Everyone remembers their very first Doctor Who adventure. This one was mine. Sure, I had been in the room when my dad had occasionally watched the odd older episode on UK Gold, but I had never taken in any of it. Not until 1993, when the BBC repeated the adventure on BBC Two, did I finally sit down to actually watch a Doctor Who adventure from start to finish. By the end of the episode one cliffhanger, I knew I was hooked, as thirty years after they first appeared on British TV screens, I experienced the same thrill that six year olds in 1963 must have felt when they first saw a Dalek on their television screens. Six weeks later, each week all the more painful as I was itching to find out what happened next, I had very firmly transitioned from mild interest to absolute adoration. From this point on, countless teachers would lament my regular attempts to cover my school books with drawings of the menacing pepperpots from Skaro …
Fortunately, Genesis of the Daleks in not only the very first story I watched as a child; it’s also very, very good! In a daring revisitation of the Daleks’ orgins, established in their first adventure, the Timelords send the Doctor back to the planet Skaro on the eve of the point at which the Daleks are set to be created. Foreseeing a time when they will destroy all other lifeforms, they task the Doctor with preventing their creation, or in the very least reducing their aggression.
Reluctantly agreeing to their plans, the Doctor, Sarah, and Harry, learn that they have landed right in the middle of a conflict between two races; the Thals, who had previously featured in the original Dalek adventure and also The Planet of the Daleks; and the Kaleds – which as the Doctor quickly observes is an anagram of ‘Dalek’! A thinly disguised pastiche of the Nazis, complete with Heil salutes, black uniforms and jackboots, the Kaleds capture the Doctor and Harry and take them to their main research centre. Sarah meanwhile, is captured by the Thals not long after witnessing an then unknown individual testing out a primitive form of equipment … a prototype Dalek!
The unknown individual proves to be the Kaled’s head scientist; a new character who would leave such a powerful impression that he would be resurrected for future stories – Davros. Realising that the scientific team at the research bunker can neither end the war outright for the Kaleds, nor prevent the genetic mutations to their race caused by the war, Davros is creating a travel machine for the species he believes that Kaleds will develop into. He now however begins to take the project in a more disturbing direction – altering the very genetics of the creature so that they should survive and dominate. In front of a stunned Doctor, Davros proudly unveils the Dalek as the new direction of his research efforts.
The Doctor then becomes involved in a race against time; firstly to rescue Sarah from the Thal city, and then to avert the development of the Daleks. Each episode sets out how plan after plan is thwarted; Kaleds who are hostile to Davros’ plans are wiped out when Davros allies with Kaleds to destroy his own race; before Davros then turns a platoon of prototype Daleks on the Thal survivors. Even an insurrection by Davros’ own security services at the surviving Kaled bunker is ultimately supressed through the might of the Daleks. Worse yet, Davros is prepared to believe that the Doctor has travelled in time, and under the threat of violence to Harry and Sarah, compels him to divulge everything he knows about future Dalek failures. Not only must the Doctor find a way to fulfil his mission, he must also ensure the recording of his information is found and destroyed, lest the Daleks be rendered invincible.
The story is already founded on a superb basis, but really it is the main cast who are the making of this adventure. In particular, Michael Wisher as Davros, and Peter Miles as his adjutant Nyder, are scintillating in their portrayal of remorseless devotion to their cause. It is fair to say that every other cast member benefits from playing against these foes, as they alternate between urbane charm, dispassionate cynicism, and sinister malevolence. There is undoubtedly an air of a Greek tragedy about the whole thing, as the audience wills characters not to trust either Davros or Nyder, knowing their motives to be utterly corrupt and evil.
The story also features one of the most powerful moments in Doctor Who’s history, and quite possibly the moment that sealed Tom Baker as the Doctor for so many years. Faced with no other option than to destroy the Dalek incubator room and wipe out the race at birth, the Doctor primes the room with explosives, only needing to touch two wires together, and the Daleks will never have existed. As the viewer waits for the Doctor to do so, he says aloud: “Have I the right?” Sarah speaks for the viewer – “How can you doubt it! You must destroy the Daleks!” It becomes one of the most deeply profound moments, as the Doctor ponders the weight of that decision. It is an incredibly powerful expression of society’s conscience at the time – putting the question “if you pointed out a child, knowing that child would grow up utterly evil … could you kill that child?” Although not named, it would have been obvious to a viewer in 1974 that the child in question would have been Adolf Hitler, making the question incredibly painful to consider.
That makes Genesis of the Daleks so much more than the very first Doctor Who adventure I watched. It is more than the story that caused a lifetime obsession with drawing Daleks; that made me want to hide behind the sofa at the Daleks advancing down the corridors of their city; more even than the wonderful camaraderie between the Doctor, Sarah, and Harry. It’s more than a brilliant, well-paced adventure. More than the sensational debut of Davros. It’s a story that leaves you challenged by the end of it, and pondering anew what you would have done if you’d been in the Doctor’s place. It is for good reason, that this was not just my first Doctor Who, it was also my very first Doctor Who DVD; and it was money fantastically well spent!
Next time: My best loved Doctor Who adventure, a classic that had been lost for almost 25 years before its recovery in Hong Kong …