A commissioned essay for David Allen.
For all that the new series takes pains to avoid making declarations about “canon” that might clash with the classic series or the spinoff material, things got surprisingly close with Journey’s End, which, in an earlier draft, contained a flashback sequence that gave a capsule origin story of Davros. All fairly standard stuff – a shot of the one time he was ever on the surface of Skaro, him swearing to ensure the survival of his people, Davros horribly injured and screaming, and then a nice monologue about how “I became a victim myself. Perhaps it was necessary. To inspire me… Can you imagine? I had one idea! An idea that has never stopped. Rolling out across the centuries. I have slept, and woken, and died, and every time I open my eyes there they are. My Daleks. Outlasting eternity. And all from one man.”
It’s a lovely little monologue – the “outlasting eternity” line is a cute little throwback to the Doctor’s description of humanity in The Ark in Space, only inverting that into an act of singular, mad vision as opposed to a collective indomitability. It fits nicely with the larger metaphoric space of Journey’s End, and the decision to frame the Daleks as an idea – that is, as a narrative concept – is wonderful. It also, apparently dragged during the read-through and required a bunch of FX shots, and so got cut before filming. It’s always something.
Had this sequence not been deleted, however, the result would have been a rare moment of contradicting what had come before, as back in 2006 Big Finish released a quartet of audios called I, Davros that offered a different and contradictory origin for him. Actually, the contradiction isn’t that jarring – the big one hinges on whether or not Davros has only seen the surface of Skaro once or not. The real difference is that Big Finish did four hours and forty minutes of audio about Davros’s origins whereas Russell T Davies wrote and cut about a sixty second flashback. They’re very different things.
But they both speak to an underlying concern about Davros, which is the need to approach him from the opposite direction. In practice Davros is a back formation of the Daleks. Terry Nation considered the question of what the Daleks’ origin might be and created Davros in their image. His physical appearance is derived straightforwardly from Ray Cusick’s iconic design of the Daleks. His basic concept and iconography as a Joseph Mengele figure comes from the Daleks’ existing Nazi Germany imagery. Everything about him comes from the Daleks, designed as a retconned origin for them.
And so any attempt to provide an origin for Davros that leads to the Daleks is necessarily something of an odd process. It can never be an entirely satisfying narrative simply because the narrative is self-evidently false. It has the same problems as telling the true and complete story of the Doctor leaving Gallifrey – the reality of the narrative is that it was designed to function without that story, and thus that the addition to the story is fundamentally inessential. (This is, one suspects, why Davies found the resultant material so eminently cuttable.)
Big Finish’s solution to this problem is, on the whole, fairly sound. They spin a sizable tale of sound and fury in the vague mould of I Clavdivs. Which means that what we get is not so much an origin of Davros as an origin of the conditions that allowed a visible nutter to rise to power. Davros is an irredeemable bad seed from the get-go, and in the first audio, titled, with entertaining inaccuracy, Innocence, he shoves his tutor in a radiation chamber just to see what happens. This more than sets the tone for what is, in practice, an extended series of murders and double-crosses in proper I Clavdivs style.
I Clavdivs, for its part, existed for two basic purposes. The first was to show off the ridiculous talents of its cast, which it accomplished handily. The second is to tell a long game history story, in which two generations of people influence each other with their back-stabbing schemes. Big Finish is not quite equipped to handle either of these, though they do as well as could reasonably be asked. Instead of a cast including Patrick Stewart, John Hurt, Brian Blessed, Derek Jacobi, Siân Phillips, and George Baker, I, Davros has Terry Molloy, Richard Franklin, Nicholas Briggs, Lisa Bowerman, and Peter Miles. It’s not a bad cast by any measure, but it’s not a cast of great actors. Then again, the loss of the visual dimension probably helps with this – where I Clavdivs traded on the ability of its actors to communicate the subtle nuances of character motivation, I, Davros is forced to have comparatively transparent characters. I Clavdivs gets the luxury of people motivated out of selfishness, greed, and mild incompetence, whereas I, Davros is basically about irredeemable monsters.
But, of course, I Clavdivs and I, Davros are leading to different ends. A thoroughly nuanced stretch of gritty political realism is a poor lead-in to the (literally) black and white morality play of Genesis of the Daleks. The Daleks are not complex. Their simplicity, both in physical and narrative design, is the entire point of them. And so there’s always going to be a disjunct between I Clavdivs and the Daleks. I, Davros does, on the whole, a terribly successful job of making the changes to the I Clavdivs formula necessary to make it work to lead into the Daleks. I, Davros always had to be about ranting black-hatted madmen seizing power simply because that is exactly what the state of affairs in Genesis of the Daleks is.
But all of this highlights an odd question about Davros himself. He’s not quite a mythic character. He’s deeply tied into the fundamental mythology of the series, but in and of himself he’s actually just another ranting mad scientist of the sort that the series has dozens of. That’s not to say he can’t function as a villain – Lance Parkin does a bang-up job in Davros (and writes the third I, Davros script, which revisits a key character from Davros), for instance. But a functional and successful villain is not necessarily a mythic one. Davros works because ranting mad scientists are fun, and Davros is a particularly good one. But in the end, in mythic terms, he’s an interesting but unneeded explanation for the Daleks.
Indeed, he’s only prominent because Terry Nation spend the latter half of the 70s and the entirety of the 80s demanding he be recycled. Had Nation made the more sensible decision to leave Davros out of Destiny of the Daleks he’d be a one-off 70s villain who was dead. But Nation brought him back, and used his right to veto future Dalek stories to ensure that every subsequent writer brought him back as well. Part of this may have simply been that Nation would get a separate royalty payment for Davros, although it’s also worth noting that Nation was always eager to establish “his” version of the Daleks, particularly over that of David Whitaker, and thus presumably saw Davros as a suitable replacement for Whitaker’s Dalek Emperor. In either case, the reasons for Davros’s mythic role are as idiosyncratic as those of the Cybermen’s – and ultimately come down to the greed and ego of the same person.
Which is, in the end, the problem with I, Davros. Interesting as it is, it really can be adequately replaced by a sixty second flashback in Journey’s End. It’s fundamentally inessential, serving as the explanation for something where the entire point is its complete resilience to all explanations. The Daleks are terrifying precisely because there is no real explanation other than “they want to kill you, and everything else too.” Their creator is thus mythic in the same way that the Dalek Emperor is mythic, or that the Black Dalek is mythic – because he’s mythic to them.
Journey’s End gets at this interestingly, having Davros simultaneously be the needed progenitor of a new race of Daleks and, as the Doctor rather icily mocks, their pet. Davros exists in part to be loathed by the Daleks. The final moment of Genesis of the Daleks, in which his creations turn on him, gets suspended out over decades, so that they turn eternally on him, He exists to be hated by his creations. There’s another lovely deleted moment from the Journey’s End script where the Doctor warns Davros that the Daleks will turn on him too, and he notes that it is as he said – the universe will be at peace. The self-destructive nature of Davros is genuinely interesting. But it also serves to push him out of the narrative. The story doesn’t want him.
Which makes nearly five hours of setting him up perhaps more than the world could possibly need. And that’s the biggest problem with it. It’s a perfectly good and interesting story, and yet there’s simply too much of it. The audience for five hours of Davros origin story is vanishingly small. And so the most fundamental aspect of I, Davros is its own excess. But even this is not a bad thing – Doctor Who, in the Davies era, has always been about a sort of gleeful excess. Its overriding aesthetic is hedonism. The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, after all, trades on the fact that it packs absolutely everything imaginable into its two episodes. So to, within the context of the new series, fault five hours of Davros continuity porn feels like a sort of fannish slut shaming.
In this regard, no wonder Davies saw fit to cut the sixty second flashback origin of Davros segment from Journey’s End. Sixty seconds just isn’t enough time for something as gloriously and lavishly unnecessary as an explanation of where Davros came from.