Tonight the Doctor went into the most dangerous place in the universe: into a Dalek. Inside, he found corridors, a radiation leak and a load of pesky antibodies. Yet if Peter Capaldi had ever been tempted to venture into the actual Dalek on set, what he would have found would have been quite different: a man called Barnaby Edwards, who describes operating the deadliest villain in the whole of time and space as “sitting on an office chair and sticking a dustbin on your head.”
Edwards, alongside Nicholas Pegg, has been principle operator of the Daleks since the series returned in 2005. What that generally entails is pulling the Dalek along with your feet (much like a Flintstones car) while operating other elements such as the plunger and its weapon. It is, Edwards insists, not an easy task.
“Without sounding too pretentious,” he explains. “It’s just like any other performance. It’s a role that you have to play and make work. That’s why they still have people inside them and they’re not automated, because it isn’t easy to make this 20 stone hunk of fibre glass, metal and wood appear to be a living, breathing creature… Pretty much all of the Dalek operators come from a sort of dance background. It does require incredibly strong legs — we’ve all got fantastic calf muscles.”
“It’s all about the tiny movements,” he continues. “Approaching, moving back.. But there’s a lot of stillness and menace involved. We sort of found over the years that the bigger your movements are the less threatening you are, so we’ll go through our scripts and I’ll mark up when we’re going to do the head turns and things. And it’s all about the delays on those and which lines you turn to pay attention to. As Rusty in [Into The Dalek], I was very specific on when I was going to look at Jenna Coleman and when I was going to look at Peter. So, yeah, it’s like the weirdest puppet job ever.”
Edwards has worked with every Doctor since the show’s revival, but Into The Dalek was his first time acting opposite super-fan Peter Capaldi, who has confessed his love of the Daleks many times before. Was he excited?
“Yes! He did that sort of hopping from one foot to the other with excitement dance, especially when he first saw the Dalek. He was very good, and he knew who I was, he knew who [voice of the Daleks] Nicholas Briggs was before we’d even introduced ourselves.He knows the tone of Doctor Who. He was very, very aware that it was his Doctor’s first episode with a Dalek. Not just Peter Capaldi with a Dalek, it was his Doctor’s encounter with his first Dalek in this regeneration. And he wanted to get it exactly right tonally for his Doctor.”
Edwards is not the only one who operates a single Dalek. Alongside him actually being inside, it also takes another operator to time its lights, and the voice of the Daleks, Briggs, to work in perfect balance with each other. This means that a lot of rehearsal is necessary – a lot of surreal rehearsal.
“It is quite confusing for other actors,” Edwards explains, “because they’ve got to work with three people, basically, all playing the same character.It’s a slightly unusual set-up and because we don’t rehearse within the Dalek, it’s me standing there with Nick Briggs either behind me or to the side of me doing the voice… And it’s slightly weird for other actors to do that, as I do these dead robotic stares…”
“But I have to do that, because if we have the anamatronic head, I don’t control the anamatronic head, so I have to do what the head should be, so that’s why they hire me as an actor – to interpret the script and do the moves that I would naturally do as a performer. And that’s why they’re not just getting a radio control guy to do it. So I have to do what the Dalek will actually do, so turn when he wants to turn, and move the eye-stalk and things like that. So I have to do the full performance outside, which makes me a bit like Robocop when I get into Dalek mode.”
And how did Capaldi find that? Did it ruin the magic a bit?
“No! He said he thought he might laugh but then he could see how it all worked, and he really loved it which was very nice. We first started doing that with David Tennant, we did it for a bit with Christopher Eccleston, but we did it properly with Tennant and then for the whole of Matt Smith, we got right into the Dalek right at the last minute just before they shot. Matt absolutely loved working with the human side of the Dalek rather than the actual prop.”