Thursday, November 08, 2018

Fourth Doctor Who Review


"Strange!’ said Oyarsa. ‘You do not love any one of your race — you would have let me kill Ransom. You do not love the mind of your race, nor the body. Any kind of creature will please you if only it is begotten by your kind as they now are. It seems to me, Thick One, that what you really love is no completed creature but the very seed itself: for that is all that is left.’
             Out of the Silent Planet

I: Absence of the Daleks 

Soldiers in gas masks; trenches; barbed wire. And then Doctor Tom emerges from the smoke. 

In 1963, the Daleks had been a product of the Cold War; what would be left after the nuclear holocaust which we all feared and expected. But it is now 1975 and 1914-18 is the trauma we never got over.

Two races: the Kaleds and the Thals; they have been at war for over a thousand years. Some of the Kaleds have been turned into mutants—muttos—due to the use of chemical weapons. They are thrown out of the Kaled city into the wilderness to maintain the purity of the race. (This was before Judge Dredd.) 

Genesis of the Daleks may be the greatest Doctor Who story, but it is still, at heart, a Doctor Who story: a series of chases, captures, and escapes. But the guns are louder, the peril more perilous and the space fascists more fascistic. Ravon rants and shouts and punches the Doctor in the guts; Nyder, channeling Peter Cushing, is terrifyingly patronising. (This was before Star Wars.) 

Once again, we are in what is clearly an English wilderness. We explore it for a bit. The Doctor and Harry are captured; and escape; and are captured again. Sarah-Jane continues to explore the wilderness by herself, menaced from a distance by shambling zombies.

The Sontaran Experiment sometimes felt as if someone had pointed a video camera in the rough direction of the action; here, the direction is tight, even inventive. When the Doctor arrives in the barren quarry, the camera pans over the nothingness—then suddenly sweeps back when the Time Lord appears. Nyder is discovered looking through the Doctor's magnifying glass, a single big eye dominating the screen. (What else has a single big eye?) 

It stands up as well as any piece of vintage television could possibly stand up. Only the habit of shifting from exterior shots (on cine-film) to interior shots (on video) seems dated. It takes an effort of will to believe that the interior stage set of a trench is part of the same exterior world as the quarry where the action begins. 

The Doctor puts his foot on a land mine. If he moves, it will go off. Harry, very carefully, puts stones of the right shape underneath to make it stable, and tells the Doctor to move his foot gently. He does so. Nothing explodes. Harry sighs silently, and the Doctor grins. Up to now, the Doctor has not tried to conceal his contempt for Harry: now he accepts him as part of the crew. For a while, indeed, the Doctor and Harry are lost boys on an awfully big adventure leaving Sarah-Jane trying very hard to be their Wendy. 

This is Episode One. We know that the Daleks must appear in the final scene, because the story is called Genesis of the Daleks. The Doctor knows that the Daleks must appear in the final scene because a Time Lord has told him. But we do not feel the absence of the Daleks. Nyder and Ravon are compelling villains in their own right and someone called "Davros" is given a big build up. 

It feels like a surprise when Sarah-Jane, fleeing from what must be muttos, comes to a place which must be the bunker and sees a being who must be Davros testing a machine that we know is a Dalek. 

"Now, we can begin." 

2: Exposition of the Daleks 

Sarah-Jane is captured by muttos. Sarah-Jane and the muttos are captured by Thals. The Doctor and Harry escape from Davros's bunker along, of course, a ventilation shaft. The ventilation shaft leads into a cave where Davros keeps failed experiments in monster-breeding. Sarah-Jane, in the Thal dome, is set to work loading "distronic explosives" into a Great Big Bomb which the Thals plan to use against the Kaleds. Sarah-Jane tries to escape by climbing the scaffolding around the Great Big Bomb onto the roof of the Thal Dome. Harry gets his foot trapped in a giant clam, and then frees it. It is Sarah-Jane's predicament which terrifies us, because Elisabeth Sladen seems genuinely terrified. 

The cave of mutations belongs to an earlier world; a world of mercury lakes and slythers; a world now known only from maps and diagrams in holiday annuals. It has no place in this world of black uniformed fascists who hang prisoners to preserve ammunition. 

Davros is a scientist. Sometimes he speaks softly and reasonably; sometimes he shouts like a Dalek. His top half is human but he is a Dalek from the waist down. He is more like a Dalek than the Daleks: a shriveled, weakened, brilliant, evil body, being kept alive by an artificial, inefficient, transport machine. 

It falls to someone called Ronson to explain the backstory. 

"Our chemical weapons had already started to produce genetic mutations, and the mutations were banished out into the wastelands. Davros believed that there was no way to reverse this trend and so he started experiments to establish our final mutational form. He took living cells, treated them with chemicals and produced the ultimate creature." 

In a sentence, a decade of Who-lore is over-written. No longer are the Daleks the product of a nuclear nightmare; now they are the result of chemical warfare and genetic tampering. No longer the survivors of a war, kept alive in creepy but immobile transport machines: now they are creations with a definite creator. 

"The all powerful Davros" wrote Terry Nation in a 1976 children's book. "Reincarnated in the form of the terrible Daleks." 

III: Longueurs of the Daleks 

Davros betrays his own people. I had forgotten that. 

If we are not very careful, we can forget that Classic Who was a series of 100 and 150 minute serials, and remember it only as a fragmentary collection of Great Moments. (The Cybermen wake up. Sutekh needs no other servant. The Dalek rises up from the Thames.)

We know Genesis of the Daleks well, too well; to the point of cliche. The Doctor holding the two wires. Davros imagining the doomsday virus. The Dalek ranting into the monitor. Yet which of us remembers the story on which it all hung? Who remembers the Episode Three cliff hanger? 

Genesis of the Daleks is not a collection of set pieces, strung out on a disposable plot thread. Genesis of the Daleks is a miracle of pacing and story telling. There is a grand narrative; Davros vs the good Kaleds; the Kaleds vs the Thals; the Doctor vs the Daleks. Each week there is a revelation or development about that grand theme. Yet always, the drum beat narrative rhythm which makes it a Doctor Who story. Sarah-Jane nearly escapes from the Great Big Bomb, but is recaptured. The Doctor and Harry escape from the Kaled bunker. The Doctor warns the Kaleds that Davros is evil. 

Running around; getting captured; escaping.

It rushes forwards. It is never boring. Each episode seems to take less than it's twenty five minutes. Relatively little happens, but it never feels padded. 

My favourite moment, the moment that we talked about on Monday in school, the moment that appealed to nasty, cheeky boys and made them nastier and cheekier is when the Doctor gets past two Thal guards by walking up to them with a broad grin on his face and saying "I wonder if you could help me? I'm a spy." 

Ironically, the one problem with this story is its handling of time and space. There is a bunker where Davros and his Elite are making Daleks. There is the main Kaled city, under a dome. There is the main Thal city, also under a dome. And despite the preliminary talk about wastelands and muttos and caves of mutations, everyone seems very free to jump between them via access panels and ventilation shafts. The Bunker, the Kaled City, and the Thal City are indistinguishable, and the Thals seem very little different from the Kaleds. (They set slaves to work loading dangerous material onto their Great Big Bomb, which is a very Dalek thing to do.) It becomes hard to keep track of where we are. 

Davros positively wants the Thals to destroy the Kaleds so that his Daleks will be all that is left. So he, Davros, gives the Thals a Secret Formula that will enable their Great Big Bomb to get through the shielding on the Kaled Dome. The Doctor tries to prevent the Thals from launching the Great Big Bomb; he gets caught on an electric fence and shocked with electricity. 

That is the cliffhanger. I am sure you had forgotten it. I certainly had. 

IV:  Apocalypse of the Daleks 

The Thals nuke the Kaled dome. The Doctor thinks Harry and Sarah-Jane were inside, but they weren't. They all head back to Davros's Bunker through the mutations cave but Davros is waiting for them at the other end. Some of Davros's scientists are plotting against him; but he is counter plotting. 

And so we build towards the first Set Piece. Davros and the Doctor come face to face. The Doctor speaks of a future where the Daleks are a force and an empire; sometimes defeated but never utterly wiped out. Davros demands to know what caused all these Dalek defeats. The Doctor refuses to tell him. It is another moment which evokes a much bigger universe: Genesis of the Daleks has six Daleks and some corridors and a quarry, but outside is the TV Century 21 Dalekverse and the Dalek Master Plan; Dalek Empires and Dalek Emperors and Anti Dalek Forces and Space Special Agents and chocolate and mint ice cream lollies. 

None of this ever appears on the screen. And because of this story, arguably, none of it ever will. 

Abolition of the Kaleds 

If I say that something is Evil I might just mean that it is very bad indeed. On the other hand, I might be saying that a person or thing contains an immutable, metaphysical, evil essence. 

If someone is Evil I have permission to hate them; shoot them; gas them; exterminate them. If someone has merely done some very, very, very bad things I am allowed to ask why. 

If I say "I don't think that Hitler was Evil; I think he was a human being; a product of a political ideology and a set of historical and biographical circumstances", someone is bound to say "What? You don't regard the killing of six million Jews as evil?" 

It is more fun if the pirates and space Nazis and outer space robot people in children's TV are Evil, because then we can blow their space ships up and not feel bad about it. But people who blow up space ships and don't feel bad about it are very much the kinds of people we are tempted to call Evil. 

It is profoundly unhelpful to think that the darkest creatures human nature can produce, serial killers and pedophiles and people who shoot old ladies in synagogues are in anyway similar to cartoon bad guys. 

St Paul believed, not in evil, but in hamartia which the English translators of the Bible rendered as synne. It is a flaw or a crack or a fault: there is no self-existent Dark Side, no option to write Lawful Evil on your character sheet. But certainly it is synne which makes us want to hate and kill and exterminate. Francis Spufford glossed synne as UHPTFTU: the universal human propensity to fuck things up. 

If you have children, it is natural to want to protect them. And it is probably natural to want to protect your grandchildren and your great grandchildren as well. If we are strict Dawkinsians then what we mistake for the love of our children is simply our DNA trying to copy and preserve itself. The selfish gene has no conscience or moral sense, but it is not evil. It is programmed simply to survive. 

The human instinct to protect your children is tempered by human empathy. My child is precious to me; therefore your child is precious to you; therefore all children are precious. The idea that my child is to be protected at the expense of yours is at best an ideology of the very far right, and at worst, another way of spelling "evil". You start by saying that not one penny which could have gone into a trust fund for my child should be spent on a state school for yours; you move into the realm of the anti-vaxxers; and you end up affecting to actively take pleasure when the children of refugees are exteminated. 

If you could somehow travel forwards in time and see the Last Men, the descendants of the human race, ten million years in the future, you would not feel any more responsibility for the individuals who carried some of your DNA over the individuals who were not related to you. They would all just be people. 

The strangest perversion of the paternal instinct is the one which looks at two children and feels empathy for one and hatred for the other, because Child A has certain physical characteristics—light coloured skin and straight hair, for example—whereas Child B has dark skin and curly hair. Doubtless the same Darwinian urge that we mistake for parental love can get translated into a natural dislike for the unlike. But only for the terminally evil does that gut feeling ever become a theory or an ideology. 

How stupid would you need to be to be willing to fight and die for something called The White Race over and against something called The Black Race? 

But what of the Human Race?

If what I mistake for the paternal instinct is simply a biological urge to preserve the Human Race, does it follow that I have an instinct to preserve The Human Race at the expense of all other races? If push came to shove, should I wipe out the dolphins and the elephants and the octopuses to preserve the humans?

If you took me to a planet ten thousand light years away and ten thousand years in the future and said look—this child is genetically similar to you, because its remote ancestors came from Earth; but this child is genetically different from you because its remote ancestors came from Skaro would my biological urges tell me to love one and hate the other? 

And if they did, would I listen to them. Or would I say "Shut up, biological urges and Darwinian programming! You're not the boss of me!" 

5: Apology of the Daleks 

Finally, the leader of the good Kaleds confronts Davros. 

"The initial concept of the Dalek was to build a life support system and a travel machine for the creature that we know our race will ultimately evolve into....We believe that concept has been perverted. You have tampered with the genetic structuring of the creature to create a ruthless power for evil. We cannot permit this to continue." 

"The initial concept of the Dalek." 

But this, of course, is Terry Nation's initial concept: it is what the Daleks were in the first and best Dalek story, which I will persist in referring to as The Dead Planet. The Daleks and the Thals were both survivors of a hideous nuclear war. The Thals had evolved into pure, Aryan humanoids; the Daleks so mutated that they were stuck in their machines, powered by static electricity, unable to leave their city. They were horrible and scary and baddies but they weren't in any absolute sense Evil. They were pitiful and to some extent, they were victims. The Thals had hurt them and they wanted to hurt the Thals back. 

Genesis of the Daleks is about an attempt to change history. But it is not the Doctor doing the changing. It is Davros. 

Davros, who has no origin. Davros, who has never been mentioned before. Davros, an entirely new factor is dropped into the Dalek timeline. Davros, the creator of the Daleks, whose existence changes everything. 

In the old comic strips, the Daleks certainly had a creator, one Yarvelling, who made the machines which allowed the mutant Daleks to survive. But Davros is not just the creator of a clever voice controlled tank. He is also the creator of the actual Daleks. 

"It's not the machines" says the Doctor. "It's the minds of the creatures inside them. Minds that you created. They are totally evil." 

If the good Kaleds had persuaded Davros to make the Daleks simply life support machines for whatever the Kaleds eventually became, then history would have continued along its expected pathway; and Genesis of the Daleks would simply be a prequel to the Dead Planet. But if Davros succeeds then that version of history is wiped out and the Daleks become creatures of pure evil, an eternal extension of their creator's ego. 

The Time Lords are not using the Doctor to massively alter history. They are using the Doctor to try to ensure that history stays the same. Which is a much more Time Lordy thing to do. 

Davros threatens to torture Sarah-Jane and Harry if the Doctor will not tell him how and why the Daleks were defeated throughout their history. Sarah-Jame and Harry keep nobly shouting "Don't tell him!" as loved ones being tortured in Saturday evening tea time serials are wont to do. But the Doctor tells Davros everything. 

This is clearly not the rational thing to do: it may not even be the morally right thing to do. But it is the human thing. And Davros is quite clear what that means.  

"You will tell me because you have a weakness that I have totally eliminated from the minds of the Daleks so they will always be superior. A weakness that will make you give me the knowledge to change the future." 

In Episode Three, the Doctor told the Kaled leaders that Davros had created "a machine creature...without conscience, without soul, without pity." In Episode Four, Davros "outlines chromosomal variations to be introduced into the embryo Daleks" turning them into "creatures without conscience, no sense of right or wrong, no pity...without feeling or emotion." In Episode Five, Ghorman says that the scientists will only continue to work on the Daleks if Davros restores "a conscience; a moral sense; a judgement of right and wrong." 

Moral sense; judgement of right and wrong; conscience: this is the weakness which Davros tells the Doctor he suffers from. 

Conscience is a great big word; but there's a general consensus that its something humans have and machines do not. It's not a belief or a theory; it's a gut feeling. It is a cliche of children's literature that if you feel bad after you have been naughty, then your conscience is punishing you—and you can hopefully be excused from whatever penalty your parents or your teacher had in mind. Little wooden boys lack this faculty for self-punishment and need to be provided with anthropomorphic crickets to tell them when they have done something wrong. 

Over and over again, we are asked to believe that the Daleks are evil by virtue of the fact that they have had their consciences surgically removed. But why would a conscienceless automaton be any more evil than, say, a toaster?



This is the point of Davros, and this is the point of Davros's Very Famous Speech. As long as he is talking about programming the Daleks to survive, he can make out some kind of case. His theory that existence is pain and that the universe will only have peace when the Daleks have annihilated everything else might resonate with those of a particularly Nietzschean bent. Even his fascists' plea—"achievement comes through absolute power, and power through strength"— might appeal to a certain kind of puppy. It is only when the Doctor presents Davros with the thought experiment of the ultimately destructive virus that the mask falls away. 

Davros is creating the Daleks because they are destructive. He is creating the Daleks because he likes the sensation of power. He is creating the Daleks in order to make himself the master being, the one who determines what the universe itself will be from now on. And yes; this takes us back to the Christian story about the origin of synne. It's the story of a man who wanted to set himself up above the gods. It is to be found in a book called Genesis. 

Maybe Davros believed his own propaganda. Maybe he honestly believed that he was working for the survival of the Kaleds and for universal peace. But now he knows, and we know, and the Doctor knows. 

Ah. You are completely mad. I just wanted to make sure.

VI: The Doctor's Dilemma 



Why, at this final, pivotal moment, does the Doctor hesitate? 

He escapes from Davros. He finds—providentially—a wardrobe containing explosives and detonators. He puts the explosives in the incubator room, where Davros's genetically engineered Dalek creatures are growing. One of them tries to strangle him; but it's a minor distraction, to see us through the gap between Episode Five and Episode Six. 

And then, as everyone knows, just when he is about to set the explosives off, he hesitates. 

"Just touch these two strands together and the Daleks are finished. Have I that right?" 

The Doctor hates killing, and rarely carries a weapon, but he is no pacifist. He has killed before. Minutes ago, he was prepared to allow Davros to give the order to destroy the Dalek incubators. He told Davros that he would kill him if he refused, and we believed him. So why the sudden qualm? 

You might suppose that the Doctor would have a problem with the altering of history. If the Daleks are really going to be a force for evil on a galactic scale for thousands of years, touching the wires would not so much change history as erase it altogether. But it isn't this that worries him. He is happy to endorse Ronson's bloodless coup which would have overwritten the future on an almost equally dramatic scale. 

The Doctor perceives a difference between wanting the Daleks to be dead, and killing them himself. It is a classic liberal scruple: not wanting blood on my own hands, because that blood would make my own soul more ugly. You might think that the world would be better off if some murderers were dead: but would you be prepared to look them in the eye and strangle them? You might think Nazis are evil; but could you blow out the brains of a teenaged German squaddie, if you knew his name, and the name of his parents, and the name of his sweetheart? If you must strike a child, take care that you strike it in anger, even at the risk of maiming it for life. A blow in cold blood neither can nor should be forgiven. 

What Davros calls conscience amounts, I think, to squeamishness. It is not rational or moral for the Doctor to tell Davros the secret of making the Daleks invincible, because Harry and Sarah-Jane are only two people and his betrayal will result in the death of billions. But the billions are not in the room with him now: Harry and Sarah-Jane are. 

It isn't that a machine necessarily lacks the capacity to make a complex moral judgement. It could be programmed to do so. But it isn't a complex moral judgement that would make us hesitate before killing Baby Hitler in his cradle. It is, quite simply, the "yuck" factor. 

Davros, faced with the concept of destroying all life in the universe was delighted, transfigured, aroused by it; but the Doctor, faced with power on an only slightly smaller scale, is repelled. Davros is asked to imagine that the tiny pressure of his thumb, enough to break the glass, would end everything, and he ecstatically says he would do it. The Doctor, asked to actually touch two tiny wires together, cannot. 

There is the difference. There is the story. 

*

The Doctor fails. The Dalek incubator is destroyed; but the conscienceless Daleks survive. The Doctor's final hand-wave, that the universe is somehow better with the Daleks than without them, convinces no-one. 

Has history been changed? In fact, in every Dalek story except the very first, the Daleks were already the living embodiment of evil. It was never very easy to believe that the creatures who flew around the universe in a flying saucer, conquering planets and sucking out their magnetic cores, were the same creatures who cowered like dodgem cars in their metal floored city, planning to irradiate the world because they liked it better that way. Genesis of the Daleks is an acknowledgement of what we already knew: that Dead Planet, for all its brilliance, is an anomaly; an unsatisfactory origin for the outer-space robot people who once terrorized the universe. When the Doctor reviews the history of the Daleks with Davros, he starts, not with The Dead Planet, but with The Dalek Invasion of Earth 

*

The words "computer virus" and "meme" were not quite current in 1975, but that is clearly what Davros is talking about. An idea or a collection of code has no conscience. It never says "yuck". It exists only to make copies of itself.

But without conscience or the yuck factor or the gods isn't that what we all are? 

Douglas Adams famously summed up Darwinism in the four words "That which survives, survives."


Next week: Cybermen.






4 comments:

  1. In a sense the Daleks are anti-Darwinian, because the point of Darwinian evolution is that the thing which survives is that which is best fitted to the environment in which it is found ('survival of the fittest' does not mean, as some people nowadays seem to think, 'survival of those who get to the gym more often'). There is no universal 'best' in evolution; what provides an evolutionary advantage in one environment might be fatal in another.

    Whereas the Daleks are an attempt to create a single type of thing which, without adapting, can survive in any environment.

    Terry Nation never really understood evolution.

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  2. ”1914-18 is the trauma we never got over.”

    Ages since I last saw this, and yes I had forgotten the missing cliffhanger. But doesn’t it try to tell the ultimate war story by compressing all wars into one? Following a definition of “all wars” that means the First but also the Second one. So we get trenches and barbed wire combined with crazy Nazis in bunkers doing deranged experiments.

    Is the suggestion that this started off something like a modern war, but as both sides got worn down it degraded into the First? Or is that my memory retconning things?

    ”Terry Nation never really understood evolution.”

    At this point, please no-one mention “galaxy” or “universe”. Or a great many things, come to think of it.

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  3. Definitely, the plot explanation is that the war has gone on so long that they have regressed from high to low tech weapons. ("At this rate they'll be using bows and arrows before long" says Harry.) But it is striking that the imagery we see -- certainly the imagery we start with -- is of the first world war. Barbed wire, trenches and gas masks.

    The reason, I suppose, is that the Second World War is the archetypal Good War; fresh faced young allies giving their all to preserve democracy and civilization; where the First World War is the archetypal Bad War -- world weary soldiers dying a muddy stalemate with no idea what they are actually fighting about.

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  4. Blimey, I remembered something right for once!

    I think you're correct. In retrospect, it's all very much the Seventies view of the First World War. A grand folly and lamentable tragedy where two groups of essentially interchangeable people try to kill each other with no possible winner. We were yet to hear of Michael Gove in those far flung days...

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