A re-evaluation of a classic

Part One

Consensus is a funny thing. Applied wisely, it can lead to strong democratic processes that benefit societies in many and varied ways.

Manifested in the context of your geekier fandoms, it can be blinding at best and toxic at worst.

There’s a consensus in place among the broader Doctor Who fan community that the 1975 serial ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ – which, broadly speaking, does what it says on the box – is one of the finest examples of the programme ever committed to whichever combination of recording media was fashionable that month.

Let’s take this further: ‘Genesis’ is, by a fan estimation that lasted a considerable while, the ultimate Doctor Who story. The classic of classics.

When such things meant a damn, the crazily long-lasting official organ of enthusiasm for the programme, Doctor Who Magazine, took a poll of whichever of its readers felt like being polled to rank every serial in order of popularity. (This was in those halcyon days before such thoughts of the programme actually continuing to be produced and broadcast were considered foolhardy wishfulness.) ‘Genesis’ came out on top. Resoundingly so.

Consensus was born. For while individual fans will have their individual favourites – this, after all, is how the runners-up managed to be ranked – nobody seemed particularly interested in contesting the decision. Nobody whose voices were as accessible as the editor of DWM, that is.

(Again with the halcyon days: the internet was a thing, but social media wasn’t, and YouTube sure as hell didn’t exist to give anyone with a computer the facility to turn their views into a visual text to be viewed by millions.)

In fairness, there was and is good reason to avoid dispute on this front. ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ has a lot going for it. The concept at its heart, so easy to stuff up, is executed exactly as it should be. The genesis of the title acts as a catalyst for the events of a narrative more interested in the internecine conflict that indirectly gave birth to those famous metal meanies. The Daleks are given a mouthpiece in the form of creator Davros. He’s such a vital character, and played so impeccably by the versatile Michael Wisher, that it’s no wonder he returned half a dozen times or more over the ensuing decades.

The tone is ideal. Realising that his creations are Nazis in tanks, writer Terry Nation extrapolates backwards and assumes they were born of the work of some extraterrestrial Josef Mengele. Davros’s second in command, Nyder, is the perfect Gestapo officer, coldly calculating and ruthlessly sadistic in equal measure. And the battle between military and civilian priorities in a prolonged wartime setting, especially notable in the latter half of the serial, adds a political frisson to an already hyper-charged scenario.

But… This is far from an example of Doctor Who at its closest to perfect. Really good, yes, but a shining example of what is frequently held to be a glittering high point in the programme’s history?

Ignoring (as we should) any pacing considerations that might arise from viewing the serial through a 21st century lens – and, worse, in a single sitting – there are issues. Some of these are forgivable, others are far more pronounced.

This essay endeavours to identify what went wrong, speculate as to possible causes, and suggest hypothetical remedies.

The first thing to note is that ‘Genesis’ just doesn’t work as a six-part story. This isn’t to suggest that it should never have been lent the epic scope afforded by the extra running time. As an exploration of one of the fundaments of the programme, as a radical reimagining of a fragmentary and often contradictory mythos, it deserves nothing less than to be longer than the standard four episodes. These days – and, for that matter, not too many years on from 1975 – it would be prime fodder for the coveted ‘end of season biggie’ slot.

Why, then, doesn’t it work at six episodes?

To answer this question, we need to look more broadly at the workings of the programme’s twelfth season (or series, as it should properly be put but rarely is), since production context always finds a way of hassling scholars of series television.

Phillip Hinchliffe had taken over as producer with this season, joining a new Doctor in Tom Baker and insisting on a pronounced shift in tone. He’d already agreed with predecessor Barry Letts and incumbent script editor Robert Holmes that going from a major star to a relative unknown was a bit of a risk with regards to the casting of the title part, so they’d decided to mine the programme’s past as a safety net.

Gerry Davis, not so fresh from having walked out on his own Doom Watch, was pitching a Cybermen story of the sort that showed he knew how to write for them (and the programme as a whole) when he’d co-created them as Doctor Who story editor in the middle-‘60s. To suggest his scripts featured around two episodes’ worth of plot masquerading as four is not to put too fine a point on it. But it was Cybermen, so that was something.

Holmes himself decided to recycle one of his own creations, the Sontarans, who by all accounts had gone down fairly well when one had turned up as the focus of the previous season’s opener ‘The Time Warrior’. He palmed them off to regular writing duo Bob Baker and Dave Martin, presumably of the understanding that they tended to deliver workable scripts over a quiet weekend. Which, at that time, they did.

Elsewhere, old hands and new were being enlisted to come up with original creations. Outgoing script editor Terrance Dicks was setting the season up. John Lucarotti, another 1960s-era veteran but who had recently worked with Letts and Dicks on side project Moonbase 3, had an idea about a space station that looked like a good set-sharing exercise with Davis’s similarly set pitch. Holmes managed to bring in one scribe of his own, highly experienced writer-producer Robert Banks Stewart, whose serial ‘Terror of the Zygons’ went through altogether too many logistically dictated transmutations to mention but whose scripts required little reworking by Holmes.

Missing from this list is the writer behind ‘Genesis’. Nation had a couple of years earlier managed to wrangle a first refusal deal on an annual Dalek story. Unfortunately, Nation’s particular brand of efficiency tended to involve him delivering much the same material year after year. This attracted the ire of at least one producer and two script editors, as Holmes had done unofficial work on the previous season’s ‘Death to the Daleks’ while Dicks was busy making sure another serial (Brian Hayles’s ‘The Monster of Peladon’) didn’t come off looking like a remake too.

Letts, probably, suggested Nation try something different, explaining where the Daleks had come from. That he was unaware this had already been tackled through exposition in the first Dalek serial in 1963/4 was unsurprising for a producer focussed on new content. That Nation had conveniently ‘forgotten’ was a sure sign that he liked this idea more than anything he’d likely have recycled himself.

Holmes, in striving to bring the season’s scripts up to the exacting standard he and Hinchcliffe sought, had a lot of work to do. A drastic shift in tone and a move away from the complacency that had begun to mar the Letts/Dicks run meant most of season twelve’s writers were unprepared for what was to come.

Baker and Martin, a dependable writing duo tasked to pen an all-location two-part filler story, got the hang of the format pretty quickly. Helping them was the fact that the premise they were presented with – a lone Sontaran performing sadistic experiments on a dwindling group of human colonists – set the tone on their behalf. Run with that and the notion of an ‘alien in the rocks’, and the germ of Hinchcliffe’s preference for gothic body horror is present and correct.

Dicks’s ‘Robot’ wasn’t a problem either. Produced by Letts as part of the previous year’s production block, its UNIT narrative and brighter tone gave viewers an easy transition from one production style to the next. The less Holmes touched it, the better.

It is not for nothing that Holmes was keen to bring in his own writers. Robert Banks Stewart’s ‘Terror of the Zygons’ posed no real problems beyond being adjusted from six episodes to four when it was shifted for programme planning reasons to season thirteen.

Where Holmes was being kept busy were the other three serials. Davis’s tale of space miners and gamblers plagued by Cybermen needed a top-to-tail rewrite to give it enough narrative juice. Lucarotti’s insistence on writing from a houseboat on the Mediterranean in the middle of a Corsican postal strike meant Holmes had to start ‘The Ark in Space’ from scratch.

Given the circumstances, Holmes’s decision to leave ‘Genesis’ to its credited author – himself an extremely experienced writer with multiple script editor credits – made sense.

Unfortunately, this is Terry Nation we’re talking about, and when it came to Doctor Who, Terry Nation had a tendency to operate on autopilot.

Next time… What kind of a mess did Terry Nation’s autopilot leave us with? And what kind of an anachronistic patch-up job can we come up with?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s