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TGT Debate – Are The Daleks Still Scary?

Last week we debated whether there should be fewer stories set on Earth. With a majority of 88% voting yes, clearly Whovians want to see more of the universe.

This week we’re looking at Doctor Who‘s most infamous villains, the Daleks. Having been in the show from the beginning way back in 1963, the Daleks have become not only an iconic part of the show, but legends in British culture. But are they still scary? After 52 years can they still have the same fear factor that they once did? Let’s find out.

“The Daleks are still scary!” argues Louis

‘Scariness’ is an extremely subjective word – some people are scared by mundane objects, others are scared of ghosts, and some people aren’t scared of much at all. Therefore, I don’t really believe that anyone can truly say that the Daleks are no longer scary – after all, Doctor Who has a sizeable fanbase under the age of ten, and, for all I know, these younger fans could be terrified of the Daleks currently.

As for why I believe the Daleks are still scary – I will certainly agree that the colourful Daleks were a misstep, but their following appearance in Asylum of the Daleks was a thrillingly well-executed course correction for the pepperpots. I believe that it disproved Ben’s point about a group being less threatening than a sole Dalek – in Asylum, when the Doctor was trapped in the asylum’s infirmary, the group of waking Daleks conjured a tension that not many monsters could match. In Time of the Doctor, they’re absolutely just cannon fodder for the Doctor to take out – but it’s notable that the Daleks were even selected for that role in the first place, suggesting that a Dalek is perhaps the best monster to conjure a sense of threat and fear when it’s needed, showing just how outmatched the Doctor was before his regeneration.

In their next proper story, Into the Dalek, the Daleks may not have incurred the visceral fear factor of before, but the exploration of a Dalek’s psyche yielded some genuinely strong psychological horror. The Daleks aren’t just scary because of their looks and voice – the idea of a nihilistic tank bent on indiscriminate destruction and death is a frightening one, and I believe that Into the Dalek exploited that inherently unnerving concept very well, displaying a facet of the Daleks that can actually be much scarier than more ‘in your face’ horror. They might not be scary to look at any more, but the enduring characterisation of the monsters is an undeniably chilling one – and that’s something that can’t just wear off.

As for the complaint that they have become overused – yes, they appear frequently, but these frequent appearances allow the creators to home in on what works with a Dalek story. If they were only used infrequently, the lessons learned from the previous story may be forgotten, leaving the possibility open that the next Dalek story could just repeat the same storytelling errors. It’s potentially why while Steven Moffat’s era began with a relatively poor story in Victory of the Daleks, after frequent usage of the foes, the Dalek stories now produced are far more entertaining and display a better understanding of the monsters. Would these improvements be noticeable if the Daleks were only used every 2-3 series?

In short, though some stories are better than others, I believe that the recent Dalek stories have shown an encouraging uptick in quality, using the villains to better effect and recovering the fear factor of the older Dalek stories.

“The Daleks aren’t scary anymore!” argues Ben

The trouble with Daleks is, they take so long to say anything. Probably die of boredom before they shoot me.

The real argument for me is: were Daleks ever scary? Let me give you a bit of an insight into my fear levels when watching Doctor Who. There has only ever been one character that has had me truly scared. One monster that scared the willies out of me and gave me nightmares. Any ideas? Yes, it was of course the Empty Child from 2005’s The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. Man, that little freak terrified me. It was 4 years before I could watch the two-part episode in its entirety because I was too scared by it. I think it wasn’t helped by the fact the next day I saw a little blonde haired boy in massive swimming goggles walking around the pool asking “Mommy! Where’s my mommy?!” But to my eternal shame, that is the only time Who has scared me. Cybermen, meh. Zygons, funny. Weeping Angels, interesting. But Daleks are a different matter. They can be scary. But recently, I’ve become less afraid of the Daleks.

Looking back at some of the early episodes, Daleks were an inspired creation. The iconic design meant that the casing hides any expressions. Their lack of emotions is mentally disturbing and their merciless destruction means that unlike some monsters, they will kill you. So what went wrong? There have been a few things recently that have softened the Daleks.

Firstly, the colourful ‘new paradigm’ Daleks, first introduced in Victory of the Daleks. What a flop they were. Yes it’s nice to update the Daleks every now and then, and aside from the black Dalek Sec (Army of Ghosts/Doomsday) and the Supreme Dalek (The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End) there were no significant changes, so it made sense to give them a bit of an upgrade. But the new design lost the magic of the Daleks (a possible episode title perhaps?) by removing the hard edges, making them bulky and colourful. The Dalek design works because it’s metal, which is cold and strong. A bright orange plastic Dalek doesn’t look scary. It’s not surprising then that the bronze Daleks were brought back a few episodes later.

Also, it seems to me, when there are more Daleks, they’re less threatening. One Dalek is a lone survivor, ready to do anything and kill anyone to keep itself alive. In Dalek, the single Dalek kills dozens of people and you genuinely get the feeling that it will be the only living thing at the end of the episode. But a whole room full of them just makes me think “There’s hundreds of them, why doesn’t one of them just shoot the Doctor?” Hundreds of Daleks flying over Trenzalore in Time of the Doctor, but not one of them managed to aim close enough to hit the Doctor. It’s this kind of farting around that makes me see them as just ‘another monster’ that we know won’t win.

But it’s not just the characters themselves that are changing, it’s the people watching the show. These days, kids are used to violence, blood, gore and horror on TV. So when they see tin robots trundling along the screen, they’re not really going to be that scared. The Daleks work so well because of, for want of a better word, their minimalism. The faceless robot with no emotions that slowly glides towards you but could destroy you in an instant with just one quick *zap*. But now we’re getting massive armies of Daleks firing away aimlessly on Trenzalore or Gallifrey.

The use of the Daleks over 51 years has also weakened them. The Daleks have appeared in no less than 30 stories, and with every defeat it proves that the Daleks are not invincible. Like the Doctor, we know their weaknesses. We have become used to the Daleks, not only through the show, but Dalek toys and games. It’s hard to be terrified of something when you have half a dozen 5” versions of them on your shelf. We know there’s a man inside and we know that no writer is ever going to have a Dalek kill the Doctor or one of his companions stone dead, so there’s no need to worry about them.

Overall, I think the Daleks have become an overused enemy in the show, to the point where they have lost their initial scariness and appeal. I think we need something drastic, like killing off a much loved character, to reassert the Daleks as the most dangerous beings in the universe.
So, you’ve heard what we think, but what’s your opinion? Vote in the poll below whether you think the Daleks are still scary and leave your comments below.