It’s December 21st, 1963. Between now and February 1st, 1964 128 people will die in a cruise ship fire north of Madeira, 25 people will die in riots in the Panama Canal Zone, 100 will die in anti-Muslim riots in Calcutta, three will die when an American fighter jet accidentally strays into East German space and is shot down, while Pamela Johnson will be murdered in Manchester, New Hampshire, T.H. White will die of heart failure, and the world will edge incrementally closer to the eschaton. Also, The Daleks will air on television.
The Daleks sits suspended between two eschatons, the seemingly defeated threat of fascism on one side, the thus-far averted threat of nuclear annihilation on the other. In one sense these are distinct threats, although 1960s Britain remained broadly aware that fascism was not eliminated forever and that it required a perpetual vigilance lest it arise in a period where it could find itself in control of a nuclear arsenal. But the Daleks are both too much and too little to quite fit into the straightforward “what if Hitler had the bomb” framework. It is a truism that pop culture nazis are curiously devoid of substance—an empty pair of jackboots into which any meaning can be shoehorned so long as it’s evil. But The Daleks exists too close to the Third Reich to engage in this amnesia—details like the fact that the Daleks were once a race of teachers and philosophers who live in a conspicuously expressionist city, or their chilling assertion that killing the Thals isn’t murder, it’s extermination make it clear that this is written with a vivid and real memory of Nazi Germany.
And yet other details fundamentally undermine this link. Most strangely is the degree to which the Thals are depicted as, in Susan’s words, “perfect,” and more to the point the degree to which that perfection is specifically rooted in their status as muscular blonde men of the exact sort that Nazis revered as a physical and racial ideal. This is a mere detail, albeit a deeply strange one. More substantial is the Daleks’ status as monsters created by the aftermath of nuclear war, mutated by radiation. This is, to state the obvious, not why the Germans became Nazis. It moves fascism from something that happens within societies as a result of specific social forces to something that happens to them because of external forces.
We could even sharpen this observation, noting the quasi-supernatural nature of radiation here. There is always a touch of the fantastic in our rhetoric around radiation, whether in the chilling and prophetic horror of “this is not a place of honor” or the openly gothic “walking ghost” phase after radiation poisoning. And its nature enables this—insidious, pervasive, and yet invisible, undetectable save for its lethality. It exemplifies the strange divide between Weird and Gothic, existing as a product of physics as it begins to get strange and yet behaving like nothing so much as a ghost. And The Daleks leans into this—the Daleks themselves are firmly Weird, with a design that leans hard into the inhuman by discarding as many vestiges of the human form as is plausible while still being able to stick an actual person inside it, and their city leans hard into this. And yet outside we have a petrified jungle, an ossified, pale and haunted remnant of a world that was.
The key moment comes with the revelation that the Daleks now depend on radiation to survive. Following on the TARDIS crew’s genuinely harrowing radiation sickness sequences in the first few episodes, this has the practical effect of establishing the Daleks as creatures that are literally fueled by and living on death. There is something deeply and terrifyingly qlippothic to them in this moment, in excess of what they project elsewhere in this story where they tend to come off as a slightly goofy prototype of the apocalyptic killing machines they eventually develop into being.
This tension is ultimately unresolvable. The Daleks are too specifically rooted in the material and still vividly remembered history of the Nazis to be qlippothic horrors of the nuclear age, but they are also too much the latter to simply read as space Nazis. Each reading excludes the other, and fits too well to call the decorative trappings placed around the other one’s substance. But as we learned last story, Doctor Who is first and foremost a series about fear, and fear is in no sense bound to the rational. The two frameworks may exclude each other, but in the fevered twitchings of England’s nightmares they don’t have to cohere. The last war and the next war can happen in uncanny and impossible simultaneity.
The question then becomes why. Mundane historical answers abound. 1963 is still firmly in World War II’s shadow even as the Cold War festers. Terry Nation’s childhood was during wartime, and of course those memories color every future depiction of war and annihilation he’s going to do. But this is a persuasive answer to something that is not quite the actual question. The more specific question is something like “what is the substance of this liminal space between two apocalypses?”
In this regard, it is helpful as ever to turn to the fantasy Doctor Who offers of how to avert them. As with An Unearthly Child (and ultimately as with most Doctor Who), this reduces to liberalism, but enough is lost in the distillation that it’s worth looking at the details. The most striking moment in this regard comes with Ian’s manipulation of the Thals into fighting. Set aside the crass sexual politics of the Thals only breaking their pacifism to defend their women and look at the substance of this. While the Thal’s pacifism is emphatically rejected as inadequate, it’s not treated with the sneering mockery of hippies that will show up a few years later in The Dominators, not least because we’re too early for that. Instead it’s put within a framework that actually takes their rejection of war seriously. The idea that they’re cowards is explicitly rejected, with their pacifism instead being a hard-won lesson from the astonishing destruction of nuclear war.
Nation has them reject this, a move that fits into the “it’s about the Nazis” end of the story’s anxieties, calling back to the failures of appeasement. And fair enough—nonviolence’s track record in successfully opposing fascism is limited. Nazis do, in fact, urgently need to be fought with any and all tools available, violence included. And yet in the juxtaposition with the Cold War, an irony emerges. Standing up and fighting was the solution to fascism, but had the US-led powers decided to stand up and fight the USSR the result would have been something much more akin to the status quo at the start of the story than to the Thals’ triumph and resultant sense of a hopeful future. This is not just because the USSR was never the force of sheer moral horror that the Third Reich was, although any moral theory rooted in their equation is already hopelessly compromised, but rather because the atomic bomb actually changes the basic logic of confrontation. I’m not going to rehash the underlying logic of mutually assured destruction, but the cruelly funny reality is that for all its blatant insanity as an approach, it ended up working. Yes, the fact that it’s a sample size of one is probably more relevant than its success per se, but the fact remains that once planet-destroying weapons are added to the equation deciding that you’re just not going to pick a fight with the people who have them is a pretty good idea. Yes, of course the story carefully stacks the deck to have “attack the guys with nuclear weapons” be the right choice. That’s ultimately the point of its ambivalence between World War II and the Cold War—to get away with telling a story about the USSR where there’s no difference between Nikita Krushchev and Adolf Hitler.
It’s worth noting that we’re discussing things on the level of nation-states here. This raises several complications with regards to both apocalypses. In terms of fascism, this once again substantially muddies things. It doubles down on Nation’s disinterest in considering any material origins for fascism in favor of essentially supernatural ones, moving all responsibility to combatting fascism to the macro level, where it’s a thing “we” have to do to “them.” In terms of the Cold War, meanwhile, it at least appears more straightforward. After all, the Cold War was fought on the level of nation states. The discourse of how a “civilized” and “great” nation could fall to communism was never really part of the discourse in the first place. Sure, one had to root out communist spies, but there was never the sort of “could it happen here” discourse around the Cold War.
But let’s look at The Daleks itself. The profound limitations of the BBC, Lime Grove Studios, and indeed of television as a medium mean that both the Daleks and the Thals get to exist simultaneously as small groups of individuals and as nation states. There are only four Dalek costumes, and so four Daleks need to stand in for the entire surviving species. And this is written to make sense, with each species being a small band of survivors. But the TARDIS crew’s intervention in this is complex. They, after all, are not a nation state, but a bunch of individuals who collectively embody a particular view of British exceptionalism.
This is not extraordinary for Doctor Who, which routinely sketches societies out of a handful of Great Men of History and then has the ruggedly individual protagonists who are, one way or another, just a couple of Brits on holiday swan in and change the course of history. But it’s worth considering how this shifts the eschatology of the story. Nuclear annihilation is a story that only makes sense told on a macro level, about nation states. But Nation spins a fantasy whereby it moves to the level of individuals. And then he has those individuals save the day and defeat the nuclear power, and indeed to do it in the exact way that in practice would have proven most catastrophic.
And so we get the ugly and fatal lie at the heart of this all. The twentieth century’s methodical damnation of the planet was built on many things, but at its heart, at the end of the day, this was its bedrock: the heroic myth. The idea that the world is changed by individuals. Doctor Who is about Britain’s ever-shifting anxieties, but it is also always about its naive fantasies of what might repel them: a madman in a box and his intrepid band of ordinary people. And this always further embedded in the nationalist delusion—that the very country whose dreams of empire and brutal desire to rule the world drove the first half of the century, helped set the stage for the farcical butchery of the first World War, then the petulant and vengeful economic conditions that allowed German fascism to fester, that slaughtered millions in its own racist conquests and called this the moral high ground, called this “civilization,” that built the industrial age whose dark satanic mills went on to cook the planet—that they would be the ones to swoop in, over and over again, and rescue the world from their own demons.
This is always contemptible, but sometimes is at least harmless. When the nightmares are silly things—murderous teddy bears in toilets or bloodthirsty statues—then the show is no more harmful than any other it of escapist adventure fiction, which is to say no more harmful than any other bit of imperialist propaganda. But other times it becomes staggeringly perverse. And not simply when the show is overtly and deliberately tilting in a right-wing direction. This happens from time to time, but it is usually the least interesting version of the phenomenon. No, the true horror is in stories like The Daleks, where the show looks evil right in the eyestalk, vows to defeat it, and then offers something as blithely destructive as “so attack the bad guys with nuclear weapons and it’ll all be fine” while making it feel like a moral triumph.
That’s how you exterminate a planet.