Dalek in the OED: revision is not impaired
In April, we took a trip forwards in time (using our own dimensionally transcendent blue time capsule, the Oxford English Dictionary) in order to give you a sneak preview of our new entry for sonic screwdriver, which is published in this week’s OED Online update. For this update, we’ve also popped backwards in time to reconsider another Doctor Who icon which rolled onto British TV screens in 1963 and first appeared on the pages of the OED less than ten years later: Dalek.
Robot, or not?
By the time Robert Burchfield, editor of the OED Supplement oversaw the addition of an entry for Dalek between Dalecarlian and Daliesque in 1972, the British public had experienced nine years of ‘Dalekmania’, with seven Doctor Who stories revolving round the fascistic pepperpots, two Dalek movies, countless Dalek toys and comics, and even a novelty Christmas single. That the Supplement’s lexicographers weren’t active fans of what was still seen by most people as a children’s programme is perhaps not surprising, and neither is the fact that that first OED entry made an assertion which might be considered contentious or inaccurate in the eyes of a true Whovian: it described the mutated remnants of the Kaled race in their armoured travel machines as robots.
(But such confusion is, perhaps, forgivable after all, even in the Whoniverse: the colonists of the planet Vulcan mistook the Daleks for robot servants in with positronic brains in the second Doctor’s first adventure, Power of the Daleks, and even the Doctor himself wasn’t above such a slip: in 1979’s Destiny of the Daleks, the fourth Doctor describes his second-best enemies as a race of robots no better than their android foes, the Movellans.)
Our newly revised entry clears up that misunderstanding, and digs into the conflicting accounts of the formation of the name Dalek itself (Terry Nation once claimed to have been inspired by the spine of an encyclopaedia showing the volume’s range of contents as Dal–Lek, but later admitted that he’d made this up). It also expands on just how (and how quickly) the word Dalek escaped from the Doctor Who universe to take on wider significance in – especially British – English.
Gliding to domination… of the ground floor
In British popular culture (and especially to the die-hard Doctor Who fan) Daleks are so familiar that they have – perhaps – lost all of the novelty and much of the menace that made them such a hit with viewers in the 1960s. Repeated defeat by the Doctor, combined with widespread use by cartoonists and parodists outside of the Whoniverse, has ensured that Daleks are now as likely to be the butt of a joke as they are to provoke fear; a meme widely circulated on social media after the recent shock UK General Election result used a gif of a Dalek exploding after being pushed out of a warehouse window, taken from the 1984 story, Resurrection of the Daleks.
The memory of ageing props trundling unsteadily over terrain considerably rougher than the gleaming corridors of the Dalek home planet Skaro (or of the studios of BBC Television Centre) in the 1970s and 1980s has certainly lessened the impact of a feature of the Daleks which seems to have struck viewers of their earliest outings most forcibly: the way they moved. The earliest quotations in our newly revised entry that are not taken from Doctor Who itself all show how the Daleks have silently glided from television and movie screens into the popular consciousness. Terry Nation was famously inspired by a performance by the Georgian State Ballet, in which dancers in full-length skirts appeared to glide smoothly and silently across the stage, while designer Raymond Cusick moved salt and pepper shakers across the table in the BBC canteen to demonstrate how the creatures might move on screen. The impact of this uncanny and distinctively non-humanoid movement in the Daleks’ earliest outings can be judged by how quickly the aliens became synonymous with smooth and silent movement.
In 1965, an advertisement in the pages of The Times, for a company manufacturing deionized water used in batteries, sang the praises of the electric milk float:
Before the average internal combustion engine utters its early morning coughs, the milk floats are out in their thousands. See how they run—you can’t hear them! They carry their drivers with tyre-hissing ease, or roll obediently before or behind them like domesticated Daleks.
Our first evidence for the adjectival derivative Dalek-like comes from the following year, when a reporter for the Disc and Music Echo visited the Top of the Pops studio and saw ‘enormous Dalek-like cameras slid[ing] back and forth’. Our first evidence for extended use of the adjective Dalek appeared the previous year, when a critic reviewing a London transfer of the RSC’s production of Hamlet starring David Warner, observed that the ghost ‘now‥walks rather unsteadily on two legs instead of rolling uncannily with a Dalek gait’.
The downside of this ‘uncanny’ glide was perhaps first made obvious in 1981, when Punch published a cartoon by ‘Birkett’, showing a group of Daleks with visible casters at the bottom of a staircase, captioned ‘Well, this certainly buggers our plans to conquer the Universe.’ Doctor Who writers and producers have done their best to rise above this small problem for Skaro’s master-race, showing Daleks hovering up flights of stairs in both 1988’s Remembrance of the Daleks and (with the self-parodying self-command, ‘ELEVATE!’) in 2005’s Dalek. Nevertheless, Birkett’s image, and the fact that Daleks still can’t literally climb stairs, has stuck: in revising this entry I approached an OED bibliographer with the words ‘I’m having trouble with Daleks’, and she replied, quick as a flash, ‘Surely you can just run up some stairs?!’
Exterminating the opposition
We learned in the 1975 story Genesis of the Daleks that the Kaled scientist Davros genetically engineered the ‘little green blobs in bonded polycarbide armour’ which became the Daleks to be without feelings or emotions, other than hatred of all other species and the desire to crush them. Taking his inspiration partly from the fascist authoritarian movements (especially Nazism) of Europe in the mid-twentieth century, Terry Nation made his creations an archetype of ruthless cruelty and Nietzschean will to power, their grating, ring-modulated voices – growing ever shriller as they attack or run into trouble – the perfect expression of their humourlessness and overriding hatred of everything non-Dalek.
As a result, in Britain, it’s probably possible to formulate a variant of Godwin’s Law in which a comparison to a Dalek becomes more likely to be made the longer a political debate or critique of authority goes on. Such comparisons certainly started early: in 1966 Hugh (now Baron) Dykes addressed the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool, alleging that the then Labour Defence Secretary Dennis Healey was ‘the Dalek of defence, pointing a metal finger at the armed forces and saying “We will eliminate [sic] you.”’ Elsewhere in our revised OED entry, fears are raised about ‘Dalek dictatorship’, while Jonathan Maitland recalls another party conference and an infamous teenage political performance marked by the speaker’s ‘bad hair, Dalek voice, [and] zits’.
The final end?
Is this the limit of the Daleks’ obvious thirst for linguistic dominance? Clearly not, but metaphors and comparisons featuring Davros’s creations seem to become less salient as they move away from the most striking features of Nation’s original concept. While one might (as one quotation in the entry does) compare a domed observatory tower to a Dalek, we already have a pepperpot – as used by Cusick in the design process – to reach for. But as the Doctor knows only too well, it’s always foolish to assume that you’ve seen the last of this enduring alien threat: the continued linguistic evolution of the Daleks is always a possibility.