In terms of genre ancestry, they're pretty clearly the descendents of H.G. Wells' Martians. These were weak, puny creatures; dependent on their fighting-machines (and more dextrous handling-machines) to survive. But Wells' kicker comes after the gruesome description of the Martians:
To me it is quite credible that the Martians may be descended from beings not unlike ourselves, by a gradual development of brain and hands (the latter giving rise to the two bunches of delicate tentacles at last) at the expense of the rest of the body.The scary thing about the Martians is not that they are different to us, but that they are what we could become.
The same thing applies to the Daleks. The Daleks were the mutated survivors of a nuclear war, dependent on machines to survive a hostile world.
This resonated during the Cold War era of Dr Who's heyday; when
we all half-suspected that we could end up the same way. It
doesn't explain their appeal in the post cold-War era.
In part, the concept goes back to E.M. Forster's anti-Wellsian "The Machine Stops", where humans become not only dependent on their technology to survive, but also alienated from the natural world. But there is more to it than that.
One of the Rider-Waite tarot cards is the Two of Swords, showing
a blindfolded woman with two crossed swords. Psychologically, this is
taken to represent a kind of paranoid defensiveness: the character is
holding the world at bay with her swords, blind to the fact that the
calm waters and clear skies behind her indicate that she is not threatened.
The similarity of the Dalek to this image is probably not deliberate, but it nevertheless taps the same archetypes. The Dalek's manipulator arm and weapon similarly keep the world at arms' length; while the eye-stalk keeps it symbolically blinkered.
The external form of the Dalek thus mirrors its psychology. The the alienated, hate-filled, xenophobic character of the Dalek is perfectly expressed by its appearance. The evil of the Dalek is thus more convincing: the desire to exterminate all other life and conquer the universe seems a plausible response to the abused and tormented nature of the creature within.
Furthermore, the identification of the human with the Dalek goes beyond
the species similarity mentioned earlier. More than any other alien creature,
children in a playground are eager to lurch around being Daleks, intoning the
familiar crescendo of "exterminate, exterminate, EXTERMINATE!"
There is something appealing about being a Dalek: to shelter within
invulnerable armour, powerful weapons at your disposal. This is explicitly
extended to a lack of emotional vulnerability: a Dalek has all its emotions
but hatred removed. Knowing neither fear nor pity, a Dalek can only kill
or be killed, never exposing itself.
At some point, we all have wished a kind of Dalek-like invulnerability for ourselves: Dalek-hood has a certain seductive appeal. Yet at the same time the Dalek warns us of the consequences of taking such a path: to remove all vulnerabilities is to become a monster.
Despite their inhuman appearance, the Dalek is therefore ultimately the most human of creatures: ourselves.
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