Exterminate! The New Year's Day special of Doctor Who has kicked-off 2019 with a jolt of nostalgia. After an entire season that avoided pre-existing characters and adversaries, the 13th Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) finally squared-off against a Who baddie familiar to millions: a lone Dalek hell-bent on doing what Daleks do best, conquering, exterminating, and talking in that hilarious voice.
But, considering the fact that the Doctor has been battling the Daleks since 1963, how come no one remembers them?
For someone who came to Doctor Who as a new fan in 2018, the latest New Year's Day special, "Resolution," serves as a pretty good primer on the Daleks in general. In this episode, three essential facts are made clear about the Daleks: they're mutant alien squids inside robot bodies, they're very dangerous, and the Doctor has a long-standing beef with them.
Still, because they've been around so long, it seems a little bit weird no one on Earth really knows about them in the year 2019. In fact, when the Doctor calls an info line trying to enlist the help of her old buddies at UNIT, the operator implies there hasn't been an alien invasion of Earth in a very long time. This isn't a continuity error or anything, and Jodie Whittaker's era of Doctor Who isn't subtly rebooting the Dalek canon at all. In fact, everyone on Earth suddenly not remembering the Daleks goes way back.
A brief Dalek history
The Daleks first appeared in 1963 in the second serial featuring the 1st Doctor (William Hartnell), which was simply and appropriately titled "The Daleks." At that time, the Daleks were instantly part of what made Doctor Who a hit, and since then, the anxious-talking, control-freak pepper-pots have defined the nomenclature of Who just as much as the TARDIS. The Daleks even pre-date the sonic screwdriver and the concept of Time Lords regenerating, so when a Dalek faces the Doctor, this is literally about as old-school as the show can get.
Over time, the show eventually revealed that the Daleks were created by a madman named Davros from the planet Skaro, who has tangoed with the Doctor in nearly all of the Time Lord's incarnations. In the famous 1975 Tom Baker serial "Genesis of the Daleks," the 4th Doctor grapples with the moral quandary of going back in time and preventing the Daleks from existing in the first place. Ditto for the 2014 Peter Capaldi episode "The Magician's Apprentice," in which the 12th Doctor is presented with an opportunity to let a child version of Davros die way before he can invent the Daleks.
In the new episode, "Resolution," this fact alone is part of the reason why the Daleks know about the Doctor even as far back as the 9th century on Earth. Because the 12th Doctor met Davros as a child, the Daleks have known about the Doctor since the very beginning.
The Daleks in the eras of Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant (2005-2009)
The Daleks are inexorably connected to time travel and alternate timelines just as much as the Doctor. In fact, starting in the 2005 soft-reboot of the show, it was revealed that the Daleks fought the Time Lords in the Last Great Time War, which resulted in both sides being totally eradicated. This meant that in 2005, when the 9th Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) encountered a lone Dalek in the episode "Dalek," he freaked out, because, at that point, the Daleks were supposed to have been totally destroyed.
Basically, since that point, Doctor Who had to come up with a million different ways of bringing back the Daleks, including, but not limited to, emergency temporal shifts ("Doomsday"), crazy squid-Daleks living in voids between universes (Journey's End"), sub-par mutant Daleks, and at least one human-ish Dalek with phallic-y tentacles on this face ("Daleks of Manhattan.") So, from 2005 through 2009, every single Dalek appearance was some kind of massive comeback in which David Tennant generally had to talk very quickly to establish his absolute befuddlement at the return of the Daleks, usually with the phrase "No! It can't be!"
This culminated in the 2008 three-part story in the new show's 4th season, consisting of "Turn Left," "The Stolen Earth," and "Journey's End." It was here where Daleks moved the entire Earth and invaded it with the intention of destroying everything, in reality, other than themselves. After being kind of cloned, the 10th Doctor's half-human doppelganger destroyed the Daleks forever. But of course, that didn't stick.
The Daleks in the era of Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi (2010-present)
The fifth season of contemporary Doctor Who — and Matt Smith's first as the 11th Doctor — did hit a fairly large reset button on all sort of continuity. In this season, the Doctor encounters some stray Daleks living with Winston Churchill in "Victory of the Daleks." It turns out this is just a huge ruse for the Daleks to get totally reborn as their "pure" selves, which are actually just giant multi-colored Daleks which pretty much only lasted for that season. (Even though they looked great!)
The twist of this episode wasn't the new paint jobs though. It was the fact that the 11th Doctor's companion — Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) — did not remember the Daleks. This was eventually revealed to be the result of a crack in time which was caused by the TARDIS exploding in the future. Briefly, an alternate reality was created in which there were no stars, and the Doctor had to reboot the entire universe with a second big bang in the 5th season finale called "The Big Bang." Since that point, Doctor Who has been a little vague about which things were the same from the 2010 canon, and which things were restored. Because after "The Big Bang" the Daleks were just back and no one really even questioned it.
In the new episode, the lone Dalek spends a lot of its time attaching itself to people's backs and controlling them. This ability comes from the 7th season, in the Matt Smith episode "Asylum of the Daleks." And, from "Asylum of the Daleks" onward, the rest of the universe knows about the Daleks, and their home planet of Skaro is seemingly totally intact because the 12th Doctor actually goes there in the 9th season episode "The Witch's Familiar."
In the Peter Capaldi era, it's established that at some point in the far future, humanity is at war with the Daleks, but it seems like the people of contemporary Earth all avoided remembering that pesky incident where the Daleks invaded the entire planet in 2008. Just like Amy Pond, the 12th Doctor's companion, Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie), doesn't remember the Daleks in the 10th season in 2017.
Since the very last time the Daleks appeared prior to the new 11th season was in the season 10 opener, "The Pilot," it seems like Bill's ignorance of the Daleks doubles-down on the idea that the cracks in time from the Matt Smith era did erase the entire incident in which the Daleks invade earth in 2008. Of course, UNIT — the alien-fighting organization referenced in "Resolution" — totally still knows about this stuff, which is why a Dalek laser weapon thingy was stored in the Black Archive. But, as this episode makes clear, UNIT is out of business.
This, perhaps more than anything, opens up a huge can of spacetime worms for the future of Doctor Who. In 2013's "The Day of the Doctor" it was made clear that UNIT was guarding all sorts of important secrets about the Doctor, including, perhaps, even a future version of the Doctor himself in the form of the mysterious old man known as "The Curator." So, if current Who showrunner Chris Chibnall has exterminated UNIT, the Daleks may the be the least of the Doctor's worries when the show returns for a 12th season in the year 2020.