A re-evaluation of a classic

Part Two

The story so far… Robert Holmes is struggling to transform a ‘past monsters’ season into something his producer might pretend to be proud of, and he’s left Terry Nation to his own devices.

The situation isn’t as bad as it might have been. The first three episodes of ‘Genesis’ bear clear signs of Holmes’s heavy hand, and they are the stronger for it. Themes are presented maturely, science fiction concepts shine with the veneer of an attempt at making them sound sophisticated, and even the padding is genuinely gripping stuff. Had the serial proceeded at this level of quality, this essay probably wouldn’t exist.

Unfortunately, the second half smacks of largely unfiltered Terry Nation. Technical terminology dismantles to the level of someone who didn’t even take O-Level Science, peril is plodding, dialogue is hammy… Worst of all, characters do things not because it makes sense but because the story needs them to. That director David Maloney and his design team are still in studio is what keeps this half of the serial from descending to the level of season ten’s ‘Planet of the Daleks’ – ironically also helmed by Maloney, presumably during an off month.

Let’s compare bits of padding. The first half of the serial is full of moments not directly crucial to the continuing narrative, but that provide thrills, character development, or both.

At first glance, all Part One’s land mine sequence, in which Harry (protractedly) rescues the Doctor from classic chapter serial peril, achieves is to kill some running time while our heroes make their way from the Wasteland of Skaro to somewhere vaguely near the Kaled dome.

On paper it’s exactly the sort of ‘continuity editing storytelling’ Nation would flood Blakes 7 with. Translated by Holmes, it becomes a defining moment in the relationship between the Doctor and Harry, reinforcing the latter’s obligation to protect the former while displaying the stoic imperial stubbornness he was known for. Visualised by Maloney, on location, it is a taut suspense sequence that makes full effect of static cameras and a spare soundtrack.

Parts Two and Three are worse offenders. Sarah’s failed escape attempt while a prisoner of the Thals isn’t just padding, it’s the tip of a bloated iceberg. Nation, in separating his protagonists, has made an effort to develop two parallel plot strands. Unfortunately, by the time he has Sarah loading distronic explosives into the nose cone of the Thal rocket, he seems to have forgotten that initial plan. Sarah’s plan fails and she faces a lingering death from toxaemia until the Doctor comes to the rescue. Any exposition we glean regarding the Thals’ plan is later reiterated when it actually becomes relevant, most blatantly by General Ravon in an exchange that reveals the Kaleds know all about the plan anyway.

Again, this is a horribly lazy example of ‘give the companion something to do’ – or, worse, ‘have something to cut away to every now and then’. That is, until Holmes and Maloney get their hands on it.

The Thals who torment Sarah near the nose cone are uncharacteristically sadistic, not least compared to their relatively recent coward-pacifist depiction in ‘Planet’, so much so that this can’t possibly all be Nation’s doing. They taunt Sarah before physically threatening her with murder, demonstrating a cynical immorality typical of Hinchliffe and (especially) Holmes.

The sequence is captured predominantly in the film studio, again hardening what could have been a dull and repetitive turn of events. That these are prisoners of war attempting escape suggests Maloney had Colditz in mind when opting for film: that programme was renowned for the quality of its Ealing filming, giving the castle’s courtyard-set sequences a bitter, wintry edge.

Roll forward to Parts Four to Six and the padding is less well disguised – and less impressive. Journeys back and forth through the Wasteland, shot uninterestingly on videotape in successive long and medium shots on a cramped studio set, are punctuated by occasional attacks by barely mobile giant styrofoam clams.

Matters come to a head when, in Part Six, the Doctor loses the Time Ring in a reasonably well-choreographed fight scene that culminates in a hit-the-viewer-over-the-head shot of the ring lying on the floor. A pretext for our heroes to hang around when they no longer need to, this predictable sleight of hand exists because Nation couldn’t balance his plot threads in such a way as to give the Doctor an integral reason not to leave. And he isn’t short of options, needing the Doctor to destroy the recording of the Daleks’ future defeats (of which more later) and actively commit some sort of genocide against the Daleks.

As it is, Nation has his hero passively watch other people sort out the rest of the plot – via a CCTV feed that just happens to be available in the room he’s locked in. Well, until someone comes along to let him out at the exact moment he needs to make himself useful again, despite the fact that he’s just spent a bunch of time locked in a room with a Dalek gun. You know, of the sort that should be able to destroy said lock without too much effort. (The thing melts a giant metal tape spool, so it isn’t beyond reason, and none of our three heroes even thinks to try.)

In fairness, the Doctor’s attempts to intervene in a way that has some tangible effect on Davros and his work have already come to naught. (When last he tried, deactivating Davros’s life support by flicking a switch conveniently situated on the scientist’s chair, the attempt was undone, turning the Doctor’s own proactivity into still more padding.) But then that’s the problem: Nation doesn’t let the Doctor be an active hero, leaving the direct moralising in Part Six to the Kaled Elite before deciding Davros and Nyder are too cunning to be defeated by anyone other than the Daleks themselves.

(On which: “Pity? The word does not register in my vocabulary bank.” Putting aside Nation’s apparent fixation with turning the Daleks into some sort of biological AI – a concept explored even more peculiarly in ‘Destiny of the Daleks’, his Doctor Who swansong – this is just stupid. Davros may not want his creations to feel pity, but what good is it going to do him to abbreviate their lexicon? Is it just the word they’re unfamiliar with, or the abstract concept? Would it not be more useful for the Daleks to have a working knowledge of what their creator considers a weakness in others? Were proof needed that wordsmith par excellence Holmes was elsewhere by the time Nation delivered Part Six, this is surely it.)

Filming allocations for television serials tend to be the remit of the producer, following departmental budgetary constraints. Nevertheless, a trusted director like Maloney, who had already turned out twenty-five episodes of Doctor Who, who had delivered excellent location and Ealing sequences time and again, would have had a say in what filming was needed for ‘Genesis’ and to which parts of the script it could be allocated.

Noticeably, the filming dries up as the serial progresses. Putting the location work front and centre is de rigeur in Doctor Who of this period: you put the money up front to grab the audience. But Sarah’s Colditz moment is predominantly an Ealing affair even when it doesn’t have to be. Her encounter with the sadistic Thal soldiers has no reason not to exist on tape. Even the vertiginous inserts down the length of the rocket originate on video.

By Part Six, the ‘hordes’ of Daleks invading the bunker consist of half a dozen ropey-looking props entering through three doors in a rare example of trick intercutting on tape. The Wasteland has gone from a mist-covered quarry to a grotty plywood cave populated by prototype “travel machines” that resemble oversized bath toys.

Has the money run out, or has everyone stopped caring?

So, yeah, the recording of the Doctor’s testimony. The moment, let’s be realistic, when the Doctor becomes the story. Look, there’s nothing wrong with this per se. A story about the Doctor trying to undo the development of the Daleks is unlikely to stretch to six episodes on its own. Turning the Doctor’s own involvement – his very presence – into a complication makes a lot of sense. His foreknowledge is in itself a threat, and the timelines are bound to be at risk during a mission of this kind.

Trouble is, Nation blows this one too. Once the Doctor’s testimony has been recorded – testimony Davros has listened to every word of, let’s not forget – the tape becomes yet another MacGuffin to push the narrative along. Even though the confiscated Time Ring has already served this function, and will again the instant the tape is destroyed.

What would have worked better? Anything. The data actually being programmed into the strangely computer-like Dalek embryos. Davros remembering a single word he’d heard, rendering the destruction of the tape meaningless. Even a revelation that the Doctor had beaten Nation’s oversized polygraph/torture device and fed Davros a load of meaningless drivel.

What else would have worked better? Any catalyst that wasn’t an oversized polygraph/torture device, for a start. Davros is heralded as Skaro’s answer to Thomas Edison, so why he can’t come up with something more sophisticated than a lie detector that makes the Doctor’s friends a bit twitchy is a mystery.

Then again, he gives Kravos a “tiny instrument” that keeps his heart going. So, a pacemaker. Except he doesn’t call it a pacemaker, even though everyone in 1975 knew what one is. No, it had to be an ‘instrument’ – arguably Nation’s second-favourite word when he’s writing space fiction. After ‘space’.

What could Holmes have done to repair this mess? Short of rebuilding the second half of the serial from the ground up, he could have masked the padding to make it worthwhile. Turn every clunky plot turn into an opportunity for ethical debate, akin to the Doctor’s famous “Do I have the right?” speech. Find a way to inject the Doctor into the critical turns of the plot in Part Six. Replace the clams with a Kaled death squad that managed to survive the attack on the dome and was perhaps expelled from the bunker.

Better would have been for him to have rebuilt the second half of the serial. All the Doctor really contributes to events that aren’t already in progress is to (eventually) destroy the embryos in the incubation room. The resistance among the Elite already have wind of the Daleks, and they’re already starting to move against Davros.

A united force of Thals and Mutos develops, led by Bettan, but mainly in the background. With the Kaleds dead and the Thals scattered by a Dalek onslaught, the emergence of a new resistance group external to the bunker is a logical development. It’s also one that should be integral to driving the narrative forward at this point, giving the Doctor an alliance against Davros that isn’t just going to end up gathered in a room and slaughtered. Why is the Doctor not actively helping to forge a future for the survivors of the Thal-Kaled War?

Think of it: while the Elite resistance (ultimately futilely) tries to broker a peace with Davros, the Doctor (who knows better) reaches out to whoever he can find, actually helping Bettan organise a fighting force instead of telling her to go off and do so while he’s busy with other things. His reason? He’s already given up the goods on the Daleks’ future, something that isn’t conveniently undone by the blast of a Dalek weapon, so he has to compensate for the moment of weakness by embracing the change in history he’s created and finding a way to shift the equilibrium back again.

This is the turning point. Not a stream of prolonged moralising over genocide, but an understanding that the Doctor’s meddling has actually made things worse. Can he salvage the original mission while simultaneously finding a way to compensate for this error of judgement? The concluding movement of a narrative exploring the nature of the Daleks’ villainy becomes energised by a questioning of the Doctor’s heroism.

And that’s something you can end a season with.

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