Sunday 17 February 2013

Genesis of the Daleks

My first experience of Genesis of the Daleks was listening to the audio recording. I was given the cassettes for Christmas in 1991, shortly before going on holiday to Cyprus. I was ten years old at the time. I later watched the repeat in 1993 and read the novelization again and again. The thing is, I loved Genesis of the Daleks not because I thought it was a great Doctor Who story (I have no idea what stories I considered to be great when I was ten or twelve; I probably did not think in those terms). The reason I liked Genesis was because it had lots of guns and Nazi-like uniforms. As a boy I loved guns and Nazi uniforms. I am one of those Englishmen who have a suspicious enthusiasm for Nazi uniforms. As an adult, I have rather fallen out of love with Genesis of the Daleks, even though I still quite like the look of Nazi uniforms.

I really do understand why people love this story so much. Great work from the regulars, an amazing performance from Michael Wisher as Davros, great direction, some nice designs and most of all, a sense of grand cosmic drama. Yet for all these strengths, quite a number of things really bother me about this story.

The biggest problem I have with this story is the basic premise. Dr Who is instructed by the Time Lord to prevent the creation of the Daleks. This seems to go against everything we know about these guardians of history. To eradicate the Daleks from history would surely completely disrupt the web of time, altering the very history of the universe. Yet Dr. Who says it is 'feasible.' Even though it would surely alter his own personal history? What would happen to Susan if there was no Dalek-ravaged earth for her to settle on? How would Ian and Barbara get back without the aid of the Dalek time machine? I understand the show has moved on from the sensible days when you couldn't change one line of history, but this is surely going a bit far. Maybe it was the Black Guardian in disguise, or Faction Paradox, or maybe the Time Lords were just having a laugh at the Doctor's expense. Perhaps they would have whisked the Doctor away if he had come close to actually destroying the Daleks. But that still doesen't explain how he thinks it is 'feasible.' You can try to retcon this and talk about the Time Lords foreseeing their own destruction in the Great Time War, but that is still a retcon at the end of the day. What we see in this story is at odds with everything that has gone before.

In general, I am not a big fan of origin stories. Sometimes they work, but they do run the risk of undermining their subjects. Sometimes an origin is best left to the imagination. We could never have a satisfactory origin story for Dr. Who himself. I do think that Genesis of the Daleks undermines the concept of the Daleks somewhat. In their debut serial, the Daleks were a kind of force of nature, a physical manifestation of the military devastation unleashed upon Skaro. Here they are reduced to the creation of yet another mad scientist. This is made worse by the return appearances made by Davros in future Dalek stories, overshadowing his creations.

I also dislike the crass literalism of this story. It has been obvious since the very second Doctor Who serial that the Daleks are supposed to be a bit like Nazis. Was it really necessary to make this obvious by making their forbears dress in fascistic uniforms and jackboots? The viewer is being treated like an idiot. This is the same kind of crass literalness that makes Azal look exactly like a traditional image of Satan, as if the viewer did not already get all the other Satanic references in The Daemons.

As with the Nazi uniforms, I think the serial goes a little too far in trying to capture the visual feel of the First World War. I really do appreciate the efforts to create the sense of a dark, brutal and hopeless environment. I also think the scene with the Thal soldier tormenting Sarah is essential. It shows that the Thals are just as bad as the Kaleds. In fact, they are probably the aggressors in this war, given that we are told in The Daleks that they were warriors, while the Daleks (Kaleds?) were philosophers and teachers. Yet I can't help thinking that the grim imagery is not how I like to see the Daleks. There is a definite sense of Sixties kitsch about the Daleks, that actually works well with their scariness. There is something comical about the Dalek appearance that makes them all the scarier and this does not work well with the darkness of the setting. I rather miss the original image of Skaro as a strange and exotic place. On this score, the origin story in TV21 fits the Daleks rather better.

It is often claimed that Genesis of the Daleks has a great moral depth. Moral depth my foot! Look at Dr. Who's famous 'Have I the right' speech. Prior to making this speech he had been quite happy to destroy the Daleks. Then as soon as he has made this speech, his Kaled allies tell him that will halt the Dalek production and presumably destroy the incubated Daleks. The Doctor is delighted. This makes him look like a moral coward who prefers others to do his dirty work. Then later he decides to blow up the incubator room. Finally, it turns out that destroying the incubator room won't stop the Daleks anyway. Can anybody see any meaningful contribution to ethical philosophy in all this?

In the end, Dr. Who claims that the Daleks have been set back a thousand years in their development. Really? Are the Daleks really unable to clear away a bit of rubble? The destruction of the incubator might seem more of a problem, but the Daleks don't seem worried about it, so they can probably breed some new embryos within a year or so. While the Discontinuity Guide absurdly claimed that Dalek history had been re-written after this story, Remembrance of the Daleks makes clear that the Dalek invasion of Earth happened on time. I think the events of Genesis change absolutely nothing. I think the Doctor is simply trying to make Sarah feel better.

It is rather hard to get past the absurdity of the idea that this is a war that has lasted thousands of years despite the fact that the Thal and Kaled cities are within walking distance of each other, especially given that weapons of mass destruction had originally been used to fight it. This is made even sillier when we find out that the Kaled have an hidden passage into the Thal city. This is a cardboard planet. When we first saw Skaro in The Daleks, it was a diverse place, with mountains, plateaus, petrified jungles and swamps. Now it is just a rocky battlefield (that looks like a quarry) and two cities. It is amazing how Skaro actually looked so much bigger in a television studio.

Just how rubbish is Davros' scientific elite? They have been in operation for fifty years (and not just working on Daleks), yet it is perfectly obvious that the Thals are technologically superior in every way. They have laser guns (courtesy of the Drahvins), they can build a rocket armed with distronic explosives and the Kaleds suspect them of using robots. You would think that somewhere along the line, the Kaled leaders would have asked Davros what he was doing with their funds.

Peter Miles has rightly been praised for his fantastic performance as Nyder. He really is a pleasure to watch in this story. Yet Miles' fantastic performance only draws attention to the lack of characterisation of Nyder. We are given no sense of Nyder's motivation. We want to know why Nyder is so fanatically loyal to Davros. It cannot be put down to blind fascistic loyalty, as Nyder has clearly made an active choice to give his loyalty to Davros over and above the Kaled government and military leadership.

One actor that deserves a bit of extra praise is Guy Siner as General Ravon. He's such a great character; I adore the way he can't deliver two sentences without launching into a speech. He's not altogether a bad guy, either, note his sympathy towards the Doctor in the Kaled city.

I don't deny that this production has it's strong points and is certainly enjoyable, yet it is a story I have major issues with and one that I do not care for. The Daleks was a much better story than this.

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