Doctor Who bosses on the power of the Daleks – and why they’ve changed them for 2021

Huw Fullerton talks to Chris Chibnall and Matt Strevens about the iconic Daleks.

Doctor Who

With the baleful glow of an eyestalk, the menacing brandish of an egg-whisk and the whirring glide of metal skirts, the Daleks are back – though, of course, in many ways since their 1963 debut they’ve never really gone anywhere. “No question, they’re a part of British culture – they’re like the Mini of Doctor Who. You can keep updating them but the brilliant design endures,” reflects head writer and showrunner Chris Chibnall.

Advertisement

“Even if you don’t know much about Doctor Who, everyone knows the Daleks,” adds executive producer Matt Strevens. “It’s a kind of communal sense memory that has cemented their importance, and it goes right back to their first appearance.”

The Daleks were a controversial addition to Doctor Who when first proposed in 1963, with series creator Sydney Newman unhappy about “bug-eyed monsters” featuring in what he imagined would be an educational, non-sensationalised children’s show. But in the end, Terry Nation’s story – the second of William Hartnell’s debut series – and Raymond Cusick’s sleek design went down in history. Arguably, without the Daleks there may not still be Doctor Who at all – like Star Wars and Darth Vader, the series was only as successful as its greatest villains.

“A lot of people would say that the Daleks saved Doctor Who, that it was only with their introduction that people sat up and noticed,” says Strevens. “They immediately became something children could play in the playground.  I think it starts there, and it was just hard-wired into the show and the nation’s consciousness. To use a Dalek expression, they became supreme!”

Fifty-seven years on and the Daleks are more recognisable than ever, icons of British design that have popped up in movies and TV shows from Sesame Street to the “Evil British Robots” of The Lego Batman Movie, plus computer games and comics around the world. However, pinning down exactly what makes them such an enduring classic is tricky. Is it just their omnipresence in the series? Their catchphrase? The sink plunger? Or something more nebulous?

“There’s an incredible dissonance between what’s on the outside and what’s on the inside with the Daleks – they’re obviously faceless, but they’ve got huge personalities,” says Chibnall. “They’re also merciless killers, which is very helpful, in a villain and an antagonist. And they have great voices and a great thing that they say when they kill people – ‘Exterminate!’ They got it right from the start.” They’re clearly amazingly resilient, adds Strevens. “Think of all the gags that used to be chucked at them before we had better CG technology and VFX, not being able to go upstairs and all that kind of thing.”

Chibnall acknowledges, “They’ve sort of seen those jokes out, and they’ve carried on. They’re just great. It’s a great idea, a great design – conceptually, there’s lots to interrogate about them. They bring story. So there are so many reasons they’ve endured, really.”

Despite a few cosmetic upgrades, the overall Dalek silhouette has changed little over the decades. “They were inspired by ballerina dresses floating across opera stages, and salt-and-pepper pots,” says Strevens. “They’ve become a part of British culture that’s transcended their role as an alien or a villain in a sci-fi TV show.”

Doctor Who poster
Picture Shows: The Doctor (JODIE WHITTAKER), Captain Jack Harkness (JOHN BARROWMAN), Graham O’Brien (BRADLEY WALSH), Yasmin Khan (MANDIP GILL), Ryan Sinclair (TOSIN COLE), Daleks.

Having resisted using old villains in his first year in charge, Chibnall hid a Dalek ace up his sleeve for a surprise return in 2019’s New Year special Resolution. Now they’re back in force in the upcoming festive special Revolution of the Daleks, which, he says, is simultaneously a stand-alone episode and a sequel to that previous encounter. “I kept to using just one Dalek in Resolution because they’re powerful things singly anyway, so that’s fun just to be able to give one that space. But also I was planning to bring them back in greater numbers for this episode.”

Strevens adds: “We knew that when we said goodbye to the Reconnaissance Dalek, when it was jettisoned out of the Tardis doors into a supernova at the end of Resolution, that that would not be the end of it. Chris already had the idea of this return, that the next time we see the Daleks, it’d be straight into a sort of origin story for the version in our era of the series.”

Despite Chibnall and Strevens’s belief that you change the Dalek design “at your peril”, they have had a bit of a visual revamp (see previous page). The new-look Dalek is set apart from both the bronze-looking models used primarily in the series since 2005 and the battered, home-made Dalek that Chibnall and Strevens introduced in 2019.

Radio Times subscriptions

“We wanted something sleek, shiny and powerful, and slightly different from any Dalek you’ve seen before,” says Chibnall. “There’s always a pressure when you refresh any Doctor Who monster. But equally that’s part of the job and that’s part of what keeps it new and interesting.”

Past redesigns have been controversial; an attempt to introduce hulking, multicoloured “New Paradigm” Daleks in 2010 led to fans dubbing them “Teletubby Daleks”, and they were quietly retired. The current team are cautious this time and Chibnall emphasises that this new pretender isn’t looking to unseat any older model.

“You’re never replacing what’s gone before, you’re just adding a new variant. It’s just this story is about these black and red Daleks, which light up at night and do all sorts of things.”

Strevens concurs. “You want to contemporise them, and make them hold up to scrutiny under modern filming techniques, and to look as high-end as you possibly can. You can’t stray too far from the classic design – but then what can you do within that? How can you make them feel different, and relevant, and sexy, and lethal as well?”

Presumably, the top-secret storyline of Revolution of the Daleks will answer some of these questions – Chibnall notes it’s difficult to talk too much about the new design “without spoilers” – though leaked set photos suggest that this new-look Dalek might end up meeting some older models in a battle for design supremacy.

Revolution of the Daleks
The November 2020 Doctor Who preview issue of Radio Times

Meanwhile, Chibnall and Strevens are already looking to the future. Filming kicked off this November on series 13, which will feature eight episodes rather than the usual 11 (ten plus a special), owing to the curtailing effect of coronavirus restrictions. (By happy accident, the festive special was filmed in late 2019 before the first lockdown.)

“Basically, for the past six months we’ve been going, ‘How do we make Doctor Who in the middle of a pandemic?’ ” says Chibnall. “We had to re-interrogate absolutely everything. We couldn’t do [2020’s globetrotting New Year’s Day episode] Spyfall this year. We won’t be able to do overseas filming. Editorially, production-wise, logistically, health and safety-wise, it’s had a massive impact. But where we are is incredibly exciting. As much as possible at the moment everybody’s smiling, and we’ve got some really lovely, great, mad, scary ideas.”

Strevens says the team is committed to delivering what fans want – no scaled-back Zoom-focused episodes for this BBC juggernaut. “The biggest thing is that when series 13 finally does air, whenever that is, we never want people to watch it under a caveat of COVID, going, ‘Ah, well, but they made this during the pandemic.’ We want to make sure that when you watch it, it’s – no pun intended – timeless, and feels as exciting and as high-end as we’ve tried to make the series since we took over. That was the driving impulse behind looking at the narratives and reducing the number of episodes slightly: we want to make sure we can give people the biggest production values possible.”

Since its inception, the show has battled with matching writers’ imaginations to TV budgets and this is no exception. “The history of Doctor Who is the history of challenges and production problems, and the team’s rising to that,” Chibnall says. “Obviously, every day is unknown. Who knows what the world’s going to be like in three weeks or three months? But I think we’re all going to want a big dose of Doctor Who escapism, and that’s what we’re aiming for – to bring a smile to people’s faces. And also a bit of dread in their hearts for monsters.”

And could that upcoming pack of terrifying yet oddly comforting baddies feature a certain skirted killing machine from the planet Skaro? Chibnall’s not telling – though he promises there will be some familiar faces. “Yes, more monsters are coming back,” he teases. “There are ones who’ve appeared over the past 15 years that are deserving of another visit in the next series. In fact, they’re probably formulating their plans as we speak…”

Advertisement

Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks airs New Years Day on BBC One. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide.

This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide.