I’m a bit bemused as to how Genesis of the Daleks has ever topped any best-of lists. But that doesn’t stop it being very good, nor does it stop it being very important.
Terry Nation (apparently at the prompting of Robert Holmes) finally does something interesting with the Daleks after a run of Pertwee stories that are very much diminishing returns. Once again in Genesis, the Daleks are a threat: cunning, merciless, genuinely evil with some unsubtle fascistic overtones – it’s akin to the reboot (since squandered) the new series gave the pepperpots.
There’s always a thrill to see how each new Doctor will tackle them and Tom’s newness rubs off the Daleks – so tired and shagged out and a bit ridiculous by Death to the Daleks. And Sarah and Harry make the perfect foil – lending a human perspective. They are appalled at what they see; frightened, horrified. But they respond with bravery and succour for the Doctor, wrestling with his conscience.
For his part, the Fourth Doctor still feels alien, dangerous – yet he’s funny too. Tom is still taking this deadly seriously, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t show humour, fondness for his companions, empathy with the people he meets on Skaro, horror and anger at cruelty and injustice. It’s the combination that makes Tom feel so vital at this point in the series. Yes, he’s mad, boggling, weird, occasionally frightening. But he’s like a bonkers uncle – the Doctor is always on our side; always good, kind, ready with a smile.
But at the centre of it all, Davros and the Daleks. Michael Wisher’s performance is iconic, mould-breaking. Even Julian Bleach, more than 40 years later, doffs his cap to the original. It bears repeating just how hideous Davros is. Like a peach that’s been left out in the sun he’s wizened, dessicated. There’s a whiff of decay and putrefaction about him. The crippled scientist isn’t a monster – he’s a human who’s suffered something truly terrible. Somehow that makes him so much more disturbing and the faint element of tragedy makes him all the more rounded.
The Daleks are at their best – apparently basic, silent, neutered they inevitably, suddenly turn on their creator in a way that seems to make them all the more terrible, all over again. They think Davros is hideous too. Another shot of Sarah and Harry watching on a screen as the Daleks massacre the Kaled scientists is a perfect evocation of what makes the Daleks tick, cannily referenced 30 years later by Rob Shearman when van Statten asks why the Dalek will kill everyone: “Because it honestly believes they should die,” explains the Doctor.
Genesis seems to have a reputation as being beloved of po-faced fans due to its supposed ‘darkness’ or ‘grittiness’. In fact, it’s not dark or gritty – it’s bloody horrible. Soldiers are gunned down in Peckinpah-style slow-motion; Sarah is psychologically tortured (“they say people who fall from great heights are dead before they hit the ground. I don’t believe that, do you?”); the Doctor nearly strangled by a mutant; Harry nearly eaten by a genetic mutation; Thals and Kaleds alike are pretty awful people and we virtually have two de facto genocides. Not to mention a scene where our heroes rip gas masks from corpses to survive gas attack.
But I think what fans like so much about Genesis is that it’s epic in a way that Doctor Who rarely was – it’s like one of RTD’s end-of-season finales, only the universe doesn’t get rebooted because the Doctor wants to hump Sarah. Doctor Who only really pulled out the stops like this for regeneration episodes (after The Dalek’s Masterplan anyway), as a result this is the series basically telling you that you’re seeing something important. And, despite some rather pedestrian ‘running-up-corridors’ episodes, the story is up to it.
David Maloney’s direction is among the best of the era; a cast packed with dependable character actors (Dennis Chinnery, James Garbutt, Peter Miles, Stephen Yardley, Guy Siner and Tom Georgeson – amongst others – in ‘what-was-he-in?’ appearances); “Have I the right?” is a punch-packing iconic moment delivered by an actor who represents what is probably one of the best bits of casting in television history – an actor who has found something he’s been searching for all his life.
Genesis of the Daleks is a thorough rethink about what the Daleks are – and how best to use them. It brings down a curtain on Terry Nation’s cut-and-paste quest-style narratives, marking a clear break from the past, despite the odd clam. It’s also a break from the past that highlights just how much Doctor Who has changed over the previous few years. Oh, Ark In Space and Sontaran Experiment have their moments but Genesis isn’t just about the Daleks’ rebirth.
No cosy UNIT family here; no mother hen. The Brig isn’t around, nor are Yates or Benton. Not even the vaguely avuncular Master, nor a TARDIS to fall back on. Jo has departed for the Amazon in what is surely one of the most allegorical departures in the series – growing up and growing out of the series – and the Third Doctor gone is a blaze of radiation and what seems most like a death of any of the regenerations.
In their place mustard gas, minefields, holocaust, barbed wire, machine guns, fascism and genocidal violence. There’s still humour and companionship, but it’s set against a backdrop of genuine horrors that resonate with a time barely 30 years past. Just imagine Jo being dangled hundreds of feet above the ground by a sadistic Thal; Benton decked out in the might-as-well-be-Nazi outfit of a Kaled soldier, wielding a machine gun. Or the Third Doctor, stock still, his foot balanced precariously on a landmine. Pertwee and Delgado – two men who served in WWII – in a story about fascism and racism is, conversely, unthinkable. It just doesn’t work.
That Terry Nation got it up one last time is impressive; that he was able to tear the series away from its rut of the previous few seasons so violently and so confidently is astonishing. 12 years on from defining Doctor Who he redefined it for Tom Baker, Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe.
Given how shagged-out the pepperpots are by the time the City of the Exxilons is crumbling in Death to the Daleks – and how depressingly familiar the narrative in Destiny of the Daleks is in a series again changed beyond all recognition just five years later – Genesis is perhaps the most important Dalek story of all.