Doctor Who: Genesis of the Daleks Review
We begin on the mist-shrouded planet of Skaro – actually one of the many quarries that performed yeoman service to British small-screen SF, but disbelief is willingly suspended. The opening scene, with gas-masked soldiers gunned down in slow motion, sets the scene for a not humourless but still unusually dark six-parter. Eugenics and genocide (with particular resonance for an audience only thirty years away from fighting the Nazis) are amongst its themes. Mary Whitehouse didn’t like it at all, and a couple of years later she got her way (about which I’ll go into more depth as and when The Deadly Assassin receives a DVD release). The hard-edged tone went, and the programme was played increasingly for laughs and went into decline.
Season Twelve, Tom Baker’s first as The Doctor, had a story arc. Following The Ark in Space, the Doctor, Sarah Jane and Harry beamed down to far-future Earth (see The Sontaran Experiment). Their return journey is intercepted by the Time Lords, who want the Doctor to go back to Skaro, and to thwart or otherwise alter the development of the Daleks. Skaro is in the thick of a generations-long war between the Kaleds and the Thals, and the Daleks are the conception of crippled, megalomaniac Kaled scientist Davros (Michael Wisher).
In this multi-channel age, audiences of ten million or more are rare, and tend to be for live events rather than episodes of drama serials. However, they were far more common in the 1970s, with only three channels to choose from. In addition to this, Doctor Who was in the hands of a producer and a script editor – Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes – who wanted to pitch the series more towards older children and adults, with a harder-edged style that it hadn’t seen since Jon Pertwee’s first season. Add to this moral complexities, such as a sequence where The Doctor agonises over whether he has the right to destroy an entire race, and you have a series that has often attracted an adult audience certainly deserving one.
Terry Nation didn’t create Doctor Who, which some people seem to think, but in coming up with the Daleks he certainly helped to establish the show in the public consciousness. On The Beginning box set, there seemed to be a tendency to downplay Nation’s contribution, and to pay more attention to the contributions of then script editor David Whittaker and designer Raymond Cusick. Certainly, by the time he wrote Genesis, inspiration seemed to be flagging, as previous Nation Dalek stories seemed to be less effective rehashes of earlier ones. Planet of the Daleks, for example, is the first Daleks story redone in colour on a different planet and one fewer episode. Script editor Terrance Dicks called Nation on this and asked for something different. By the time Nation delivered the story, Dicks had been replaced by Robert Holmes, and it’s certainly clear that Genesis is a distinctly Holmesian story: the dark tone, the increase in violence (still within PG bounds but occasionally pushing it) are all his trademarks, and no doubt he rewrote much of Nation’s scripts. Of these men, only Dicks and Cusick are still alive to say their piece: for Dicks, the story was a little too dour and humourless. David Maloney’s direction is pacey and stylish, using some shadowy lighting. There’s little padding compared to other six-parters, and few flaws. The clam sequence is rather silly though,
However, in one respect Genesis adds a significant figure to the iconography of Doctor Who, and by extension British 70s popular culture – Davros. Apart from actors playing companions and other recurring characters, and others who tended to play tiny roles or inhabit monster suits, there were a small number of actors whom the producers called up to play featured roles. They included a pair of late Michaels, Sheard and Wisher. Michael Wisher as Davros gives one of the finest single performances in genre television, one made all the more remarkable by the fact that it’s one delivered under pounds of makeup and sitting virtually immobile in a chair. (You’re reminded that the most distinctive individual Who villains are frequently basically voice parts: Sutekh and Weng-Chiang among them.) It’s a pity that this performance’s impact was diluted by bringing the character back with different actors playing him, because the combination of Nation/Holmes’s dialogue and Wisher’s voice creates something quite remarkable, and one engraved in my memory since I first saw it back in 1975. Davros at times even sounds like a Dalek: Wisher had provided Dalek voice duty before and he does so here (uncredited) for the Dalek that speaks in Episode Two. (Roy Skelton does the voice honours for the remainder of the serial.)
We think of a single companion as the norm, but actually for much of the history of programme that’s been the exception. For Tom Baker’s first season, the producers went back to the one-female-one-male formula that had been used for most of the 1960s. Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith had first appeared opposite Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor but she blossomed against Tom Baker’s Fourth. In a 1970s just coming to terms with feminism, she completed what had been a false start with Caroline John’s Liz Shaw: a female companion whose relationship with the Doctor was that of an adult rather than a child. Being there just to twist one’s ankle, scream and be captured and rescued just wasn’t on any more. Harry Sullivan, played by the late Ian Marter, was written in to handle the action scenes in case an older man was cast as the Fourth Doctor – given that Baker, who was forty when he took on the role, was more than capable to do this made Harry surplus to requirements (as tends to be the way with multi-companion stories, at least one of them has little to do) and he was written out after this season. Never mind: Marter brings a fresh-faced innocence to the role: he could quite easily be someone out of a boys’-own adventure serial from the 40s. On the villainous side, Peter Miles is indelible as Nyder, Davros’s sadistic sidekick. Fans of Allo Allo should note Guy Siner and Hilary Minster in small roles.
As for Baker, he was in the first of what would be a record-breaking seven years as the Doctor. He’d already made the role his own, and while he certainly lasted too long in the role, allowing the series to descend into silliness, he’s a galvanising presence here. Genesis of the Daleks is a key story at a time which was a true purple patch for the show: some highly talented people did their utmost, production values were (relatively) high and eight-figure audiences tuned in every week. Genesis of the Daleks is a true classic.
2 Entertain’s DVD is, like all their Doctor Who releases, encoded for both Regions 2 and 4. Genesis comes on two DVD-9 discs, all six episodes on the first with commentaries, the other extras on the second.
Genesis of the Daleks was made in the customary combination of 2” videotape for the studio and 16mm film for exteriors and some work done at Ealing studios (for example the climbing sequences in Parts Two and Three). Once again, you have to congratulate the Restoration Team for their work, as Genesis has never looked as good as this. For a detailed account of the work done on this serial, visit the article on their website, here. As you would expect, the aspect ratio is the original 4:3, making anamorphic enhancement neither necessary nor desirable. The soundtrack is the original mono and sounds just fine. There are six chapter stops per episode.
The commentary track this time brings together Baker, Sladen, Maloney and Peter Miles, the latter turning up during Episode Two and not saying a great deal. Baker and Sladen dominate the proceedings, and their banter is a pleasure to listen to, while Maloney still gets to say his share. In the absence of a moderator, memories occasionally lapse after thirty years, but this is an engaging and informative commentary. Unfortunately for the hard of hearing, subtitles are not provided for the commentary, although they are for the feature and the other extras. This is a regrettable but characteristic 2 Entertain decision. Finally on the first disc are information subtitles, provided this time by Richard Molesworth. They’re a little heavy on quotes but supply you with enough information as you’ll most likely ever need.
On to disc two, and the majority of the extras. The two largest are a pair of newly-made documentaries, “Genesis of a Classic” (62:09) and “The Dalek Tapes” (53:20). The former is the customary making-of documentary and is as commendably thorough as ever, including interviews with most of the surviving cast and crew, plus Michael Wisher who is represented by an archive video interview from 1994. There’s also a clip from an Alan Whicker interview of Terry Nation. Now, Nation may be dead ten years, but he’s never really been represented on Dalek DVDs, and now that the first serial and this one have been released on DVD an opportunity has been lost. Are there no interviews with Nation in the archive? Something of an indulgence are Tom Baker apparently receiving a call mid-interview from his ex-wife and six sequences featuring Roy Skelton called “Teach Yourself Dalek”, in which he demonstrates by speaking some of his lines from the script (and one line actually voiced by Wisher). This could have been boiled down into one short item, particularly as the subject is dealt with quite thoroughly in Wisher’s interview.
“The Dalek Tapes” is an overview of the series’ best-known villains. The earlier parts of this are somewhat hobbled by the loss of some stories, though the makers take the opportunity to include the recently-discovered clips from the Troughton story Power of the Daleks. I could have done without the colourised Dalek Master Plan clip, though – not that it’s badly done, but because colourising material that was designed and lit to be shot in black and white is the Devil’s work. Also, the documentary could have been longer, as it does skate over the three 1980s Dalek stories. But generally there is a lot of interesting material in these two documentaries, which are in 16:9 anamorphic, with clips mostly windowboxed into 4:3.
As with other DVDs, the other extras are minor curiosities and connoisseur items. Next up is a series of continuity announcements (6:16). Those of us of a certain age will feel a frisson of nostalgia in seeing the blue-and-black BBC1 globe (some of the voiceovers have a hollow sound, likely due to being recorded off air). The announcements include repeat showings, right up to the most recent one in early 2000, with dalekoid BBC2 idents. Again for those of us of a certain age, the classic Blue Peter lineup consists of Peter Purves, John Noakes and Lesley Judd (or, if you’re a little older, Valerie Singleton). Here they are’s an extract from 1975 (7:13) featuring one viewer’s models of the TARDIS and various Who creatures, and earth creature Shep who gets his nose into shot more than once.
The extras are completed by a self-navigating stills gallery (7:57) and some DVD-ROM material in PDF format. First off are some cuttings from Radio Times from the serial’s first transmission. Also included are a couple of short interviews with Terry Nation from the same magazine at the same time. The second points out a significant coincidence and what must have been a banner week in the Nation household: as Genesis concluded, the first episode of another Nation-written series was shown – Survivors. There is also a listing of an omnibus repeat, with no date given but presumably the following Christmas/New Year holiday period. Also in PDF is a reproduction of the 1976 Doctor Who annual. An original copy of this is now worth rather more than it cost at the time, but here is what you missed: several stories of the Doctor, in text or comic-strip form, with some articles on scientific subjects (killer plants, the Zodiac constellations, an A to Z of space). Needless to say you’ll have to enlarge the pages by quite a bit if you want to read them.
And that’s it. Genesis of the Daleks holds the distinction of being the most-repeated Who serial, and also the one available in the most formats (six-part serial, cut-down omnibus, LP record, VHS cassette and now DVD). Its reputation as one of the series’ all-time classics is secure and that’s something I’m not about to dispute. The BBC’s series of classic-Who DVDs has been generally impeccable, with the sub-standard-definition originals looking and sounding better than they ever have before, and backed up with some impressive and well-produced extras. Genesis of the Daleks is one of the ones they had to get right, and minor niggles apart, they have.