Why Daleks Are Scary

The Daleks have been a mainstay on Doctor Who since the beginning. They're generally regarded as terrifying. Oh, there are other horrible repeat offenders -- the Cybermen are always coming back, the Ice Warriors of Mars, the Silurians, Autons, and of course the Master, who just cannot seem to keep his paws off the Doctor even when he has entire planets to occupy his time. But the Daleks are so iconic that even people who only kind of vaguely know about the show have some idea of what they are.

If you've somehow managed to miss all of their appearances... congratulations? They're everywhere. Conveniently enough, almost all of their appearances have followed the tradition of having "Dalek" right in the title, so you can locate a suitable sofa to hide behind before they come into frame. Every Doctor has dealt with them, even the Eighth if you delve into audios and novels, and absolutely none of them like the things.

If you've only seen the new series, then most of what you know about Daleks has to do with the Doctor being livid at their role in the Time War. Understandable -- they did destroy his planet and all. (Granted, he actually didn't like Gallifrey all that much, to the point where they elected him President once and his very first official act was to bolt for the TARDIS and flee, but you know. Nostalgia.) What you might not know is that the Doctor has an infinity of other reasons to hate the Daleks, and that he feels guilty about 90% of them. Not just 'if I had been a bit more ruthless the last time, they wouldn't be back this time', although he gets that too, but 'if I had avoided a number of extremely poor and selfish decisions the first time I ran into them, none of the rest of this would have happened at all'.

The First Doctor, fairly early on, landed on the planet Skaro with his granddaughter Susan and two of her entirely-human teachers, Barbara and Ian, who had come looking for the girl one night and, in traditional fashion, had blundered into the TARDIS and been dragged along as the Doctor totally failed to pilot the thing very well. Nobody wanted to go outside and look, because Skaro is a miserable dead place and this much is obvious even on the scanner, but the Doctor didn't appreciate being out-voted; he pulled a bit of jiggery-pokery with a bit of the console, claiming that it was broken and the only way to get materials to repair it was to shuffle out and visit the distant city. When his companions found out about it, he quite rightly got a thorough tongue lashing from all of them, but by that point they were already prisoners of the Daleks, who were honestly not very nice even before they started following the Doctor around the universe in a temper.

Skaro had been destroyed by an enormous nuclear war, and the Daleks were not the only survivors; a humanoid race, calling themselves Thals, occupied other chunks of the landmass, and the TARDIS crew got dragged into their struggle for survival. The Thals needed food, and the Daleks were bastards. It emerged that the Thals survived because they had drugs that protected them from the enormous amounts of radioactive fallout on the surface, and that the Daleks survived because they had mutated to need enormous amounts of radiation in the environment. Daleks being Daleks, they decided the best way to deal with this was to make the planet so radioactive that they were the only things left. The Doctor, his companions, and the Thals went on a mission to prevent the Daleks from doing this (have a random context-free episode from this story -- part one, part two), which went so almost-wrong that the Doctor had to resort to blurting out that he had a time machine! no, really! in order to distract the Daleks just long enough for everyone else to do their jobs.

So, yeah. He could have avoided meeting them entirely by just not being a selfish git; he could have avoided letting them know about Earth by not getting a pair of resourceful humans involved; and he could have left them in blissful ignorance about the possibility of time travel by not getting himself into that much goddamn trouble in the first place.

Moreover, although the Doctor knows damn well that history is not for changing, he's done it before, and if he had bothered to do it just one more time, he could have avoided the entire Dalek thing from beginning to end. All he had to do was kill Davros, the man who single-handedly created the Dalek creatures out of the scientist/scholar class on Skaro after the horrible war. He didn't, of course -- not any of the times he's run into Davros, which are almost as legion as the times he's run into the Daleks -- but every time he knows that he could, and if he just would, the universe could avoid a great deal of agony. And at this point, he's down to knowing that, firstly, there are no more Time Lords to stop him from going back and punching out whatever chunks of history he dislikes, of which Davros is one of the major ones; and secondly, his reluctance to go back and do so means his entire race, plus a whole bunch of other ones the Daleks ground beneath their casings, no longer exist.

Daleks are scary because they're Daleks. Their creator has removed all of their "softer" emotions -- pity, mercy, compassion. They are arrogant and they kill on that basis alone. Things that are intelligent but cannot really be reasoned with are terrifying.

Daleks are also scary because they scare the hell out of the Doctor. Oh, he spends a lot of time being shocked, panicked, horrified, and disgusted by things monsters do, but he's rarely if ever personally terrified of what's going on. He fears for other planets, other peoples, his friends, the universe -- things bigger than himself. Daleks actually frighten him into being jumpy.

But Daleks are most scary because they make the Doctor scare himself. Whenever he tangles with the Daleks, he manages to solve the immediate crisis, but always seems to make things worse in the long run. Long before the Time War, he starts getting steadily more and more desperate to do something that will for once not leave the universe in ruins. It makes him do a lot of things that would normally leave him appalled. The most chilling moment in Resurrection of the Daleks, I think, is when the Fifth Doctor and the resistance leader have just shoved a Dalek out a second-floor window, and retreated to argue over what to do about the rest of them. The leader tries to hand the Doctor a sidearm; the Doctor gives one of those 'why must you humans shoot everything?' looks and manages to hand it directly to someone else while running his mouth. Then there is a noise from downstairs, and everyone realizes that, though the fall destroyed the Dalek's casing, the Dalek inside it is still alive. Without a word, the Doctor turns around and takes the gun back.

His companions are even more stunned when he declares later that Davros must die. He doesn't actually manage to commit murder, but only because circumstances conspire to do it for him. (Or so he thinks. Davros is never really dead. Cardinal rule of being the Doctor's archenemy.) The Doctor has been known to shoot things on occasion, because when you're working on a cosmic scale, a little property damage means nothing. Listening to him declare intent to shoot someone, no matter who it is, is shocking for both of the people with him at the time, who have come to know him as sort of a charming, compassionate, genius lunatic. One of them refuses to get back into the TARDIS with him at the end of the serial, because of Daleks and many, many other things.

After the Time War, all of the Doctor's fear of being too ruthless seems to have snapped right back around to rage. The Ninth Doctor's "Oncoming Storm" speech is eye-opening, for fans of the classic series; previous Doctors have accepted, and sometimes enjoyed, being seen as a sort of force for justice, but inspiring the sort of blind, naked terror -- even in Daleks! -- that the name seems to symbolize for him has never been the Doctor's aim before. "I will oppose you," is not quite synonymous with, "I am your enemy," and the former was much more his MO before the Daleks blew up his planet.

Dealing with Daleks turns the Doctor into something he doesn't want to be: angry, ruthless and remorseless. Just because it's necessary doesn't mean he likes it, and he doesn't. He does at least as much damage to himself, emotionally, as anything the Daleks do to him; he just endures it because he's also frightened for the people around him, particularly now that he sees himself as the only remaining guardian of the universe.