Doctor Who at 50: The Dalek invasion that was launched from Essex
A loyal stalwart of the classic Dr Who years was Essex-based actor John Scott Martin who was best-known for being the chief Dalek. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke recalls his two interviews with the man who loved to exterminate the good guys.
There are those who believe that Davros was the supreme commander of the Daleks – but they would be wrong.
In reality, the controller of massed Dalek invasion fleets across time was shock-haired, diminutive actor John Scott Martin who, until his death in 2009, had appeared in more classic Dr Who stories than any of the Doctors themselves.
Although, he regularly played Daleks, indeed he ended up being chief Dalek, he also played a wide variety of other monsters and hapless victims.
If you spotted John in a scene playing a human being you’d know he’d end up dead sooner or later. He was a Welsh miner who was struck down by giant maggots in the Jon Pertwee adventure The Green Death and was a hapless security guard torn apart by the eponymous giant robot in Tom Baker’s opening story which served as a King Kong homage.
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I spoke to John Scott Martin in 2003 at his home in the quiet village of Great Maplestead between Sudbury and Castle Hedingham.
At the time he was the face of directory inquiries having been featured in a series of television commercials and had just finished filming a one-off drama for Granada Television called Mine Is Mine.
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As our conversation went on, it naturally turned to his time in Dr Who. The series had yet to return to our screens and seemed little more than a warm, nostalgic memory.
He was, however, incredibly proud of his contribution to the show and told me that he was the only actor to have appeared opposite every Doctor. His only rival Nicholas Courtney, who had portrayed the long-suffering Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, the British head of UNIT – The United Nations Intelligence Taskforce – had not managed to get a story alongside Colin Baker.
Although, his first appearance as a Dalek was in the William Hartnell adventure The Chase in 1965, he had appeared on the programme before that.
He told me: “Funnily enough I didn’t start off playing a Dalek. I was a Zarbi – which was a strange ant-like creature in The Web Planet. It was made out of fibreglass and was terribly unstable.
“It had a huge head which was above yours and a tail which stuck out over the back of the set. It was very easy to lose your balance and if you went over it was impossible to get up again by yourself.”
He landed his job on Dr Who in the same way that a lot of acting jobs were gained in the 1950s and 60s, by being in the right place at the right time.
“I met director Richard Martin in the lift at telly centre. He had just been doing an episode of Z Cars that I was in and on our way to the studio he said: ‘What are you doing next week John?’ Then he asked if I fancied being monster in a science fiction show.
“So I started as a Zarbi and then carried on with the Daleks.”
In his first story, The Chase, he ended up fighting with himself as in one scene he played both a Dalek and their deadly enemy, an octagonal machine called a Mechanoid. In the final scene as William Hartnell’s Doctor and his companions Barbara and Ian flee the city the Daleks and Mechanoid’s destroy one another in a ferocious battle, which looked spectacular as it was cut using fast-paced editing techniques that were just making their presence felt in movies.
John said although the Daleks have remained popular – indeed they are a mainstay of the relaunched series – it is impossible to underestimate the impact they had on the nation when they first appeared.
“No-one had seen anything like them before. They were a masterpiece of design. They don’t look dated at all. They still send a shiver down people’s spines.
“I think the smart reason that the Daleks have remained so popular is that for the first time you could see that there was a bloke inside.
“Whoever else the Doctor fought against – whether it was a Cyberman, a Zygon or an Ice Warrior – it always had two legs and you knew that those legs belonged to an actor. With the Daleks you didn’t get that.”
This sense of otherworldliness was enhanced by a BBC policy of not releasing rehearsal photographs showing the Daleks with their tops off.
Although John Scott Martin had yet to see the new series when I spoke to him, he surely would have approved of the fact that the Daleks returned with only small cosmetic changes – a glowing testimony to Raymond Cusick’s timeless design.
“I think the only big change in the look of the Daleks in all the years I was in the series was when they added some slats or solar panels to the sides of the Daleks at the end of William Hartnell’s time. It was a brilliant design so why change it?”
John said that although scooting about in Dalek bottoms was huge fun they did take rehearsals seriously because there was a lot to remember. Not only in terms of moves but also when to move the heads, eye stalk, gun, plunger and most importantly when to flash the lights to signify who was talking.
“Even though other actors did the Dalek voices we still had to learn the lines because we had to operate the lights on the sides of the Dalek domes and they had to synchronise with the dialogue.
“In rehearsal we delivered all the Daleks lines to the other actors so by the time recording came along we knew them inside out and could match our light flashing with the voice artists in another part of the studio.”
The team that operated and voiced the Daleks remained pretty much unchanged during the whole era of the classic era and over a 30 year period developed into a helpful Dalek resource unit. As production teams changed over time they could advise on what was practical when it came to using Daleks – they were notoriously difficult to move on location – and could suggest ways round potential problems.
The fact that they all knew one another and got on well meant that as rehearsal time diminished in the latter years of the original series they could still do their stuff with a minimum of fuss.
But, it was taking Daleks on location that drove operators, actors and production teams mad because they were so unwieldy. They were fairly robust, very well built, but found it almost impossible to move on anything other than a smooth floor.
Jon Pertwee hated working opposite them as much of his earth-bound tenure was filmed on location. He dismissively called them ‘mechanical pepper pots’.
John remembered: “They were quite heavy and moving them on location was almost impossible unless a lot of planning had gone into it.
“We always said that a sand quarry in Dorking looked good on screen as an alien planet but it was hopeless for the Daleks. We even tried laying dolly tracks for them to move on. Even that didn’t always work.
“I remember one Pertwee story, I think it was Planet of the Daleks, the Dalek was supposed to come down a slope and do a sharp turn. But, even though the tracks had been laid that way, the Dalek had built up such momentum that it left the trails, went straight on and ended up in a large expanse of water.
“Thankfully it wasn’t me in there but the props guys had to dive in douoble quick to get the operator out before it sank.”
John believes that the timeless appeal of the series lies in its flexible format which allows every story to be different and the secret of its longevity lies in the decision taken in 1966 which allowed the character of the Doctor to regenerate and so reinvent the series, preventing it from becoming stale.
“The programme lasted so long because it was based on an exceptionally good idea and the people who worked on it really believed in it.
“Everyone involved in the programme – from the actor playing the Doctor , through to the support cast, to the technicians, the director and producer – everyone believed in what the show was about. Nobody sent it up because if they did it would have died.”
Another part of the show’s appeal was the cliffhangers. They kept the audience coming back for more.
“One of my favourites was when the Daleks teamed up with The Master as played by Roger Delgado – Frontier In Space I think it was called – we ambushed the Doctor as he was walking through an alien landscape – which was, as ever, a quarry in Surrey.
“The Master stood on top of his cliff taunting the Doctor, then up behind him came the Daleks. It was one of the those classic cliffhangers which had people coming back in their millions.”
He said that each of the actors playing the errant Timelord put their stamp on the part and the series.
“Bill Hartnell was very much the old school sergeant major – very much like the characters in played. Pat Troughton took the part very seriously but was determind not to do more than three years. He was very afraid of typecasting. Jon Pertwee, in contrast, went on for ages simply because he loved the series. He loved all the gadgets, the cars, the planes, the action sequences.
“Tom Baker, of course, went on for even longer. He was a very funny man and very popular. After then I sort of lost touch with the day to day running of the series. I just came in to do the Dalek stories. Every time I turned up for work there seemed to be a different Doctor Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Slyvester McCoy none of them stayed very long.”
So what was his favourite Dalek scene? “I loved the scene in Dalek Invasion of Earth when you see the Daleks streaming over Westminster Bridge. It’s become, quite rightly a very iconic image with the Houses of Parliament in the background. I think I am right in saying that was the first location filming ever done on Doctor Who, so they were ambitious right from the start.”
I also asked how did he think the Daleks could have been improved? He answer was swift: “If the Daleks came back now I think they would have found a way to go upstairs. Then nothing could stop them.”
His prophecy did indeed come true when Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor met the Daleks again in 2005.
John Scott Martin died at home on January 6 2009 aged 82.