“Genesis of the Daleks” is a genuine classic, and probably one of Doctor Who’s top ten stories. When Terry Nation was forced to rewrite his standard Dalek storyline and come up with “something a little different”, he brought his A-game and really knocked it out of the park. I’m certain that the script-editing of Robert Holmes was also a factor.
So what makes this story so good? There are a number of contributing factors.
1) The use of the Daleks as the antagonists allows Nation to tap into their reputation as the Doctor’s number one adversary, as well as their history with the character. Their presence automatically elevates the profile of the episode.
2) Nation then subverts expectations by keeping the Daleks largely in the background for most of the story. The narrative concerns the threat of their impending creation rather than their actual presence. This is effective because the Daleks are so well known to the viewing audience. I’m not convinced an origin story for any other Doctor Who villain would have worked nearly so well. Audience perception of the Daleks is part and parcel of the story’s effectiveness.
3) Since the Daleks are kept in the background, other characters must be brought to the fore. Hence the creation of Davros, one of the best and most memorable characters to come from Doctor Who’s long list of villains. His resurrection later on may have been a mistake, and the character certainly overshadowed the Daleks themselves from “Destiny” onward, but here in his own origin story, Davros is an excellent enemy for the Doctor. Michael Wisher gives us the definitive version of the character with his excellent performance.
4) The other characters are varied and well-realized, particularly Peter Miles’ Nyder. It’s worth noting that while Davros and Nyder are very close to being thoroughly evil and lacking in any redeeming qualities, the other characters often turn out to be more rounded. Some are angry and desperate due to the centuries of war. Some are too afraid to stand up for what’s right. Some characters still maintain and act with some decency and honesty despite the brutal world they live in and end up paying for their courage with their lives. The viewer is not presented with a generic group of shallow evil characters, but a variety of people. It also helps that there are six episodes to develop some of them rather than four.
5) The world of Skaro is a nightmare, and it’s grounded enough in real-world history and visual imagery to really grip the audience. The Kaled elite are Nazis, both in appearance and philosophy. The Thals are a military dictatorship. We’ve seen both within living memory and are very familiar with both. It’s important to remember that when the story was first broadcast that World War 2 was only three decades in the past, so it was recent enough that older members of the audience would remember it and may even have fought in the war.
All of the above serve to flesh out the plot, which concerns the Time Lords sending the Doctor to Skaro, to a time just before the Daleks are created. The Doctor’s mission is to either prevent their creation, or alter them into a less aggressive life form. All of this stems from a possible future in which the Daleks have become the dominant life form in the universe. Given the massive changes to established history that would result from destroying the Daleks, I have to wonder just how feasible the Time Lords’ plan really is, or if it really ever had a chance of success. It certainly seems to be a desperate move rather than a calculated one.
And it’s just about insane, given how dangerous the environment on Skaro is. The Doctor, Harry and Sarah should have been killed any number of times. Quite apart from the Daleks, there’s a vicious war going on. There are hostile mutants out in the wastelands. The many weapons of war are a danger, as the incident with the landmine in episode one demonstrates. The Doctor and his friends are captured very quickly, and spend much of the story in captivity, helped only by sympathetic or fearful people. And those who help them often pay with their lives, like the Kaled Elite scientist Ronson.
Nation splits up the characters early on, allowing us to see both sides of the war. The Doctor and Harry spend time with the Kaleds, while Sarah ends up first with the Mutos, and then as a prisoner of the Thals. The audience might be tempted to view the Kaleds as the villains of the story due to the fact that they produce the Daleks, and their brutal military is the first that we see early in episode one. But the Thals are shown to be just as bad. Their soldiers gun down Mutos with little provocation, and they put the survivors to work as slave labor who are exposed to radiation poisoning. The escape scene that depicts Thal soldiers gunning down unarmed prisoners without any compunction has to be one of the cruelest scenes in the story. Skaro is a world that offers no sanctuary, and there isn’t a group of people that doesn’t have blood on their hands.
And atrocity piles on top of atrocity. The Kaled and Thal populations are almost extinct at the beginning of the story after a thousand years of war. The racial hatred each side holds for the other is palpable. The Thals are building a missile, a weapon of mass destruction, which they intend to use to destroy the Kaled city and thus win the war by committing genocide. Davros helps them to do just that in order to preserve his work on the Daleks, and then sends in the Daleks to wipe out the Thals. Davros then has his Daleks slaughter all the remaining scientists and military that aren’t loyal to him. And finally, the Daleks take over and kill everyone they can who isn’t a Dalek. It’s a grim and bloody storyline that depicts the death spiral of two civilizations.
The regular characters are all well-served by the storyline. Elizabeth Sladen as Sarah ends up on her own for much of the story, and though she’s clearly terrified at times, she also stirs up the prisoners working on the rocket to try and escape. Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor is still in his early days here, but he’s got the alternating humor and intensity of the character nailed. The character who feels least like his usual self is Ian Marter’s Harry Sullivan. Harry is normally nice, affable and easy-going. Here he’s as intense and serious as the character ever gets, and he shows himself to be very competent and able to look after himself. The character is a naval surgeon, so that should be no surprise, but he’s often played in a lighter and somewhat bumbling vein in other appearances so the contrast in this story is noticeable.
Thanks to the new Who episodes “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End”, “Genesis of the Daleks” is directly linked to the new series. The most obvious link is the fact that Sarah Jane Smith is present on Skaro at the creation of the Daleks, a fact that Davros remembers and notes in “Journey’s End” as both characters recognize each other. Perhaps more importantly, in “Genesis” the Doctor and Davros discuss the possibility of absolute power over life in the universe, and whether Davros would exercise such power and wipe out all other life if he could. Davros finds the idea fascinating and eagerly decides that he would indeed revel in such power. He very nearly does just that in “Journey’s End” with the “reality bomb”, designed to wipe out all matter in this and every other universe, leaving the Daleks as the sole life form in existence. Did the Doctor give Davros the idea? It’s distinctly possible. RTD has also said that the events of the episode mark the beginning of the Time War, but since I’m sick and tired of the Time War, I try to ignore that, no matter how much sense it makes.
Overall: “Genesis of the Daleks” is well worth its reputation as a classic Doctor Who serial. Go out and get the DVD today. It’s well worth watching.