Raymond Cusick, designer of the Daleks: 1928 – 2013

I wanted to take the time to remember Raymond Cusick, who passed away on February 21 at the age of 84.  Cusick was a long-time Designer working in the employ of the BBC.  It was in 1963 that Cusick made an indelible contribution to pop culture, when he designed the appearance of the Daleks for Doctor Who.

As many people are aware, the concept of the Daleks was originated by author Terry Nation, who wrote the original seven episode serial that marked their debut in late 1963, as well as many of the subsequent stories to feature the fascist mutant cyborgs.  But it was actually Raymond Cusick who conceived their iconic look.  The description that Nation provided in his original scripts was rather sparse:

“Hideous machine-like creatures, they are legless, moving on a round base. They have no human features. A lens on a flexible shaft acts as an eye. Arms with mechanical grips for hands.”

It was working from those few sentences that Cusick would create the now world-famous design for one of science fiction’s most enduring villains.  Obviously without Nation, there would have been no Daleks, period.  But without Cusick’s brilliant design, it is questionable that the monsters would ever have achieved anywhere near the fame and recognizability that they possess, in the process helping the entire Doctor Who series to achieve remarkable longevity.

Raymond Cusick alongside his iconic design for the Daleks
Raymond Cusick alongside his iconic design for the Daleks

I first became aware of Cusick and his work in 1986 when I read the non-fiction book Doctor Who: The Early Years, written by Jeremy Bentham.  In those pre-internet days, information about the show’s early seasons was pretty scarce, at least here in the United States.  Those few reference books that were imported here, such as Bentham’s, were an invaluable resource for young fans like myself.  The Early Years contained a wealth of in-depth behind-the-scenes information concerning the origins and development of Doctor Who in the early 1960s.  And a significant portion of the book was devoted to the contributions Cusick made to the series.

In addition to devising the look of the Daleks themselves, Cusick was the designer for their debut serial.  Among the other subsequent stories that he worked upon during the first three seasons of Doctor Who were “The Keys to Marinus,” “The Sensorites,” “The Romans,” “The Chase,” and “The Daleks’ Master Plan.”  His imaginative sets and props were extremely vital to the early innovative look of the series.

After departing from Doctor Who, Cusick went on to become a designer for a number of other productions filmed by the BBC.  He and his wife also opened a small hotel in South London which they decorated with many of the famous props and design illustrations he created during his time on Doctor Who.

I think that in the past Cusick’s contribution to the legacy of Doctor Who and the Daleks has often been overlooked or downplayed.  As a freelancer, Terry Nation retained ownership of the Daleks, and apparently made a fortune out of the vast licensing of them.  Cusick, in contrast, was a BBC employee, and so was only paid a regular salary.  At the urging of his supervisor, the BBC eventually gave Cusick a one-off “Special Merit” payment.  But for many years the majority of the recognition for the Daleks’ success, both in terms of money and publicity, clearly went to Nation.  I think it was due to the efforts of fans & historians such as Bentham that Cusick’s vital contributions were eventually recognized in subsequent decades.

The 2010 three disk DVD release of “The Space Museum” and “The Chase” contained a number of extras.  Among these was the 12 minute long “Cusick in Cardiff,” which documented the Dalek designer’s visit to the studios of the revived Doctor Who series.  I really enjoyed that one, because it was great to see the present-day creators of the show acknowledging Cusick’s contributions.

I’ve read that Cusick was not especially concerned with financial compensation, that it was more important to him to receive recognition for his role in the development of the Daleks.  His wishes were fortunately fulfilled in his later life, as fandom became more widespread & knowledgeable about the early days of Doctor Who.  Judging by the large number of obituaries that I have read over the last few days, all of which have credited him as “the designer of the Daleks,” it seems that the record has been clarified, and Cusick’s contributions to the Doctor Who mythos are now firmly established.

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