“Doctor Who,” the British sci-fi show that is one of the longest running programs in the history of television, returns Saturday night on BBC America. After airing continuously from 1963-89, the BBC revived the show in 2005 to high ratings and critical acclaim. With the main character’s ability to regenerate into a new body, 11 actors have played the time-traveling Time Lord over the last half-century. The season premiere will revolve around the Daleks, a race of murderous robots that have been the Doctor’s archenemy since the show’s outset.
Premiering in Great Britain on the BBC on November 23, 1963, the first episode, entitled, “An Unearthly Child,” aired a day after the assassination of President Kennedy. The Daleks made their first appearance in the second episode (or serial to the British), entitled “The Daleks.” With their cry of “Exterminate,” the robot villains were bent on destroying all other races and assuming what they saw as their rightful place as the supreme beings in the universe.
From their earliest days, it was clear that the Nazis and World War II represented a major influence on the portrayal of the Daleks. Recalling the German bombing of England, known as the “Blitz,” Terry Nation, the writer who invented the Daleks, remembered “As a child I grew up when bombs were dropping and men were trying to kill me.” (Daily Mail, May 1, 2011).
The link became explicit during the 1975 episode, “Genesis of the Daleks,” considered by many the best serial of the old show. In “Genesis,” the leaders of Gallifrey, the Doctor’s home planet, ask him to return to the Dalek home world to prevent their creation or to ensure that they develop in a more peaceful direction. The Doctor, now in his fourth incarnation, finds a society much like Nazi Germany and discovers Davros, the scientist who is in the midst of creating the Daleks. Like many Nazi scientists, he is consumed by eugenics ideas and wants the Daleks to emerge as the leaders of the galaxy.
Unable to convince Davros of the errors of his path, the Doctor develops the ability to destroy the Daleks. When faced with carrying out this plan, though, he hesitates. In the most memorable scene in the program’s history, the Doctor famously asks, “Do I have the right?” Despite the urging of longtime companion Sarah Jane Smith to kill the Daleks and prevent future suffering, he refuses to do so, saying that would make him no better than the Daleks. (See video clip below)
The scene is very well-acted by Tom Baker and the show reached unparalleled popularity in Britain during his seven seasons playing the character from 1974-81. During this era, PBS began to air reruns of “Doctor Who,” and the program garnered a cult following in the United States
Interestingly, the Daleks only appear twice during the program’s heyday, first in “Genesis” and then in “Destiny of the Daleks” (1979). They returned again in “Resurrection of the Daleks,” (1984) with Peter Davison, the actor who succeeded Baker, playing the character. Regretting his decision not to destroy the Daleks in “Genesis,” the Doctor tries to bring himself to murder Davros in cold blood, but is unable to because of his code.
The moral ambiguity of these two scenes and the performances of Baker and Davison heavily influence the current show, especially David Tenant, an actor who was a huge fan of the old program and played the 10th Doctor. Tenant, who popularized the new show during his stint from 2006 to 2010, even referred to Davison as “my Doctor” in a special they filmed for charity.
Though some fans had difficulty accepting a new Doctor after Baker left, the original show plummeted after Davison moved on after three seasons in 1984. The writing became extremely weak and the BBC canceled the show, ending its 26-year run in 1989, with the Daleks last appearing in the penultimate season. Given the program’s global fan base, there was frequent discussion of reviving the show. FOX aired a pilot for a new American version of the show in 1996, but it received poor ratings and was not picked up.
Under the more traditional auspices of the BBC, the show returned in 2005 to greater success. Part of the premise of the new program was that the Daleks had been killed off in the cataclysmic Time War, but sure enough, they returned. In the second Dalek serial of the new show, “Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways,” the Doctor discovers that the machines had developed a concept of blasphemy, evolving from an allegory for the Nazis to an allegory for religious extremists like Al Qaeda.
Unlike the original program, which was more known for its campy plots and weak special effects, the new “Doctor Who” has won plaudits from critics and fans alike. Older than “Star Trek,” the program will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. From the beginning, the Daleks have been essential to its success and it is unlikely they will be exterminated anytime soon.