Daleks are almost as iconic to Doctor Who as the TARDIS itself – even if you don’t watch the show, it’s likely you still recognize the bumpy pepper pots with the plunger and egg beater for arms. They appeared in the second story of the show as the main protagonist, and they captured the imagination of the viewing audience, as a powerful, inexorable enemy. Every Doctor has battled them (the Eighth Doctor did not meet them on television), some more often than others. And even when they’re defeated and wiped from the universe, they always find a way to return.
Daleks are the monster of all of the Doctor Who monsters. Others, notably the Cybermen, return and menace the Doctor, but nothing is as horrible as a Dalek, and nothing else brings out the Doctor’s hatred and anger quite as well. And yet, they’re starting to get passé, simply because they appear so often. Every series of the modern show except Series 6 has at least one story in which the Daleks – the race that was supposedly completely destroyed – are the main antagonists. Some viewers have suggested that it’s time to leave the Daleks behind, that they’re overused and no longer interesting. Is that true?
I posit that honestly, the Daleks themselves were never interesting. They are a completely lawful species, with a strict hierarchy and very well-defined thought pattern: Daleks are perfect, and kill everything that is not Dalek. There’s only so far a writer can go with that.
So what is it that makes some of the Dalek episodes so good? It’s not the Daleks themselves. It’s the reaction of the other characters to them that makes the story. “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” is all about how a small group of resistance fighters works to throw off the Dalek masters, and how David and Susan’s romance blossoms in the midst of this. The brilliance of “Genesis of the Daleks” is due to the moral dilemma facing the Doctor: can he commit genocide knowing the horrors that the Daleks will perpetrate if he doesn’t? “Destiny of the Daleks” explored the limitations of logic, as two purely logical races faced off against each other. “Remembrance of the Daleks” showed off the manipulative nature of the Seventh Doctor as he subtly maneuvered two factions of Daleks into destroying their own homeworld.
This trend continues into the modern show. The genius of “Dalek” is in the contrast between the Doctor’s and Rose’s reactions to the Dalek’s existence, the experienced warrior and the innocent. It also explored the concept of Dalek corruption, becoming less Dalek and more human, something explored further in “Daleks in Manhattan”/”Evolution of the Daleks” (a story which, if you can ignore the pig slaves and the rather ridiculous design of Dalek Sec, is actually rather fantastic, and showcases the only modern Doctor who doesn’t actually hate the Daleks). “The Stolen Earth”/”Journey’s End” deals with what the Doctor has become after battling against the Daleks and the other evils of the universe for so long. And “Asylum of the Daleks” has the Doctor for once dealing with Daleks who are not his enemy, and in fact are asking for his help.
That’s where the Daleks shine: when the story uses the ultimate evil that they represent to tell a story about themes in reaction to them. As a counterexample, look at “Army of Ghosts”/”Doomsday”. This is a fine episode, but really is only well-regarded because of the concept of Daleks and Cyberman trash-talking and battling each other and the final scene at Darlig ulv Stranden. Otherwise, the story simply has the Cybermen and Daleks appearing and the Doctor being powerless to stop them from tearing the planet apart until he comes up with the idea of sucking them into the Void. He, as well the audience, learns nothing new from this experience.
The appearance of Daleks in the show usually promises an action-packed episode with lots of robotic screaming, laser shots, and deaths, but their real strength as enemies is that against them, the Doctor explores deeper themes and learns more about himself and his companions. There’s always the danger of too much of anything, but as long as the Daleks can continue to bring out these complex storylines and intriguing questions and conflicts, then they’re still perfect for Doctor Who.