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12x4. Genesis of the Daleks
Writer: Terry Nation
Director: David Maloney
Script Editor: Robert Holmes
Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe

Synopsis: The Time Lords intercept the transmat beam from Earth, redirecting the Doctor, Sarah, and Harry to Skaro in the time of the Daleks' initial creation, and charge them with preventing the Daleks from emerging as a threat, either by destroying them outright or otherwise tampering with their development. The trio quickly find themselves in the middle of a war between the Thals and the Kaleds (the Daleks' ancestors), while Davros, the Daleks' creator, seeks to manipulate the situation for his own purposes.

Review: I always approach the renowned Doctor Who "classics" with a certain trepidation. Normally I sit down simply hoping for an interesting story, but with a serial like "Genesis of the Daleks," I'm inevitably forced to ask if it lives up to all the hype and thus risk setting myself up for disappointment. Fortunately, "Genesis of the Daleks" is, for the most part, Really That Good, though there are  ways in which the nuts and bolts of the narrative might have been improved.

It seems to be a matter of routine to snicker at Doctor Who for subpar production values, but the series' limitations are barely noticeable in "Genesis of the Daleks." This is the closest the series has come to doing a war movie since, well, "The War Games," and the landscape and interiors are appropriately bleak and drained of color. This is a convincing portrait of two societies strained to the breaking point by war -- as the Doctor observes, they have reverted to primitive technologies in some areas simply because they can no longer manufacture more sophisticated products -- and in that sense it returns to the themes of the Daleks' very first appearance. It is easy to see how the Thals may have become pacifists out of revulsion at their own moral lapses (here we find them using prisoners and genetically abnormal "mutos" as slave labor, exposing them to lethal toxins in the process), while the Daleks' later unchecked aggression is both part of their nature as designed by Davros and a result of the Kaleds' remaining voices of conscience being wiped out. And while it's hard to separate this from the fact that I'd seen the serial before, I can't help but think that the gloomy tone of "Genesis of the Daleks" was meant to foreshadow that the Doctor would not be successful at stopping the Daleks altogether. The scene in the dark cave where Davros conducts the first Dalek weapons test is particularly striking, effectively conveying the sense that something profoundly evil with long-lasting consequences is taking place.

One particularly disturbing aspect of "Genesis of the Daleks" is that most of the characters do not seem like inherently bad people; rather, they seem like average people who have done a lot of bad things. The Thals' treatment of their prisoners may have been deplorable, but their leader is quick to decide on a general amnesty once the war appears to be over, and although there is a certain institutional racism in Kaled society, the fact that many of their scientists object to Davros' experiments shows that they have not lost their moral compass altogether. Kaled society also reflects the way that wartime propaganda and secrecy can get out of control: those who espouse a racial supremacist ideology genuinely seem to believe it, and meanwhile Davros' scientific operation has become accountable to no one and is no longer acting in the Kaleds' best interests (Davros, after all, facilitates the destruction of the Kaled city when his Dalek project is threatened by the leadership). Characters like Nyder, who is sufficiently cynical that he delivers a pointed and on-target denunciation of Davros as a megalomaniac in order to flush out the real dissidents, aptly illustrate how this sort of totalitarianism is possible.

I said in my review of "The Ark in Space" that I wasn't always sure if the script completely understood the issues that it was raising. No such thing can be said of "Genesis of the Daleks," which is pretty frank in acknowledging that sometimes such virtues as a strong conscience and a sense of empathy can, in fact, hinder one's capacity for survival. The Doctor, for example, is coerced into "betraying the future" (as he himself puts it) and revealing how the Daleks would eventually suffer defeats because he can't stand to see Sarah and Harry tortured. (Granted, this may not threaten the Doctor's own survival, but it threatens that of the many innocents whom he would eventually save from the Daleks, most of whom probably would have also buckled in a similar situation.) And though we recoil morally at Davros' insistence that survival can only be assured through domination, it's hard not to acknowledge that he may be right in some circumstances. After all, the story ends with almost everyone placed their hopes in an end to the violence and the Daleks still alive. The Kaled scientist who insists that "our race will survive if it deserves -- we cannot allow it to become heartless and unfeeling" turns out to be only half-right: the Kaleds rebel against the Dalek project, but they almost all wind up dead. And yet, the script does not embrace Davros' moral nihilism, instead taking the stance that sometimes you have to do the right thing even if it has no material benefit and could actually get you killed. If you think about it, this is actually the strongest possible rejection of Davros' point of view -- the fact that the Daleks turn against him at the end is almost beside the point, because he'd have been wrong even if they hadn't.

At the same time, Terry Nation's script recognizes that it's not always easy to draw the line in individual situations, and in doing so he delivers the most thorough exploration of the new Doctor that we've had thus far. I've noted previously that this Doctor seems less outwardly hesitant about using force than his predecessor, but "Genesis" gives us a pretty good look at his internal ethics and even his doubts regarding this question. The "Do I have the right?" scene is perhaps what "Genesis" is best remembered for, and though the Doctor's hesitation is arguably somewhat muddled, it's also perfectly plausible that he'd be conflicted for more than one reason -- the hesitancy to commit genocide, the fact that the nascent Daleks haven't yet evolved into a galactic force of destruction, and the  alliances that their future aggression would necessitate all seem to be weighing on his mind. It's partly the whole "Would you kill Hitler in his crib?" debate, but it's also the Doctor's larger perspective coming into play. What's just as fascinating to me, however, is the scene in which the Doctor tries, even after Sarah and Harry have been tortured, to convince Davros to make the Daleks into a force for good instead, leading to him posing the hypothetical question of whether Davros would invent a virus capable of wiping out all life in the universe if he could. It's only after Davros answers that he would, confirming to the Doctor that he's beyond reason or conscience, that the Doctor threatens his life to try to coerce him into stopping the Dalek project. Though he has a somewhat aloof manner and doesn't lay everything on the table like Pertwee's Doctor, Baker's version of the character is just as reluctant to use violence to solve a problem when an alternative is possible.

I don't hold the sort of outright hostility towards Terry Nation found in some corners of Doctor Who fandom, but at the same time I recognize that there are certain clichés that tend to spring up in his writing and can sometimes be annoying, and unfortunately some of them are present in "Genesis of the Daleks." First and foremost is the infamous "capture and escape" formula, which occurs several times and lends a certain sameness to the sequences in between the more compelling dramatic scenes. Later there's a chase scene in Episode 2 premised around Sarah's and the Mutos' need to escape radiation poisoning (another Nation cliché), but nobody actually seems to suffer from it when they're recaptured and presumably exposed again, and there's a brief appearance by a monster deformed by radiation (echoing the incredibly lame "Slyther" from "The Dalek Invasion of Earth") that doesn't add much to the story. There are also other instances where the logic doesn't hold up: for all the legitimate drama of the "Do I have the right?" scene, its effect is somewhat muted by the fact that a Dalek later sets off the bomb by accident and presumably destroys most if not all of the nascent Daleks in the birth chamber (though it's deliberately left unclear how much effect all this has on the Daleks' future development). In a way, "Genesis" reminded me a bit of "Planet of the Spiders" with its mix of some excellent scenes and interesting characters, backed up by some flimsy plotting (though, to be fair, it's not as sloppy as "Planet of the Spiders").

Is "Genesis of the Daleks" the best Doctor Who serial ever, as it has been voted by some surveys of fandom? I'd have to say no, though again it's possible that I was just let down by overblown expectations. But it's certainly the best for the Fourth Doctor so far and the best preserved Dalek serial since "Invasion of Earth," and it deserves its status as a classic.

Rating: ***1/2 (out of four)

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