Fearful Symmetry

There are several answers to the question “who originally created the Daleks?”  You could say “Davros” with geeky fidelity.  You could say “Terry Nation”, as many people have (Trivial Pursuit used to also credit him with creating Doctor Who itself).  One could even start listing the people who actually constructed the props (wasn’t the job outsourced to a company called Shawcross or something?).  As is usually the case, the most accurate answer is probably the most complex and contingent, i.e. “A consortium of people including, most prominently but to various degrees of importance, Terry Nation, Verity Lambert, David Whitaker, Raymond Cusick, Peter Hawkins, David Graham…” etc.  Without a doubt, however, the individual who did more than any other to make them a huge success was an in-house designer employed by the BBC called Raymond Cusick.  Cusick died a little while ago, widely recognised for his role by fans.

I’m a great advocate of ‘ignoring the rat’ or, as I prefer to put it, ‘seeing past the bubblewrap’, i.e. of giving weak aesthetics a pass if the story beneath them is interesting enough.  You shouldn’t let the rubbishness of the big snakes detract from ‘Kinda’ and ‘Snakedance’, etc.  Indeed, those very stories are examples of when aesthetic ‘failures’ can actually make things more interesting.  However, there are times when aesthetic ‘success’ is absolutely crucial, when the way things sound and look really matters… and, for a show so widely considered to be cheap and shonky, aesthetics played a surprisingly big part in getting Doctor Who off and running.  The original opening titles, the TARDIS interior, etc.

Undoubtedly, the single biggest aesthetic factor in the early success of Doctor Who was Ray Cusick’s designs for the Daleks.  Lots of people played a part in making the Daleks’ first story such a big aesthetic success.  Tristram Carey’s music, Christopher Barry’s direction, etc., all made that story impressive, a strange and new kind of televisual experience.  But it was the Daleks that were the icing on the cake.

Oddly enough, the first bit of a Dalek we ever see, the bit which had the BBC switchboard jammed after the cliffhanger, was the bit most widely derided: the plunger.  It isn’t until the next episode that we see the Daleks fully.  Their tanklike bulkiness, their strange mixture of sharp angles and curves, the obscure functionalism that makes them look almost like pieces of kinetic art, their shortness and wideness and sheer non-humanoidiness… and yet with enough that is intelligible about their shape (they have a eye which is part of something vaguely head-like) that they can be understood as sentient, intelligent, alive.

They are, undoubtedly, one of the design classics of the 20th century.  Distinctly ‘of their time’ and yet sufficiently detached from anything recognisably particular that they will translate.  Unlike the Cybermen or the Silurians, the Daleks remained the same – albeit with a few new little details – upon their return.  They didn’t need changing.

If Cusick had done a bad job, if he’d bungled it (as, let’s be honest, so many other designers would bungle in subsequent stories), not only would Doctor Who never have taken off the way it did (leading us all here, for better or worse) but Terry Nation would probably never have become the kind of person that Alan Whicker would want to interview.…

Continue Reading