May 13th, 2012
1975 was the last year that everything changed for Doctor Who. We’ve seen that there are three main forces behind the feel of Doctor Who , the producer, the script editor, and the star. Season 12, which started in the last week of 1974, was the last time that all three would change at once during the show’s original TV run. (Technically, producer Barry Letts stayed on for the first story of the season, after Pertwee and script editor Terrance Dicks had already left).
The new production team of producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes had a very different idea of what the show should be like from their predecessors — whereas Doctor Who in the Letts/Dicks/Pertwee era had been an ITC serial with comedy peasants, martial arts sequences and car chases, the Hinchcliffe/Holmes/Baker team wanted a show that was closer to a science-fictional version of the Hammer Horror films, but with the sexuality of Hammer almost entirely removed, and the black humour played up.
But for their first series, they were working with scripts that had originally been commissioned by the previous regime, who had decided that the best thing to do would be to commission a set of scripts featuring as many returning old monsters as they could, in order to keep the old fans happy while they got used to the new Doctor. So in Tom Baker’s first year, three of the five stories feature returning monsters — this, The Sontaran Experiment and Revenge Of The Cybermen. That doesn’t sound like many in today’s terms, where every second episode of the new series has the Daleks and the Cybermen teaming up to fight the Autons and the Silurians, but Tom Baker was in the role for seven years, and in total he did two Dalek stories, two Sontaran ones, and one Cybermen story, and had no other recurring monsters in his whole tenure on the show.
So the first Tom Baker series is a strange one, with the new team trying to make something different out of previously-commissioned scripts. The fact that it seems so inventive is testament to how well they achieved it.
Genesis Of The Daleks is, more than any of the other stories from that time, a combination of the best of both teams. It had originally been commissioned by the Letts/Dicks team, who essentially had to pull a new story out of Terry Nation, the Daleks’ creator, by force after he’d sent them a script that was essentially identical to the last two Dalek stories he’d given them. And were one to look at just the events that happen in this story, it looks very like a standard Terry Nation plot beefed up by Terrance Dicks — it’s all people being attacked by giant clams, falling from improbable heights at the end of one episode only in order to be safe in the next one, standing on landmines but then being able to defuse them, and all the other tedious Flash Gordonisms that made Terry Nation scripts so utterly dull.
But then the new production team got hold of it. Robert Holmes did a rewrite (and Holmes is still the best writer ever to have worked on the show by a long way), and apparently Tom Baker and Michael Wisher rewrote their own lines into Shakespearean blank verse in order to relieve the monotony. Quite what these other hands added has never been made clear, but there are two speeches that stand out as unlike the rest of the story, and give it a thematic coherence that turns the story from “Nazis are bad” to a sort of Dostoevsky for eight-year-olds.
Near the beginning of the story, Davros, the creator of the Daleks and one of the greatest creations in Doctor Who, equal parts Hitler, Doctor Strangelove and the Mekon, is asked if he would, given the opportunity, unleash a virus that would destroy all forms of life other than itself. His response:
Yes. Yes. To hold in my hand a capsule that contained such power. to know that life and death on such a scale was my choice. To know that the tiny pressure of my thumb, enough to break the glass, would end everything. Yes. I would do it. That power would set me up above the gods. And through the Daleks, I shall have that power!
While near the end of the story, the Doctor has an opportunity to touch two wires together and destroy the whole Dalek species, and his own response is:
Do I have the right? Simply touch one wire against the other and that’s it. The Daleks cease to exist. Hundreds of millions of people, thousands of generations can live without fear… in peace, and never even know the word “Dalek”….But if I kill, wipe out a whole intelligent life form, then I become like them. I’d be no better than the Daleks.
The Doctor believes that the ends don’t justify the means when the means involves genocide, while Davros believes genocide to be an end in itself. The two characters are set up, by these two speeches, as moral opposites even as they are intellectual equals.
But those two speeches are really all the story itself needs. When broadcast on TV, this story was six episodes long, just under three hours, and the vast majority of it is vamping — capture/escape/capture nonsense. Just how much of the story is padding can be seen by the fact that the soundtrack of the story was cut down to an hour (with narration by Tom Baker) for release as an LP in 1979. I challenge anyone to listen to that soundtrack (now available on CD) and not find it a perfectly tight, reasonable story in itself. In fact, as a story, it works far better cut down to an hour — possibly the reason why the story is so popular among older fans, for most of whom this would have been the first time they could relisten to a story. The Daleks themselves barely appear in fifteen minutes of the story, giving an idea of how padded it actually is.
But the curious thing is that it doesn’t feel padded, and that’s because of four people. Three of them are actors — Tom Baker, Michael Wisher, and Peter Miles (who played Davros’ assistant Nyder), who all give utterly spellbinding performances — but the fourth is the director, David Maloney.
Maloney had directed many of the highlights of Troughton’s era — we’ve already looked at two of his stories — but had been oddly ignored during the Pertwee years, only directing one story, Planet Of The Daleks. Here we see his return, and between March 1975, when this story was transmitted, and April 1977′s Talons Of Weng-Chiang, he would direct four stories, at least three of which (this, Talons and The Deadly Assassin) are among the very best Doctor Who stories ever.
Maloney was one of the few directors on the series to actually have something of the auteur about him, and various motifs recur over and again in his work on Doctor Who — Victoriana, gas masks, imaginary worlds. He also had an actual visual sense, at a time when most of the directors working on the show were of the “point the camera and shout action” school.
Maloney’s is a televisual visual sense, though, albeit one that’s informed by cinema, unlike more modern directors who seem only to think in terms of scaled-down cinema to the detriment of their art. Maloney’s work is almost all recorded in the studio — here, other than the first and last scenes of the story, there’s no location work at all, everything, even the exteriors, is a set. This gives a theatrical look that works perfectly with the melodramatic dialogue.
As a perfect example of the difference Maloney made to the story, take a look at the opening scenes. In the script, this was written as a Time Lord walking with the Doctor through a perfumed garden. Maloney changed it so that the Time Lord would resemble the figure of Death from Bergman’s Seventh Seal, (a film he also references in the closing sequence of the story) and their conversation would take place on a battleground, after slow motion scenes of trench warfare.
Fundamentally, Genesis Of The Daleks is an example of just how collaborative a medium TV is. Doctor Who has always been a writer-driven show, but here when the writer can’t be bothered, two very different but expert script editors, a producer willing to take risks, three great actors and an inspired director can turn six episodes of padding into something that still stands up as great television.
For what you get when you have that star, director and producer working with a good script, by the better of the two script editors, we’ll have to wait until next time…