek’s head. His glowing blue eyestalk is central, and text below the eyestalk reads “I am alone in the universe.” A comment from Tumblr user missrenholder reads, “’‘Help me.’ Poor little thing.” Spastasmagoria’s commentary reads, “LET ME HOLD YOU, LAST DALEK IN THE UNIVERSE. LET ME CUDDLE YOU AND WE CAN HUG THE GENOCIDE OUT.” Source.

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A hand drawn set of images on white that parody the “Soft Kitty” song from Big Bang Theory. In the first panel, the text reads, “soft dalek” and a red Dalek is covered in something white and fluffy. In the second panel (“warm dalek”), the Dalek is on a lounge chair under the sun. In the third panel (“little ball of hate”), the eleventh Doctor casually looks at the Dalek, who is much smaller, about waist-height. The Dalek has little “hate lines” above his head. In the fourth panel (“happy dalek”), the Dalek is look upward, with his “arms” raised. In the fifth panel (“sleepy dalek”), the Dalek’s head and arms are facing downward, and a talk bubble reads “zzz…” In the last panel, the Dalek’s head and arms are facing upwards, and a talk bubble reads “EX-TER-MI-NATE.” Source.

Both of these examples contrast snuggliness with hatred and violence. The first image is funny because spastasmagoria explicitly juxtaposes hugging with genocidal creatures, and the second because it pairs a “little ball of hate” with kitties. Like the Silence example, this kind of fan work functions best if the viewer sees the Daleks as frightening and threatening. That way, the contrast is at its highest. Unlike the Silence example, however, these two works feel the need to explicitly remind the audience that the Daleks are genocidal murderers (“WE CAN HUG THE GENOCIDE OUT” and “little ball of hate”). I would suggest that they do this because without doing so, the audience(s) might see the Daleks as ridiculous, as already adorable, and then these works would be less humorous.

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A silver-framed cross stitch on a striped wall. In the cross stitch, a dark red Dalek faces an R2D2. A speech bubble coming from the Dalek had a pink heart in it. Source.

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A chubby red felted Dalek. He has twisty metal arms, and is holding a banner reading “EXTERMINATE” in stamped letters in front of him. Source.

Many examples of snuggly/lonely Dalek fan works, however, don’t rely on humor at all. They’re just cute. There are knitted Daleks, plush Daleks, crocheted Daleks, felted Daleks. There are cookie Daleks. There are Daleks that just want to love. There are baby Daleks. All of these examples aren’t really meant to be funny. They’re meant to be adorable. And that there are so many of them suggests that a lot of fans already think the Daleks are adorable, or at least think the Daleks are non-threatening enough to be fashioned as adorable.

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A “tiki Dalek” at Gallifrey 22 in 2011. The Dalek has bamboo trim and a straw “skirt” trimmed in green grass and Hawaiian flowers. His bumps are half coconuts, and his eyestalk is made of one, too. He has a cocktail umbrella behind his eyestalk, and his whisk arm is a tiki torch. The other arm holds a drink topped with Hawaiian flowers and cocktail umbrellas. The rings on his “neck” are plastic leis. Source.

So are the Daleks scary? My exploration into Dalek fan works suggests that even fans don’t really think so. When at least half of fan works of a villain mock or domesticate that villain, it seems unreasonable to say that fans are truly frightened of it. We seem to think the Daleks are ridiculous, silly, and cute at least as often as we think they are scary.

The upcoming part 2 of this post will explore how the Daleks are similar to H. G. Wells’s Martian in The War of the Worlds, and how that comparison affects how scary, or not, the Daleks are to modern audiences.

21 comments

  1. Scott says:

    I think it’s probably less that the Daleks are inherently not frightening and more that they’ve been around for almost fifty years and have been subjected to these kinds of deconstruction for a good long while, which would cause anything to lose it’s initially intended impact — keep the Silence around for that long while making jokes like in the image above and crafting plushies of them, they’ll eventually start to look absurd as well.

    I suspect that their high position in the ‘scariest Who monster’ poll is probably more an acknowledgement of how fundamentally iconic they are rather than an accurate indication of how frightening people actually find them.

    • You may be right. And the datedness that makes them not-scary may not even be because we’ve been oversaturated by Daleks. It may just be that when you design a villain in the 60s, it’s not going to look scary in 2012. Very few villains/monster look frightening decades later.

      And I absolutely agree with your assessment of the polls, though I have had fans insist they find the Daleks actually frightening.

    • God of Mischief says:

      I agree, they have been around for over 40 years and have defeated over and over and over. Every other series has a Something of The Daleks nowadays.

      The fact that they look like Power Rangers now certainly doesn’t help.

  2. Tabz says:

    There are many, many stories of people being extremely frightened of them when they first appear in Doctor Who. My friend’s mother, who was a kid at the time, used to hide behind the couch when they appeared.

    • I totally believe that. I know the “hiding behind the sofa” was a real experience for people.

      I still think adult fans are just as likely to think the Daleks adorable as cute, but I don’t want to suggest that people don’t have experiences of being scared of the Daleks.

  3. Kate Elmer says:

    I think its the relentlessness and inhumanity that I find frightening. Also, the voice is quite scary to a kid. They may have a limited vocabulary but that in itself is a bit frightening.

  4. The fascinating thing about the Daleks is how scary they can be, especially to kids, despite the design elements. I think a lot of it depends at what point people discover them.

    For the best riff ever on the ‘Daleks and stairs’ joke I recommend the recent Australian sitcom Outland, which is about a gay SF club (I recommend it ANYWAY to everyone who reads Doctor Her).

    The whole first episode of the show revolves around a Doctor Who fan trying to look cool in front of his new bloke, and trying to deal with the fact that he’s attracted to someone who thinks the ‘Daleks can’t go up stairs’ joke is funny, and has obviously never seen Remembrance of the Daleks.

    Suddenly realising I should have posted to Doctor Her about Outland ages ago…

  5. James says:

    I think it’s one of those things where familiarity breeds contempt. There are elements of the Daleks which ought to be scary – the idea of something so alien that there’s no way of appealing to it, something which wants you dead simply because you are different and which will not listen to reason or to emotional appeal. Thinking about it, the nearest I’ve come to finding them scary is when interrogating Romana in Destiny of the Daleks and I think a lot of that’s down to Lalla Ward playing her as so obviously terrified.

    I don’t know if you’ve listened to a Big Finish play called Jubilee by Rob Shearman. Elements of it were rewritten by Shearman for the Eccleston episode Dalek, which had the specific aim of making the Daleks scary again. But the most disturbing elements of the original play were omitted.

    Here be spoilers.

    For those who don’t know it, the idea of the play is that the 6th Doctor landed on Earth early in the 20th century and helped them defeat a Dalek invasion. However, the victorious humans have taken on more and more characteristics of the Daleks. Rather than allow the Doctor to go on his way, they’ve imprisoned him – he might be useful in the future. To stop him trying to escape, they’ve crippled him by amputating his legs. In short, you have Dalek-ish behaviour coming from humans and it’s far more disturbing for it.

  6. Danathan says:

    I don’t think it’s just that the Daleks have been around so long, or that monsters from back then don’t look scary to today’s audience, because the Cybermen are extremely menacing, and were terrifying during their Troughton appearances, whereas none of the Dalek serials I’ve seen have had anything like that degree of creepiness.

    I think you might have a point, Courtney, about the Daleks being over-deconstructed. The Cybermen never reached that level of popular attention, and so were not so frequently parodied. But even then, I think that raises the question of why the Daleks got it so bad compared to the Cybermen, and I don’t think it’s just that they came first.

    I think that there is something inherently ridiculous about the Daleks as opposed to the Cybermen, and I think it goes beyond their apparently clumsy design. I think it’s just that robots aren’t frightening unless they look like a human (or sometimes another animal). Robots that just look entirely like machines are just too unfamiliar. They don’t look alive, so it’s hard for us to imbue them with sinister motives. Once a robot looks like a person, we can begin to ascribe feelings of malice, anger, or sadism to it. When it looks like an animal we can imagine that it has a hunger or a bloodlust. When it just looks like a machine, all we can imagine is programming, and that just isn’t as scary because it’s most distant from our own experiences.

    Also they look stupid.

  7. Danathan says:

    Actually, I think that “robots aren’t frightening unless they look like a human or an animal” probably applies to all monsters. Unless a monster looks vaguely like something we’re familiar with, whether from real life or long-established stories, I imagine it’s much more difficult to put across to an audience exactly what the monster is like.

  8. Jennie says:

    Doesn’t the facts that these pepperpots CAN go upstairs, CAN fly, CAN operate in space without having to rely on oxygen, gravity ect.. and have a wheapon that instantly scrambles your internal organs if you disobey them, or wind them up, or if you don’t fit their standards of Dalek purity, scare anyone? It does me.

    Oh and lets not forget the green blob inside the casing.

    I’ve been frightened of them since I was a child. (Though I do think the Dalek in the Soft Dalek cartoon is quite sweet!)

  9. I think the reason that the Dalek is over-parodied is because it’s more popular, not because it’s necessarily less scary than other monsters. I’ve seen a lot of crocheted Ooods and Cybermen t-shirts out there too…

    The thing that fascinates me about the Daleks is how different they are out of context – they really are ridiculous if you really look at them, all the elements, and I think Doctor Who fandom has loved that odd juxtaposition of scary, dead serious stories with vaguely amusing robot shape for a very long time. It works as the most potent icon of a show (followed closely by the TARDIS herself) where all the human characters regularly change over…

    My kids think Daleks are adorable AND scary, depending on the context.

  10. Kate Elmer says:

    I find them very frightening in the Invasion of the Daleks audio series…which is fab if you are unaware of it. No Doctor, just lots and lots of Daleks and a really interesting look into how to resist your enemies. Come to think of it, I should have posted about Invasion of the Daleks ages ago.

  11. [...] of cute Dalek fan art, The Organization for Transformative Works posted this picture of a Dalek from a coffee shop. Happy [...]

  12. [...] In part one, I talked about fan art seems to indicate that many fans find the Daleks cute, silly, and ridiculous as often as they find them scary. In part two, I talk about why I think the Daleks are supposed to be scary: namely, that they are modeled after the terrifying Martians from H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. [...]

  13. [...] In part one, I talked about fan art seems to indi­cate that many fans find the Daleks cute, silly, and ridicu­lous as often as they find them scary. In part two, I talk about why I think the Daleks are sup­posed to be scary: namely, that they are mod­eled after the ter­ri­fy­ing Mar­tians from H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. [...]

  14. [...] In part one, I talked about fan art seems to indicate that many fans find the Daleks cute, silly, and ridiculous as often as they find them scary. In part two, I talk about why I think the Daleks are supposed to be scary: namely, that they are modeled after the terrifying Martians from H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. [...]

  15. Gonzo says:

    Part of the issue is that the Daleks are an existential threat wrapped in an easy-to-understand package. They are an enemy that is completely antithetical to our way of life, intentionally harkening to the worst fears of the Nazis. The discipline implied in yelling out ones orders in acknowledgement is in reference to this. They are a creature that is eminently not human, cannot be reasoned with or pacified, and, despite the mocking, is often portrayed as an equal opponent to even the main character, having outsmarted him on several occasions, and made many of his victories Pyrrhic.

    The incapability issue is similar to thinking tanks and bomber planes are useless because they can’t go up stairs – a juxtaposition joke that someone forgot it was juxtaposition. With the armor, eyestalk and gunstick configuration, a Dalek even evokes an impression of a tank.

    50 years of juxtaposition humor has lead to the open mocking you see now. Familiarity breeds contempt. The Nazi troops have long been mocked, even though they essentially conquered Europe and with only two significant allies, besieged the remaining world powers until advances in technology allowed their opposition to overcome their strategy. Those who see Daleks without the context of mocking, usually see an inhuman blend of machine and monster that not only wants to kill us all, but has the intelligence, power, tenacity and focus to pull it off.

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