Don’t retire the Daleks, just make them threatening

Doctor Who’s iconic nemesis is trundling towards extinction, and it isn’t because of overuse… but because of misuse.

Twitter erupted into a twitrage earlier today when Doctor Who’s chief Whooverer of plot threads, Steven Moffat, made the perfectly uncontroversial announcement that he was giving the Daleks a break from this season. As testament to Who’s considerable cultural clout, the revelation that “They aren’t going to make an appearance for a while” and “We thought it was about time to give them a rest” was considered newsworthy by the English-speaking world.

The overreaction is such that twelve hours later Daleks is still trending, and those born without perspective have been filling awkward minutes of rolling news with soundbytes about their iconic status. Moffat tweeted in frustration, “Daleks: I was talking about THIS series. Stand down.”

Nobody listened.

Whether or not the Daleks need a break isn’t really that important, because they’re in urgent need of so much more. They need to be scary again and here are the three urgent steps which need to be taken:

1. Let them win

On of the key differences between New Who and Old Who is the former’s reliance on our world, a world that is recognisably ours, not one set fifteen minutes into the future like that of the Seventies UNIT stories. This gives it great power and mass appeal – we like things set in our world, because we live there. But it also means that any lasting impact has to be neatly tidied away – often involving universal retcons, memory wipes and other narrative rationalisation necessary to preserve the status quo, so our favourite little blue box can wheeze its way back into an anonymous South London estate or Welsh village next Saturday night without having the worry about all the Autons, Cybermen, Silurians and the like still running around tripping over each other, blasting laser beams over the topiary.

Old Who was a different kettle of Sea Devils entirely, continuity was as optional as trunks at a nudist beach and stories were less reliant on recurring characters and locations – the Third Doctor’s early Earth adventures notwithstanding. What this meant for the Daleks though was a bodycount that would make Adolf Eichman’s eyes water, a world in smoking ruin, mankind enslaved, experimented upon or exterminated. We need to see what these beings are truly capable of before we learn to fear them.

Very rarely did Old Who offer up anything as clean cut and satisfying as total victory for the Doctor, though that’s become one of the hallmarks of the new series. In ‘Genesis Of The Daleks’, the Fourth Doctor is offered a chance to destroy the Daleks outright – smother them in their evolutionary cot – but he emerges from the serial merely having set back their evolution by degrees, having to take solace in the fact that he’s saved countless billions who will never know they’ve been saved, and sacrificed a billion more who will die under the relentless advance of the Dalek war machine regardless.

Show us a future Earth in their thrall, or a far off colony under siege – show us a scenario where all that counts for victory is rescuing a handful of survivors from beneath the treads of Skaro’s space-age blitzkrieg  – and we’ll show you the pale faces of our sleepless children, and the designated safe zone behind the sofa.

2. Make them look evil

The latest redesign of the Daleks, for 2010’s nonsensical ‘Victory Of The Daleks’, was pretty much as far as that classic design could go with the asthetics of New Who. The original Daleks were a sleek classic, but with the advent of colour they took on a near-Nazi menace – all gun metal greys and blacks, backed by black, leather clad stormtroopers. Circa 2010, they look like children should be riding them gleefully through the front doors of the Early Learning Centre.

The Daleks, at the peak of their menace, were the story of a race driven to literal, physical inhumanity by their mechanical, merciless thirst for perfection, dominance and power. Follow the allegory back to its source, and look to history for design tips on how to make the Daleks visually effective again.

3. Make them decisive

This is a criticism that’s as relevant to Old Who (no sacred cows in this farm) as it is to New, far too often do the galaxy’s most effective military force spend their on-screen time barking empty rhetoric at the Doctor, threatening to kill hostages, or advancing on people to kill them with such glacial speed that their stunned prey are able to be pulled away. That’s really not how wars are fought, or countries invaded – that’s the sort of thing that Eighties cartoons relied on.

If you want to use the Daleks sparingly, then make them ruthlessly efficient as well. Use your glorious new CGI and high end budget and have them burst through walls, launch orbital bombardments without provocation and for Rassilon’s sake, stop having them broadcast their intentions like an old man mumbling to himself at the bus stop.