Most Doctor Who fans know the fictional origins of the Dalek name, but what was the inspiration behind the term in real life? Like Batman and The Joker or the Rebel Alliance and the Empire, The Doctor and the Daleks go hand-in-hand as diametrically opposed enemies who, destined to fight each other (quite literally) to the end of time. Debuting in December 1963 as part of Doctor Who‘s second story, the introduction of the Daleks cemented the popularity of the fledgling science fiction series and dictated the direction of the franchise forever after. Essentially giant pepper pots wielding plungers and whisks, the audience’s imagination turned the Daleks into a fearsome enemy intent on universal domination and “extermination,” and their metallic voices live on in 2020, where the Daleks and Doctor Who are still deeply intertwined.

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In Doctor Who lore, the name “Dalek” traces back to the villains’ origin story. On the planet of Skaro there lived two distinct races: the Kaleds and the Thals, who were constantly at war with each other. Davros was a scientist for the Kaleds and claimed to have devised a route to certain victory. Unfortunately, victory came by turning his entire people into ruthless totalitarian killing machines known as Daleks, inverting the species’ original name. In reality, however, the Kaleds weren’t introduced until “Genesis of the Daleks” in 1975, long after Terry Nation created the Daleks in the 1960s. So where did Nation’s spark of inspiration for “Dalek” come from?

The creation story is far from straightforward, with various conflicting accounts, and this is largely down to Nation himself. After “The Daleks” premiered on BBC in late 1963, Nation found the spotlight thrust upon him, with journalists from across Britain wanting to know the behind-the-scenes scoop on Doctor Who‘s popular new baddies. Nation claimed in a 1964 newspaper interview that the name struck him while he was penning the Doctor Who episode and glanced across to his bookshelf, clocking the spine of an encyclopedia that read “DAL-LEK.” For almost a decade, this explanation was widely accepted as the true story behind the Daleks’ name and was extensively reprinted in the publications of the day.

Despite the prevalence of Nation’s anecdote in the media, some Doctor Who fans had suspicions, claiming that it would be almost impossible for any encyclopedia set to be divided in such a way that the second volume ran all the way from D to L. Eventually, Nation admitted the ruse and revised his original answer. According to respected Doctor Who author and Terry Nation collaborator, John Peel, the father of the Daleks (Terry Nation, not Davros) claimed that there was no special reasoning behind the word, but the suddenly popularity of his new alien creation pushed the writer to come up with a more romantic, exciting story for reporters.

Despite confirmation from Nation himself that the word “Dalek” was plucked more or less from thin air, the rumors and stories have not subsided over the years. Many Doctor Who followers still believe the initial encyclopedia explanation from the 1960s, and that tale has even been retconned so that the tome’s spine allegedly read “DAL-EKS.” Others have suggested that Nation must’ve derived “Dalek” from the Serb-Croatian dialect where the word can be interpreted to mean “alien.” In truth, this is a coincidence retrospectively applied in order to create a slither of rationale where this isn’t any to be found.

Indeed, Nation’s admission raises an interesting point – as much people might like to think that every iconic character in the history of fiction was born from an unlikely, coincidental spark of inspiration, sometimes writers just… write. It’s a science fiction writer’s job to craft alien races, strange new worlds and outlandish sounding names. Sometimes those come with hidden, deeper meanings that make for good behind-the-scenes tidbits, but sometimes, as is the case with the Daleks, a name just comes out of nowhere.

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Doctor Who returns with “Revolution of the Daleks” this Christmas on BBC.

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