The classic Doctor Who story ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ has been released over 20 times across books, videos, DVDs and even vinyl recordings, and it frequently tops fan polls to find the favourite serial. But what is it about this adventure that makes it so popular?
In some ways, ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ is far from a conventional Doctor Who story. For a start, one of the series’ main icons, the TARDIS, doesn’t even feature. This is because ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ comes in the midst of a longer story arc, with the Doctor and his companions having teleported from the Nerva Beacon in the previous tale to deal with the meddlesome Sontarans.
And in this story, their journey has been intercepted by the Time Lords in order to set the Doctor a dangerous mission: to travel back in time to the creation of his old enemies the Daleks and stop them from coming into being, or find a way to make them less evil. The Doctor is given a time ring to return him to the TARDIS once the mission is complete, but otherwise he is travelling (relatively) empty-handed.
Moreover, ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ is much bleaker than one might typically expect from a Doctor Who story. When the Doctor and his companions arrive, they find themselves on the war-torn world of Skaro, home to the Thals and the Kaleds who have been fighting for so long that they have resorted to rudimentary technology in order to survive, relying on World War Two-style artillery and gas masks, and trench warfare. Indeed, the story’s opening scene is a harrowing montage of soldiers being gunned down in slow motion.
In addition, some of the story’s other themes include genetic engineering and genocide – not the first things that come to mind when you think of a Saturday tea time serial for all the family. In fact, the notion of genocide is one that runs throughout the whole of ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ – first with the Kaleds trying to wipe out the Thals, and then with the Doctor trying to decide whether he truly has the right to stop the Daleks – an entire race of living creatures – from ever existing.
The latter idea actually culminates in ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ most famous scene – if not one of the most famous scenes in Doctor Who history. The Doctor has finally found a way to destroy the mutants that will be installed in the Dalek cases, and all he has to do is tap two wires together to exterminate them for all time. “Do I have the right?” he ponders, glaring at the two strands.
It’s a powerful moment, and one that truly gets to the heart of who the Doctor is. He has powers and abilities that elevate him to an almost god-like status, being able to move backwards and forwards in time and (to some degree) being able to decide who lives and who dies. It’s a position of power that comes with a great deal of responsibility, and the Doctor’s question of “Do I have the right?” is one that audiences would also have been asking. Does he have the right? Do any of us have the right?
Again, this moment from ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ is something that is actually very Doctor Who. After all, when the programme was first conceived, its remit was to educate as well as entertain. And whilst there is a difference between education and moral preaching, the Doctor’s question is truly thought-provoking, and the answer is not as black and white as it may seem. Even the Doctor’s companion Sarah Jane Smith tries to persuade him that the destruction of the Daleks is something he shouldn’t even question, owing to the countless deaths they will ultimately cause.
But does this mean that the appeal of ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ lies in its philosophy? Not necessarily. As dramatic as the scene with the wires is, ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ is still an action-packed, science fiction adventure featuring the Mad Man with a Box (even if he doesn’t actually have his Box on this occasion.) Indeed, the story is among many Doctor Who fans’ very first memories of Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor, if not their first memory of Doctor Who itself.
Certainly, this will have been the very first time some viewers will have seen the Daleks. And even though the Daleks have always been a fan-pleaser, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a Dalek story will go on to become an all-time classic. But in this adventure, they are shown at their simplest, most evil best, indiscriminately exterminating any life form that isn’t Dalek – even going so far as to train their weapons on their own creator.
And what of this creator? Since 1975, Davros has gone on to become (almost) as famous as the Daleks themselves and, arguably, his legend wouldn’t have lasted had he not made such a memorable first impression. In ‘Genesis of the Daleks,’ he is portrayed by the talented Michael Wisher who, despite being hidden behind a rubber mask and confined to a Dalek base with only the use of one hand, manages to dominate every scene he’s in.
And arguably, much of this is down to the gravelly, monotone voice that Wisher gives the demented scientist. The actor went to great lengths to achieve this, even going so far as to rehearse in a kilt with a paper bag over his head so that he could concentrate on his vocal performance. The result was apparently inspired by the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell, with a healthy dose of the villainous Mekon from Dan Dare.
And it is no exaggeration to say that, without Michael Wisher’s performance, ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ would have been a very different story – and the whole of Doctor Who history could look very different today.
There is so much, therefore, to commend ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ for. It is gritty, action-packed, thought-provoking, steeped in series’ lore, dripping with memorable performances – and very unlike many of the Doctor Who stories that came before. Perhaps its stand-out nature is such a large part of its appeal.
But over to you, reader. What do you think is the highlight of ‘Genesis of the Daleks’? And why do you think it has become so highly-regarded among Doctor Who fans? Let me know in the comments below.