The Mark III Travel Machine

For many people, Tom Baker was the quintessential Doctor Who, so naturally the release of one of his best stories on DVD should be a double celebration: a great story from a great Doctor. So when Genesis of the Daleks came out a couple of weeks ago, there was much rejoicing.

Baker wasn’t my favorite Doctor, but I liked him and when his stories were good, they were outstanding. Genesis would be one of the two Doctor Who stories I would show to someone who had never seen the show and was curious about it. This particular story is intelligent, suspenseful and imaginative, and the special effects are (for a change) generally quite good. (Well, the rather silly giant clams don’t contribute to a suspension of disbelief, but they’re a very minor element. The British knew early on that their effects, while imaginative, weren’t all that convincing. They compensated with excellent writing.)

Genesis is not without flaws. An example, here, of something that just didn’t work would be the entire Sarah-Jane-escaping-from-the-Thal-Rocket bit. It seemed like something thrown in so Elizabeth Sladen could have something to do. Unfortunately, it adds nothing other than running time, and in fact makes Sarah seem far weaker than she’s appeared in the past. (Not to mention thoughtless—a lot of people died on her watch.) Still, I would agree that the dynamic of the scenes in the bunker would have been thrown off had she been there with Harry and the Doctor.

But the positives far outweigh the negatives. This is probably the best presentation the Daleks themselves have ever had; I can’t recall them seeming so dangerous and threatening. I think in the main is because they don’t appear all that often in the story, so when they do, they are used very wisely. They’re always in motion and frequently seen in near-silhouette, sometimes shot from below to make them look larger.

Also, they don’t talk very much.

Now, I love the Dalek voice as much as anyone, but the more they talk, the more ridiculous they become. Have you ever seen a scene where two Daleks hold a conversation? Their staccato, barking, chopped-up talk makes anything longer than “EX TER MI NATE!” go on forever and forever. The more they talk, the less of a threat they appear; in fact, they start to seem just a bit ridiculous. Which is why the introduction of Davros in Genesis was a stroke of some kind of genius; at last, the Daleks could have a spokesman who could actually speak.

Davros, of course, is the creator of the Daleks. He’s also one of the great villains of Doctor Who, precisely because when he talks, he sounds so damned reasonable. He dismisses “democracy” as being the creed of those “who will listen to a thousand viewpoints and try to satisfy them all,” concluding that it is the preferred system of those who have no power.

Davros himself values power and strength above all else, precisely because he is virtually without either (he’s practically at death’s door as it is). He is obsessed by power, making obtaining complete power the key to his entire philosophy. He thinks that he’s doing great work by unleashing the Daleks, because they will stop wars and aggression through sheer strength; no other force will be able to oppose them. “When all other life forms are suppressed, then you will have peace,” he purrs.

That’s a perfect phrasing of a particular viewpoint; by not making Davros a ranting advocate of destruction, one can apply this reasonableness elsewhere, in the real world, and see how sincere people of opposing viewpoints can come to hold those viewpoints—it’s not about good and evil, it’s about what should be done, which method is best. (Granted, we can still disagree with those viewpoints and resist them; I’m not telling us to hold hands.)

This is so far beyond the typical, cartoonish “I will destroy because that is what I do!” villains that it’s almost refreshing. Finally, we have a bad guy who outright dismisses the idea that he might be evil, and does what he does believing he is working for good. Which is the way all villains view themselves—I doubt that even history’s worst monsters looked in the mirror and thought, “Damn, I’m evil!” (Of course, I do that all the time, but I don’t have any power…yet.)

Of the other scripts Terry Nation has written for Doctor Who, none come close to the thoughtfulness and complexity of Genesis of the Daleks. The story seemed to engage him like no other. (In truth, I rather suspect the hand of script editor Robert Holmes, who was probably Doctor Who’s greatest writer.)

Genesis is a great illustration that science fiction is a literature of ideas. Though the program has scenes of horror, thrills and special effects, it’s the ideas here that make the show compelling. Rather than the hyperkinetic thrill-rides that George Lucas provides, quickly forgotten after a day or two, this show is imaginative and can resonate with one long after it has ended. It can cause ideas to form in those who watch it. Ideas for good, or for evil? Only the future can tell us that.

Highly recommended.

NOTE: The above was originally the first half or so of the original piece, with the second half veering into notes on creativity and limitations and how art is defined by choices made. However, it got rambling and stupid–even by the standards here–so I culled it. That doesn’t mean it won’t eventually appear here or elsewhere. Maybe.