Doctor Who complete reviews: Genesis Of The Daleks
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Does the most-celebrated Doctor Who story ever still live up to its reputation..?
You might have heard of Genesis Of The Daleks. It’s been touted as one of the greatest Doctor Who serials of all time. It’s been on TV umpteen times. It’s out on video, DVD and is even available as a record. In short, Doctor Who without Genesis Of The Daleks is like having a gourmet meal without cutlery.
With all this adulation, Genesis has earned itself a reputation for being a bona-fide classic. It’s a tricky term, this. On the one hand, it’s one of the stories that you might show a new Who convert on account of its brilliance. The downside is though that some people may find it a bit over-rated or not worth the praise. At the turn of the 21st century, it was in danger of being as over-exposed as that other much-loved institution, Only Fools And Horses. Remember when the sitcom was practically on TV all the time? And in danger of losing its novelty value? Well, that was a danger with the many repeats of Genesis. After its initial broadcast in March 1975, it was chosen as the Christmas omnibus in the same year. It was then sliced up into two chunks in 1982 as part of the Doctor Who And The Monsters season. In 1993, it was inexplicably chosen as the Tom Baker serial as part of the BBC2 repeat season, even though it was out on video, and most fans would probably want a rare glimpse of say, The Seeds Of Doom. And then in 2000, when the Jon Pertwee serials hadn’t gone down too well on the same channel, Genesis was wheeled on again to alarmingly smaller viewing figures (after which BBC2 lost patience and stopped showing the repeats - remember, it’s all about viewing figures, people).
Nevertheless, all this over-exposure still hasn’t damaged Genesis’ credibility too badly. So why all the fuss? After all, it’s full of Terry Nation clichés that everyone laughs at: The Doctor and a companion get split up. There’s a regression from future to past in terms of equipment and technology. There’s lots of over-earnest speech-making and hand-wringing. There’s even the traditional quest which is quickly set out by the lone Time Lord in the opening moments of part one.
The reason is, though, that it’s everything that you could possibly want from a Doctor Who story. It’s dramatic. It’s hugely intelligent. It’s witty, with frequent lashings of dark irony. It’s scary. It’s extremely well made. It’s brilliantly acted. Oh, and it also features our first glimpse of Davros, the evil genius behind the Daleks.
In fact, the Daleks don’t really feature that much in this story. They trundle on to screen from time to time (normally to exterminate some luckless rapscallion), but this is more of a story about Davros and his insane quest to establish the Daleks as the supreme beings. Davros is the first of the true Hinchcliffe/Holmes baddies, a Grand Guignol character that’s a truly formidable opponent for The Doctor to face off against. As with many future baddies of this type, the fourth Doctor will sit down with Davros and almost casually talk about his demented plans. In this instance, there’s the celebrated scene in which Davros refutes The Doctor’s claim that the Daleks are evil - before The Doctor goes on to put the hypothetical question to Davros as to whether he would allow the use of a deadly virus.
"Davros may look scary to the kids (with a face that looks like a cross between Albert Steptoe and a punctured football), but even to grown-ups, this is one scary man - just on account of his sheer ruthlessness and determination to see the Daleks survive"
Needless to say, Davros would allow its use - disturbing enough on its own terms, but made even more sinister by its execution. We focus on Davros, talking in a silent, calm whisper about the hypothesis. His voice gets more excited, his withered claw clasped around an imaginary phial of virus - and before you know it, his claw’s broken the phial as his voice rises to a deranged shriek: “That power would set me up among the gods! And through the Daleks, I shall have that power!” And all the while, Dudley Simpson craftily underscores this with a score that starts off as a single, quiet keyboard note before erupting into a dramatic crescendo. An absolutely brilliant scene, and one that’s rightfully been quoted as one of the all-time quintessential Who sequences.
This is only one such instance of Davros’ single-minded goal. In order to establish the Daleks as the ultimate force for power in the galaxy, he’s prepared to wipe out anyone that gets in his way. He’s not averse to shooting “The Thal Spy! Ron! Son!” and even worse, he allows the Thals access to a formula that will destroy the Kaled dome and its people - all because a Kaled tribunal wish to investigate allegations of Davros’ misconduct. Naturally, he orders the Daleks to wipe out the celebrating Thals, and just to finish off, he orders the mass exterminations of Elite rebels. Davros may look scary to the kids (with a face that looks like a cross between Albert Steptoe and a punctured football), but even to grown-ups, this is one scary man - just on account of his sheer ruthlessness and determination to see the Daleks survive.
As with all great Doctor Who villains, though, Davros’ personality proves to be his own undoing. In one of the most deliciously ironic ’deaths’ in Doctor Who, Davros is killed because in the end, he proves to be a massive irrelevance to the Daleks. The Daleks are programmed to be the superior beings, so when Davros starts to try to order them about at the end, this falls on deaf ears (do Daleks have ears?). Initially calmly thinking a malfunction has happened after the automated Dalek production line has started without his authorisation, Davros rapidly realises his folly. Having picked loyal scientists to help develop the Daleks, Davros’ creations don’t care at all and open fire on them without hesitation. And before you know it, he’s ranting at the top of his voice about how he created them: “You cannot exist without me!” he pleads. “You cannot progress!” Finally, he concedes defeat and scuttles off to the Destruct button which will wipe out the Daleks, but he’s exterminated by his own creations. Oh, the irony.
Now that would have been the perfect end to a perfect character and poetic justice would have been served. Sadly, though, it wasn’t to be, as the character was brought back to diminishing returns. Unfortunately, in future stories, Davros would just be reduced to a gurgling, ranting fool in a motorised dustbin, without any of the original subtle depths. Such a shame, and although Julian Bleach’s recent performance was better than David Gooderson’s and Terry Molloy’s, he couldn’t even begin to match Michael Wisher’s outstanding portrayal. I’ve said in previous reviews that Wisher was one of the most versatile guest actors in Who, and his performance as Davros really clinches this. Wisher is totally mesmerising in the part, roaring at the top of his voice when required, but sometimes just sitting immobile and muttering in a barely audible whisper. Wisher brings all the subtleties necessary for the part, and succeeds in creating a three-dimensional baddie that’s terrifying for the kids and oddly compelling for the grown-ups. Oh, and he’s responsible for one of the most convincing death screams in Who - that last deafening prolonged shriek of pain and regret is chilling to the core.
Genesis is all about choices. Davros in the end, makes the wrong choice, and one that proves fatal - well, for the moment. The Doctor, too, is faced with the ultimate decision - whether to kill the Daleks or not. I’ve mentioned this scene already in my Defining Doctor Characteristics article, and again, it’s one of the most infamous in the show’s history. The Doctor, like Davros before him, almost has a god-like power over whether a whole race gets to live or die. And it’s fascinating to witness with Sarah acting as an anti-Jiminy Cricket in his ear - but The Doctor knows that it isn’t as simple as wiping out a race because they‘re bad. He produces a string of scenarios, including whether it’s possible to kill a child that could grow up to be a fanatical dictator - or whether the Daleks actually could bring about peace and unite races in their hatred of the pepperpots. The Doctor is the ultimate moral compass, so to wipe out a whole race would mean - as he says himself - that he’s no better than the Daleks. Brilliant scene, expertly scripted and perfectly acted by both Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen.
Even the lesser characters have big choices to make. Take Ronson and Gharman, the two Kaleds with a conscience. Ronson has the choice of whether to follow his own instincts and allow The Doctor to escape - or whether he turns a blind eye and allows Davros’ experiments to follow their natural course. Initially, you think that this is what Gharman will do, but after he’s seen Ronson’s death and been handed a list of chromosomal variations that will make the Daleks unfeeling, heartless machines, he too, decides that something must be done.
"Henchmen have come and henchmen have gone, but none are quite as viciously dedicated to their master as Nyder"
Just as ironically, though, as soon as you think that they’ve achieved some sort of victory, the tables are quickly turned. Even though The Doctor and Harry manage to escape, Ronson is swiftly framed for the destruction of the Kaleds and subsequently used as target practice for the Daleks. Likewise, when you think that Gharman and his buddies have achieved stalemate, in fact, they too have been singled out as obstacles in Davros’ way and are exterminated en masse. Even Kravos, Davros’ human guinea pig is quickly pushed into the fire of a Dalek gun by Nyder.
Ah, Nyder. Look up 'Bastard' in the Doctor Who Dictionary, and you’ll see a picture of his sneering, bespectacled head. Henchmen have come and henchmen have gone, but none are quite as viciously dedicated to their master as Nyder. Despite an iffy-looking toupee, Nyder is one of the most chilling human baddies in Doctor Who. The eerie, clipped speech. The creepy specs. The ignorance of the deaths of several lives. “Did you ever doubt me?” asks Davros when Nyder questions whether he would go so far as to wipe out the whole of the Kaled people. And in the same breath, he simply replies “No” without so much as a shrug. It’s a mixed reaction when he inevitably gets exterminated. On the one hand, it’s gratifying to see the bastard get his just reward, but on the other, he doesn’t scream in pain like the other victims. Now that’s just wrong. Peter Miles is brilliant in the part, very convincing as the dedicated sadist, and what’s more it’s even more effective because his performance is so underplayed.
Nyder’s in good company when it comes to bastards though - there’re quite a few Nyder wannabes peppered throughout Genesis, including Ravon in part one (although he inexplicably changes sides in part three), the pompous Tane in part two and the brutal Kaled guard who dangles Sarah several feet in the air. Two out of these three are played by ’Allo ’Allo stalwarts - Guy Siner (Gruber) as Ravon and Hilary Minster (Von Klinkerhoffen) as the guard - and even though they get limited screen time here, they’re worryingly convincing as the angry hotheads.
"Nearly all of the characters scream in agony, and so the Daleks are much more of a genuine threat than in earlier stories"
The scene in which Sarah is dangled in the air for kicks shows how different Doctor Who has become under the stewardship of Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes. Genesis Of The Daleks is one of the stories that got Mary Whitehouse’s knickers in a twist, with its scenes of cruelty and themes of genetic warfare. The first scene alone shows a small army of soldiers getting mown down in slow motion by bullets. This certainly isn’t Planet Of The Daleks we’re talking about here. Even look at the difference between the exterminations in both stories. In Planet, characters just flailed their arms about, and jumped from side to side, but in Genesis, an extermination means agonising, painful death. Nearly all of the characters scream in agony, and so the Daleks are much more of a genuine threat than in earlier stories.
Mind you, it must be said that some of the deaths are a little, um, hammy. It’s difficult to work out who goes the most OTT when zapped. Gharman’s crazed shrieks mean that he’s near pole position - although I kind of wish he’d done that squeak again, like when he’d fallen victim to Nyder’s own brand of Ecky Thump in part four. Kravos also gives a good, hearty bellow when zapped. But in the end, it’s Ronson and his impersonation of a laxative-affected bull that takes the awards.
And a word of warning - don’t watch part six with the window open. There’s so much screaming and shouting that passers by will wonder what the hell you’re doing in your living room. And if you do, don’t be surprised if the police pay you a call.
The only other minor problem is that silly giant clam that decides to eat Harry’s foot. Not exactly the most credible threat in Genesis, the giant clams are mercifully kept to the shadows. But even then, couldn’t they have served some other function? Maybe they could have been forefathers of Paul The Octopus and decided which Kaleds wouldn’t have passed muster in Davros’ elite World Cup squad.
"Terry Nation’s script is his best accomplishment for Doctor Who, a whirlwind mix of drama, violence, humour (“No tea, Harry”) and intelligent moral dilemma"
These are only small niggles though, and altogether, Genesis is superb. Terry Nation’s script is his best accomplishment for Doctor Who, a whirlwind mix of drama, violence, humour (“No tea, Harry”) and intelligent moral dilemma. It’s well matched by David Maloney, who also puts in some of his best work for the show. Maloney manages to bring a sense of pace and urgency to the serial, delivering some memorable set-pieces in the process. Aside from the memorable cliffhangers (the freeze-frame of part two, the close-up shot of The Doctor’s agony in parts three and four), there are several well-executed set-pieces dotted throughout, such as the opening massacre, Davros’ talk with The Doctor, and the closing crescendo. Every shot is carefully considered. Every sequence is filmed to get the most dramatic impact. Every actor is chosen to deliver a convincing performance. And even though the screams are a bit hammy, James Garbutt as Ronson and Dennis Chinnery as Gharman are superb.
On the other side of the tracks, Stephen Yardley as Sevrin the Friendly Muto and Harriet Philpin as Bettan are just as good. And of course, Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter are excellent throughout. This is probably the last proper instance of The Doctor/Harry double act, and both Baker and Marter really pull it off, whether they’re joking around about Latin or cups of tea, bravely withstanding interrogation or successfully coaxing Ronson round to the rebellion.
In the end though, The Doctor only achieves a bittersweet victory. Not only has he only defeated rather than destroyed the Daleks, countless lives have been lost in the process. Still, he’s in philosophical mood as the Time Ring whisks the trio away, musing that even the Daleks can cause some kind of good. Ah, it’s that sort of intelligent reasoning that makes Genesis Of The Daleks so special. It doesn’t debate issues in clear-cut black and white, it goes a lot deeper, looking at both sides of the argument and leaving the viewer to assess who’s right and who’s wrong. Moral complexities aside, Genesis Of The Daleks completely deserves its classic status. The script, acting, direction and even the effects come together to create a seamless vein of quality. Sheer genius.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.