“GENESIS OF THE DALEKS” – Season 12, Serial 4, Story 78 – Written by Terry Nation; Directed by David Maloney – We’re continuing straight on from the events of THE SONTARAN EXPERIMENT, and the Doctor, Sarah Jane, and Harry are hijacked by the Time Lords and brought to Skaro, where they want the Doctor to shut down the Dalek threat before it ever gets going. They’ve arrived just as the Daleks are about to go into mass production by their creator, Davros, who’s making his world debut in this serial. And potentially his final appearance, too. Because The Daleks Ain’t Gonna Take Orders From Anyone Who’s Not A Dalek – Not Even Daddy Davros.
Welcome to Big Boy television, Doctor.
Not only is GENESIS OF THE DALEKS is one of the finest DOCTOR WHO stories ever broadcast, it’s also one of greatest television stories ever told. Even after 37 years, the writing, acting, and directing stand up as high quality, grown up television. There’s little pretending that GENESIS is, in any way, a kid’s show; cultural differences aside, I don’t remember Big Bird and the Count having too many conversations about committing genocide.
GENESIS is DOCTOR WHO at the height of its powers, featuring a mesmerizing, deeply philosophical script by Terry Nation, brilliant performances by the lead actors, solid direction by David Maloney, and some of the most finely conceived situations and temporary characters the program has ever seen. It demonstrates that, when they were on their game, there wasn’t anyone who could write DOCTOR WHO better than Nation, there wasn’t anyone who could do the Doctor better than Tom Baker, and there wasn’t a better Companion than Sarah Jane Smith.
Once on Skaro, the Doctor, Sarah, and Harry find themselves in deep into the Thal/Kaled War. With the planet in ecological ruin, Davros and the scientific Elite are building the Dalek travel units at the same time Davros has mutated the Kaleds to their final genetic form, which needs the Dalek units to travel. Sarah Jane ends up hanging with the Mutos, and then being held captive by the Thals, while Harry and the Doctor spend the bulk of their time with the Kaleds.
When Sarah is captured by the Mutos (genetic mutated people that both sides of the conflict abuse), two Mutos argue over what to do with her. One wants to kill her, but the other, Sevrin, ponders, “Why must we always destroy beauty? Why kill another creature because it is not in our image?” Nation peppers his scripts with these kinds of philosophical questions, and while it may seem trite that it’s the ugly people commenting on beauty, the question rings loud and true down through the ages. How many governments or organizations have sought the destruction have sought to kill someone or something simply because it was not one of them?
The question rings louder when Sarah and Sevrin are immediately captured by the Thals, and put to work as expendable slave labor. Sarah proves what a great character she is, though, in this sequence, because as scared as she is, she’s also willing to do something to get herself and the other slaves out of there – whether they’re Muto or Kaled. Sevrin’s questioning of Muto philosophy finds its antithesis in the form of Sarah Jane Smith.
I love, too, how Sarah is such a well-rounded character. She is both brave and afraid, at varying times in this sequence, needing Sevrin’s help because she has frozen during the escape but rallying him to have tried the escape in the first place. She can be fierce and strong, but she’s not some kind of heroic gladiator; at heart, she’s still a very normal young woman trying to do her best in an extraordinary circumstance. Occasionally, that means she gets overwhelmed and needs a little help – but then, isn’t that one of the reasons why the Doctor has Companions? To remind us that everyone needs a little help now and then?
What’s striking is that GENESIS depicts both Thals and Kaleds as war-like; unlike THE DALEKS, where the Thals and Khaleds were more clearly divided into the good guys and bad guys, here they’re both fully committed to the idea of bombing the crap out of one another. It’s a little thing, but an important thing, that both sides are equally good and bad because it reminds us that nations and individuals can change during wars, and more importantly, the individuals are not the same as their government. The Kaleds are clearly designed to remind us of the Nazis, yet there are people inside the Elite who are trying to stop Davros and the advent of the Daleks, a name that they have only recently heard Davros use.
“Dalek is a name new to you,” the Doctor explains to one of the Elite scientes, “but for a thousand generations, it is a name that will bring fear and terror.”
Baker hits all the right notes balancing the genuine wariness to the threat the Daleks pose with his own healthy ego. After making his case to the Kaled ruling council, he’s told, “That was a very impressive speech, Doctor.”
“Yes,” he replies, “it was meant to be.”
There’s a sense of fun, though, too, even amid all of this war and destruction and the impending birth of the Daleks. When Harry tells him they have to go back across the Wastelands, the Doctor replies with a big smile on his face, “And there’s where out trouble really begins.” In another spot in the narrative, the Doctor introduces himself to two Thal soldiers by saying, “Excuse me, can you help me? I’m a spy,” and then he bashes their heads together so he can steal their protective suits in order to save Sarah.
GENESIS contains all the elements of great WHO storytelling: a moving conflict touched with philosophical concerns, plenty of action, humor, and drama. There’s both failures and successes. There’s a strong Companion. There’s a Doctor who’s kind and generous, but also impish and egotistical. He has a warm heart but a quick temper. After the Kaled dome has been leveled, a female Thal tells the Doctor that all Davros wanted was peace when he gave the formula that allowed the Thals to destroy the dome. “Let me tell you something,” the Doctor says crossly, “The Kaled government was on the point of stopping Davros’ experiments. And rather than let that happen, he helped you to destroy his own race.” The serial puts the Doctor between what’s good for the many and what’s good for his friends, when Davros orders that he tell him the reason for every future Dalek defeat, and if the Doctor doesn’t tell him, or lies to him, it’s Sarah and Harry that will suffer.
And then there’s the big moral dilemma – should the Doctor commit genocide against the Dalek mutations and thus end the Dalek threat forever? As he stands outside the mutation room, all he has to do is touch two wires together and the Daleks don’t happen. Millions of people will be saved, and yet … he hesistates. Here, at the moment of triumph, the Doctor can’t follow through with genocide.
It’s a decision that rings down the ages of DOCTOR WHO, of course. Later in GENESIS, he goes back to kill all of the evolved Daleks but the script wimps out and has a Dalek’s last blast do the dirty for him. And even then, it’s only a temporary delay in the rise of the Daleks and not a permanent end to their involvement in the universe. The Doctor tries to say it’s a win because all of the evil the Daleks generate is balanced by all the good that comes from people bonding together to stop them, but it does feel like a bit of a cop out. It strikes me as someone saying, “We can’t have a depressing ending,” and that’s an example of short-term rather than long-term thinking. Maybe the serial benefits from finishing on a bit of an uptick (and I don’t think it does), but the long-term benefits making the Daleks even bigger and badder threats.
When the Elite were negotiating with Davros over ceding control to them and ending the Dalek operation, Gharman’s proposed ultimatum to Davros centered on morality; he tells Davros his side “will only continue with the work on the Daleks if he restores the brain cells, the conscience. The creature must have a moral sense, a judgment of right and wrong. In fact, all the qualities we believe are essential in ourselves.” This fails and the Daleks are left without a conscience. We see this in action before the serial is out when they kill Davros, the man who created them.
Davros is a fantastic villain, as dangerous in his own way as the Daleks are in theirs. It’s totally chilling when Davros gives the order to his newly created Daleks to “Exterminate! Exterminate! EX-TER-MIN-ATE!” Ronson, one of the men working against him because it provides a devastating link between the creator and his creation. Even when talking with the Doctor about time travel, Davros proves his wheels (no pun intended) never stop turning, admitting that “though the power is beyond my understanding, it is not beyond my imagination.”
And it’s Davros who prophesizes the future of his creation when he proclaims, “Today the Kaled race is ended, consumed in a fire of war, but from its ashes will rise a new race, the supreme creature, the ultimate conqueror of the universe, the DALEK!”
The Daleks are trapped in the rubble of the Kaled city, but they are not deterred. “We are entombed,” a Dalek says, “but we live on. This is only the beginning.”
And indeed it is.
GENESIS OF THE DALEKS is absolutely a Tier One serial, one of the very best in the program’s long and glorious run.
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