Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Random Who Report: Genesis of the Daleks (1975)
A late start is better than no start at all, or at least that’s what I tell myself. And I’m starting with a classic: GENESIS OF THE DALEKS, one of the best known Who stories from one of its best-loved eras, and a strong candidate for the title of best Who story ever. Not only does Terry Nation come up with a compelling origin story for WHO’s most popular monsters, he uses the show’s traditional corridors-and-cliffhangers structure as a vehicle for difficult moral and ethical questions. It’s genuinely great science fiction drama, on a level not often expected of a show that’s made its reputation as light entertainment.
The Doctor (Tom Baker) and his companions Harry (Ian Marter) and Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) are pulled away from their most recent adventure by the Time Lords, who forsee the genocidal Daleks destroying all life in the universe and want the Doctor to destroy them before they are created (or alter their development so they don’t turn out so evil.) Our heroes are unceremoniously dumped on the Dalek home planet of Skaro, in the midst of a centuries-old war between its original inhabitants, the Kaleds and the Thals. Soon after arriving they are split up by a gas attack. Sarah falls in with some rather normal-looking mutants (called Mutos) before being captured by the Thals, while the Doctor and Harry end up in Kaled territory, where they meet the wizened and sinister scientist Davros (Michael Wisher). Officially he and a bunch of other scientific elites are developing weapons to help win the war, but Davros’ real project is to develop a travel machine for the hideous mutant embryos that the war’s chemical weaponry will force the Kaleds to evolve into. The resulting creations are the first Daleks, armored killers under Davros’ control, and he aspires to make them the dominant life form in the universe. Not only does the Doctor have to try and put a stop to his plans, but he has to keep his friends from being caught in the crossfire as the war between the two races reaches its brutal end.
A child of World War Two, Nation often said that he had based the Daleks on his memories of the Nazi threat, and so it’s appropriate that for their origin story he goes to World War One. The first images of soldiers in gasmasks running across barren fields and ducking into trenches, in a war that has devolved into two domes shooting at each other across a poisonous wasteland, give the story an immediate resonance. It’s not a straight allegory for the rise of fascism in Europe, but echoes here and there (especially pertaining to eugenics) keep popping up. Nation never does explain how the entire population of the planet got reduced to two domes that happen to be right next to each other, but I’ll take it as convenience. (Similarly, the Mutos don’t really look deformed, just sort of rugged- but then that may be a deliberate callback to Nazi standards of racial purity.)
This is a grim story, moreso than average for the series- producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes would get a reputation for dark and scary shows very quickly, but this is unusually apocalyptic even for them. We know horrible things are about to happen, and though the show’s family viewing slot prevents it from going too far, it’s unusually frank in showing the horrors of war and genocide.
Of course, this is still DOCTOR WHO- it’s not without humor, and Tom Baker’s moody take on the character allows him to deliver quips and wrestle with the gravity of his situation. Indeed, Terry Nation- whose first Dalek story, the show’s second serial overall, helped establish the conventional formula- tended to write traditional runarounds, and in a way that’s what this is. The characters are separated early, they meet opposing groups and so explain the background and conflict, and have a succession of escapes, captures, run-ins with monsters, deathtrap evasions and so on as the larger plot unfolds. GENESIS OF THE DALEKS features all these things, especially since it’s a six part story and needs to reach that length somehow; there’s some padding around episodes two and/or three, and to be brutally honest I’ve yet to come across a six parter that doesn’t have this problem.
However, the constant thrills and spills actually provide a nice backdrop to the major conflicts of the story. Because there’s no one group on Skaro who are clearly the good guys, the Doctor has to actively search for their better natures, to convince them that a greater evil will arise from the immediate good of ending the war. Several characters are faced with making sacrifices in the name of greater good, whether it be leaving a friend behind or letting an enemy live. And ultimately the Doctor has to face up to the reality that if he destroys the Daleks, he commits genocide.
And then there’s Davros, one of the finest villains on the entire show. He’s a focused megalomaniac, interested not so much in temporal or political power as in a kind of immortality through his creations, bred to survive by exterminating all other life. It’s terrifying to see the Doctor finally pitted against someone as clever as he is, without any ethical barriers whatsoever, and he manages to terrify nearly everyone working for him, not that he cares. Visually he bears a weird resemblance to the near-dead grandfather in Tobe Hooper’s TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, and his shriveled visage and grating, near-Dalek voice are the stuff of nightmares. The production design is appropriately monochromatic, and though there is a truly laughable “attack” by giant and clearly immobile mutant clams (one of Davros’ failed experiments, though probably good eatin’), mostly the production values are pretty strong.
For most of its run, both old-school and new, DOCTOR WHO has been content to be straightforward sci-fi entertainment for the whole family, and that’s just fine. Doing that right is an artistic achievement in itself. But GENESIS OF THE DALEKS uses the familiar formula of the show, and the marquee value of the Daleks themselves, to explore some serious questions of morality and to expose the most insidious kinds of evil- the dislike for the unlike, the desire for control and security, the dehumanization of war. It makes its point with only a little preachiness, and on top of that it simply shows the traditional structures and conventions of DOCTOR WHO at their most effective. If you want to see the show at its best, this is where to look.
Written by Terry Nation
Produced by Philip Hinchcliffe
Directed by David Maloney