Monday, January 4, 2010

The Dalek Workshop

Let's geek out.

I grew up on Doctor Who. Transformers, too. And Mr. T and Nintendo and the A-Team. I'm a child of the 'eighties, basically.

I'm also Canadian. When I was a kid you could catch Doctor Who on either PBS (American public TV) or TV Ontario (our own version) - great, because there were no commercials; not so great, because I seemed to be the only kid within a hundred mile radius who actually knew what Doctor Who was. Nobody else in my class or my neighborhood had ever heard of it, presumably because none of them ever watched public TV. And, as some of my friends would point out whenever I tried to rope them into watching the show with me, a lot of kids just couldn't get behind the idea of an eccentric dude flying around to random points in time and space in a blue box. Transforming robots from the planet Cybertron are so much more believable.

Me, though, I never missed a single episode. Ever. Family gatherings, church, friends, school, homework, funerals, it didn't matter - if it clashed with Doctor Who, it wasn't worth a fart in a hot tub. There was only one thing I loved more than watching a Doctor Who episode, and that was watching a Doctor Who episode featuring the Doctor's arch-enemies, that race of alien garbage cans containing little green blobs of pure, concentrated evil - the Daleks.

The Daleks are sort of timeless from both a design point of view and as a race of believable alien beings. On Star Trek (one of the most overrated franchises in the whole SF genre) the "aliens" tend to be carbon copies of us, exaggerations of one human characteristic: Klingons are aggressive and warlike, Romulans are sneaky and mistrustful, Ferengi are greedy and materialistic etc. And none of them look particularly alien. Generally a few prosthetic appliances were applied to an actor's face - a little ridge on the nose or forehead - and you have an "alien." They were all basically humanoid, and all basically human in their motivations.

The Daleks, on the other hand, are completely out there. They don't look remotely human (in or out of their casings) and their thought processes don't even come close. They are the ultimate racial supremacists, completely unable to see or understand anyone else's point of view. By far one of the greatest moments in the otherwise mediocre "Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks" episode from the 2007 series was the scene where an enterprising human makes an impassioned speech to a Dalek, asking it if it would like to join the human race in the spirit of friendship and the mutual exchange of information and ideas. The Dalek responds by shooting him.

More to the point (the point of this blog, anyway), is the Dalek prop design itself. Created back in 1963 by writer Terry Nation and brought to life by BBC designer Ray Cusick, the Dalek is a kind of visual feast of angles and details and shapes. Though designed in the '60s, it doesn't look particularly '60s - in other words, it doesn't look dated the way many other SF robots and technological doodads look dated (Star Trek, I'm looking in your direction ... again). And even though the 2005 Doctor Who series saw a redesign of the Dalek that tweaked the individual details, the basic shape remains the same forty-seven years after its initial appearance ... and it still looks great. It looks like something that could kill you. It looks like something that wants to kill you.

It also looks like something you'd want to build in your garage.

There are Dalek enthusiast sites out there that provide plans for building full-scale Dalek props. The one I visit most frequently is Project Dalek, where you'll find plans for several different Dalek variants, both the classic and 2008 versions of Davros' Dalek-inspired chair, and a completely new, streamlined take on the Dalek design by forum member Mechmaster. Some of the full-scale creations of the members are absolutely phenomenal - while the Daleks used on the TV series were functional props, with simple wooden seats for the operators and a couple of (sometimes noisy) castors to roll around on, hobbyists on Project Dalek have created replicas that border on REAL alien war machines; radio-controlled beasts with functional eyestalk cameras and guns that shoot anything from water to CO2 gas to bright LED light shows. It's fun stuff.

Alas, this blog is not about me building a full-scale Dalek of such enduring coolness. I lack the space, money and resources to build even a basic full scale prop, as much as I might want to (and I do want to). A few years ago, bitten once again by the Doctor Who bug a full decade-and-a-half after I'd first "grown out of it," I started looking around the Internet for Dalek model kits. I always wanted Dalek toys when I was a kid - naturally, because Doctor Who didn't enjoy the same level of popularity here that it did in the UK, Canadian stores didn't carry any of the Marx or Dapol Dalek figures. When I was twelve a local comic book store did start importing the Dapol figures ... but at $17 bucks a pop, they weren't exactly affordable. When I began trolling the 'net back in 2006 in search of model kits or reasonably accurate figures, I discovered that prices were just as bad - after all, it still has to be imported.

Then I found Nebula7. The site's creator, Christopher Barnatt, had built - correction, had scratch-built - a 1/4th scale Dalek model out of plastic card and other bits and pieces. The result was amazing - a perfect little replica decked out in the gray/black color scheme of the 1980's Daleks I'd grown up watching. The TARDIS and K-9 scratch-builds weren't too shabby either.

It set me off, pursuing a new hobby out of the blue. I hadn't built a model since I was at least thirteen, and the models I made back then were terrible embarrassments slathered in glue and paint. I had no concept of modeling as a craft or an art - I just slapped 'em together according to the instructions and moved on. Now I not only had to follow instructions, I had to make the instructions up as I went. At least, that's what I thought until I found Project Dalek. The plans are intended to produce a 1:1 replica of a Dalek, obviously, but all you gotta do is decide your scale and divide by that number ... in my case, eight, to get an 1/8 scale Dalek.

In my travels over the past few years I learned all about styrene plastic, the properties of different kinds of glue, paints (both acrylic and off-the-shelf spraycans), fiberglass resin, quick casting resins, RTV (room temperature vulcanizing) silicone, airbrushing, mold-making and various other modelers' crafts. It hasn't been easy - there are no hobby stores within miles of where I live, and I'm not big on highway driving. So I have to order most of my stuff online. This means that I'm basically flying blind when obtaining a new tool or medium; I've had a lot of disappointments when I order something thinking it will suit my purposes and then it, well, doesn't. I've also birthed dozens of Dalek abominations fit only for the garbage can as I've made mistakes along the way. Ironically, I've spent more money on building scale Daleks than I ever would have spent on collecting old Sevans Dalek model kits or the new line of Character Options figures ... but it's become about the journey now, not the end result.

I don't know exactly what this blog is intended to do. Show off my stuff, for sure, but it's also here to give inspiration to scratch-builders and modelers like me who dove back into the hobby without the slightest clue as to what they were doing. I'll detail my mistakes so that you don't have to make them. It's about the best I can offer.

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