It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Ever since Doctor Who first aired in 1963, the series has been internationally recognisable thanks to one of the most ridiculous space-creatures ever conceived; a master race of intergalactic pepperpots, armed with a sink plunger and an egg whisk, who (according to popular mythology), are hell-bent on conquering anywhere, provided it doesn’t involve stairs.
But don’t let that fool you. For more than 45 years, the Doctor’s arch-enemies, the Daleks, have been striking fear into young viewers with their chilling war-cry of “Exterminate!”. Like the Doctor himself, they have become an icon of British culture. For many, hiding behind the sofa when they appear is virtually a rite of passage.
Now, with the new season of Doctor Who nearly upon us, a Cambridge University academic has turned his mind to what makes the Daleks so terrifying. Writing in a new paper, Dr Robin Bunce – normally a researcher in intellectual history – explores why these unlikeliest of sci-fi foes bettered the rest, and became the most menacing alien ever to invade the small screen.
His answer has nothing to do with their often-cited, non-human appearance, nor their weird, electronic voices. In fact, Dr Bunce believes that the Daleks succeed because they offer us a moral lesson in what it means to be human in the first place. They terrify us because the evil they represent is a more precise definition than that of philosophers stretching from Socrates to Kant. They are chilling, he argues, because they are a vision of what we ourselves might become.
“The reason the Daleks are evil is because we recognise that they were once better,” Dr Bunce explained. “They are the nightmare future we dread.”