Architect of the Daleks

One of the first things a Doctor Who fan has to contend with is hilarious Dalek jokes. “HA HA STAIRS LOL” and “OMG SALT SHAKER” and “LMAO PLUNGER”, all shrieked out but people who prefer the more sane and pragmatic design of the spasmodic piles of scrap metal from the Transformers movies. Every one of these comedians is the first to notice that the Daleks look at bit impractical and off, and since they’re the Doctor’s most famous and feared enemies, the show is obviously laughable and worthless.

For me, though, I love the look of the Daleks. I love every ridiculous bump and plunger and eyestalk, and I love it because the design is so wonky. It’s so alien in its look. The reason it’s easy to ridicule is because it’s nothing like a human would design, and that underscores their inhuman — antihuman — nature. Unlike a standard “guy in a suit” design it says, right up front, that this is not something that thinks like you or I and is not particularly interested in doing so. This is someone who decided they’d rather have a gun than a second arm. Hardcore.

(Small confession: As much as “Genesis of the Daleks” is loved, it really bugs me that the Kaleds turn out to be humans in Nazi suits. The Daleks deserve better ancestors.)

But a human did design that look, and his name was Ray Cusick. Doctor Who was created by Verity Lambert and Sidney Newman, but Terry Nation and Ray Cusick are the reason we’re still watching it. The tremendous success of the Daleks in the second-ever storyline catapulted the show well beyond where it probably would have otherwise ended up.

Cusick passed away the other day, but his Dalek design lives and thrives. Call it clunky, call it absurd, but you have to call the Dalek design iconic. In fifty years of the show the changes made to it have been minor, all keeping the same basic idea. There are attempts to show the plunger, bumps, and lack of legs as more useful than would seem, but their modernization and flirtations with “badass” have all been kept within the scope of the original design.

More or less.

The oddness of Ray Cusick’s Dalek design is its triumph. It’s timeless; it can’t go out of style because it was never in style. It’s a style all its own. Laugh all you want at the angry pepper pots, they’re still scaring kids and delighting adults to this day.

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