Genesis of the Daleks [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  But lately I decided to spend both some of my birthday spending money and my Christmas spending money on some of these adventures, and enjoy them with one or two of my nerdier daughters.

(Daily Doctor Who #364)

Genesis of the Daleks

Starring Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor
Companions: Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith and Ian Marter as Harry Sullivan
Written by Terry Nation.  Directed by David Maloney. Produced by Philip Hinchcliffe. Script Edited by Robert Holmes.

Format:  6 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  March – April 1975 (Episodes 11-16 of Season 12)

I read a bad review of Genesis of the Daleks a long long time ago, and it really colored my perceptions of the story quite negatively. It’s always been a highly regarded one by fandom in general, and is obviously notable in the history of the show for a variety of reasons. Though this is one of the classic episodes that I have seen in the last decade or so, it was interesting to rewatch it again with fresh eyes.

Spoilers Ahead!

In general, my feelings are quite positive. For the most part, Genesis of the Daleks is a strong piece of work that holds up quite well lo these 47 years later, and though I have not reviewed them all recently, I’d wager to say is easily the best Dalek story of the 1970’s.

Genesis of the Daleks is an intense storyline whose events are full of gravitas and import. As the title indicates, this is the beginning of the Doctor’s arch foes, the Daleks, unfolding in front of us with a feeling of dreadful inevitability. And at stake is not just the fate of the universe, as the nameless Time Lord at the start mentions (the universe is often at stake in Doctor Who) but the presence of the show’s oldest and most consistent villainous threat. Of course, even first-time viewers would know it’s not likely that the Daleks will be wiped out forever, but for the Doctor the possibility is presented as plausible and real.

The events of this story continue to have relevance into the modern day, with specific callbacks being presented in both Journey’s End and The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar–it’s also been stated outside the TV show pretty consistently that the events of this story depict the first volleys in the Time War which formed the backbone of the initial years of the revival of the series.

The performances are universally strong. Tom Baker is rock solid, bringing appropriate gravity to the Fourth Doctor and keeping the character free from any of the more pantomime elements that sometimes crept (or barrel-rolled) in in later years.

Elisabeth Sladen shows why Sarah Jane Smith is one of the show’s most popular companions–she’s the perfect match for Baker, being practical, sensible, and irrepressibly energetic, with the right mix of courage and desperation. Harry Sullivan is less emotionally invested in what is going on but Ian Marter plays him with such ease and charm that it’s impossible not to like him. The supporting characters are also good, including Dennis Chinnery’s naive but earnest Gharman, Stephen Yardley’s sympathetic Sevrin, and even the intense Kaled officer (who dies trying to help Sarah escape) played by Richard Reeves.

But there are two guest characters who standout head and shoulders above the others, and they are easy to pick out. The first is Nyder, played by Peter Miles, the insidiously slimy loyal servant to Davros. He’s the kind of despicable toad that you are looking forward to getting killed, but is utterly compelling.

The other character is of course Davros himself, whom Michael Wisher plays with a sort of zealous madness–although with the right amount of vulnerability to be believable.

He’s interesting whenever he’s onscreen but his face-offs with the Doctor in the later episodes are the highlight of the whole serial. After viewing Wisher delivering the speech about using the genocidal virus if he had the chance, it’s no wonder that the character was brought back, even if he was never played by the same actor again. He’s one of the very best villains that Doctor Who has ever presented, in many ways more of an antithesis to the Doctor than anyone else (including the Master–justifying the idea from The Magician’s Apprentice that he’s the Doctor’s real arch-enemy).

It’s only hard to imagine why everyone keeps trusting him when exudes such an obvious air of menace.

It’s interesting to see how he is able to remain in command of the situation even when his people are openly defying him–l suppose it’s just an indication of how dependent the Kaleds have come to be on his genius and leadership.

Maybe one of my favorite moments in the story is his actual “death” scene, where Davros finally realizes his error and is genuinely terrified about his creations. It’s a great conclusion to the story which deepens Davros as a character and elevates the Dalek themselves. And if there is one thing that this story needed to do is that it needed to conclude with the Daleks being awesome and terrifying–and certainly it achieves that.

As a side note, the Dcotor Who Discontinuity Guide by Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping put forward a fan theory that I always thought was pretty compelling–in addition to delaying the Daleks’ development by a thousand years, the Doctor’s actions in this episode (specifically, all the information he provides about the future) also make it possible for Davros to survive his encounter with the Daleks at the end of the story. This results in him being alive to return in the next Dalek story (and every Dalek story in the classic era) where he becomes a divisive figure that prevents the Daleks from reaching the unity necessary to fulfill the Time Lord’s prophesy. It’s a cool idea that helps make sense out of the show’s history.

Genesis of the Daleks is not perfect, of course. The biggest problem is simply that the plot meanders a bit in the middle episodes. It’s especially obvious in Part Three, where after an extensive sequence showing Sarah Jane and Sevrin escape attempt from the Thal bunker only to have it all turn out to be a failure.

Obviously, not everything our heroes do has to succeed but to spend so much time on an effort like this only to have almost no bearing on the rest of the story is disappointing, and strikes one as filler-material. It’s well-done filler, but still threatens to feel like time wasted.

The other thing about the story that is a bit distracting is all the Nazi parallels with the Kaleds. Some of this is to be expected of course–Terry Nation’s vision for the Daleks has always included a certain similarity to the Nazis, but it’s turned up to 11 here with the uniforms, the salutes, and the general demeanor of many of the characters. Nyder even appears to be wearing an iron cross for part of the story. It’s not a terrible problem, but it just becomes a little distracting after a while.

Also there are a bunch of giant man-eating clams hiding out in the tunnels beneath the Kaled dome, which let’s face it, are kind of silly.

But giant clams are a small price to pay for sequences as dramatic as the Doctor wrestling with the implications of touching two wires together–one of the most defining moments for the Doctor, and one of the all time most iconic sequences in the whole history of the show.

2 thoughts on “Genesis of the Daleks [Classic Doctor Who]

  1. Michael Wisher is just amazing. It’s a shame nobody else has been able to give Davros the same fanatical yet mechanical voice.
    Interesting theory about the effect of the arc on Dalek history.

  2. Michael Wisher was a most distinctive actor. I remember the first time I saw him in something outside of Doctor Who, which was a role in 1976’s The Prince & The Pauper. It was nice that he could make a couple of Wilderness Years contributions for Doctor Who shortly before his passing in The Stranger: The Airzone Solution and Shakedown. R.I.P., Michael.

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