Friday, December 10, 2010

Doctor Who Grab Bag Reviews: "Genesis of the Daleks"

Indeed, it is the return of the Grab Bag Reviews. And this time around the grab bag has gifted us with a story which many fans consider to be one of the best of Tom Baker's tenure as the Fourth Doctor and also one of the best stories of the Classic Series.

Back in 1975 Tom Baker was only in his first year in the role. Baker was following the popular Jon Pertwee and was also facing the fact that Pertwee had lasted longer in the role than any other actor to date -- 5 years. This meant that for a certain generation of fans the only Doctor they had ever known was Pertwee.

Along with a new Doctor there was also a new production team. Script editor Terrance Dicks had formally handed over the baton to new script editor Robert Holmes and producer Berry Letts had yielded the field to Philip Hinchcliffe (who would go on to put his own unique stamp on the series).

Before leaving Dicks and Letts had asked writer Terry Nation to submit a new Dalek story. Nation, who had created the Daleks and had written nearly every one of their stories up to that point, submitted something which both Letts and Dicks rejected as being too much like all the other Dalek stories of the last few years. In counterpoint, they urged Nation to instead tell a real origin story for the Daleks for a change. Nation liked this suggestion and soon crafted the script for what would become known as "Genesis of the Daleks".

Both Hinchcliffe and Holmes, as the new leads on the production team, were eager to move the show in a new direction and start using all new monsters. Letts and Dicks though convinced then that the Dalek origin would be too interesting to pass up. And in the end, despite Hinchcliffe and Holmes' stated desire for all new monsters, Tom Baker's first season was filled with old, familiar faces -- the Sontarans, the Cybermen and the Daleks.

Hinchcliffe and Holmes also returned to the old tradition of linked stories -- each serial followed on the heels of the previous one. Hence, "Genesis of the Daleks" follows immediately from the preceding story -- "The Sontaran Experiment" -- and "Revenge of the Cybermen" follows immediately after "Genesis of the Daleks".

Now, on to the review!

The Plot: The Doctor and his companions Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan are interrupted as they are trying to get back to the TARDIS after their last adventure. The interruption caused by a representative of the Time Lords who tells the Doctor that the High Council on Gallifrey has seen a potential future wherein the Daleks conquer all life in the known universe. This cannot be allowed to happen so the Doctor is ordered to see to it that the Daleks are never born or else that they made in a less vicious image.

Thus the Doctor and his friends find themselves dumped on Skaro without the TARDIS in the middle of a horrifying war that has been raging for over a thousand years between the Kaleds and the Thals. Can even the Doctor actually accomplish the task set out for him though? He knows what may happen if he fails but what cost might he have to pay if he succeeds? And throughout all of this he and his human companions must face terrible dangers, monsters, and even the shadow of death.

My Take: There is no getting around the fact that this story has been one of the most influential in Doctor Who history. To give you some idea just how influential... This story introduced the villain Davros and each incarnation of the Doctor with the exception of the Eighth and Ninth would have stories featuring Davros. Russell T. Davies, who relaunched the new series in 2005 has stated publicly that the roots for his idea behind the Time War came from the fact that the Time Lords tried to destroy the Daleks here. Davies would also return Davros to the new series with the epic-in-scope (if not in actual execution... but we'll deal with that much later) story "Journey's End". All of this brings baggage which can make it a little difficult to look at the story clearly -- but I'm going to try to strip all of that away and just look at the story itself.

Going straight to the writing, from the beginning, Terry Nation crafted the Daleks as a kind of way of hashing out World War II for a generation of children who were growing up with no memories of the war. With "Genesis" Nation increased those parallels even more strongly. This is actually kind of a bad thing because it was obvious enough in the original story; here it becomes something akin to being hit on the head with a brick. The Kaleds run around dressed in black with jackboots and jodhpurs; the character of Nyder even wears what appears to be an Iron Cross around his neck. There is also nothing subtle in their insistence that the Kaled race remain "genetically pure"; although here, instead of referring to people or Jewish or African descent it is used against Kaleds who have become mutated due to the biological, chemical and radiological weapons of the war.

One big difference is that, in the original Dalek story the Thals come across as pacifistic and rather nice people. In "Genesis" Nation throws that out the window and shows the Thals to be generally just as ruthless, uncaring and bloodthirsty as the Kaleds. The Thals use captured Kaled soldiers as slave labor as well as the genetically mutated victims of the war -- referred to derogatorily as "Mutos" and dehumanized even more by calling them "it" instead of "he" or "she".

This does lead to one of several interesting moral themes running through the story. Both the Kaleds and the Thals have ruined their planet and decimated their populations. They both talk about wanting peace and an end to the war but in every case they believe that peace can only be achieved through the total destruction of their enemies and they stubbornly refuse to see any other path to peace. The war has nearly destroyed them all and yet they war on.

The other moral theme is one explicitly stated by the Doctor -- does he have the right to destroy the Daleks? He is committing a form of genocide and no matter how evil the Daleks may be who is he to make such a decision? Is it evil to destroy utterly in order to prevent evil? How far is too far? There is some really meaty stuff here.

Nation's script also does a pretty good job with all of the characters. Tom Baker's Doctor is a tour de force as he gets to run from goofy lightness, to fear, to questioning, to righteous anger and all points in between. The script also lets the character of Harry Sullivan take a slightly more heroic turn giving him the start of a real character arc. When the season started Harry was largely the butt of jokes and his old-fashioned ways and wide-eyed disbelief didn't necessarily help matters any. "Genesis", however, shows Harry more and more coming to grips with the reality of traveling with the Doctor. The one regular character who doesn't fare as well in Nation's script is Sarah Jane Smith. While it's not quite as bad as some of the other female companions got Sarah comes of kind of uncharacteristically scream-y and wimpy here. She does little on her own initiative and most of what she does is react to situations instead of being more proactive.

The real standouts for this story, though, are with the villains. In Davros Nation created something truly chilling. The complete lack of compassion and empathy make Davros seem far more alien than the Doctor. His casual mania, god complex, and lack of appreciation for the value of life make him one of the stronger villains of the series. There is also the point that often the Doctor is facing off against a group of aliens. He faces Daleks and Cybermen in bunches and so there isn't always a sense of having a one-on-one relationship between hero and villain. There is a tendency among writers to give every good hero a good villain who is their equal and opposite -- For every Sherlock Holmes there is a Moriarty, for every Superman there is a Lex Luthor for every Batman there is a Joker and now for every Doctor there is Davros. One of my favorite scenes is one in which Davros tortures Harry and Sarah Jane to force the Doctor to reveal all of the future defeats the Daleks will suffer so that he can program them to win instead. After this display of callousness Davros turns and nicely invites the Doctor to sit down with him as two men of science. It is the equivalent of beating someone up and then asking them to join you for a cup of tea! It is the height of arrogance and madness and actor Michael Wisher portrays it all beautifully. Wisher manages to take his performance as Davros right up to the top but without going over it. Something that others who would play the character over the years were not always able to do.

And right up there with Davros is the slimy, equally evil Nyder. Davros's right hand man and yet with ideas all his own. He follows Davros not out of the desires of a bootlicker who hopes to ride coattails to the top but as an honest acolyte -- someone who truly believes in Davros's vision. Even when most of the other Kaleds realize what a monster Davros has become Nyder refuses to see it. One sociopath is chilling enough but having another character who is essentially just as sociopathic makes it doubly creepy.

But the script isn't all that perfect. As a six-part serial the story still drags quite a bit. There is far too much capturing and escaping and getting re-captured and re-escaping going on and it actually becomes dull after a while. There is also quite a bit of needless corridor running and the separation of the Doctor and companions in various combinations is a bit too forced and obvious.

There is also the aforementioned brick-to-the-head Nazi parallels (seriously, subtlety was not Terry Nation's strong suit) and a sad case of "Earth-alike" -- you know, that tendency in certain science fiction stories for alien races to develop weapons or societal ideas along lines remarkably similar to Earth's? Here while the idea of weaponry regressing in the face of a long war as resources are depleted is a very interesting idea it is stretching credulity to think that said alien races would develop weapons that look exactly like Earth rifles and land mines. I know the BBC props department was trying to save money but they could have done something to at least make them look a little more alien!

The filming for this episode, on the whole, worked quite well. There are all kinds of jokes about the show always filming in old rock quarries but for once it works. There is a kind of bleakness to it that puts the viewer in mind of a 'no man's land' -- of a land that has been abused by the fires of war to the point where little survives or grows or thrives. Everything is gray and cheerless -- even the sky. The real trouble comes in that, at that time period, the BBC used film for outdoor shooting and videotape for studio shooting. So the picture quality and overall look changes drastically from the location shoots to the studio sets and when they are put next to one another it is really jarring. The studio sets, on the whole, also look suitably militaristic and perfect for the Kaleds -- cold, sterile, scientific and unadorned.

There are some obvious prop problems though, the biggest one of which are the 'vicious, giant clams'. I wish I could say I was making that up. One of the elements of the story is that Davros experimented on other creatures -- mutating them -- before he created the Daleks. We hear the cried of some of these supposedly deadly creatures but we only see one in passing and one featured and the one chosen to provide that little bit of suspense and tension? A giant clam. First of all -- alien world -- what are they even doing having clams in the first place? Second of all -- a giant clam. A. Giant. Clam. They are not, on the whole, known for being very fast or very mobile (and here they're on dry land to boot) nor very vicious. And the fake-looking prop clams used here are no exception. No matter how much the actors try to sell it, it just doesn't work. It's obvious that most of the prop clams aren't moving and even the ones that do move just don't seem that threatening.

Stupid clams and padding aside, does this story live up to it's reputation? Does it deserve the high position it holds among fans as well as in the pantheon of Doctor Who stories? Well...... Yes. It may not be Emmy winning but considering the time period and considering the limitations of technology and budget the story was really reaching and stretching; expanding the boundaries once again of what the show could do and be. While some of the storytelling is simplistic and obvious there are also some weighty and meaty ideas raised and there is stuff here that even modern audiences can chew on and mull over. Tom Baker turns in an excellent performance and one can see that, within a very short time, he has already settled into his role as the Doctor, made the character his own, and would continue with a reassuring consistency of performance for most of the seven years he was on the show.

If you are a fan of the new series and if you're interested in RTD's idea of the Time War then this story is definitely worth a view. It's easy to see where he got the idea that this is where all the trouble really started. If you also want to see how Davros got his start well here it is. And, of course, for anyone interested in the Classic Series in general this is an excellent serial to view. Even with the problems the story still shows that Doctor Who had come a long way from the early days in terms of maturity of storytelling and serials like "Genesis of the Daleks" would only be the start of yet another step forward for the show.

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