Doctor Who

Tuesday, February 29, 2000 by

The BBC’s latest scattershot repeat run of Doctor Who stories came to an end with part six of “Genesis of the Daleks”. A menacing close-up of a Dalek warning us straight to camera that this was “only the beginning” was followed by the Doctor and companions freefalling through outer space and off our terrestrial TV screens – again.

The random nature of these brief, occasional repeat runs of archive adventures and the arbitrary way they’re sequenced with no thought for continuity or common-sense, is something that engenders criticism not simply from the perspective of the aggrieved fan. If anything, it is the occasional and casual viewer who suffers more: the fan knows the point in the Who “canon” these particular stories occur and is therefore able to self-contextualise and reconcile elements of narrative and characterisation that in isolation appear confusing and contradictory. With this particular episode, for instance, the non-fan would be entitled to be more than a little thrown by, say, the absence of the TARDIS – doesn’t the Doctor usually arrive and leave in it? Where was it this time?

Luckily much of the plot and dramatic structure of this story was entirely self-contained, revolving around a neat inversion of the traditional Dalek menace: the Doctor had been charged with returning to a point in the past just before the monsters were created to prevent their natural evolution. Significantly, when it came down to it, in a scene that has become endorsed by fan culture as a dreaded “classic”, we saw the Doctor shirk from this task: “Have I that right? … Some things could be better with the Daleks.” Brave and thoughtful reasoning from Tom Baker; while our instincts, articulated by his two companions, were for him to hurry up and complete his task.

This was the surprisingly “deep” theme of this episode: the concepts and ideologies behind altering the course of history (a seasoned conversational dilemma most often distilled into “Would you kill Hitler if you could go back in time to when he was a child?”) dealing with torturous expositions on the morals and ethics of altering what already has been.

The Hitler analogy, which sprang to mind as I watched this scene, is one encouraged by the converse ways the entire story is analogous to the rise of the Nazi Party. We see uniforms, body language, inflection and gestures of security personnel bearing more than a passing resonance to the SS, down to the black shirts and arm salutes. The “leader” of these souls, an unpleasant character called Nyder, was played here by Peter Miles with a ruthless and chilling menace, more compelling as a human embodiment of the Dalek mentality than the machines themselves. Much of the dialogue from this episode sounded as if lifted wholesale from the Nuremburg Rallies; the Dalek’s creator, Davros, mouths platitudes which – 30 years after the end of World War II must still have rung powerfully for audiences in the mid-70s: “One race must survive all others and to do this it must dominate ruthlessly.”

For a concluding episode it was interesting to find most of the plot taken up with protracted isolated moral and ethical debate – and not the Doctor and his companions, who had nothing whatsoever to do with the dénouement and ultimate resolution. While they rather selfishly busied themselves trying to locate bits and bobs from all over the place, a very effective gripping mock-inquisition between Davros, Nyder and rebel security/scientist personnel took place, ending with the rebels exterminated en mass.

Once again Third Reich parallels were latent: one shot of a pile of bodies was shockingly reminiscent of a mass grave, and the moment where Nyder threw one plotter in front of Dalek fire was startling and graphic. The violence worked because you could see how utterly justified it was – that is, as the totally obvious extension of the crazed mindset of Davros: he really would do something so callous and brazen, it is unflinchingly believable.

This was a very dark episode – not just in content; the design was almost wholly two-tone and monochrome; lots of shots in shadow and half-lighting; the only splashes of colour were from, significantly, clothes of the companions. There wasn’t po-faced mock-melodrama – the downbeat and serious tone of the whole episode was subtlety and carefully engineered, and as befits a story where the Doctor “fails” in his task there was no closure in the neo-Brechtian final scenes.

After turning on their creator because their programming “does not permit us to acknowledge that any creature is superior to the Daleks”, we get that bizarre Dalek-to-camera monologue, followed by an eerie voiceover by the Doctor as he tumbles through space: “I know that although the Daleks will create havoc and destruction for millions of years, I know also that out of their evil must come something good.”

This final episode boasted consistently fine acting, dealt with contentious, political ideas and doctrine, and ended up with the hero simultaneously losing and not losing to his opponents. Could someone at the BBC be so well-versed in received opinion on Who that they specifically chose an all-round excellent (fan-acknowledged) “classic” to repeat, rather than one of the many lesser, trivial stories? Typical that this good fortune is compromised by the feeling that actually, considering the way these repeats are always plucked in a magpie fashion from different periods in Doctor Who‘s history, this particular story only got re-shown because it had the word “Daleks” in the title.


Comments are closed.