EXTERMINATE: Are the Daleks Scary? (Part 2)

Wow! It’s been a long time since part one! Sorry about that! I’ve been getting new jobs, moving, finding homes for my now-stray kitties. But enough excuses, let’s get to the Daleks.

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.

Cross-posted at From Austin to A&M.

While science fiction is often posited as a kind of “what if” genre—What if aliens landed? What if we had interplanetary spaceships? What if we could genetically engineer people?—I don’t think that’s a great definition for the genre. After all, not all “what if” questions have anything to do with science, technology, or ray guns. My own definition of science fiction, based on my time as a fan and scholar of it, is pretty broad. I consider something science fiction if it has all or most of the following characteristics:

1. It is about sci­ence or the prac­tice of science.

2. It stays within the bounds of mate­r­ial reality/natural laws orit is con­cerned with appear­ing within the bounds of mate­r­ial reality/natural laws. This means that if it tries to explain its real­ity within the con­fines of our own nat­ural world, even if this is tech­nob­a­b­ble or lamp­shad­ing (á la Doc­tor Who’s “magic door” in The Girl in the Fire­place), then it could be sci­ence fic­tion. I don’t agree with def­i­n­i­tions that say sci­ence fic­tion must be strictly pos­si­ble in the real world or accord­ing to con­tem­po­rary sci­ence, because that is a ridicu­lously lim­it­ing def­i­n­i­tion, and would exclude sci­ence fic­tion like Star Trek, H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, Doc­tor Who (actu­ally, pretty much any sci­ence fic­tion that uses time travel), Armaged­don, Char­lotte Perkins Gilman’s Her­land, and Red Dwarf. What these nar­ra­tives have in com­mon is not that they are sci­en­tif­i­cally fea­si­ble, but that they are con­cerned with mate­r­ial real­ity, and explain their real­i­ties as the same as ours. Of course, the extent to which they are concerned with this explanation will vary.

3. It forces the reader to leave the famil­iar world of here-and-now. This is the char­ac­ter­is­tic that is most often absent, but I think, when it appears, it is extra­or­di­nar­ily impor­tant. When this char­ac­ter­is­tic is present, it becomes imper­a­tive that the nar­ra­tive adhere to the second characteristic listed above, because this means the narrative can make the famil­iar unfa­mil­iar, which can func­tion in a num­ber of ways. By mak­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of our cul­ture, for exam­ple, dis­ap­pear (like gen­der or racism), sci­ence fic­tion can denat­u­ral­ize those con­cepts within our real­ity. By paint­ing a utopia (like Star Trek), it can make that utopia seem not so out of our reach. It can take a neg­a­tive human behav­ior, and com­pletely exag­ger­ate or trans­form it; Dis­trict 9 por­trays how racism dehu­man­izes peo­ple, in a really stark and lit­eral (and thus unfa­mil­iar) way. With­out exist­ing within our own real­ity, how­ever, that lit­eral dehu­man­iza­tion loses some of its power.

If a narrative has this characteristic, but does not adhere to the second, it is very likely fantasy.

4. It is con­cerned with the mate­r­ial nature of human­ity or human society.*

Because science fiction is a literature about science, about the material condition of humanity, it is a well-suited space for authors to explore the anxieties and concerns we feel about our relationship with science and technology. To say science fiction is a “what if” genre ignores this relationship it has with the cultural identity of science; it suggests that science fiction is about prediction, caution, prescription. (“Don’t create a society based on genetic manipulation and bodily fitness!” warns Gattica, while 1984 cautions us on the dangers of the police state. Star Trekshows us a utopian future, which somehow came about with a government run by the military.) This is a shallow way to look at science fiction, which is very rarely any good at predicting the future. What science fiction does do well is give us a glimpse into our cultures’ view of science: what scares us about it, what makes us anxious about it, what excites us about it, what role we think it should play in our society.

***

H. G. Wells’s War of the Worldswas published in 1898, the tail-end of the Victorian era. The 19th century saw a transformation in the culture of science in Britain. Science went from being a gentleman’s hobby, with the “dirty work” done by underappreciated and uncredited middle- and lower-class laborers, to an institutionalized profession, with researchers who got their hands dirty for money, funded by universities and the government. Science fiction of the era was often concerned with the corporeality and dirtiness of science, distrusting the body and the material, as opposed to the cleaner and more rational mind and spirit. The fact that the material of science is detritus (flesh, organs, blood, brains, plant matter, insect corpses, dirt, rock) made science a problematic institution, made more acceptable by removing the gentleman scholar from the material practice of science and limiting him to theoretical work. The fact that observational science relied on the imperfect instruments of the human body (eyes, fingers, skin, eardrums) was also of concern, made more acceptable by supplementing them with machines like microscopes, telescopes, chronometers, daguerreotypes, and scales.

This distrust of the material and the body carried over into anxieties about evolution, which was something much of Wells’s fiction is concerned with, including War, The Time Machine, and The Island of Doctor Moreau. In War of the Worlds and a related piece he published in 1893, “The Man of the Year Million,” Wells suggests that our suspicion of the physical and glorification of the mental could actually lead to the end of humanity as we know it. In “The Man of the Year Million,” a tongue-in-cheek prediction, he argues that

man is the creature of the brain; he will live by intelligence, and not by physical strength, if he live at all. So that much that is purely animal about him is being, and must be, beyond all question, suppressed in his ultimate development.

In the article, he outlines a course of eventual evolution, in which humans will lose much of their bodies, and will end up mere brains, in helpless, useless bodies that consist only of heads and hands.

We notice this decay of the animal part around us now, in the loss of teeth and hair, in the dwindling hands and feet of men, in their smaller jaws, and slighter mouth and ears. Man now does by wit and machinery and verbal agreement what he once did by bodily toil; for once he had to catch his dinner, capture his wife, run away from his enemies, and continually exercise himself, for love of himself, to perform these duties well. But now all this is changed. Cabs, trains, trams, render speed unnecessary, the pursuit of food becomes easier; his wife is no longer hunted, but rather, in view of the crowded matrimonial market, seeks him out. One needs wits now to live, and physical activity is a drug, a snare even; it seeks artificial outlets and overflows in games.

He argues that technological innovation will guide our evolution, and that as we create more ingenious devices to take care of our bodily functions, those functions will cease to be possible in our bodies.

[Man] has a new organ, a mandible not of irreparable tissue, but of bone and steel—a knife and fork. There is no reason why things should stop at partial artificial division thus afforded; there is every reason, on the contrary, to believe my statement that some cunning exterior mechanism will presently masticate and insalivate his dinner, relieve his diminishing salivary glands and teeth, and at last altogether abolish them.

All that will be left of the future human is his brain and his hands, since Wells believed the hands to be “the teacher and interpreter of the brain.” Because Victorians believed that emotions were seated in the body, not the mind, since they were far too messy and not intellectual, Wells also pictured these future humans as emotionless and cruelly self-serving.

And so at last comes a vision of earthly cherubim, hopping heads, great unemotional intelligences, and little hearts, fighting together perforce and fiercely against the cold that grips them tighter and tighter.

It’s a horrifying vision, in which technology and intellect have, through the processes of evolution, done entirely away with the body, empathy, and emotion. It reminds me a bit of the way modern science fiction will romanticize about people becoming pure consciousness in computers or online; we haven’t lost our desire to be rid of the bodies that tie us to the material world, that cry and shit and piss and digest and orgasm and bleed. Our bodies make us uncomfortable, make us feel dirty and vulnerable. But Wells didn’t think that transcending our bodies through evolution was a good thing at all; the vision in “The Man of the Year Million” is purposefully horrifying. And if it wasn’t obvious enough, that vision came back to haunt us in his The War of the Worlds.

All the things that were scary about the future man are what is scary about the Martians in War. They are also great brains, with only eyes and hand-like tentacles. They are vastly intelligent and emotionless. But what is far more terrifying than their inability to feel is their technological prowess. Like the future human, they have replaced their bodies with machines. While Wells only explicitly imagined eating machines in “The Man of the Year Million,” he imagined the Martians as a people with machines instead of bodies, which they can change for the purpose like so many changes of clothes. The machine body we actually see is the spider-like tripod:

A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulate ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of the thunder.

In these machines, the Martians literally eat human bodies; they drain them of their blood for sustenance, like vampires. And Wells draws a direct connection between the lack of a material body and the lack of emotions. Their reliance on technological bodies makes them capable of escaping emotions altogether. By pairing War with “The Man of the Year Million,” we can see that Wells is trying to flesh out a fear that the end-point of human evolution is the destruction of the human body and thus of emotion, compassion, and morality. By valuing intellect, science, and technology, we could lose our humanity. Corporeality, Wells suggests, is a constitutive part of humanity, and the use of the machine to overcome the limits of the body could lead to a loss of our compassionate natures. Wells values the human body and its material nature, the way that our bodies cause us to depend on one another, the way that our bodies tie us to the world we live in.

***

Okay! So why am I talking so much about Wells’s Martians? Because I think the Daleks were modeled after the Martians.** After all, they’re bodiless brains who lack all emotion and compassion, and they have replaced organic bodies with machine ones. They even look like the Martians: gray, gross, and full of tentacles.

Kaled_mutant

The machine body comes apart to reveal the organic body of a Dalek, from the “Dalek” episode of Doctor Who. The Dalek is a mucous-covered, gray mass, with a brain at the top and multiple tentacles at the bottom. He has one eye. Source.

Unlike the Martians, the Daleks are genocidal, but their inability to feel compassion, coupled with their cyborg nature, makes them dead ringers. (The Martians were actually kind of scary in part because they didn’t hate humans. We were merely in their way as they colonized a new planet. Cold fuckers, those Martians.)

But, I still don’t think the Daleks are scary, because I think they are poorly executed versions of the Martians. A lot of the things that made the Martians frightening are missing from the Daleks, in particular their machine bodies. Like the Dalekanium body of the Daleks, the Martians are hard to kill or disable. But that’s where the comparison seems to end. The small Dalek machines are slow and clunky, whereas the Martian machines are terrifyingly huge, fast, and efficient.

  Woking_tripod

A shiny 23-foot statue of the Martian tripod machine from Wells’s War of the Worlds. This sculpture was designed by Michael Condron and is located in Woking, Surrey in England. The design is true to the source, with a small body, two metal tentacles, and three long, flexible, mobile jointed legs. This thing would own the Daleks. Source.

The Martians were also quite alien and removed; for all the hate the Daleks seem to spend on the Doctor and the rest of the universe, they sure do talk to them a lot. The Martians never bothered to communicate with the humans, because the humans were food. It’d be like if we started having conversations with cows. The Daleks spend so much wasted time and energy on talking to the Doctor and his companions. The Daleks obviously don’t think they’re thatsuperior to us, or they wouldn’t bother communicating. Communication necessitates seeing another being as something on (about) the same level as you; it creates a connection between the communicators. And the excessive amount of communication between the Doctor/humans and the Daleks makes the Daleks feel less threatening.

And as a viewer of only NuWho, I’m starting to wonder how the Daleks got powerful in the first place. The advantages of being a brain in a machine is supposed to be that you’re smart. But the Daleks seem pretty stupid a lot of the time. They waste time talking and scheming. They get fooled by jammie dodgers. They get captured by rich morons. They spend more time yelling EXTERMINATE than they do actually killing people.

The Daleks just don’t do it for me the way the Martians do. They don’t have the cruel, heartless grace, the efficient killing and maneuvering power. They don’t feel alien and utterly unintelligible.

The Martian model makes it clear that the Daleks could have been frightening. But they simply weren’t well-executed, and lack the terror of Wells’s Martians.

______________

* (This definition, altered slightly, originally appeared in my post on Eli.) You’ll notice I don’t have any­thing about tech­nol­ogy in this def­i­n­i­tion, and that is for a rea­son. While most people’s con­cep­tions of sci­ence fic­tion have a big focus on tech­nol­ogy, I find that focus prob­lem­atic. This kind of def­i­n­i­tion is invested in the idea that old tech­nolo­gies are not tech­nolo­gies that mat­ter (in the sense that we no longer think of them as tech­nolo­gies) or count in sci­ence fic­tion. But it is wrong to sug­gest that books, pens, print­ing presses, chairs, cars, scis­sors, cameras, alarm clocks, DVD play­ers, elec­tric lights, laun­dry deter­gent, air­planes, ad nau­seum are not tech­nolo­gies that sig­nif­i­cantly shape the human con­di­tion in many parts of the world.

** Thanks to Amy Montz for originating this idea!

______________

Works Cited

Wells, H. G. “The Man of the Year Million.” Pall Mall Gazette6 November 1893: 3.

Wells, H. G. The War of the Worlds. 1898. Ed. Martin A. Danahay. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2003.

8 comments

  1. Mossy says:

    Two excellent pieces.

    However, even growing up on Classic Who where the Daleks were arguably less scary than they are now (couldn’t climb stairs until Remembrance) I still found them at least creepy.

    And (spoilers if you haven’t been to the Doctor Who Experience)
    when I went to the Doctor Who experience, while it was still in London, and the Dalek came out in front of me and then I realised there were two behind me my instant reaction was to scream.

    And I’m thirty five.

  2. Ritch Ludlow says:

    Dude, I grew up around that statue in Woking!

  3. I hadn’t come across the Wells piece before about human evolution. Interesting thought, to paraphrase Pogo: “We have met the Dalek and he is us.”

  4. ravenshrike says:

    The Daleks are scary because they fought the timelords to a standstill and(from what I’ve picked up) forced the Doctor to commit genocide upon his race and theirs. Except the genocide never sticks with them. They keep coming back. They’re the evil cockroaches of the universe.

  5. Sean says:

    The Dalek’s aren’t scary — how they are written is. These creatures are an unstoppable force. It’s like a city overrun with Zombies. A single zombie isn’t really scary, but an army kind of is. It’s the idea of hopelessness. Laughable hopelessness, and the horror that this ridiculous thing you ridiculed is going to end you, and you don’t even understand how.

    They aren’t really scary until you see them survive, again and again and again, and you see them overrun a planet.

    You have to buy into the legend that’s part of the story.

    But it’s true, the fact that they are talking trash can makes them a stupidly fun enemy. If you can’t buy into the unstoppable force bit, I can see how it could be hard to get into a Dalek story.

    • I’m finding these, “But, no, the Daleks ARE scary! You just have to understand them” comments kind of weird. If you have to give me some sort of logical explanation for why a villain is scary, then they’re not scary. I could buy the “legend” if the Daleks appeared to be capable of the things they’ve been accredited with. If they didn’t act like awkward morons with a strain of sentimentality.

      Also, the zombies comparison is perfect, because the use of zombies shows how it’s possible to have a villain that’s silly, funny, AND scary. Zombies have been really successful in a way the Daleks aren’t.

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