Genesis of the Daleks

You know that old cliche about how Bob Dylan’s songs are great so long as they’re not performed by Bob Dylan? That’s exactly how I feel about Terry Nation as a writer. The man clearly has his finger on the pulse of something, having created both the Daleks, which made Doctor Who an unlikely overnight hit, and Blakes 7, which while no one’s idea of lastingly popular remains iconic in the UK (and is, in my humble opinion, a show with many, many brilliant moments). So I give the Devil his due. But he’s still the Devil, and Daleks and Avon notwithstanding, Terry Nation is a horrible writer.

In fact, Daleks and Avon are kind of the point. They’re both things that he created by accident that were never intended to be anything lasting (Blakes 7 was meant to be a show about Blake; the Daleks were slated for a one-off appearance and were utterly defeated at the end of their first episode). It isn’t so much what Nation did with them (indeed, Blakes 7‘s first season, the one that Nation wrote all by himself and without any help from anyone else, is completely forgettable) as how they were allowed to emerge and become things of their own. See what I mean? Bob Dylan writes the songs, but it’s better if other people interpret and play them.

I wish someone else had been given Genesis of the Daleks to write. It’s surprisingly effective, given who’s behind the writer’s desk, but a more imaginative and human touch would have benefitted this important story all the same.

For starters, the Nazi iconography among the Kaleds is not only hoary, it doesn’t seem to fit. I always roll my eyes a little when villains in TV shows either are Nazis or look like Nazis, because Nazis are universally simplistic villains. That, of course, is the case here too: we’re never meant to understand Davros’ point of view or feel any sympathy with Nyder. Now, it’s Doctor Who, so cartoon villains are not only par for the course but actually what we tune in for, but this episode is unfortunately trying to make A Point. And if your trying to make A Point, you’d better do more than entertain where your villains are concerned. But as I said, it doesn’t matter because the Nazi iconography doesn’t fit anyway. The Kaleds, we’re told, are genetically corrupted by radiation exposure and are degenerating into some kind of formless lumps with tentacles that aren’t even vaguely humanoid. Quite what the point of maintaining racial purity when it’s eminitely obvious that your species (a) isn’t going to be your species much longer and (b) is DEvolving into something inferior anyway totally escapes me. Indeed, it was twice as weird in the original Dalek episode when the Thals were all blonde Aryans! But it’s still backward here: if the Kaleds are meant to be Nazis, they’re kinda doing it wrong. Designing cybernetic augmentations, when you think about it, was more or less the opposite of the original Nazi mission. Unless I misread history, the Nazis were more about selective breeding. I confess I’m not completely sure what Hitler’s position on cybernetic enhancements would have been, but I’ll wager he would have found them perverse. But for the sake of argument let’s say he wouldn’t have. He’d still be offended by the idea that the Germans somehow needed them to rise above the herd. I think we can say with a great deal of certainty that a hypothetical pro-cyborg Hitler would have insisted that Germans are fine just as they are, and that adopting cybernetic enhacements was a manifestation of the Will to Power . Or, put crudely, a cybernetically enhanced German would still be superior to a cybernetically enhanced Slav, and the Germans would produce better enhancements besides. Something like that. Told that Germans were devolving into critters, I’m quite certain Hitler’s response would be to blame it on impurities and to try to locate the "purest" members of the tribe for prodigious breeding to ward off the effects in the next generation.

For another, the idea that there’s any moral ambiguity, or that Davros and the Doctor simply have different moral perspectives, as is claimed by so many admirers of the episode, is simply rubbish. The Doctor is right and Davros is wrong, period. Or, if you must, Davros follows a kind of anti-morality that is explicitly referred to in the episode as evil. This isn’t a complex disagreement about what’s "good," it’s a transparent confrontation between Good and Evil. Now, I do appreciate that they’re putting forward a coherent Philosophy of Evil. Davros isn’t purely malevolent, as is true of so many cartoon villains. Here, Evil is presented as something coherent and reasonable, something that might, you know, actually tempt or seduce someone, something in the face of which one has, above all, to remain focused. This episode definitely has depth along that dimension, and it’s greatly appreciated. But the pretense that there’s a real argument going on between Davros and the Doctor doesn’t do the episode any favors. This is especially true of Davros’ famous line about how he would commission the creation of a hypothetical virus so virulent that it would destroy all life just so that he could hold it in a vial in his hand and experience the power it would give him. On the one hand, this is a believable and intelligent concept of extreme evil – one that resonates with me, as I, too, see evil primarily as the desire to accumulate power over others for its own sake. But on the other, Davros has just finished telling the Doctor he won’t accept that the Daleks are evil.

Evil? No. No, I will not accept that. They are conditioned simply to survive. They can survive only by becoming the dominant species. When all other life forms are suppressed, when the Daleks are the supreme rulers of the universe, then you will have peace. Wars will end. They are the power not of evil, but of good.

Davros is not stupid (indeed, he’s presented as the greatest genius of the Kaled race), nor is he insane, and so I can’t really get over how artificial this whole scene ends up feeling after juxtaposing that line with the next one about the virus. In the one, Davros presents survival as the ultimate value and obliquely argues that it is in the interest of all life for one form to be unquestionably dominant. That might be mostly for the Doctor’s benefit, but Davros nevertheless has a point. But of course that is completely undercut by the revelation that he would gladly hold in his had a virus that could destroy all life just to experience the power it would give him. Now the highest value is power, even at the potential expense of survival. It won’t do.

The same could be said for the Doctor’s famous "have I the right?" speech; it’s similarly philosophically muddled. In an interesting parallel, the Doctor does find himself in a position to radically alter the course of the development of life … by wiping out one particular entire species. He holds in his hands two wires that, if touched together, will eliminate the Daleks from the timeline as though they never existed. Being the Good Guy, of course he balks at the notion of committing genocide, even against a race he’s just argued was bred to be evil. Unfortunately, the scene doesn’t really work because the Doctor himself turns out to have an inconsistent morality. In asking himself "have I the right?" he asks what I personally consider the right question, and what Kant would have considered the right quesiton, namely who is he to make such far reaching decisions, where does he derive the authority? But it soon becomes clear that the Doctor does believe he has the authority if he can be sure the net result will be good. This is a consequentialist/utilitarian position, totally at odds with the Kantian position he was just taking. He, indeed anyone, "has the right," provided the decision taken makes life generally better. The Doctor worries that some good (in terms of alliances formed against the Daleks) came out of their existence too, and he doesn’t have the right to undo all that unless he can be sure that the damage done was more than the positive side effects. Watch these two incompatible moral foundations in action. Kantian:

But if I kill. Wipe out a whole intelligent life form, then I become like them. I’d be no better than the Daleks.

Consequentialist:

I know that although the Daleks will create havoc and destruction for millions of years. I know also, that out of their evil, must come something good.

Which is it? Well, it could plausibly be "both" if the Doctor’s inability to see whether the Dalek presence in the universe created more good than it caused destrubtion is the basis of his doubt that he has the right to destroy them, but that’s not exactly how it’s phrased here. As stated, it means either that there’s a general prohibition against eliminating good consequences, or else that the Doctor believes that the Dalkes do indeed create enough unintentional good in their wake that he can’t destroy them. The first seems completely incoherent to me: if we’re not allowed to take one step back before two steps forward, it’s not clear how we’d ever make any moral decisions at all. Moral decisions are, after all, about ranking potential actions along some scale, and "some good consequences result, no matter how obliquely" would seem to be generally true of nearly every decision. The second seems implausible: releasing a species as virulent as the Daleks into the wild cannot possibly create more good than evil. But let’s say it does. Let’s say that nothing substitutes for experience, and that experiencing the consequences of the Dalek philosophy is a necessary part of the civilizing experience, and that having evil in such a concentrated form clarifies things more efficiently than generations of much-less-evil foes. To pick up Nation’s Nazi analogy, someone could make that argument in our own world, actually – that the fact that Hitler was so unambiguously evil has arguably helped the world by giving it focus. It did, for example, pretty much kill any eugenic ambitions in this country (and they used to be not uncommon), and Hitler provides quite a useful analogy for libertarians like me when people accuse us of exaggerating the likely consequences of ceding too much authority to the government. He’s a real-life demonstration of the idea that it’s hard to get power back once you’ve ceded it to an abuser. So maybe it’s not as implausible as it first struck me. It’s nevertheless not of the same moral fabric as the Doctor’s worrying about whether he has the right to make the decision in the first place. His answer seems to be, "I do have the right, and eliminating the Daleks would be a mistake."

Finally, I think the scale of the episode works against it. Again, there’s something really incoherent about having game-changing rockets that can completely eliminate one side in the war, on the one hand, and on the other being in a situation where the war has reduced the warring camps to one single domed city each. If the Kaleds and the Thals number only in the millions each at this point, why can’t they just retreat to opposite ends of the planet? Why are the only two cities left on Skaro within walking distance of each other? And why, for the love of God, if your race is dying out, put all your eggs in one basket in this way? Why have all Kaleds living in a dome that the Thals can just blow up if given the right chemcial formula? I agree, for what it’s worth, that it’s chillingly effective to have Davros in a position to give the Thals that formula just so that he can insure that his Dalek project will survive – the point is just that so little thought went into the setup that we’re more or less on the level of sitting in a bar with Terry Nation while he says "imagine someone so evil he would kill his own race and replace it with another just to experience the power rush." The whole point of watching a TV show rather than reading this as a philosophy essay is that the TV show is meant to do most of the heavy lifting of making the scenario believable for us.

I feel like there are a lot of really good ideas in Genesis of the Daleks that are ultimately sabotaged by Terry Nation’s imagination deficiency. There’s plenty of philosophy in his soul, but no poetry, and even the philosophy is lazily thought through. I think this episode could have been great if Nation had written it as a spec, and someone else had worked through and fixed the problems. The Daleks can’t be both horrid and weak mutations and stand-ins for racial purity. Davros can’t have both power and survival as his highest values, and to the extent he thinks power is the ultimate law in the universe, he can’t couch his arguments in terms of pursuing the greater good. The Doctor can’t be both a Kantian and a Consequentialist. There’s something silly about a world war than only takes place on one isolated corner of a planet. And all of this is not to mention that if the Time Lords want the Daleks eliminated stillborn, sending a single, notoriously unreliable, rogue agent isn’t a way to guarantee success. It seems like a half-baked plan when the fate of the universe is at stake.

My biggest problem with Genesis of the Daleks, though, is less any of that and more just that it’s boring. Dalek stories always are for me. Davros is a great character, at least in this story, but he’s the one bright light in an otherwise ho-hum outing. This didn’t need to be anything like 6 episodes long either. Having Sarah get captured by the Thals so that she can climb up a rocket and not escape was an utter waste of narrative time, and The Sontaran Experiment could really have used another 30 minutes. I see why Genesis of the Daleks is a perennial fan favorite, and it deserves its status as "classic" for the contribution to canon alone – and I’ll admit to having enjoyed this a lot more this time around than I did when I originaly watched it. But it’s flawed, and it falls far short of season-mates The Ark in Space and The Sontaran Experiment.

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