I've been dreading reviewing 'Genesis of the Daleks'. It is a story generally regarded as a classic, but for me it long suffered from the principle that familiarity breeds contempt. Once it was released on video, I watched it regularly until I became sick of it, and just as I decided that I didn't want to see it again for a very long time, BBC2 announced what the next story would be following the repeat of 'Doctor Who and the Silurians'
As it turned out however, that was the last time I saw it prior to this occasion, and after a lengthy absence, my enthusiasm for the story was entirely rekindled.
'Genesis of the Daleks' is not perfect. I'll get my criticisms out of the way first, and the first is that it is rather padded during the first three episodes. Sarah's abortive escape attempt up the rocket scaffolding makes for an exciting cliffhanger but is a narrative dead-end, and the dystronic toxæmia from which she was so determined to escape is conveniently forgotten after the first five minutes of Episode Three. In addition, the scenes in the cave leading out of the Kaled bunker add little to the plot, rendering the shots of Davros' giant clam mutants pointless. Given that they are woefully unimpressive, this is unfortunate, since they need not really have been there. My other, criticism of 'Genesis of the Daleks' is that the meagre distance between the Thal and Kaled cities stretches credibility somewhat; we are expected to believe that a lengthy war has been fought on the doorsteps of these cities, each housing the last remnants of their respective races. I can think of an explanation, which is that the cities, both of them extremely spartan in décor, are an equivalent of the trenches used in world war one, built relatively recently on either side of the no-man's land in between (the wasteland), and that they represent the last bastions of civilization on the benighted Skaro, both races nearly extinct after a millennium of warfare. That said, it is always a bad sign when the viewer has to contrive explanations for threadbare areas of the plot, and given the many, many excellent aspects of this story, it is a shame.
The rest of 'Genesis of the Daleks' however, is outstanding. This is the bleakest and most powerful illustration of the horrors of war ever seen in Doctor Who on television, presenting us with an unrelentingly grim atmosphere from the very first shot of Thal soldiers mown down in slow motion. There are many familiar images of war used here, from the trenches to the mine-riddled wasteland between them, the terrible sense of waste and weariness and the atrocities committed by both sides. This latter issue illustrates the effect of the war on the people involved in it; the Kaleds are represented by blatant Nazi imagery from the start, which never fails to convey a sense of evil. The Mutos represent the human cost of war, victims scarred by weapons and abandoned by the Kaleds out of their desire to keep their race pure, reflecting the eugenics beloved of Hitler when he spoke of the Aryan race. Jack-booted and goose-stepping, the Kaleds, or at least the military elite, are clearly based on the Third Reich, and in the midst sits Davros, representing not only Hitler, but also people like Mengele, an utterly immoral scientist taking advantage of the war to further his own ghastly interests. Perhaps more unexpectedly however, the Thals, previously cast in the role of heroes due to their long enmity with the Daleks, are just as bad, happy to use "disposal labour" to prepare their rocket, and normally killing the Mutos on sight. Their wholesale slaughter at the hands of the Daleks, and the shock displayed by Bettan, later changes their role as they become the lesser of two evils, but lest we forget only a short time before they effectively commit genocide, wiping out nearly all of the Kaleds. The production reflects this general sense of horror too, not just in the gloomy trenches and wasteland, but throughout the bunker and both cities; in any other story the drab sets might be a disappointment, but here they are wholly appropriate, since the functional, utilitarian décor suits the mood, suggesting that after centuries of conflict neither race have either the resources nor the inclination to consider aesthetics.
One of the most famous, and indeed most interesting, scenes in 'Genesis of the Daleks' occurs at the beginning of Episode Six, as the Doctor agonizes over the decision as to whether or not he can destroy the Daleks utterly. The reason I find it so interesting is that I disagree with his argument, but nevertheless find it to be a fascinating character moment. The Doctor's indecision rests on his reluctance to commit genocide, explaining to Sarah that he doesn't have the right to destroy an entire intelligent species; his excuse is that future worlds might become allies because of their fear of the Daleks. My personal opinion is that for all that the Daleks are an intelligent species, they are more a force representative of a force of nature; twice during the story, they are compared to a virus, once by the Doctor himself when he is trying to convince Davros to change their nature, and later by Sarah as she tries to convince the Doctor to complete his mission for the Time Lords. I've argued before that the Doctor's stance is akin to refusing to prevent an outbreak of smallpox, on the grounds that the survivors might be brought closer together as a result; other fans disagree, but I maintain that the Daleks are essentially an intelligent plague, utterly destructive, ruthless and completely beyond redemption, and devoted to exterminating or subjugating all other forms of life in the cosmos. Ultimately, I feel that the Doctor's dilemma boils down not a reluctance to destroy the Daleks per se, but rather to a refusal to accept for responsibility for such an action, which would have far reaching consequences for the entire universe. However you interpret the scene however, it remains very dramatic and compelling.
Then we have Davros, played brilliantly by Michael Wisher. Davros is undoubtedly one of the series' greatest villains, and is one of the most potent symbols of evil ever to appear in Doctor Who. Much as I like the Master, he is motivated largely by his rivalry with the Doctor and on occasion will switch sides; for all that he is ruthless and has committed unspeakable crimes, he can still on a certain level be reasoned with. Davros however, is a different matter entirely. He is entirely focused on the development of the Daleks and will stop at nothing to achieve his aims. Initially, he is a villain by association; not only is he responsible or the creation of the Daleks, he is visually associated to them by the fact that his wheelchair resembles a Dalek base. However, his characterisation is such that it is quickly established that he is a villain in his own right, and one whose sense of morality is diametrically opposed to the Doctor's. The first real glimpse of his true nature is in Episode Two, when Ronson saves the Doctro's life by deactivating the newly armed Dalek; an astonished and furious Davros questions how Ronson can possibly consider a single worthless life to be of more value than his Dalek's instinct to destroy, and this is the first clear indication that Davros is way beyond the Doctor's ability to reason. The more the story progresses, the more terrible Davros is seen to be, one of the key moments being his decision to exterminate "the whole of the Kaled people", a statement which briefly shocks even Nyder. The fact that he is prepared to sacrifice his own race to ensure that his work can continue is utterly chilling, and is compounded shortly afterwards by his "retaliation" against the Thals, as he gives his Daleks their first ever taste of mass slaughter.
By far my favourite scenes in 'Genesis of the Daleks', and indeed one of my favourite scenes from the whole of the series, is the Doctor's attempt to reason with Davros in Episode Five. He asks Davros if he would unleash a virus that would wipe out all forms of life in the universe; Davros, rather than coming round to the Doctor's way of thinking, is fascinated by this concept, and considers it carefully before deciding that he would, since that power would make him a God, a power which the Daleks will grant him. The scene is supremely effective in summing Davros up and is wonderfully directed; as Davros considers, the incidental score grows louder and more impressive in the background, rising to a climax as Davros screeches about power and the Daleks. Most disturbing of all, is the moment when, as he considers, his finger and thumb crush an imaginary vial of virus confirming in an instant that the Doctor has absolutely no hope of ever reasoning with him.
The Daleks themselves are used sparingly in 'Genesis of the Daleks' as they take a back seat to Davros, but when they do appear they are highly impressive. Their casual destruction of the Thals is a great visual image, as the newborn creatures glide unstoppably around the Thal dome, exterminating without hesitation anyone they find. The fact that Davros is so utterly evil also benefits the Daleks, as they turn on him in Episode Six. Having just added to his other crimes during the story by trapping and disposing of those scientists who are no longer loyal to him, even Davros is horrified when his creations turn on those who have remained loyal, the ever-faithful Nyder among them. In his last few moments, as he tries desperately to reason with the Daleks, he comes to the horrified realization that they are so much a product of himself that they will let nothing and nobody stand in their way, not even him. It is a fitting irony that just as the Doctor tried in vain to reason with Davros, so Davros now tries in vain to reason with the Daleks, and is ultimately so shocked by the results that he reaches for the button that will destroy them utterly before he is gunned down. In many ways, the Daleks are once again the living embodiment of the horrors of war, born out of it and representing all that is terrifying about it.
There are many minor aspects of 'Genesis of the Daleks' that work so well. The fact that the Daleks are mutations of the Kaleds is brilliantly ironic, given that the Kaleds are so obsessed with racial purity that they exiled the Mutos (even more ironically, it is Nyder who tells us this, despite his total devotion to Davros's project). The gimmick of the Time Ring works well too, since it is far easier to lose than the TARDIS, and creates an additional level of tension by increasing the chances of the Doctor, Sarah and Harry becoming trapped on the nightmare that is Skaro. David Maloney's direction is superb, especially during Episode Six, as the tension builds and builds to a climax that, unusually, sees the Doctor departing without having achieved a great deal. And lastly, whilst Michael Wisher steals the show, mention must be made of Peter Miles' Davros, a character as thoroughly unpleasant and ruthless as his superior. Overall, 'Genesis of the Daleks' stands as one of Doctor Who's greatest stories, and maintains the adult feeling of 'The Ark in Space' and 'The Sontaran Experiment' whilst taking it to another level entirely. What a shame it couldn't last