|In one of the least shocking twists in Doctor Who history,
the guy in white is A) the first Kaled we meet not to wear
black, and B) the first one to turn out to be a good guy.
It’s March 8th, 1975. Telly Savalas is at number one with “If,” which, in layman’s terms, means that the star of Kojak is at number one with a spoken word cover of a Bread song from 1971. This lasts for two weeks before the Bay City Rollers clean things up with “Bye Bye Baby,” holding #1 for the other four weeks of this story. Mud, Johnny Mathis, Barry White, Guys ‘n’ Dolls, and The Sweet also chart.
In real news, the UN proclaims International Women’s Day, the Rocky Horror Picture Show debuts on Broadway, Bobby Fischer concedes his world chess championship title to Anatoly Karpov by refusing to play against him, and Bill Gates founds Microsoft. In bigger events, the Vietnam War moves towards its conclusion as North Vietnamese troops close on Saigon. Operation Babylift, an attempt to evacuate children from Vietnam, gets off to a terrible start as the first plane crashes, killing 138. Rio Di Janeiro becomes the capital of Brazil after the state of Rio Di Janeiro merges with Estado de Guanabara. And the body of Lesley Whittle, the teenage heiress kidnapped back during Robot, is found.
While on television… I mean, what is there to say. It’s Genesis of the Daleks. The latter three words of which are wholly unimportant. There are a handful of stories in Doctor Who history that can be shortened to one word titles where the title is not the monster. But if you talk to a Doctor Who fan about Genesis, they know what you’re talking about, and it’s not Peter Gabriel’s old band. This story is flat-out one of the most iconic stories of Doctor Who. Given that our approach to the series is tinged with the alchemical, and that we do take an actively mystical view of the series at times, we must tread with some care here. This is, if you will, a piece of sacred ground in the psychochronography of this territory.
It’s not that the story is without flaw. Under the hood, it’s still very much a Terry Nation story, with all the attendant problems. But for the first time in decades, it’s also a Terry Nation story with all the attendant benefits. His knack for adventure, his ability to keep a plot moving, his ability to create properly scary villains, all of that is firmly in play here. Even the things that can be hit or miss – his tendency towards tedious moralizing – end up working here, albeit as much because the actors are top notch as anything else. On top of that, the director, David Maloney, is absolutely on fire here, using everything he learned about Daleks last time he did them and then building on it.
And then there’s the aspect of this story in legend. For my first year or so as a Doctor Who fan, there was no story I wanted to see more. Not the Romana stories, not any of the missing stories, not even Terminus. (Yes, really. I was desperate to see Terminus. We’ll get there.) Between the novelization (a solid Terrance Dicks effort) and the audio (a cut down version that I owned on a two-tape combo release with the Sixth Doctor audio Slipback), this was a story I knew by heart before I ever watched it, and when my mother got me the region-free VCR that opened up the British VHS releases to me, the Sontaran Experiment/Genesis of the Daleks two-pack was just about the first one I got her to buy me for it. (I believe it was that and City of Death that were my first two British tapes) And this isn’t unusual – this is just an incredibly totemic story for Doctor Who fans. What’s unusual is that even after all that build-up, the story was still jaw-droppingly good.
But more than that, it’s just that this story works. Last time, I complained bitterly that Nation was just blithely trusting that people wanted to see Daleks, and that they were enough of a justification that you didn’t need to try to sell the story beyond “it has Daleks in it.” Here, however, he’s forced out of that. Because the story demands that the Daleks have a mythic presence (otherwise who cares about their origin), Nation is pushed into the Whitaker style of treating the Daleks as mythic creatures and then actually having them act mythically and epically. This is a story that couldn’t possibly be told without the Daleks finally taking on the mythic, totemic role they’ve been pretenders to since their return. It’s the first story since 1967 to manage that, and the last one until 1988. Of course it’s huge. It’s the Genesis of the Daleks.
We never get, of course, Genesis of the Time Lords. Nor Genesis of the Doctor. Nor will we ever. We can’t, frankly – the moment where any such absolute determinism can be imposed upon the prehistory of Doctor Who’s “canon” is long since past. The closest thing, in all likelihood, is The Doctor’s Wife, which is almost, but not quite, Genesis of the TARDIS. (It does not provide the same secret origin, but it is still a story whose remit is to show the true nature of one of the show’s ore concepts) So in a real sense, this is the secret origin story for Doctor Who.
After all, the Daleks have never been reducible from Doctor Who. Try as we might, we in the end have to return to the theme we saw playing out in the opening stories of the series: that the show becomes Doctor Who proper once four concepts are in place. Those concepts are the Doctor, the TARDIS, the companions, and the monsters. And The Daleks are the ones who establish what monsters are. They are the ones to set up one of the tentpoles of the series, and in one sense every other monster in the series is just an expansion or a variation on something the Daleks do in the original Nation or Whitaker stories. The Cybermen are the Daleks with unfeeling extermination turned up to eleven, the Ice Warriors are just a variation on the small core of Daleks struggling to survive, and the Silence are just Whitaker’s alchemical Daleks for a new generation. Even the Master is just a sexier version of the Dalek shouting “I AM YOUR SERVANT” in Power of the Daleks.
Let us fix them, then, at the center of the narrative. This is, after all, their story. They are defined repeatedly in this story as creatures of pure survival. But let’s be precise. There is something explicitly Darwinian about the Daleks, who survive by being stronger than other races. But it’s a very odd sort of Darwinism, because one of the most basic tenets of Darwinism is explicitly rejected: evolution. This is admittedly probably mostly due to the fact that Terry Nation doesn’t understand evolution, but regardless, the premise of the Daleks is that they are apparently the final form of evolution for the Kaled people.
In other words, the Daleks are a point of stasis – a thing that does not change. They are, to use someone else’s phrase, being without becoming. They avoid even death – the ultimate and most primal form of becoming. They are an unchanging insistence on their own survival. But what’s crucial is that this stasis is still wedded to an explicitly Darwinist view of how the strong survive and the weak must die.
And so, in their incubator room, the Daleks seethe and hate. But mostly, they exist. Not yet in their travel machines, it’s true, but they exist. Their fixed, Newtownian sleep has begun. It is very easy to misphrase this – to talk about their history beginning, or of the first steps along a familiar narrative arc that will in time lead us to Spiridon and Vulcan and Mechanus. No. These things will happen, it is true, but there is no arc here. No story. The Dalek timeline is just that – a defined, fixed line.
(As with many things that are truly great about Doctor Who, this too descends from Whitakerrian alchemy. The Daleks were always contrasted primarily with the Doctor’s mercurial nature under Whitaker. This simply codifies it in a new way.)
And then he appears. A nameless, terrible thing that seems to just drop out of the sky to tear down their world. Never before – not even in the most cavalierly anarchic moments of the Troughton era – have we seen the Doctor in a way that seems to lead towards that description quite like this does. Here he shows up for the sole and explicit purpose of destroying the world. Not just disrupting it or changing it or sprucing it up by removing an injustice. You can’t do that with the Daleks. The Daleks are, ontologically. They are not changed or disrupted, and to be changed or disrupted is, for them, death – the antithesis of what they are. No. All you can do is destroy them. And that is what this nameless, terrible thing sets out to do.
Why? The circumstances, after all, are a bit odd. The Time Lords make their first appearance in over two years, calling for an act utterly unlike any they have advocated before. In the past, the Time Lords have stressed a refusal to interfere, sending the Doctor only on missions that seem to preserve the general arc of history. But the Daleks do not pervert that as such. After all, the idea behind the arc of history is that history naturally and inherently progresses towards certain kinds of outcomes. All well and good. But the nature of the Daleks is that they are, apparently, what history progresses towards. They are the final form of Kaled history, accelerated by Davros so that they can become the final form of the universe.
And yet the Time Lords try to destroy them. Remember, the Time Lords are not a factionalized race as of yet. At present, they appear to be a hegemonic society, with their renegades exiled and wandering the universe. And so we are hard-pressed to pawn this off as the Celestial Intervention Agency as fan lore tends to. Watching this in 1975, it would be hard to get around the claim that the Time Lords are acting as a whole here.
Why, then? To some extent, it’s easiest to suggest that there was some turning point in The Three Doctors, in which the Time Lords face an unceasing fixity in another context and see their society wholly reformed based upon it as they switch from powering themselves from a black hole to powering themselves from a supernova. But even before that, there is some intuitive sense that the Time Lords and the Daleks are incompatible and must be enemies. The Time Lords, after all, are not guardians of the endpoint of time, but of the motion of history – the continual advancement of it. The Time Lords, if they are guardians of the dialectic of history, are guardians of change. The Daleks are creatures of stasis. Of course they fight.
And of course The Doctor is the one who is sent to take care of it. The Time Lords and the Daleks are merely opposed, but it’s the mercurial, ever-shifting Doctor who is the true and absolute antithesis of the Daleks. And it is in this context that we can finally look at the big moral speeches of this story. The two big ones, of course, are the Doctor asking Davros what he would do with a virus that could destroy all life, and the Doctor’s “have I that right” agonizing.
The first thing to note is that almost everyone praising these two monologues should probably stop. Not that they’re bad monologues – they’re not. It’s just that nobody praises them for the reasons they’re good, and a fair number of people praise them for things that aren’t actually good at all. The “have I that right” speech is particularly galling – on its own, it’s just the Doctor going through one of the most basic ethical hypotheticals in existence – the “would you kill Hitler” debate. On top of that, the initial reason he gives for not destroying them – that it would make him no better than the Daleks – is on the face of it absurd. By any remotely sane ethical standards short of outright pacifism (which the Doctor clearly does not believe in), destroying the Daleks is clearly the right call. I mean, there are ethical systems that would preclude blowing up the Daleks, but it’s very hard to argue that the Doctor as we’ve seen him to date follows any of them. (Tellingly, Sarah – who has secured by this time a firm position as the one who expresses the audience’s point of view and thus as a real conscience of the show – is adamant that he should blow them up.)
So it’s tough to treat the “have I that right” speech as some high point of ethical debate within the series, at least in the most obvious sense. And yet it’s also tough to just declare that one of the most beloved sequences in Doctor Who is crap. I mean, I’ll admit, I have always thought the sequence was a bit overlong for a recitation of such a blazingly cliched ethical debate. But it’s not bad. It’s well-acted enough. It’s just not as interesting as people want to make it, or at least, not in the way they try to make it.
The speech makes more sense, however, when coupled with the (on the surface far more compelling) monologue on Davros’s part about the virus, in that it at least sets the Doctor’s viewpoint up in explicit contrast with another one. Davros himself is a complex character, though one that is in some ways better to talk about in a later story. Here he is mostly an overt counterpart to the Doctor among the Daleks, with that classic Hartnell-era signifier of both of them being scientists and thus, apparently, inherently reasonable people. But in this story, his role is really limited to that of a foil for the Doctor. Thankfully he’s played brilliantly by Michael Wisher, and is clever enough to serve as an evil Doctor in many ways better than the Master. But his end – being gunned down by the Daleks for being inferior to them – is essentially inevitable, and it’s not until he improbably survives in the next Dalek story that he really becomes Davros as we know the character. (Actually, in this story he’s hampered in part by the fact that his henchman is played so well that even though Wisher is by far the best actor to take on Davros in the classic series, he still can’t keep all his scenes from getting stolen by Peter Miles.)
But all the same, the central tension of this story is clearly the ethical debate between the Doctor and Davros. So let’s see if we can find something more fundamental in it than this business of pacifism. Clearly the two monologues are at the heart of it. Since Davros’s speech comes first, however, it’s there that we should look for the central theme that the Doctor is responding to. And it’s fairly clear – Davros’s speech is about attaining godhood. So when the Doctor asks if he has the right, the question seems to be less about the right to kill the Daleks and more about the right to set himself up as having that kind of power – the right, in short, to be a god.
It is this right that he recoils from – the right to refashion history to his desire. It is in this regard – not the genocidal regard – that the Doctor views destroying the Daleks as making him like them. Were he to destroy them, he would be moving from the chaotic churn of history to a fixed, determined sequence of events chosen by him. That’s what he refuses to do. Not kill them, but rather to take authorship of them.
Which brings us to one of the few continuity questions so massive it requires weighing in on even when you take a “there is no such thing as canon” view: to what extent does this story retcon the history of the Daleks? One school of thought holds that it is a full retcon – this completely overwrites the previous history of the Daleks, and is not a secret origin but a do over. It certainly could be, but as a second school of thought maintains, quite reasonably, this does not introduce any more problems than Terry Nation’s ham-fisted attempt at continuity in The Dalek Invasion of Earth. (Which he manages to further bungle here with a bewilderingly almost but not quite totally wrong recap of what is clearly meant to be that story.) The Doctor makes no change to Dalek history, all is right with the world.
Aside from the fact that this is the school of thought that eventually spawned War of the Daleks, which should immediately discount it, it’s blatantly contradicted by the end of the story. The Doctor says he delayed the Daleks by a thousand years. (Tellingly, the people who ignore this unequivocal line are often the same ones who insist that Evil of the Daleks is sacrosanct and must always be the final Dalek story, despite the fact that the Daleks explicitly survive in it.) Imagine the Nazis trying to invade Russia and failing in 1942. Now imagine the Nazis – i.e. the same tanks and planes – trying to do it in 942. (Or, within Doctor Who, imagine Remembrance of the Daleks set in 963. Edgar the Peaceful is totally wicked.) Clearly a thousand year delay is enough to cause massive changes to the entire future. This story unambiguously declares that established history is being altered, and the degree of change we are told about explicitly (never mind any butterfly effects, of which there are many plausible ones) is sufficient to be a credible explanation for any continuity error between an episode before this and an episode after this. Delaying the rise of a particular army with particular capabilities a millennium is a massive shift in history. (Not that other stories can’t also be that massive rewritings of history, but here we’re explicitly told that it is – there’s no way to argue around this being a complete rewriting of the universe)
So clearly history is changed. But to what extent? Well, frankly, who cares. Because in terms of what this story is about, the extent doesn’t matter. Consider precisely what the Doctor does in the climax of the story. Clearly when he goes back to destroy the incubator room, he knows he is not ending the Daleks but merely delaying them. More to the point, this judgment seems based on things he observes between the two attempts – i.e. it is presumably because he realizes it’s too late and the Daleks have started. It’s only after that is learned that he goes back to blow them up, and similarly only then that he seems to come to his conclusion that the Daleks will somehow be a force for good. The easiest explanation for this seemingly strange behavior, to my mind, is that he has come to realize that there is a greater attack on the Daleks available than merely killing them: changing them. Writing to them. Or upon them.
Later lore, and in this case I am inclined to accept it, as I rather like it, is that this story is the opening battle of the Time War. And this is why. The Daleks – the unchanging, fixed point and the end of all things – are changed. They are rendered mutable. It is difficult to imagine a more egregious slight. But more to the point, this satisfies the stated mission of the Time Lords perfectly. The Doctor has discovered a fundamental weakness of the Daleks: they can be changed. They are still subject to history. They are subject to being written. This is what “time can be rewritten” means. It is the battle cry of the Time War itself – the statement that the very understanding of a species’ history can be altered. All understanding and thought – the entire understanding of what a culture is – can be rewritten. Not destroyed, or killed, or even harmed. Just… given a rewrite. Which is, in its own way, even more terrifying. (For fun, imagine the line “time can be rewritten” as being about the script editing practices of the showrunner when Moffat first used the line.)
In many ways, then, the story Genesis is most similar to is the supposed end of the Daleks: Evil of the Daleks. Evil of the Daleks observes that the Dalek factory is in a fundamental sense inferior and subject to the human factor. Genesis of the Daleks expands on this: the Daleks are subject to the forces of history – forces that are, in Doctor Who, overtly humanist. The human factor destroys them not just at the end, but at the beginning. This exists with one foot firmly in the classical ethical tradition that Terry Nation, Terrance Dicks, and David Whitaker all belonged to – one where there are big, important morals to be learned about the world. But it has another foot elsewhere, making it far sharper and more brilliant than the ethics of the series to date.
But let’s switch gears for just a second.
All of this gets coupled with the fact that every part of the production team here that wasn’t in the giant clam department is at the top of their game, and you have what almost deserves to be called the series premiere of a new Doctor Who. Certainly it is where the postmodern takes hold at the very root of what Doctor Who is. But at the most simple level, it’s just a jaw-dropping new dawn for the series. The Letts era, as we discussed, brought the floor of quality up dramatically, so that below par for the Letts era was miles above par for the Troughton era. That’s not really true of the Hinchcliffe era, which, when it’s off its game, is often miles out in left field making you wonder how it even contrived to screw up in that particular way.
But the Letts era never quite produced its iconic classic. That’s ultimately one of the maddening things about it – every story either fails to do anything extraordinarily well, or also manages to do at least one thing extraordinarily poorly. It never quite had the day where everything went right. For a long time everybody assumed it was The Daemons, but then it became widely available and we realized that, no, that was definitely a Sloman script. The closest it had to everything working at once was ostensibly Inferno, where, yes, everything did go right, except that A) the series had no idea what it was doing in Season Seven and thus everything going right is still confused and a bit lackluster, and B) Ambassadors of Death had everything go right only with a better script.
But as we talked about last time, what television was has been changing tremendously over the last five years. Just on a technological level of what it is, Doctor Who is a completely different show in 1975 than it was in 1970. Basically, it’s been so long since the show aced it like this that this ends up being an outright redefinition of the show – the first definitive classic for so long that it almost feels like a definitive classic for a different show.
In other words, this story is the equivalent of The Daleks itself. The Daleks is why the show survived – because it landed a massive hit right out of the gate. Without that, it probably wouldn’t have made it. The series debuted with An Unearthly Child, but its moment of emergence into brilliance was The Daleks. Now they baptize it again, for the color era. This is how it works. To really make yourself a definitive Doctor Who, you’ve got to nail a Dalek story. If your Dalek stories aren’t top notch, people will always ask questions of your era. So this is it. This is the big one.
But there’s this… Point of Singularity here. Hinchcliffe is making his grand, iconic statement – his massive, glorious classic where he unabashedly tries to just make something that people will call the best Doctor Who story anybody has ever made. And he’s making it with a story about rewriting the fundamental tenets of Doctor Who. And Doctor Who is a big, alchemical, metafictional thing. And, look, I’m about to sound just a bit like a madman with a blog. But we are, by the nature of what I’m stubbornly calling psychohronography, treating the territory of ideas and memories as a territory that can be subject to a tour – as a space. At some point we have to ask the very obvious question that tends to trigger people to become… ooh, which entry to link on this next phrase… occult minded. So let’s go ahead and get it over with.
If we begin to think of the concept of an imaginary space, in which ideas have some sort of form and coherence, and in which they are capable of interacting – metaphors, say. Characters that represent ideas – things that can talk, but are not really people so much as symbols for, say, Nazi Germany and Josef Mengele. (Not that there are any of those in this story.) So at what point, when you have something that you have lent a notion of coherence to, and something that has some sort of animus, do you declare that an idea is alive. That it can think. That it is conscious.
Some stories might just be big enough to do that. What if our thoughts could think for themselves, as someone said once. Certainly if any are, Doctor Who is. There is no concept of ideas that are conscious beings in which Doctor Who would not have to be one. And if it is, it has to be taken very seriously as one.
It is here that Doctor Who becomes postmodern. And in 1975, this is a very big deal. Postmodern literature is really just emerging as a term, as people finally start noticing that what was previously a bunch of things on the fringe is looking increasingly like a coherent movement worthy of an ism. We’ve traced some of the bits of this as it began to emerge – entries like the ones on International Times, The Atrocity Exhibition or Glam. But right around here, people started to notice that this was a thing, and dubbed it postmodernism. So to be a sterling example of it on BBC One watched by millions and beloved for generations is quite a feat in 1975.
Because what happens here is that Doctor Who explicitly destabilizes its own central concept. It takes one of its fundamental pillars – the Daleks – and casually knocks it down. But it doesn’t do this in a glib retcon sort of way. It does it by crashing another one of its casual pillars into the first. The Doctor’s mercurial nature runs smack into the Daleks’ absolute fixity, and only one walks out alive. Previously the Doctor had only defeated the Daleks. Now he’s defeated their very existence – the very idea of them.
And so here the nature of what a monster in Doctor Who is changes. Where before monsters were reliably some real world fear extrapolated, here they become fear. They become the idea of fear and of darkness, or at least, manifestations thereof. This is the essential evolution from the Pertwee era to the Baker era – the equivalent of The War Games’s demand that the Doctor learn to invest in real people. Now the Doctor fights ideas.
And all of this, of course, follows directly from the entry I’ve actually been avoiding linking. Of course, it’s The Mind Robber. Because that’s the real thing about this story. The Doctor, for the first time since The Mind Robber, seems to play his full hand as a lord of stories. The Time Lords seem, more than at any other point in the story, like creatures that might actually be connected to the Land of Fiction – even appearing in an explicit homage to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Everything is in place, and the series takes advantage of it. It demonstrates the ultimate Doctor Who trick for the first time. Because the series is a mythology in its own right – an idea with immense power – and a series with a protagonist who rewrites mythologies.
So it rewrites its own mythology. It demonstrates that time can be rewritten. And it demonstrates that by time we mean our very history and identity. Time can be rewritten. We can be rewritten. And, most terrifyingly and wondrously of all, Doctor Who can be the author.
Once again, everything has changed.