The Daleks. Far and away the most well known and popular of the Doctor Who villains - only the Cybermen come close. Due to their huge fame, there is a truly vast quantity of written material available on the Daleks. I shall try to provide a summary of only the most relevant information - the interested reader will have no problems finding more information on the web.
The writeup is split into 'Fact' (where I'm writing actual genuine facts) and 'Fiction' (where I'm writing from the context of the Doctor Who universe).
Side view of a Dalek (note, approx 5'4" (163cm) tall):
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See also the Dalek gallery on the BBC website - http://www.bbc.co.uk/cult/doctorwho/gallery/dalek/ - for some great pictures (at 1024x768!).
The Dalek is something of a cross between an electric wheelchair, an environment suit and a tank. It may look like a robot but there is in fact a living organism inside the metal unit. The organic Dalek creature cannot, however, survive outside its metal shell except in a highly irradiated environment.
The top protrusion is the Dalek's eyestalk, through which it sees the world. Hanging, for example, your hat on the eyestalk will effectively render it blind.
The Dalek has two arm-like protusions. Whilst they may vary across Daleks, it is most common for the left one to be a deadly energy weapon and the right to be a manipulator arm (resembling an Terran sink plunger). Flamethrowers, claws, machine guns and devices for emitting poisonous gases are other possibilities. The Dalek has only limited movement of these devices.
The lights on the Dalek's head flash when the Dalek speaks.
The hemispheres studding the sides of the Dalek are sensors.
The Dalek's method of locomotion is a large rotating ball in the base of the unit. They appear to glide across the ground. It is worth noting, though, that they have exhibited the ability to float off the ground, in order to ascend stairs.
The Daleks have used various different power sources. Some models were powered by static charge picked up from the floor of their own, specially outfitted city. The Daleks who invaded the Earth had a dish attached to their backs which apparantly picked up power, perhaps from their own microwave transmitter or possibly even our own Sol, although a model of Dalek with more familiar Terran-style solar panels exists. However Daleks have been encountered which apparantly have no need for external power, or at least can survive for a long time witout it.
The Dalek speaks with a synthesized electronic voice. When it becomes excited or agitated, the voice tends to rise in pitch. Its most common phrases are "I obey", uttered when taking an order from another Dalek, and the famous battle cry - "Exterminate!"
The Dalek units were made out of plywood and plaster. They were controlled by an operator sitting inside, who had limited vision through the wire mesh section of the head. The reason the lights on their heads flash is so that the viewer can identify which Dalek is speaking, since their voices are much the same.
The 'manipulator arm' is clearly made from or at least heavily inspired by a sink plunger, and, this breaking news from Master Villain, the typical 'energy weapon' arm, perhaps the most feared weapon in the universe, is made from the wire bits of a paint roller.
Both the Daleks and their oft-time enemy, the Doctor, have the capability for time travel. This may explain why their history is a little confused. The following is based essentially on the events recorded in Genesis of the Daleks.
On the planet Skaro, the two humanoid races, the Thals and the Kaleds, had been fighting for generations, leaving much of the planet as radiation-scarred wastelands.
Davros, the head Kaled scientist, conducted experiments on Kaleds that had been mutated by the radiation. He believed that the mutations were inevitable, and sought to create a mobile device to protect these mutants and allow them to exist in the hostile environment. Originally the 'Mark IV Travel Machine', this ultimately became the Dalek. Armed with energy weapons and unencumbered by morals, the Daleks were a formidable force.
The Daleks' first appearance on television was in the second story in the very first season of Doctor Who, in September 1963. Terry Nation's script described them as:
"...machine-like creatures. They are legless, moving on a round base. A lens on a flexible shaft acts as an eye. Arms with mechanical grips act as hands. The creatures hold strange weapons in their hands."
Ray Cusick was the man in charge of props and special effects for the series. Together with his fellow designers, he came up with a design for a robot resembling a five foot tall salt shaker. (However, Cusick has dismissed as a myth the popular suggestion that the BBC canteen salt shakers actually inspired the design).
The Daleks are convinced that they are the superior life form in the universe. They act without compassion or remorse and will adopt any means to achieve their ultimate goal of destroying or subjugating all other life.
They have time corridor technology, which allows them to travel in time. The Dalek time travel capability is pretty close to the Time Lords' - their time machines are dimensionally transcendental (bigger on the inside than the outside) like the TARDIS. Having no qualms regarding altering history, the Daleks' complicated history may be due to them interfering with their own timeline.
The Daleks have been known to use mind control devices in order to enslave members of other races, including humans, to do their bidding.
The Daleks typically travel in flying saucers.
The chain of command amongst Daleks is absolutely rigorous. When two Daleks meet, they immediately compare databases to establish which Dalek has lower rank, and then that Dalek will take orders from the other without question.
However, the events depicted in Remembrance of the Daleks indicate that this system fails if one Dalek does not recognise the other as being a Dalek. Being originally created to wipe out non-Daleks, Daleks are very keen on racial purity. At some point in their fractured history, they separated into Imperial Daleks, lead by Davros, and Rebel Daleks, led by the Supreme Dalek. The two factions do not recognise each other as true Daleks and so are just as keen to wipe each other out as they are every other race.
Note - at one point the Imperial Dalek power structure was headed by a large, static Emperor Dalek (which may or may not have in fact been Davros), with a Supreme Dalek as second in command.
The Daleks were immediately incredibly popular with the viewing public. Although originally there were no plans to write more Dalek stories, the public demand ensured that they showed up again and again. At the height of their popularity, the Daleks were something of a phenomenon, spawning endless merchandise, and even now they are deeply embedded in the national psyche in the UK.
Before the appearance of Davros, the Dalek stories showed them led by the Supreme Dalek and/or the Emperor Dalek. The Daleks had been around from some time before Davros was retroactively added to the scene in Genesis of the Daleks. At the end of Genesis of the Daleks, Davros was apparantly killed off.
However, the character was so popular that he was brought back. He gave a relatively human face to the Daleks, and certainly worked well, story-wise, as their spokesman. He appeared many times as the leader of the Daleks in subsequent stories.
This of course was slightly contradictory to previous stories where Davros was nowhere to be seen. The events of Remembrance of the Daleks, describing two separate Dalek factions, may have been an attempt to establish some semblance of continuity.
The Daleks appeared in the following Doctor Who stories.
They also appeared in colour for the first time in the two Peter Cushing movies, Dr. Who and the Daleks and Daleks' Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D., although these are not considered canonical.
Additionally, they showed up in the Doctor Who stage productions, The Ultimate Adventure and Doctor Who and the Seven Keys to Doomsday, and have made numerous appearances in comics, various TV specials, adverts, and so on. They nearly made it into the Paul McGann TV movie, but were relegated to a tiny voiceover part at the start, and The Master became the villain of the piece instead.
Many thanks also to my Whovian friend Jonathan Harding for proof-reading and suggestions, and to E2's resident Whovian Master Villain for numerous additions.
Doctor Who - Remembrance of the Daleks, ISBN 0-426-20337-2