Doctor Who #394: Genesis of the Daleks Part 1

"It's like finding the remains of a stone age man with a transistor radio." "Playing rock music?"
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD. First aired Mar.8 1974.

IN THIS ONE... The Time Lords send the Doctor and friends to Skaro to stop the Daleks from being born.

REVIEW: Here it begins. Terry Nation's best story by far, and though there are annoying Nationisms - new gadgets that undermine the TARDIS (the Time Ring) and a lapses in logic (a war that goes on so long, it features weapons from various eras) - you can also sense Robert Holmes' guiding hand on the dialog (Harry is becoming quite good at deadpanning puns, and the Doctor's insolence is always entertaining). In what many consider the first shot of the Time War, the Time Lords intercept the Doctor's transmat beam and send him to Skaro in the past to try and prevent the birth of the Daleks, or if he can't, at least discover (create?) a weakness that could be exploited. Plenty of stuff to talk about under Theories in the coming days. Thematically, the episode has a rather brilliant opening sequence, creepy and violent, as WWI-era types are mowed down on a foggy wasteland. If the Daleks are symbolically Nazis, it makes sense for them to be forged in a WWI environment. David Maloney's direction is intense and clever, as the Doctor is revealed in the same gray waste, and a mysterious Time Lord appearing out of nowhere on a camera pan. Long shots give the battlefield scope and deadly grandeur. Its nearest cousin, visually, is The War Games which Maloney also directed, though if we recognize a gun from the War Lord's guards, it's just a red herring. (I could spin a Theory about Skaro being a War Lord testing ground, which would explain the two forces at such proximity, but let's not go crazy.)

Skaro's story way back in The Daleks was more legend than fact, but our heroes are living it now. The Thals are one of the two factions, and the Kaleds the other, with Mutos (see Theories) in between. We're meant to think the Kaleds are the Daleks' direct ancestors, given the words' anagrammatical quality, but the truth may be a little different. As for the war itself, it's still fought by conventional means, providing Nation with plenty of matinée action opportunities, like shellings and landmines. They'll have to go atomic before we get the petrified forest from the Daleks' first story. Getting into the Kaled compound, we get various Nazi types, saluting sadists intent on preserving their race's "purity", including a cocky young general and Peter Miles' most memorable of several tightly-wound characters (Nyder). And of course, Davros. He's their greatest scientist, a weird decidedly "impure" cripple (think of Hitler's Arianism), spied testing a Dalek by Sarah. It's all about asking questions that will have us tuning into the 5 next episodes.

It could all have gone wrong, of course. There's an escape followed by a recapture, and those are usually wastes of time, but I can't resist how well the Doctor and Harry work together, the latter a good soldier, catching guns from the air and showing bravery in the face of danger. I don't remember Harry being this much fun, but he reminds me of Jamie with the 2nd Doctor. Sarah is once again more or less forgotten by her friends when they get separated, but since it's the only way she gets to be independent, I'm not complaining that she's got her own story thread to follow. I know they think she can handle herself, but there's a war out there, and her screams of terror during the bombardment were (for once?) justified.

THEORIES: When we met the Daleks and Thals, they gave their origins as having mutated after the "atomic horror" that ended their war. The timeline given didn't make much sense, especially if we were to believe the Thals themselves turned into critters like the Daleks then back again in a matter of relatively few generations. But the story about "Mutos", genetically scarred Kaleds and Thals produced during the first century of their war by chemical weapons, makes me wonder if there isn't something genetically unique about the people of Skaro. Could they be particularly prone to mutation? Is there DNA in fact mutable enough to get twisted during a specimen's own lifetime? It would explain the Kaled's obsession with racial purity, and the Thals could even be a former Kaled branch rejected for blond hair or something. It not only explains Mutos, a subrace of mutants living out in the wastes, but Davros himself whose alien look is nowhere near his own people's. Obviously, he's had an accident and been cybernetically altered, but it doesn't explain some of what we're seeing unless he was physically distorted. This genetic property would have made the creation of the biological component of Daleks much easier, and was perhaps inspired by some random accident that showed it was possible. Taking it into the future, it doesn't take very long before the Daleks themselves are mutating beyond the point of purity, triggering the civil war we'll see between Imperials and Rebels, or even allowing the one caused by the second Doctor in Evil of the Daleks. It would be incredibly ironic if loss of purity was natural in their physical make-up, wouldn't it?

REWATCHABILITY: High - From that harrowing opening to the reveal of Davros and his Dalek, Part 1 is gripping, clever and fascinating.


CiB said...

Big Finish did a fairly good series of audio plays called "I, Davros" all about this period. In it, they attempt to reconcile the progenitors of the Daleks being termed both Dals and Kaleds at various points by claiming the Dals are already extinct but Davros has an interest in them, and thus uses their word for God: "Dalek". I, Davros also expands the description of the war to include use of biological weapons (which cause a great deal of the mutations), as well as claimed that the Kaleds and Thals have different evolutionary routes (that is, they are different species, rather than one being a mutation of the other). It's a fairly good series of plays.

Toby'c said...

"But the story about "Mutos", genetically scarred Kaleds and Thals produced during the first century of their war by chemical weapons, makes me wonder if there isn't something genetically unique about the people of Skaro. Could they be particularly prone to mutation? Is there DNA in fact mutable enough to get twisted during a specimen's own lifetime?"

Heh, reading this makes me think of the Haggunenons from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (episode six of the radio version only), a species who have "the most impatient chromosomes of any life form in the galaxy" and tend to evolve at the drop of a hat, usually several dozen times a day and often swapping one deficiency for another (eg, if one is unable to reach a teaspoon, it may evolve into something with much longer arms but incapable of drinking the coffee).

This was my first classic story, at some point during the 2006 series' airing on ABC (from memory, after School Reunion but before The Idiot's Lantern). It's still a top-fiver for me.

Siskoid said...

CiB: I've heard the Davros CD (like a secret origin of Davros), but am not yet at the mini-series in my listening. Obviously, I'd decided to ignore extracanonical sources for that theory paragraph (to keep it short), but nothing in the extracanon actually contradicts the main point, which is that Skarosian life-forms (Thals, Dals, Kaleds, Daleks and clams) are like Toby's Haggunenons.

Toby: That is a very recent "first Classic story" for you! And yet, it mirrors the experience of fans who got into Who in the 80s (in North America at least), where no matter the date and who was Doctor at the time, Tom Baker was invariably your first Doctor. I'm going to hear a lot of "this was my first story" in the coming weeks, I think.

Toby'c said...

For the record, my options (the only ones in the video shop I worked in back in high school) were Genesis, City of Death, Spearhead From Space, The Curse of Fenric and Ghost Light. I'd watched all five of them by the time Love and Monsters around.

Siskoid said...

A nice selection. I happen to like all those stories.

Toby'c said...

I know - four of them were on your
"5 Classic Doctor Who Stories for Fans of New Who" list, eerily enough.


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