Thursday, 16 June 2011

The day I met a Dalek

It wasn’t the winter of the Big Freeze, with its twenty foot snowdrifts and the sea turning to ice. That was the year before. But car heaters didn’t count for much in those days – not in our big old refrigerator-doored grey Wolseley, anyway. So it must have been very cold that January night. But discomfort doesn’t matter, of course, to a boy who’s going to meet a Dalek.

Television Centre burned with lights. It wasn’t three-quarters empty then. The curved face of the building made me think of opening the Tardis doors to find an alien city. There had only been half a dozen episodes of Doctor Who broadcast, but already most things made me think of the Tardis. The real raw London wind, as my dad led me across the BBC car park, was not so chilling as that low, mournful soughing in the boughs of a petrified forest. No hum of traffic thrilled like the radiophonic pulse of a Dalek control room. Six years old, and I already knew that my natural home was the world inside the head.

Daleks. It was as if I’d been waiting for them. Like they were an inevitable discovery, not something somebody had just dreamed up. And meeting one for real – that didn’t seem then, as it does to me now, like the most incredible and lucky privilege. It seemed like it was naturally bound to happen.

Dad was an electrical engineer and in early 1964 he was doing design work for the BBC. Not on Doctor Who itself – that really would have been proof of a benevolent god – but some complicated stage machinery for Billy Cotton. His friends in the workshops may have included Ray Cusick – not a name anybody knew back then, even though Terry Nation was already my J K Rowling.

“DAL to LEK,” said Dad as we crossed the cavernous workshop with its pitted green lino floor. “So that’s one volume to cover A to C and then another for the next nine letters?”

“But, Dad, it’s true. It said so in the paper.”

Beyond the shelves full of wire and brown boxes of rivets was a wide space between drill-lined workbenches. Sharp parings of aluminium littered the floor. A group of men in long beige work-coats waited for us there. They parted and I got my first glimpse of it. You just can’t add a Dalek to a real-life scene without causing a tingle at the back of the scalp, even back then when they’d had two or three appearances at most. Its presence behind the group made them seem for a moment like prisoners.

Dad and his friends went off to talk shop, leaving me with the Dalek. Maybe it was ten minutes, though it could have been hours and still not enough. I was never the kind of kid to go in like Flynn with a new toy. I probably walked around it dozens of times just brushing the surface with my fingers. Details remain sharp nearly fifty years later. The hemispheres down the side – bobbles, as I called them – are my first memory of light blue. Anything that I’d seen of that colour previously was overwritten. A neural map of my brain at that moment would have seen it glowing like the LHC, counting and memorizing the panels on the sides, the metal bands, the Perspex disks behind the eye. The lights – ping pong balls, I think – that flashed when the Dalek was speaking. The ball joints on which its limbs swivelled.

The eye itself, that was a gaze thrilling to meet. I knew the alien mind that lay behind it like my own. I had to look up to meet its eye, the same way a Dalek looked up at Thals and humans. It was part of the key to its psychology, that small hectoring thing ranting with tinny hysteria as it swung its eye-stalk up to scrutinize you.

The gauze grille around the head was easy to see through with the light behind it, making the casing look disturbingly hollow. I pulled at the sucker arm and it telescoped out and out. So far! A Dalek could reach out and grab you from right across a room.
It wouldn’t need to, though. Because there was the gun. What an artefact of absolute perfection. A design that expressed alien violence, cell-smashing radiation, extermination. A device that would flip you like a negative and leave you without a spark of life. Oh, I wanted one.

The adults came back and one of them lifted the top off. The casing divided below the torso, the head and arm section coming away to reveal a plain wooden interior with a little seat.

“You could sit inside it,” suggested Dad, but I didn’t want that. I preferred the Dalek interior that I saw in my mind’s eye: something small, vulnerable and fearful surrounded by electronics and armour, gazing out at the world through a screen. With a gun. With that gun.

“I’ll make you one,” said Dad as we drove home. I didn’t even need to tell him; he just knew. And fifty years later, I realize I was the luckiest boy ever.


  1. Your future wife, although she was not yet even an embryo, believed DAL to LEK.

  2. Nor did DAV then realize that his future wife's first letters were ROS...

    As for DAL to LEK, Terry Nation finally admitted years later that he made that up. I should've known my dad was right all along :)

  3. That was great of your dad to arrange that for you. It sounds like it was a very cool experience for a kid (heck, it sounds like it would be a very cool experience for a lot of the grown-ups I know!)

  4. Awesome story.

    When I was five or so - around 1979 - my dad took me in to work with him one evening. His building was a big brutalist concrete university lab; he'd agreed to let some students make a film in the corridors after hours.

    He took me in to meet the Dalek.

    I remember it being big: imposing, and when you're small the conical shape forces the perspective even more. I remember being very shy around the students, too.

    A couple of years ago I ended up in the pub with some Who royalty: Mark Ayres, the Radiophonic archivist. I ended up telling the story, and he started to look slightly horrified.

    It turns out he was one of the students. I made him feel very old that day.

    Also, my dad is awesome.

  5. A note for eagle-eyed editors btw: yes, I'm writing Tardis not TARDIS. As with radar and laser. It's just a style thing for the blog. Civilians can ignore :)

  6. Fantastic story and telling. That's very much what the Daleks are for me too.

  7. I could've written something about today's Daleks too, Porky - but hell, that'd just be dignifying the whole committee/marketing "creative" process. Better to remember them as they were, a true inspiration.

  8. Bah, more likely your Dad found the shattered dalek casing, with you lying there, a bubbling mass of dying alien flesh, took you home and fashioned that human body suit for you.

    Eventually, you will return to Skaro, just as soon as the Dalek Battle Fleet ges round to coming back for you.

  9. Ah, "Return to Skaro..." That'd be the title of my autobiography.

  10. That is absolutely one of the coolest things. A long time before my time, and all I've seen of the original Daleks are in Black and white. I loved Daleks when I was a kid however, and my kids love Daleks today with the New Who.

    Sounds like you had a great dad.

  11. I love the way you write this. I still remember the shock of the first Doctor Who. The excitement. The wait until the next episode.

    Nearest I ever came to the experience you describe was my uncle who made fairground horses in our shed. Not quite so cool, but still utterly magical to an eight year old.

  12. It's that sense when we're small, isn't it, of everything being unfamiliar and amazing, yet with a continuity of family that saves us from merely being alien visitors newly arrived in the world. It could be Daleks, it could be fairground horses, it could be cakes for the local fête. What matters, I think, is the sense of connection to a wider world full of promise.