Into the (Mind of the) Dalek

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David Selby takes a trip into the most dangerous place in the universe.


The criminal mind is a fascinating thing – dark, elaborate and twisted with actions stemming from a range of complicated environmental and genetic factors. The Dalek is the ultimate criminal. Certain parallels can be made between human criminology and Dalek psychology; whilst the mind of the Dalek is, to an extent, inconceivable, we can begin to comprehend it through use of human analogy. A criminal psychologist will ask you questions such as: can hostile actions be justified? Can the innate workings of the criminal mind be categorised into a specific class or disorder? And can a criminal ever, truly, be reformed?

These are some of the questions I’ll be applying in this article – but to the Daleks. Into the Dalek is a story which promises to journey inside a Dalek, but in the lead-up to the episode, I’ll be taking a somewhat less literal approach. It’s time to go into the mind of the Dalek…

How does a Dalek think?

dalek-insideEncapsulated in a word, the Dalek is evil. This is the first fact which must be addressed. Causes and potential alternatives will be addressed later on, but it is important to establish that, at heart, a Dalek is a killing machine which behaves and reasons with malicious intent, acting in the hope of a fatal outcome and only experiencing negative emotions. Daleks are not Cybermen – they aren’t drained of emotion, but detached from positive sentiment, intensifying any negative ideas which remain.

Modelled as creatures with Nazi-esque ideologies, the Daleks naturally believe themselves to be the superior beings. Their superiority complex fuels their animosity. Rather than appreciating their own accomplishments, they are driven by anger at the rest of the universe for existing ‘inferiorly’ to Dalek supremacy. Their hatred comes from their vanity, though many would argue that Daleks also despise other life, simultaneously self-loathing, because they subconsciously realise themselves inferior (which I will analyse later).

A Dalek thinks unreasoningly; inevitably, this makes them a terrifying antagonist, as you’re unable to appeal to their better nature. Rather than just killing, Daleks take an excessive, sadistic route. In Trevor Baxendale’s Prisoner of the Daleks, it is noted that “On full power, they [Dalek guns] can blast a human being into atoms in a split second. But they never do that. Every Dalek dials down the power on its gun-stick to the specific level that will kill a human being. Then they lower the power setting just a tiny bit further, so that the beam burns away the central nervous system from the outside in, meaning that every human being dies in agony. So it takes a full two to three seconds for a Dalek to exterminate one of us – and that’s deliberate”. In Asylum of the Daleks, it is revealed that the Daleks have a sense of beauty: they find hatred beautiful. And that isn’t the first time they’ve shown a perverted understanding of divinity – the Daleks in Parting of the Ways worshipped their Emperor Dalek as religious fanatics. Where Daleks are concerned, it’s not a case of getting the job done, but doing it in the nastiest, most painful way possible. And through all that warped pleasure, they just get angrier.

What is wrong with the Daleks?

asylum-of-the-daleks-promo-pic-b-(4)As I mentioned earlier: though a somewhat erroneous technique, you can attempt to study the Dalek mind by using human analogy. If I were to attempt to diagnose a Dalek with a specific mental health disorder, here are some of the possible outcomes I could find:

[NB: If you or anyone close to you suffers from any of the following disorders, no disrespect is intended. Many are common within the population and can have as much of a positive effect as negative. However, in criminal profiling, these can be associated as motives for a criminal who is already a damaged individual. This is not a measure of the disorder, but of how it impacts a unique being’s psyche.]

Antisocial personality disorder: the Dalek has no respect for the rights of another being or the laws of their culture. The disorder is associated with criminal behaviour which the Daleks frequently exhibit.

Histrionic personality disorder: the Dalek is emotionally unstable and attention-seeking. It is unable to interact with civility and displays an assortment of emotions which can be damaging to others and even itself (see the self-image suicide in Death to the Daleks).

Narcissistic personality disorder: the Dalek has an inflated self-perception, a god complex which it forces upon others and a lack of empathy for anyone it considers inferior.

Schizophrenia: as a disorder related to psychosis rather than neurosis (meaning that the Dalek struggles to distinguish between its own thoughts and ideas and the reality which it is being presented with), this one is maybe more of a controversial choice, but Daleks often act impulsively on a surge of strong emotion, or perhaps intrusive thoughts. Given little is known about Dalek biology, it is also possible that there are some motor abnormalities which have naturally gone undiagnosed.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder: a very common disorder which a lot of people have a tendency towards; some cases more harmful than others. The Dalek acts methodically, repeating the same actions and over and over in a ritualistic manner (“Exterminate! Exterminate!”). However, OCD-related repetition and ritualistic self-glorification could be confused in this instance.

What I have diagnosed above are all Type A Personality Styles; personalities characterised by more intense emotions, often negative, which can include a concern about modus operandi (specific approach) and time. Another psychological phenomenon which I briefly mentioned earlier is marginally vaguer in its categorisations. This is the Napoleon Complex – or, if you like, ‘Small Man Syndrome’. Rather than being genuinely self-obsessed, the Dalek may subconsciously loath itself and comprehend its inferiority (they’re smaller than a lot of other creatures, and more damagingly, than their greatest enemy). To compensate for its lacking majesty, it acts aggressively towards other species in an attempt to cover up its shortcomings to both itself and others. (The complex was named after the titular emperor, Napoleon I of France, who, similarly to the Daleks, was a short being who sought authority, war and victory.)

What makes a Dalek evil?

Asylum of the DaleksThere are both human and mechanical theories which could be applied to the Daleks’ reason for being ‘evil’. I’ll start off with the most controversial: combat fatigue. Most Daleks exist to fight, and the Asylum shows that battle-hardened Daleks can be left with traumatic neurosis. You could even flip the concept and say that certain Daleks – such as the Parting of the Ways Daleks or the Cult of Skaro – are angered because they don’t get enough conflict.

Asylum is a terrific and mature insight into the Dalek psyche. One of the many ideas it poses is the Dalek Pathweb, a concept which brings a startlingly literal sense to group mentality. Nazi Germany is a classic example of conformity; daunting social influence which changes the beliefs, attitudes and behaviour of an individual. When the group views are literally entrenched into the mind of the individual – via the Pathweb – the Dalek would unsurprisingly become completely indoctrinated by them without questioning their logic. Nature vs nurture is one of, if not the oldest, psychological debate. Nature is a prevailing aspect of the Daleks. They’re born the same to exist for the same reason and think from the same ‘hive’ mind. A similar notion is that of group polarisation, where extremism occurs through group mentality leading to stronger voicing of opinions.

As Daleks originated from Kaleds, beings not unlike us, it would be worth taking into account some primal theories of belligerence. Believing themselves as the supreme beings of the universe, the Daleks would deem instinctually that the whole universe is rightfully theirs. Therefore, what we witness could, in fact, be an extreme form of territorial aggression where any other being is perceived as an intruder in the Daleks’ rightful kingdom.

Could the Daleks have displaced aggression? Here I return to the suggestion in the previous section of self-loathing. The original source of frustration could be at their own existence, leading them to condense their intense feelings of hatred into their mental image of other beings.

There are mechanical aspects of the Dalek, even more personal than the Pathweb, which contribute to their psyche. A key part of their creation was that all emotions were removed apart from negative ones. As with those who are deficient of one of the key senses, another sense – or in the case, emotion – becomes prevalent; exaggerated. Hate consumes the space which love once occupied, allowing it to expand and spread like a cancer.

In Into the Dalek, it is explained that the cortex vault, a supplementary electronic brain, extinguishes the tiniest glimmer of positive emotions. The view the show seems to take on emotions is that they resemble entities themselves; they are able to spread and occupy, to suggest and remain. By keeping the Daleks’ hatred ‘pure’, they’re denied the ability to fulfil the second half of their nature vs nurture development. They are incomplete beings.

Can there be a good Dalek?

sec-hybridYes. Fascinatingly, throughout Doctor Who history, there have been a number of cases where Daleks have developed to be, ostensibly, good. Here are some examples:

  • The Abomination – This was a Dalek creature, experimented on during a human/Dalek war by a desperate professor. The Dalek was made less hostile, disgusting the rest of its race, and initiating a bounty hunt to find it.
  • Dalek Caan – A Dalek who saw the extent of Dalek annihilation and sought to end it. This serves merely as a testament to the Time War; how it made a creature as callous as even a Dalek change its ways.
  • Dalek Sec – By becoming half-human, he began to philosophise over the Daleks’ essential weaknesses. As with the Human Factor (soon to be mentioned), human virtues rubbed off on the Dalek psyche to the extent where it was able to grow beyond an approach of utter negativity.
  • The ‘Rose-Dalek’ – Again, the Dalek experienced human sentiment, but unlike Dalek Sec chose to end its own life rather than embracing its new thoughts. The battle-scarred Dalek saw humanity as a sickness, recognising its compassion instantly, and decided to ‘cure’ itself by self-destruction.
  • Humanised Daleks – These Daleks were implanted with the Human Factor, an essence of ‘raw’ humanity. Through the human factor they developed human, and in effect anti-Dalek, traits – such as insolence toward superiors and feelings of liberalism.
  • The Dalek in the Window – The Dalek witnessed by the young Adelaide Brooke chose to spare her life presumably because it could recognise her importance in human history. Whilst never expanded on, this was a trait highly unusual for a Dalek, especially during a time in which they were going to end all life in the universe regardless. This is one of the first signs on-screen of a Dalek bowing down to a higher authority than its own race; respecting the intricate workings of cause to effect.
  • The One in a Million Dalek – This unlikely creation was a ‘malfunction’, who somehow developed human qualities such as an astonishing appreciation of beauty (especially flowers) before being exterminated as an example to other Daleks. There was no doubt that this Dalek was in reality a good creature, one which could have released great potential for its species to develop had it lived on.
  • Oswin Oswald – I’m hopeful for a reference to Oswin in Into the Dalek (“The last good Dalek I met was you”). The most recent notable Dalek individual, Oswin was placed by the Daleks in the heart of the ‘Intensive Care’ ward in the Asylum (a testimony to what the Daleks perceive as insanity – the one good Dalek). Oswin was fundamentally a human in a fugue state (described by the Doctor as “where the mind just runs away because it can’t bear to look back”), but considering her biology had been mutated into Dalek, she’s also proof that a Dalek can exist with a human identity.

Each example arises from different circumstances but evidences the practically indisputable fact that Daleks can be made good.

How could you change the Daleks?

Back to human analogies, behavioural modification could be used in an attempt to recondition the Daleks, although it would most probably be futile – Daleks do not reason. Similarly, ingratiation, or other ‘playing nice’ techniques would also be a wasted effort.

The Catharsis Hypothesis would have it that alternative, safe methods of anger-release – or ‘letting off steam’ – can be used to minimise damage elsewhere. If the Daleks could find another way of communicating their anger, they may reduce their violent tendencies (note the One in a Million Dalek who collected flowers as a hobby; the kind of pastime which could be encouraged for someone who suffers from neurosis. Other Daleks have also displayed evidence that they have a flair for poetry, even through their battle cries, which is an effective style of self-expression).

A more forceful, biological alternative would be either physically medicating or mechanically altering the nature of the Daleks. Psychotropic substances are dangerous to humans but mostly alter the state of mind; perhaps something could be found to have a similar but essentially opposite effect on Daleks. Or, if the cortex vault were to be turned off – or malfunction (cue Into the Dalek) – the Dalek’s mind would no longer be ceaselessly ‘moderated’, and as with the abolition of censorship, it could be filled with new, extraordinary ideas.

It is the curse of the Dalek that it is born in a certain way and unable to change; restricted its whole life from imagining, and locked inside a cold metal cage. But a Dalek is loyal to its mission (“A Dalek is honest. It does what it was born to do for the survival of its species”), and genuinely unable to, by fault of its creator, think outside of its nature. Daleks are intelligent creatures with a potential to imagine, and if something were to change within them, they could even be capable of surprisingly great things.