Daleks at the Doctor Who Experience. Photo: Getty Images
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Sergeant Pepper pots

Alwyn W Turner on the cultural meaning of the Daleks.

On 2 January 1941, Cardiff suffered its worst air raid of the Second World War. “For over five hours,” reported the South Wales Echo, “German planes, sweeping over the city, dropped thousands of incendiaries and numerous high explosive bombs.” The intensity of the firebombing was such, noted the Times, “that it was possible to read a newspaper in the street”. That night 165 people were killed, hundreds of houses were destroyed and Llandaff Cathedral was so badly damaged that it was closed for the next 15 months.

A couple of hundred yards from the cathedral, ten-year-old Terry Nation was alone in an Anderson shelter. He was an only child. His father was in the army and his mother was an ARP warden. He spent that night and many others sheltering from the Luftwaffe’s bombs on his own, reading adventure stories and listening to incongruously cheerful programmes on the radio.

Twenty-three years later, by which time he was a journeyman writer for radio and television, Nation was commissioned to contribute a seven-part story for a proposed BBC teatime science fiction series to be called Doctor Who. But he had another job – on a variety show for the comedian Eric Sykes – so he knocked out the BBC scripts as quickly as he could. Writing an episode a day, he finished it in a week and forgot all about it. Perhaps it was the pace of the writing that enabled him so effectively to tap into subconscious fears that resonated widely. Speed helps when inventing new myths: Robert Louis Stevenson created Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in three days, Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange in three weeks, Henry Rider Haggard knocked out She in six weeks.

Similarly, Nation had no time to weigh every word; he was looking only to spin a yarn. Dredging through his childhood memories of H G Wells and Jules Verne and the terror of the Blitz, he came up with the Daleks, a science- fiction incarnation of the Nazis by another name: anonymous, pitiless, killing machines, bent on genocide. They were an instant sensation when they made their debut in 1963 and, although Nation had killed them off at the end of the serial, the viewing public demanded their return. They came back the following year, when Dalekmania was the only serious rival to Beatlemania as the cultural sensation of 1964, and they’ve been coming back ever since. As Doctor Who starts gearing up for its 50th anniversary year, it’s no great shock to find the Daleks revived once more to launch the new series.

They were an unlikely success, incapable of facial expression and with restricted movement – after their first appearance an eight-year-old viewer wrote to the BBC wondering “how the Daleks get up and down the steps”. Yet they have proved phenomenally durable, scaring generation after generation of children. Endlessly reinterpreted by other writers, they exist independently of actors, and remain the ultimate baddies – resolutely evil, with no redeeming features. Very early on, political cartoonists began using them as a shorthand for screeching, monotonous intolerance. Leslie Illingworth created the “Degaullek” to represent the intransigence of the French president’s dealings with his international partners; Daleks were also seen painting the slogan “Keep Monsterland White” on the wall of Broadcasting House in a Daily Mirror cartoon at the time of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech.

At the outset, the identification of the Daleks with the Nazis hardly needed spelling out. Most of the population had personal memories of the war and it was difficult to avoid the associations when the creatures lined up, raised their right arms in a stiff salute and announced: “Tomorrow we will be the masters of the planet.” Or when, in the second story, “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”, they rampaged through a bomb-scarred London, using humans as slave labour, until their commander issued the ultimate order: “Arrange for the extermination of all human beings – the final solution.” As time went on, the parallels became more explicit. In 1972, humans who worked for the Daleks were dubbed “quislings”. And in 1975’s “Genesis of the Daleks”, we finally met the creatures’ humanoid forebears, the Kaleds; they wore black uniforms, clicked their heels and greeted each other with a Hitler salute, jerking the forearm up from the elbow, palm out.

This was in a context in which the Second World War provided the dominant imagery shaping the national identity. By the time Doctor Who was revived in 2005, 30 years after “Genesis”, Britain was a very different place. Those who still remembered the war were now pensioners. A new shared cultural moment had been found in the memory of the Carnaby Street version of the 1960s. The opening ceremony of the London Olympics underlined the point, with its insistence that British popular culture began in the 1960s, as though rock’n’roll were invented by the Beatles.

The Daleks now fed a new nostalgia. Their reappearance was heralded on the front cover of the Radio Times with a picture of the monsters in front of the Houses of Parliament, though the image had nothing to do with the episode it was promoting. It was a recreation of a scene from “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”. In 1964, the sight of Daleks in London had drawn on fears of Nazi occupation; now it evoked the Swinging Sixties.

Images of the war were to recur, however, most notably in “Victory of the Daleks” in 2010, when the tinpot dictators appeared with Winston Churchill. But it was revealing that the Tardis had landed in 1940: this was period drama, or at least a variation on it, not a living cultural experience.

Another significant aspect of the original monsters has also disappeared. In Terry Nation’s conception, the Dalek shells had been created to house the survivors of a war that had ended with the use of neutron bombs. At the time, the idea of a neutron bomb, which had been secretly tested by the US earlier in 1963, was much talked about and Nation was part of the first anti-nuclear generation, aware of the escalating destructive power of humanity. That the Daleks’ fictional creator, Davros – introduced in the 1970s – was so strongly reminiscent of the wheelchair-bound, deranged Nazi scientist played by Peter Sellers in Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr Strangelove suggested that nuclear paranoia remained a preoccupation.

Now, stripped of such doom-laden associations, the Daleks have fallen out of favour with Doctor Who writers and many older fans. They’re seen by some as limited and simplistic. When the show’s executive producer, Steven Moffat announced last year that he was giving them “a rest”, he called them “the most reliably defeated enemies in the universe” and suggested that, having been beaten so often, they should just “trudge away”.

They’re also a bit embarrassing. Daleks have never appealed much to adults, and grown-up fans don’t always like to be reminded that they too hid behind sofas when they were kids. Above all, they’re simply too popular. The only Doctor Who monsters that are recognisable by name alone, even to those who’ve never knowingly watched the programme, they’ve always been public property, appearing in pantomimes, pornography and pulpits – even as bridesmaids in The Vicar of Dibley.

And still they can’t be written out of Doctor Who, because children continue to fall for them. Partly the appeal is that they are so easy to mimic. Tuck your elbows in, stick your arms out and squawk the word “Exterminate” – it’s much more satisfying than playing at Cybermen. And partly it’s the moral starkness of the creatures. The Daleks come from a black-and-white world in more ways than one: there’s no postmodern relativism here.

Maybe, as Who writer Terrance Dicks reflected, there’s also an element of wish-fulfilment in there as well – a fantasy that you too could get inside a Dalek “and then go down to school and blast all the teachers or blow up the school bully”. But there’s never been a truly satisfactory answer to why they were so appealing to children. “Obviously if I knew, I’d do it again,” Nation once said. “It’s a bit like asking: why is the dark scary?” observed Russell T Davies, when he brought the creatures back in 2005. “I don’t know. It just is.” But the roots of that scariness surely lie in a Cardiff bomb shelter. Just around the corner, as it happens, from where Doctor Who is now made.

Alwyn W Turner is the author of “The Man Who Invented the Daleks: The Strange Worlds of Terry Nation” (Aurum Press, £20)

A new series of “Doctor Who” begins on BBC1 on 1 September

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

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“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

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Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

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Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

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As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.