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Brains in Boxes (1986)


This issue we look at some examples of brains being kept alive in machines and then begin to examine one particular universe of the imagination infested by such creatures.

SAY "Doctor Who" these days and probably the words which come most readily to mind are "cancellation". "the end" and "finished", yet only a couple of years ago the most common one would have been "Daleks". Few people would disagree that the programme owes its early success to those animated pepper pots, but strangely these aliens are not by any means a very new idea. Perhaps the first variation of this theme was used by good old H.G. Wells in his story The War of the Worlds. His Martians were almost all brain and were carried around in their three-legged machines.

As long ago as 1953 two films were released with ideas along this line. Donovan's Brain was about a brain kept alive in a tank, and Invaders From Mars (now re-made by Tobe Hooper) featured a Martian which comprised just a head with arms coming out of it. The film Colossus of New York (1958) concerned the placing of a man's brain in a mechanical body. As nearly always seems to happen in these stories the awesome power of the new body corrupted the living brain and it became power-mad. In a Quatermass type ending, the creature realised it was losing its humanity and effectively destroyed itself.

In 1965 the American magazine IF published a story by Keith Laumer which went on to form the basis of his novel A Plaque of Demons. The demons of the title were on Earth collecting the brains of creatures, particularly Mankind's, to use in a war on a far-off planet. The brains were conditioned, de-personalised, and placed inside vast war machines, over seventy-two feet tall. (This is not very far from the idea of the 'new' Daleks which Davros was trying to create from humans in Revelation of the Daleks.) The brains of cats and dogs were also used, to animate maintenance machines.

Another story published in 1964 including this theme was the short story The Coldest Place by Larry Niven. In this there were only two characters, the narrator and Eric. Eric, however, was not an ordinary character, he was a brain operating a space ship. As Niven described, "Eric looked much like an electrical network, except for the grey mass at the top which was his brain. In all directions from his spinal cord and brain ... Eric's nerves reached out to master the ship."


On television there have been a few ventures into this area. In Star Trek (20-09-68) the idea of Niven's Eric was paralleled when Spock's brain was used for a while to control the environment of an alien community on a planet. The Doomwatch episode "The Iron Doctor" (25-01-71) concerned a man (Patrick Troughton) slowly dying of an incurable disease. As each part of his body failed it was replaced by something mechanical: iron lungs, kidney machines etc. Eventually the brain would only be able to communicate with the outside world by a form of Morse Code.

In Doctor Who the idea of parts of a body being replaced as it degenerated has been used quite often, most notoriously giving rise to the infamous Cybermen, although these were creatures more of an altered and improved body rather than an encased brain. In the story The Mind of Evil (1971) a strange brain-like creature was housed inside the Keller machine. From there it fed on the evil emanations of human beings, learning to move, and kill. The Morpho in the 1964 story The Keys of Marinus were a type of mutated brain which ruled a city on Marinus. They, however, were encased in glass domes in a control room and were totally immobile. In The Brain of Morbius (1976) the brain of the supposedly dead Time Lord Morbius was kept alive in a life-support machine before Solon placed it in its new body.

Origins of the Daleks

Why is it, then, that in 1963, and for the next few years, the Daleks caused such a sensation with what was essentially an old idea? The answer no doubt lies on many levels, but I suspect there were two main reasons. For one thing, although the idea itself was basically not new, the underlying reason for the "brains" existence was. The historical background to the Daleks was important, and the way in which they had been shaped into the almost emotionless, cruel and calculating creatures we all loved to hate. However, it must be pointed out that the Daleks have been given two origins by their creator. Terry Nation, namely the original (and best) mentioned in their very first story, and the Davros version, which runs as follows:

Davros was a great scientist of the Kaled race on Skaro. His people had been at war with the Thals for hundreds of years and during that time the weapons used began to produce genetic mutations. The Kaleds expelled those afflicted by these changes, the Mutos, from their city to keep the race pure, but Davros foresaw that the Kaleds would inevitably mutate and he experimented to find their final form. This form was a twisted creature, effectively a brain with almost no body. The creatures were virtually immobile and so needed some means to move and protect themselves. Davros tried various "travel machines" and the Mark ill version proved successful. This combination of creature and machine he named a Dalek. (Although why the word Dalek should just happen to be an anagram for Kaled in the alien language of Skaro I'm not sure.)

Turning to the original explanation of the creation of the Daleks, which, to me, has always been the more interesting and credible, it must be borne in mind that in 1963 it was novel for the TV audience to find the drama taking place on a planet way beyond our solar system. Everything was new and very alien, enough to frighten us behind the sofa!

The history of these Daleks was different from the Davros version. and even sadder. The Davros Daleks were the hapless unnatural consequences of Davros's experiments and mind control. The original Daleks were the natural product of just one unnatural event

The explosion of a Neutron Bomb.

Over five hundred years before the Doctor first arrived on Skaro there had been two races on the planet, the Thals and the Dais. The Thals were a warlike race while the Dais were philosophers and teachers, War broke out between the races, ending with the explosion of the neutron bomb. Nearly all life on the planet was destroyed, but not quite.

The Thals wandered the planet. with generation after generation of mutation. Finally their form settled as the tall handsome blond-haired humanoids. At the same time they devised a drug which prevented the radiation from affecting them any more. The outcome of the war had been so terrible that they rejected all thoughts of violence and became totally peaceful.

The story for the Dals was somewhat different. In a desperate, and abortive, attempt to shield themselves from the radiation they built personal protective machines which they then lived in all the time.

So were born the Daleks.

They built a huge underground city as a shelter, and retreated into it. Yet despite their precautions the radiation was still taking its toll, and inside their machines they also mutated.

For them the mutation did not go full circle. They kept their brilliance, probably even increased it, but their bodies started to waste away and become deformed. They depended more and more on their machines and grew increasingly to hate other life forms which were not so afflicted. in their warped minds they were the norm, and the Thals the horrible mutations. This was confirmed even more in their minds when they discovered that they actually needed the radiation in order to survive.

Theirs was a sad story of a brilliant race destroyed, a true tragedy, and, as we learned later, a curse on the rest of the Universe.

Thus were the audiences of the early sixties introduced to a very alien race, in a very alien setting, which brings me to another reason for the success of the Daleks — their design and the design of their environment.

An Alien Look

The design of the futuristic Dalek world came from the mind of Raymond Cusick. He took what seems to be a very obvious step, but one which is nearly always ignored, even now, and designed the Dalek world for the Daleks, not for humans. In how many films or TV series have alien ships or worlds been really designed with the requirements of the human heroes in mind? This was not for Mr Cusick — he wanted to emphasise the complete alien-ness of Skaro and the Daleks, and designed accordingly.

Even before we met the Daleks, their strange environment had been established. There was a petrified jungle, full of dead plants which were clearly not of our world, and just beyond it the marvellous Dalek city at the foot of a vast mountain range. Incidently, the city we eventually saw was not the first model built by the makers of the programme. This had proved to look too small on the screen and so a larger one was built. For many years after the story had been shown the Dalek city was talked about in tones of admiration.

Viewed from afar, however, the city could have been built for humans. It was only when we saw inside that it quickly became obvious that whoever lived there, or had lived there, was not like us. The entire structure was made of metal. The doors were wide at the base and narrower at the top, and the ceilings were low, low enough to make our intrepid time-travellers stoop in the corridors.

Then of course there were the Daleks themselves. Originally the casings were to have been made from fibre-glass but internal politics in the BBC stopped that and they ended up being made from good old wood. Not that that was very obvious to the viewer. To us the Daleks were totally metallic. Cusick managed very successfully to stop us thinking even for a moment that there was just a man inside. The programme itself dared to prompt this bald question and answered with the horrific creature which we were not allowed to see (well for three years at least). Ray Cusick had imagined what the creature might look like, but since all that was needed for the story was a tentacle/claw, it was never made.

Dalek Technology

Another important factor was the Dalek machinery. The doors were opened by waving a hand or sucker in close proximity to some type of sensor. The controls were all disc-shaped, easy for the Dalek sucker to turn. It was only in later years that suddenly the Daleks used switches as we do. Another good point was the fact that the Dalek machinery remained consistent throughout the Hartnell years. Naturally this was just a monetary constraint but it gave an excellent continuity to all the stories and made them fit together even better.

The second Dalek story featured little new in the Dalek universe since it was set on Earth. We did manage to see inside the Dalek flying saucers, full of the control machinery from their first story, and the Daleks themselves were only slightly modified to travel on the ground. They were given deeper base skirts (to conceal bigger wheels for ground travel) and discs on their backs to pick up power.

Another change in the Dalek design, and an advance in their technological capability, was due in their next story, as we shall see in the next issue of Starburst.


DOCTOR WHO: Two original Daleks at a lift entrance

DOCTOR WHO: A city built for Daleks (two Daleks thru corridor)

DOCTOR WHO: The Dalek city on Skaro, a "huge underground shelter"

DOCTOR WHO: The first Daleks in their standard control room

DOCTOR WHO: Raymond Cusick with his original idea of the Dalek Creature

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  • APA 6th ed.: Gaze, John (no. 90 (February 1986)). Brains in Boxes. Starburst p. 40.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Gaze, John. "Brains in Boxes." Starburst [add city] no. 90 (February 1986), 40. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Gaze, John. "Brains in Boxes." Starburst, edition, sec., no. 90 (February 1986)
  • Turabian: Gaze, John. "Brains in Boxes." Starburst, no. 90 (February 1986), section, 40 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Brains in Boxes | url= | work=Starburst | pages=40 | date=no. 90 (February 1986) | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=19 July 2019 }}</ref>
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