The nub of the episode, and the entire serial, comes down to the question of whether the Doctor has the right to wipe out the Daleks in their infancy. ‘You can’t change history! Not one line,’ he once said. Later, he modified that to the more ambiguous ‘I dare not change the course of history.’ He’s still struggling with that ambiguity, the idea that ‘some things could be better with the Daleks’, that ‘we’re all too small to realise [history’s] final pattern.’ On top of this, there’s a moral concern that by committing genocide the Doctor not only changes his own history, but his very nature – ‘I become like them. I’d be no better than the Daleks.’
Maybe it’s Davros who finally convinces the Doctor that he does, in fact, have that right. Davros offers the assembled Kaled opposition the same choice the Doctor has been struggling with – and a Big Red Button to achieve it. When they demur, Davros condemns them: ‘You are men without courage. You have lost your right to survive.’ Davros is entirely convinced he knows what is good. His certainty is in stark contrast to the Doctor’s doubt. But when he goes on to tell them, ‘You must answer not only to me, but to the future’ he might as well be talking directly to the Doctor.
Critically (after some very weak business of dropping the Time Ring which shouldn’t have made it past the first draft), the Doctor returns to the Dalek nursery to finish them off. He is willing to become a good Dalek to save the lives of hundreds of millions of people. I love the thematic nod to this idea when the Doctor uses a Dalek gun to destroy the tapes that could change the future. RTD was taking notes: the Doctor would absolutely press the button if push came to shove. It’s shocking; downplayed by the final scene which obfuscates the enormity of the Doctor’s action both by having a Dalek accidentally touch the wires together before the Doctor can do it himself, saving him from actually having to dirty his hands, and by a bland homily that out of evil must come something good. I’m not sure they could have been more direct – having him put the wires together himself would undermine the power of the earlier scene and would need more consequence than a fortune cookie tag scene.
It’s a moment that has been more significantly explored by later production teams. The “dark Doctor” of the Cartmel stories, and the entire arc of the revived series (from RTD’s traumatised destroyer of worlds, to the War Doctor and the troubled Capaldi incarnation) lead back to this moment. In a very real sense, this is the most significant Doctor Who story since 1969 and the introduction of the Time Lords because it reveals how far the Doctor is truly willing to go when he believes he knows what is good.
The serial isn’t perfect, but it is iconic. It’s the kind of story that only really works when a show has matured enough to have a hinterland to explore, as it pits the Doctor against the weight of the series’ own history. The Daleks are as much a conceptual threat (domination, racial supremacy, plague) as a literal one. They barely speak until the last episode and are largely kept offscreen. However, when they are present, Maloney makes them credible and frightening in a way they haven’t really been before. The casual way one exterminates Nyder without even looking at him, staring coldly at Davros as he suddenly grovels for pity, is chilling. Maloney brilliantly only has three on screen at any point until the final showdown with Davros, when suddenly there’s a whole squad of them. Familiarity risks breeding contempt: I’ve been a bit dismissive of this one in the past, but I was wrong. Genesis of the Daleks deserves the praise heaped on it.
Next episode: Revenge of the Cybermen