The TARDIS crew are, once again, sidetracked from returning to space station Nerva, this time by the Time Lords. On the planet Skaro, a Time Lord gives the Doctor a time ring, and tells him he must do something to prevent the menace of the Daleks. They will be a scourge on the universe for millennia, so the Doctor, Sarah, and Harry have been brought back to the time when the Daleks were created. This is their opportunity to at least delay their development, if not destroy them, or alter their genetics so they retain a moral conscience. Once they have completed their mission, the time ring will set them back on their course to the Nerva space station and the TARDIS. Of course, this is no easy mission. Not only is there a war going on between the Kaleds and the Thals, but Dalek development is taking place in a well-guarded bunker. And the Kaled chief scientist, the creator of the Daleks, is not going to let his life’s work die without a fight…
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
Not without its flaws (we’ll get to those in a moment), but “Genesis of the Daleks” definitely ranks as one of the classic Doctor Who stories. Written by Dalek creator Terry Nation, this six-part adventure explores the origins of the pepper pots, drawing from things we’ve learned from previous Dalek stories (e.g., that there is an organic, mutated life form inside the Dalek outer shell, and that there was a war with the Thals on Skaro at the time), as well as adding new information (and changing a few things, too). The biggest new revelation is the introduction of Davros, the evil genius who created the Daleks.
The basic plot is pretty solid. Davros has created the ultimate fighting machine to win the war with the Thals. But, in-keeping with his philosophy that peace can only come through absolute power and suppression of dissent, he has created the mutations inside the Daleks to be without morals or conscience. They are built to survive, and subjugate or eliminate all inferior life forms (i.e., anything not a Dalek). To his ethically-minded scientists and soldiers, such a creature is monstrous, so Davros manipulates acceptance of the Daleks by orchestrating an attack on the Kaleds by the Thals, necessitating the use of deadly force in response. Not only does this give him justification to use the Daleks, but it also serves to eliminate much of his opposition at home. There is still a lot of resistance to his experiments, so he tricks the opposition leaders into a conference wherein he unleashes the Daleks and destroys them all. In the midst of this, the Doctor, Sarah, and Harry are trying to prevent the Daleks from progressing any further, without losing track of the time ring that is their only way back to the TARDIS on space station Nerva.
Davros’s ideal of a super race creating peace by oppressive rule and forced removal of opposition mirrors Hitler’s ideology. Indeed, the likeness of the Kaled soldiers to German World War Two SS troops is very thinly veiled. Even their salute is taken from the Nazis. This isn’t a new theme; from the beginning, Nation modeled the Daleks on the Nazis, and their ideas of racial purity and power through strength. Here he makes the connection a little more blatantly obvious. That’s not at all a criticism. It works wonderfully well.
There are many things to praise about this serial. The main cast are on fine form, but there’s usually little to fault with Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen as the Doctor and Sarah Jane. Add to that Michael Wisher’s superb performance as Davros. He was the original, and he has never been bettered (though Julian Bleach in the New Series does an excellent job). His costume is surprisingly good for the time, leaving Michael’s mouth uncovered, yet made up to blend with the mask. Nyder, Davros’s right-hand man, played by Peter Miles, also puts in an outstanding villainous turn.
I also really like the ironic turnaround at the end of the story [serious spoiler coming up]. After proclaiming the Daleks to be the supreme beings of the universe, and touting the virtues of their pitiless amorality, what happens at the end? Davros gives them a command, and they refuse to obey. Why should they? The Daleks finally figure out that if they are the supreme beings, Davros is nothing to them. They don’t need him. And as they point their guns to exterminate him, Davros pleads for pity. “Pity?” the senior Dalek replies. “Pity is not in our vocabulary.” Of course it isn’t. Davros didn’t give it to them! Excellent writing.
Some less successful moments include–and maybe this is being a bit picky–the Time Lord’s costume. It reminds me of a court jester, only all black, which takes away some of the gravity of his mission. More seriously, Sarah’s attempted escape from the Thals by climbing up the rocket scaffolding is an obvious piece of padding. She gets to the top, is stopped by guards, and taken back down. The plot didn’t move an inch for all that, except for the fact that two of her friends died. But even that didn’t cause any emotional change in Sarah. And then there are “Davros’s pets”–particularly the giant clam that grabs Ian’s legs. Not the design department’s finest moment. Totally unconvincing.
Finally, some points of interest. In every Doctor Who serial, each episode after the first begins by replaying the cliffhanger from the previous episode. Not so episode two of “Genesis of the Daleks.” It just picks back up where it left off. Very unusual. Also unusual is the freeze frame cliffhanger at the end of episode two.
Of interest to me is the assertion of the necessity of morality and conscience in science. Clearly Davros doesn’t see such things as important. But I don’t think the Doctor really puts up much of a case for why, objectively speaking, Davros is wrong. If there are no objective standards of morality, right and wrong, why is it wrong for Davros to establish peace by brute force? Indeed, what makes the Daleks evil? Davros insists the Daleks are good, because they will end warfare and unite people under their supreme rule. In the end, the Doctor simply assumes a standard of morality and the necessity of conscience to justify his attempts to stop the Daleks. And I believe he is right. But my belief is based on a Biblical worldview. Where does the Doctor get his from?
The end is not entirely satisfactory. The Doctor didn’t stop the Daleks, so ultimately he failed in his mission. Of course, he couldn’t succeed, otherwise there would be no Dalek stories. But the Doctor falls back on an argument he made earlier, that some good must come as a result of the Daleks’ evil. Granting that, he still didn’t succeed. And maybe, in an odd way, that adds to the story’s success. The Doctor doesn’t always win the war, even if he’s victorious in battle.
To sum up, this is another must-see story. Aside from the issues above, it’s well written, well directed, even well lit (and lighting is an ongoing issue with Classic Who, with many serials being over-lit). And, of course, it’s Davros’s introductory story. All in all, well worth the time.