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Doctor Who: Genesis of the Daleks (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Genesis of the Daleks originally aired in 1975.

Genesis of the Daleks is a great little story, and a strong contender for the title of “best Dalek story ever.” It works because Terry Nation takes his creations “back to basics” – not only in terms of time period, but also in terms of basic principles. If the Daleks are the embodiment of total warfare, it makes perfect sense to return to the war that spawned them, giving us an insight into their creation, and the philosophy that launched these deadly xenophobes into the wider universe.

Face of evil...

Genesis of the Daleks is known for its introduction of Davros, the psychotic, wheelchair-bound creator the Daleks. In fact, the character was so successful that he ended up appearing in every subsequent Dalek story over the course of the classic series. It’s something that’s frequently discussed among fans, as some suggest that the legacy of Genesis of the Daleks was to turn the iconic monsters into Davros’ puppets, while others suggest that it gave them a new leas of life, after the disappointing Pertwee era stories.

In fairness, it’s hard to talk about Genesis of the Daleks without talking about the context of the story within the show. The Daleks had been one of the most successful faces of the series since the second serial, with William Hartnell squaring off against the alien race at least once in each of his three full seasons. When time came to change the actor, with Patrick Troughton stepping into the role of the Doctor, the Daleks were the logical choice for his first adversaries – as if to reassure the audience that the show was still the same tea time science fantasy that they’d been watching for the past three years. However, due to Terry Nation’s own ambitions for the pepper pots, the Daleks were written out of the show in their second appearance opposite Patrick Troughton.

Let's not get our wires crossed...

So, there was a long period where the Doctor didn’t face his most iconic adversaries, spanning from the late Troughton years through the early Pertwee era. However, for the show’s ninth season, after years of being away, it was decided that the Daleks would return to Doctor Who. While Day of the Daleks is a fascinating time-travel story (and I’d argue the Daleks are well-used), a lot of people weren’t happy at the small role they played in it, having been written in at the last-minute. So Terry Nation submitted a six-part story, Planet of the Daleks, the following year – which was a lame re-treading of his earlier stories. Then the Daleks appeared the following year in Death to the Daleks. After being absent for years, the Daleks had appeared once-a-season for three years.

And a lot of people would argue that they weren’t good appearances. While each serial has their defenders, and I’ll gladly stand up for Day of the Daleks, it seemed that the glory days of the Daleks were behind them. They were no longer an army capable of conquering the Earth or destroying the Solar System. Instead, they struggled with killer plants and “ice volcanos.” It’s hard to argue that they weren’t in need of serious revitalisation when Terry Nation was asked to draft Genesis of the Daleks, a story that felt markedly different from any Dalek serial before.

Master of the Daleks?

For one thing, the Daleks are barely in it, appearing in the background for the first five episodes before coming to the fore in the final episode, by which point virtually everything has been resolved. Instead, Nation created Davros, the wheelchair-bound mad scientist responsible for the creation of the fiends. Davros is a fascinating creation, even after we’ve seen so much more of him. He’s a meglomaniac, whose outer deformities reflect an inner ugliness, and a sad little man who doesn’t even live up to his own standards.

Davros champions survival of the fittest, despite being confined to a wheelchair and despite being hideously deformed. “Only we, the Elite,” he assures Nyder, “we and the Daleks will go on.” Davros believes that survival is earned, and that anything short of perfection must be destroyed. In a way, it’s the extreme racism of his Kaled colleagues writ large. The Kaleds are terrified of anything different, using the slang term “muto” for those deformed in the “no man’s land” between the Thal and Kaled forces. Everyone in the story, including the mutants themselves, display absolute xenophobia, with even the deformed mutants planning to kill Sarah as a “norm.” Davros is just this racist philosophy pushed well past its extreme.

Soldiering on...

The irony, of course, is that Davros is actually engineering something that is “less than” what he is – after all, he removes their capacity for pity and mercy, without adding anything in their stead. There’s something poetic in the revelation that the Daleks, a race so fixated on racial purity, are mutations themselves. Indeed, there’s some rich poetic justice in the revelation that Davros himself doesn’t meet the standards he set for his creations. “Our programming does not permit to acknowledge that any creature is superior to the Daleks,” they advise him as he tries to give orders.

In fact, Genesis of the Daleks works well as a strong anti-war story, which is how nation had always intended his creations to be seen. In contrast to the one-day war suggested in The Daleks, this story see the Thals and Kaleds trapped in perpetual warfare – “war of attrition, only backwards.” Nyder references “the first century of this war”as if to imply it has been going a great deal longer. I don’t mind that Nation contradicts his own continuity, because it’s in service of a good story – in fact, I’d rather have this sort of fast and loose continuity in service of good stories than the sort of anal-retentive continuity of the eighties strangling bad stories.

Run!

The story does successfully capture the horror of warfare, where people can’t walk around for fear of treading on a landmine, and dead bodies are “propped up to make the trenches appear fully manned.” There’s something pretty depressing about a war that has caused ammunition to run so low that people are hung rather than shot to conserve bullets. It’s great stuff, and powerful – it goes right back to the heart of how Nation imagined the Daleks, and I think that’s why it works so very well.

That said, there are more than a few problems with the story. The most obvious is the logical problem of why the Thals and Kaleds seem to exist confined to two domed cities staring at each other across a battlefield that can seemingly be crossed in a matter of hours. There’s a whole planet out there, but it’s possible to wipe the Kaleds out by destroying one city. It feels strange and a little awkward. It simply doesn’t make sense if you stop to think about it.

The central dilemma is explosive...

There’s also the small matter of padding. Nation falls back on his old crutches here, with some random monsters to eat up space, explained away as Davros’ failed experiments. It’s just as strange a little moment as the excursion into the swamp in The Daleks and feels all the worse for it because the clam is obviously polystyrene. Still, these are both relatively small concerns, but they do eat into the story for me, as does the constant running back-and-forth between the two camps. Given the two city states are in a state of perpetual warfare, it really shouldn’t be that easy.

However, the serial is best known for its central moral dilemma, where the Doctor is plucked out of his on-going story-arc by the Time Lords to essentially conduct a black ops operation to prevent the Daleks from ever being created. This small introductory scene is fascinating for two reasons. The first is that it sets up the Time Lords as a more nefarious bunch than we’re used to seeing, a thread that will be followed up in The Brain of Morbius and The Deadly Assassin, using the Doctor as an agent they can plausibly deny.

Staying Davros' hand...

However, the scene also establishes the differences between Baker’s Doctor and his direct predecessor, Jon Pertwee. “Look, whatever I’ve done for you in the past,” he states, “I’ve more than made up for. I will not tolerate this continual interference in my life.” This isn’t the Doctor who formed a long-term association with UNIT, or who jumped through hoops for the Time Lords. Instead, this is a more bohemian soul. Indeed, Baker’s first season in the role is effectively one giant adventure, where the team have no comfort or no frame of reference – they are always moving and shifting, without eve the comfort of the TARDIS to keep them safe. It’s a nice scene that establishes Baker’s Doctor as a wanderer – while Pertwee’s Doctor always returned home, this Doctor didn’t have a home.

The Doctor’s moral dilemma is an interesting one, not only because it’s interesting on its own terms, but because it’s one he constantly revisits. There are serious implications throughout the series – from his attempt to kill Davros in Resurrection of the Daleks through to his successful genocide in Remembrance of the Daleks– that the Doctor would make a different choice if put back in this situation. Indeed, the new series implies that connecting the two wires could have spared his home planet and his family, by preventing the Time War.

Time and again...

“Listen, if someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?” he asks, making the Hitler reference fairly apparent. Of course, he could never do it – the Daleks are too popular to kill off – but it’s interesting to hear his rationale for sparing them. “Do I have the right?” he wonders out loud, which is an interesting take on it. This is a character who has been trusted with the entirety of time and space, which is no small responsibility. What right has he to alter what has already unfolded? It’s an interesting take on Scarlioni’s dilemma in City of Death and the Tenth Doctor’s actions in The Waters of Mars. While he attempts to justify it on the alliances the presence of the Daleks bring about, but he really seems preoccupied on whether he can do it, rather than whether it should be done.

Even when he refuses to go through with it, it’s hard to believe he’s entirely convinced he made the right choice. “You see,” he assures himself as much as Sarah, “I know that although the Daleks will create havoc and destruction for millions of years, I know also that out of their evil must come something good.”That sounds like a very hopeful sentiment, and I wonder how he would react if you put that quote to him years later. I don’t think his reasoning would hold up.

Hide and seek and destroy...

I do have to confess, though, that I find the story has a bit of a cop out ending. The Doctor doesn’t change history, by destroying the Daleks or learning their weaknesses. However, he does change history by delaying their development by one thousand years. I’m not sure that’s a good ending – it suggests that the Doctor was right to change things, and that he shouldn’t have just passively observed everything, but it seems like a false compromise. He suggests a reason to spare the Daleks is that “many future worlds will become allies just because of their fear of the Daleks”, but those alliances will be fundamentally altered anyway if the Daleks don’t emerge until one thousand years later. History has been so radically changed, I can’t help but wonder if you wouldn’t have accomplished a comparable scale of change by killing them? And if a universe where the Daleks are delayed is better than a universe where they aren’t, then surely a universe without Daleks is better than both?

Of course, this does ignore the central point – perhaps it isn’t that the Daleks shouldn’t be wiped out, but that the Doctor himself can’t commit genocide. If that’s the case, it does make his remarks about the Time Lords in The Brain of Morbius seem a little hypocritical – they won’t involve their “lily white hands”in dodgy activity, but he won’t either, so he’s really in little position to judge. Then again, maybe I’m over-thinking it.

Sadly, the episode is not about the Daleks' Phil Collins collection...

Genesis of the Daleks is a very good story. I think that it falls just a little shy of the “classic” status that many bestow upon it, but what do I know? It’s a great adventure that does well to take the pepper pot monsters right back to their roots, in all senses.

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2 Responses

  1. As a big fan of everything Dalek, this introduction was interesting, although not entirely satisfying. The idea that the Doctor might have erased the Daleks from history makes their entire saga more compelling.

    Of course, we all knew that he couldn’t do it in the end, but seeing Baker’s Doctor truly consider the extermination of an entire race accentuates that dark streak in his soul that is so often alluded to but so seldom seen on screen.

    Not without its flaws, “Genesis” is a must see for all Whovians and a fascinating watch. Also, I’ve found it’s best to enjoy them all together, rather than watch the episodes of the story individually.

    • It’s weird. There’s definite Nation-esque padding (giant clams!), but there’s a lot of this script that feels as much a product of Holmes and Hinchcliffe as The Ark in Space did earlier in the season.

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