Doctor Who Project: Genesis of the Daleks

You are mistaken. It is a Mark III Travel Machine.

After starring in nine stories over eleven seasons, the Daleks had worn their narrative carpet a little threadbare. It’s hard keep your reputation as the supreme intergalactic conquerers when you’re invariably defeated time and again by a do-gooder with a blue box and a pocket full of trinkets; and harder still to remain interesting when your vocabulary doesn’t stretch much beyond “exterminate” and its various cognates. Efforts were made in the Pertwee era to imbue the Daleks with some degree of nuance and personality, giving them a thin range of emotions stretching from pride through to fear, but in the end, they remained much as the First Doctor found them in 1963.

Dalek on the prowl

To polish up the pepperpots for a new generation, Terry Nation’s “Genesis of the Daleks” (Story Production Code 4E) sends the Fourth Doctor, Sarah, and Harry back in time, before the events of “The Daleks,” to the moment of the Daleks’ creation. While the show has revisited plots and villains before, this story marks the first instance of Doctor Who really mining its own history as the basis for a story, as well as representing one of the show’s few actual uses of the time travel conceit as something other than an easy means of changing the stage setting. Does one dare change the future by altering the past?

The latest in Time Lord fashion

The Time Lords snatch our beleaguered time travellers straight out of the transmat beam to Space Station Nerva, not even giving them a chance to change clothes after the last story before sending them back in time to Skaro, sans TARDIS. The Doctor’s mission, should he choose to accept it, is nothing less than the prevention of the Dalek threat before it has a chance to develop. Though they leave the means up to the Doctor, the Time Lords make clear that they will countenance any actions he might take in pursuit of this end. A far cry, indeed, from the Time Lords who banished the Second Doctor for his continued interference in the affairs of the universe, though charitably one can assume that his excoriation of their indifference to evil helped soften their resolve.

The Doctor sees wisdom in the idea of intervening in the Daleks’ creation, possibly by nudging their development towards less aggressive tendencies or by learning some weakness in their essential nature that will allow future generations to defeat them. And yet, in the end, the more intricate and less violent options fall by the wayside, leaving the Doctor with the simple choice: touch two wires together to blow up a nursery of tiny Daleks or allow them to take over the galaxy…

The fate of the Daleks in his hands

The Doctor does his best to explore other means of halting or altering the Daleks’ evolution into emotionless killing machines, even going so far as to tell their creator, Davros, that they become emotionless killing machines feared throughout all of known space in the future, imploring him to turn them into a force for good. As it turns out, Davros is delighted at this outcome and interrogates the Doctor on all the ways the Daleks have been defeated in the future so that he prevent these reverses.


Rather than see Sarah and Harry tortured, the Doctor accedes, providing Davros with an extensive litany of all the Daleks’ misfortunes, even though he knows that information condemns the lives of millions in the future. Such behavior is hardly new for the Doctor, who often prioritizes the amelioration of immediate, specific suffering over abstract and aggregate suffering, but it’s in an odd frame given that his mission here is to stop the Dalek threat at all costs. His actions potentially exacerbate Dalek lethality, and even though he later destroys the tape on which all the information is stored, so long as Davros lives, at least some of that knowledge still exists.

Before I kill you, Doctor . . .

The Daleks, it turns out, are the genetically engineered “future form” of the Kaled people (“Dalek” backwards, get it?), who have been in an endless war with the Thals, such that both their civilizations have begun to dwindle and collapse. Polymer armor and leather jerkins co-exist on the radioactive battlefield, but the Kaled have the upper hand through the scientific accomplishments of Davros, who seeks more than anything the survival of the Kaled people.

Disrguntled Kaleds

Nation’s detail plotting has always been a bit loose, so it’s unclear in what way the humanoid Kaleds will become the slug-like organic component of the Dalek, which uses the “travel machine” casing to move about, other than by replacement. Davros is already growing (and programming) the slugs, and the scientists working alongside him do seem to be more concerned that their values are not represented in the slugs rather than the fact that the Kaled people in their current physical form will die out, so perhaps that is the plan. And die out they do, as Davros sabotages the Kaled Dome to allow a Thal rocket to destroy almost all vestiges of the Kaled species.

Davros’ treachery stems from his conflation of the Daleks with the Kaleds—the Daleks are the future of the Kaled people, so the Kaled people are expendable and may be discarded for threatening the Dalek project. Several sub-plots focus on the resistance to Davros because of his desire to remove all emotion from the Dalek embryos, leading to multiple scenes between conspirators without Davros or the Doctor and his companions on screen. It’s almost a hallmark of Terry Nation Doctor Who stories that the main characters find themselves relegated to the sidelines in service to the plot.

When the Doctor, Sarah, and Harry have finally escaped Davros and find themselves at the Dalek incubators, it turns out the Doctor actually is willing to destroy them, even if it’s not his first option. Director David Maloney plays the scene with extreme dissonance, piping in baby-like gurgling noises from the nursery as the Doctor wavers over his decision. Nation has Sarah and the Doctor (but not Harry, interestingly) debate the morality of killing a child one knows with certainty will grow to become a horrific dictator—no points for guessing which one Nation has in mind, given the overwhelming fascist imagery in the story—with Sarah urging the Doctor to destroy them, because it’s the Daleks.

Hail Davros

This “Dalek exception” to the Doctor’s essential pacifism starts with the Second Doctor’s speech to the Time Lords in “The War Games,” and it will recur; indeed, one could make the claim that the entire new series centers around this exception and the consequences of the varying decisions the Doctor makes regarding the Daleks. He’s saved here initially from having to decide, as a Kaled conspirator rushes up and summons him to a meeting where Davros is discussing his “surrender.”

Of course, Davros is simply playing for time so that his Daleks can return from their assault on the Thal city. Once they return, Davros orders the perfidious pepperpots to exterminate all the Kaleds opposed to him. This is the point where the Doctor makes up his mind: there’s no reasoning with Davros or the emotionless creatures made in his image. The only way to defeat the Dalek menace in the future is to destroy the incubator. He prepares to touch the wires—and then is confronted by a Dalek, who rolls over the dropped wires in pursuit of the Doctor and completes the circuit, exploding the nursery and all its inhabitants.

The Two Wires

The remaining Daleks turn on Davros, carrying out their programming to ensure they are the supreme beings in the galaxy by killing the remaining Kaleds—and Davros himself—as their logic dictates. When a rag-tag band of Thals launches one final attack and seals off the Kaled Dome, the Daleks cackle that though they are entombed, they shall find a way to fulfill their destiny. The Doctor estimates that he’s delayed the Dalek project by a thousand years, perhaps less.

No pity

It’s all a bit of a let down, given the moral emphasis placed on the incubators, the destruction of which doesn’t wind up mattering in the least. So why, then, allow Nation to have the Doctor choose, actively, to destroy the incubators? If it is to show that the Doctor is willing to make a hard decision, even if that runs counter to his essential pacifism, then that decision must be addressed. Here, it’s not mentioned in the least. Sarah points out that the Doctor failed because the Daleks still exist. He retorts, far too pithily for the situation, that out of the Daleks’ evil will certainly come something good. And then they all go home.

Ring around the Time Ring

One can only surmise that because the Doctor didn’t actually touch the wires together, he’s not responsible, just as he’s not responsible for telling Davros all the secrets of the future because Davros died and the tape was destroyed. Perhaps legalistically accurate, but underwhelming in terms of character development. There’s no cost to the Doctor here. It’s just too clean an ending for a story that built up the moral and ethical stakes as high as this one did.

As is seemingly typical of Dalek stories, the need to give the Daleks a triumphal moment at the end takes precedence over any quiet or solemn reflection on the costs of defeating them yet again. It doesn’t have to be this way. Take the Dalek epic, “The Daleks’ Master Plan,” which ends with the Doctor defeating the Daleks and yet seeing Sara Kingdom age to death before his eyes as a result. (Notably, that ending comes from Dennis Spooner rather than Terry Nation.) Though Tom Baker imbues the Doctor with impressive energy, and though Robert Holmes and Phillip Hinchcliffe are bringing a real verve to the series, the Fourth Doctor still has some growing to do, and stories like this one don’t advance that cause.

Nothing to see here

Nevertheless, one cannot deny the grandeur attempted here, with multiple sets, tons of actors, and shiny new silver-grey Daleks fresh from the assembly line. As spectacle, Nation, Holmes, and Hinchcliffe deliver. The character of Davros (played by Michael Wisher) resonates, with his vocal mannerisms shown as the basis for that of the Daleks to come. Even when the Daleks initially appear at the end of the first episode (as is their wont), the viewer is still processing that initial glimpse of their creator, a moment that inarguably holds greater impact.

Nation gives Elisabeth Sladen a bit more to do than other writers in the Fourth Doctor’s era to date, with a sub-plot featuring Sarah Jane leading a group of slaves against their Thal captors, though the reliance on her fear of heights to bring the revolt to an untimely end sours the escapade slightly. Ian Marter fares less well in this crowded story, with Harry getting a few action scenes but otherwise relegated to the background for the most part.

Tom Baker gamely tries his hand at Nation’s philosophical dialogue, bringing more gravitas to the Doctor’s angst over his potentially genocidal decision than the schoolboy rhetoric on offer really deserves. His comedic timing remains impeccable, with just the right amount of goofiness to his grins during otherwise serious moments, but in a story that aspires to the lofty, the Fourth Doctor’s levity feels jarringly at odds with the tone.

Inopportune grins

Perhaps most disappointingly, there’s no real effort made to connect this story to “The Daleks“—the ruined Dalek city the First Doctor visits is not established here, and the exterior shots (many captured with real style from high angles) portray generic alien quarry rather than claustrophobic jungles of “future” Skaro. The Thals do get a more rounded history, as they are shown to be genocidal in their own right, but by and large they are ignored in this story. “Genesis of the Daleks” stands, correctly, as a seminal Doctor Who story, providing a villain for the ages in Davros, but it could have been so much more.

(Previous Story: The Sontaran Experiment)

(Next Story: Revenge of the Cybermen)

Post 81 of the Doctor Who Project

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