classic ‘Doctor Who’ blogging: “Genesis of the Daleks”
(all spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode… or unless you don’t care if it’s spoiled for you. this is a love fest only — all complaints and bitching must come from a place of love / previous: “The Sontaran Experiment”)
It’s weird to look back at “Genesis of Daleks” now and know that the first time I saw this — it would have been back in the early 1980s — I had no idea what the hell a Dalek was. I had only just started watching Doctor Who at that point, when it was beginning to show up on American PBS stations (and would shortly become a staple for PBS for almost a decade). It’s sorta cool that my introduction to the Doctor’s most dogged enemies — and the universe’s most indestructible homicidal pests — turned out to be their origin story.
In retrospect, with the obsessively detailed knowledge about the Daleks I now have, there’s a real power in hearing the Doctor say, “Who is this Davros?” — even he doesn’t know everything about the Daleks he later will. Had he never investigated the history of the Daleks before? When the mysterious Time Lord to gives him this assignment to either prevent the development of the Daleks or to alter them to make them less aggressive, the Doctor doesn’t seem shocked or horrified by such an idea, which suggests that he has done things like this before… or that the Time Lords in general have made a point of meddling in the timelines. (Ya gotta love the Time Lords’ hypocrisy on this point: They pride themselves on their policy of noninterference… except when they can get the Doctor to do a little job for them. And, hey, if it all goes wrong, they can blame the renegade.)
I was a little too old at the point of my first viewing of “Genesis” to hide behind the sofa when faced with the Daleks — as was supposed to be the stereotypical kiddie reaction to the horror of these robot monsters — but there are some pretty scary things here that have stuck with me over the years. And when I watch this again, even almost 20 years later, those moments remind me of what an enormous impact Doctor Who had on my teenage geekitude.
Like the specter of the Doctor starring into the incubator room where the baby Daleks are cooked up: there is something particularly icky to be still in the slow reveal of what’s actually in that room. Over the course of the six episodes that make up this tale, we get several instances of the Doctor — once with Harry, once with Sarah — peering through the window into the room. All we see is the sickly green color the room seems to emanate, and all we hear is the ugly gurgling noise of whatever is growing in there. Oh, and we do see the looks of disgust and revulsion on the faces of the Doctor and Co. And even when do finally enter the room
there’s a smart holding back of revealing too much… though we do see, from the look on his face, that even the Doctor is hugely squicked by the Dalek creatures. (And he, presumably, has a pretty high tolerance for tentacly green alien things.) This was always part of the beauty of Doctor Who: that the makers recognized the limitations of time and budget and, often if not always, went in the direction of suggestion and let our imaginations take on the hard job of scaring the hell out of us.
These six episodes are, overall, a fantastic example of how very, very good and smart and thrilling Doctor Who could be. Some other six-parters can feel a bit padded out, but every moment feels necessary. There’s a sort of a slow building to the menace here, unlike some other long stories, and there’s so much story crammed in that some episodes begin with hardly any or even no rewind at all into the action of the previous episode.
And if I didn’t know enough at this point to be afraid of the Daleks, there was other creepy stuff that lingers with me to this day. And it’s pretty dark stuff for what is supposed to be a kids’ show.
• The deep and abiding racial hatred of almost every character is disturbing: “We’ll wipe the Thals from the face of Skaro!” “All norms must die!” “We must keep the Kaled race pure.” Ugh.
• The Thals’ use of prisoners to load their rocket, including Sarah and her muto friend, exposing them to “distronic toxemia.” I’ve long wondered, in the fanfic part of my brain, how many companions of the Doctor’s would later die, years after they left the TARDIS, of weird cancers that their medical doctors couldn’t even identify, because the companions were exposed to god knows what kind of alien radiation in their travels with the Doctor. Now I suspect that the root of that thought probably came from this aspect of “Genesis.”
• The Sarah-led escape attempt by the rocket-loading prisoners is awesome, of course — I have no doubt that I remember more of Sarah’s go-girl adventuring than I do the sometimes less than feminist things she was forced to do or say.
But what is truly horrifying about that bit is the guard who, once he catches up with Sarah, sadistically lets her fall off the rocket scaffolding, catching her at the last moment
and dangling her high above the rocket bay:
And then afterward, when he considerately does not drop her to her death, tells her: “In a day or so, you’ll wish I had let you drop” (because by then she’ll be dying a slow death from distronic toxemia). Christ.
• Davros’s treason against the Kaleds, his own people, by giving the Thals the secret they need to break through the protective coating on the Kaled city so that rocket can have its intended effect.
• The broad ideas that underlie the story, about chemical weapons and genetic mutations and endless war: these had to have been powerful memes in the Cold War 70s. I know they were for me as a teen in the 1980s, when I was convinced I would die — and soon — in a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
• The Doctor steps on a landmine!
I can almost never see anything about a landmine in any other movie or TV show and not think about Harry trying to wedge rocks under the mine so it doesn’t blow up when the Doctor steps off.
Also, we’re still in the era here when the Doctor wore real clothes. Yeah, the loooong scarf was a bit silly, but it was a believable affectation for an eccentric person, not a costume for a character. But when John Nathan-Turner took over running the show near the end of Tom Baker’s tenure, the Doctor’s clothes would from then on, through Peter Davison’s years, and Colin Baker’s and Sylvester McCoy’s, be self-consciously costume-y. I always hated that. (It even spilled over in to the American TV movie starring Paul McGann as the Doctor.) Not until New Who would the Doctor dress like a real person again.
So here, I love that his shoes are kinda beat up, and his trousers looks worn.
• But mostly, of course, the mindblowing thing here — from the perspective of the kid I was then, but also still now — is the Doctor’s moral dilemma. He has wired the Dalek incubator room with explosives, and he’s going to blow it up, as a last resort after he has been unable to convince Davros to give the Daleks a conscience or other moral elements to their genetic makeup.
I’m going to kill everything in the incubation room. I’m going to destroy the Daleks forever.
But then the Doctor hesitates:
Does he have the right to do this? he wonders.
Many future worlds will become allies just because of their fear of the Daleks.
And, of course, he considers that if he commits racial genocide on the Daleks, he’s no better than them.
What’s interesting is that the story never really resolves what the right thing for the Doctor to do actually is. Also left unexplored is why it might have been morally acceptable to alter the Daleks out of all recognition by ensuring that they had qualities that would render them un-Dalek-like, such as their own sense of morality, but actually destroying them is a step too fall.
None of that is bad. It’s because so much is left unresolved — and because the Doctor is so uncertain — that “Genesis” is so memorable. This must be one of the best stories of all of classic Who.
The Daleks are dealt a serious blow by story’s end — the Doctor thinks he’s delayed their development for maybe a thousand years — but over the course of eternity, that’s not much. They’ll be back… and so will Davros, even though it looks like he has, ironically, been exterminated by his own creations. In fact, the Doctor’s final words here
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.
will resonate in the David Tennant story “The Waters of Mars,” with, basically, the sparefaring future of humanity dependent upon one scared little girl facing a Dalek…
Random thoughts on “Genesis of the Daleks”:
• It’s so rare that we meet another Time Lord
that it’s impossible to resist the urge to yell at the screen. “Wait! Tell us more! Who is he? Why did the Time Lords decide now to try to reduce or eliminate the Dalek threat? Argh!”
• “Centuries between these two weapons…” When the Doctor, Harry, and Sarah note the odd disparities between the low-tech and the high-tech of the weapons and clothing that they find on the dead soldier
all I can think of is Albert Einstein’s thing about how he didn’t know how WWIII would be fought, but WWIV would be fought with sticks and stones. For all I know, writer Terry Nation was inspired by the comment of Einstein’s too.
• The other thing this story in general makes me think of if: “Vizzini said to go back to the beginning…”
I hate these guys.
And yet Harry-gone-Kaled is kinda hot:
• Never ask the Doctor to turn out his pockets.
“It might take some time,” he says. It might take for-damn-ever.
How interesting that he has a pair of 20th-century-Earth handcuffs among his other goodies, like the sonic screwdriver and the bag of jelly babies and the yo-yo and what I presume is a hunk of Jurassic Park mosquito amber. He doesn’t generally go around arresting people — though the cuffs do end up being used here — so perhaps he just picked them up at an airlock sale or something…
• From the long-lost Roger Corman flick Killer Clams from Planet Skaro:
• Oo, love that classic Skaroan Global War-era design:
• Hey, if Davros’ life support is so essential that he wouldn’t survive 30 seconds without it, why such an easily accessible switch?
• I wish we’d learned more about Harry over the course of his tenure on the TARDIS. He certainly could have been put to more dramatic use, in so many ways. His old-fashioned attitudes could have gotten more of a workout, but he also could have been more of a doctor and a soldier. I love how, when the Doctor tosses the gun to him, Harry is startled at first:
But he quickly recovers and is immediately acting the soldier:
Which is what he is. We tend to forget that Harry was a navy man. I wish he’d been more of a navy man than he was ever given room to be. It’s rare enough that the Doctor has a male companion, but it seems a tad unforgivable that in this instance, that male companion never really had room to be the man that he was.
• This hadn’t occurred to me the dozen other times I watched this story, but now I couldn’t help but think the second time the Doctor meets the Thal Bettan
that he’s auditioning for a new companion already now that he believes that Sarah and Harry are dead.
Of course, what’s he’s really doing, in prodding her to organize a Thal resistance to Daleks, is exactly what Jackie Tyler accused him of doing, making people do dangerous things and put their lives on the line in his name. Maybe it wasn’t Jackie… whoever it was, though, was absolutely correct. The other spin is that he inspires people to do great things, but however you look at it, people risk life and limb when he’s around, people who mightn’t have done that if not for him.
• We still have yet to learn why Davros is the way he is:
Again I turn to The Princess Bride for assistance: Was he burned by acid or something? Or has he merely been twisted by his evil?
• So it’s to be torture, then?
Davros wants to know, as he interrogates the Doctor, the details of every future Dalek defeat… because the Doctor has, perhaps unwisely, revealed that he is from the future. Shouldn’t the Time Lords have foreseen the possibility before they sent someone with such deep knowledge of the Daleks to stop them?
(The Doctor mentions, in his responses, an attempted Dalek invasion of Earth in the year 2000. I guess we dodged that bullet…)
• Great quotes:
“We Time Lords transcended such simple mechanical devices when the universe was less than half its present size.” –the mysterious Time Lord, about the transmat (I love this use of the size of the universe as a measure of time; it’s perfect, and exactly how we might expect a race like the Time Lords to talk about time, independent of other systems of timekeeping that are so provincial as to be solar-system-specific.)
“I enjoy interrogation.” –General Ravon
“Yes, you look the type.” –the Doctor
“Davros is never wrong about anything.” –Nyder
“Then he must be exceptional. Even I am occasionally wrong about some things.” –the Doctor
“It is an established scientific fact that in the seven galaxies, only Skaro is capable of supporting intelligent life.” –Ronson
“It is also an established scientific fact that there are more than seven galaxies.” –the Doctor
“Excuse me, can you help me? I’m a spy.” –the Doctor to Thal guards
“Listen, I’ve been down tunnels before, and I’ve just had a rather nasty thought.” –Sarah Jane
“Really?” –the Doctor
“Yes. Suppose something’s waiting for us in there?” –Sarah Jane
“That is nasty. Better not tell Harry — he’s gone first.” –the Doctor (and then he sends her in next)
“It is a word new to you, but for a thousand generations it is a name that will bring fear and terror.” –the Doctor on the word “Dalek”
(next: “Revenge of the Cybermen”)