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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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times