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The Familiar Other: My Meeting With the First Dalek

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It wasn't the winter of the Big Freeze, with its 20 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. 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 alone with the Dalek. Maybe it was 10 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 50 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 scrutinise 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. And, nearly a half century later, I realise I was the luckiest boy ever.

Around the Web

Dalek - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Dalek - TARDIS Index File, the Doctor Who Wiki

Doctor Who Daleks vs Cybermen - YouTube

BBC - Doctor Who - Daleks - Monsters