Hello and welcome to In Too Deep, where I over-analyse a certain section of pop culture.
Even if Doctor Who goes on for another fifty years, it’s highly unlikely much of it will be able to surpass the tour de force of Genesis of the Daleks. Easily the best Dalek story to be made, right up there with one of the best stories of all times, it is little exaggeration to say that it’s probably this story that helped cement Tom Baker as one of, if not the, best Doctor. And it all comes down to one crucial scene, one that asks a question that rocks the show to the core: Does the Doctor have the right to kill all the Daleks?
So lets back up a bit here, to give context for those who haven’t seen the story. The Doctor and his companions are commanded by the Time Lords to destroy the Daleks before they were created, or at least alter them in such a way that would stop them from destroying the universe. The Doctor agrees, meets with the villainous monster Davros (the creator of all the Daleks) and sets up bombs to blow up the laboratory producing the Dalek embryos (aka the little mutant/blob of hate that live in the Dalek). He has two wires, two wires that need pressing that would destroy the laboratory and put a stop to the Daleks before they start. And, well, it’s best to just let the show speak for itself:
- Sarah Jane: Well, what are you waiting for?!
- The Doctor: Just touch these two strands together, and the Daleks are finished… Have I that right?
- Sarah Jane: To destroy the Daleks? You can’t doubt it!
- The Doctor: Well, I do! You see, some things could be better with the Daleks. Many future worlds will become allies because of the fear of the Daleks!
- Sarah Jane: It isn’t like that!
- The Doctor: Well, the final responsibility is mine. And mine alone. You see, if someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives… could you then kill that child?
- Sarah Jane: [pause] We’re talking about the Daleks, the most evil creatures ever invented. You must destroy them! You must complete your mission for the Time Lords!
- The Doctor: Do I have the right? Simply touch one wire against the other, and it’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”?
- Sarah Jane: Then why wait? If it was a disease or some sort of bacteria you were destroying, you wouldn’t even hesitate!
- The Doctor: But if I kill, wipe out a whole intelligent life form, then I’d become like them. I’d be no better than the Daleks.
- Sarah Jane: Think of all the suffering there’ll be if you don’t do it!
Clearly an interesting ethical dilemma, similar to the old â€œcould you shoot baby Hitlerâ€ argument. Does the Doctor have the right to kill the Daleks before the Daleks are even created, since they haven’t actually done all that bad stuff yet? Well lets break down his decision in three ways.
Firstly, he can’t do it for narrative reasons. Lets not kid ourselves: Doctor Who without the Daleks is a failure, the Daleks without the Doctor is a failure. The Doctor needs the Daleks to define who he is as a man, while the Daleks need the Doctor in order to have a reason to exist. But, once upon a time, all the Daleks were killed off. And no, I don’t mean in 2005, but back in the 1960s. The Evil of the Daleks ends with a civil war between two factions of the Daleks: The regular Daleks and the ‘humanised’ Daleks, Daleks infected with the human factor (aka compassion, empathy and curiosity) by the Doctor. The two sides go to war on Skaro, with the Doctor famously saying that this could be the final end of the Daleks…
â€¦ So when they appear back on screen five years later, he was somewhat embarrassed. Especially since he was so certain the Daleks were all dead at the end of their first story. In fact by the time he got into his tenth incarnation you think he’d have learnt to not be so quick to presume. But five years is a pretty long time. Imagine if that was like this nowadays. It’d be like saying the last Dalek appearance was in 2009, and they’d only just made a comeback. It sounds bizarre to us (especially the Daleks have to be in the series every year, as part of the deal with Terry Nation), but that’s how it was back then. The reason for this was somewhat simple: Terry Nation wanted the Daleks take off in America and make him a ton of cash. As we all know, that ended up not happening. Despondent, Nation gave the BBC back the Daleks so that they could appear in future Doctor Who stories. So while in those five years the show showed it could survived without the Daleks, it was clear the Daleks couldn’t survive without the Doctor. So killing off the Daleks permanently, while a continuity nightmare, wouldn’t spell the end of Doctor Who.
But at the same time, the Daleks were still a huge draw over decade after they first appeared. They constantly got the show good ratings. There was no need to get rid of them. So the Daleks stayed and, as we all know, went on to help define Doctor Who in the 21st Century. So the Doctor didnâ€™t’ have the right to kill of the Daleks because the story wouldn’t let him kill them off. They made the show too much money and kept it in business.
So that’s one interpretation. Lets talk about the ethical version. The Doctor can’t commit genocide. This is, of course, wrong. The Doctor is very capable of committing genocide. Many complaints have been aimed at Moffat for some of his misfires during his tenure, where the Doctor did directly or indirectly commit genocide. Hell even in the Classic Series he’s wiped out whole species and done otherwise despicable acts. So why does he get cold feet when faced with the Daleks, clearly an evil that has no redeeming qualities (despite the weak argument he makes)?
Well, the best way to look at it would be with the famous trolley argument. It runs thus:
An out of control trolley (or train, since trollies aren’t as popular any more) is barrelling out of control towards five people. You could pull a lever, which diverts the train to another track that has one bystander on it and avoids the five people. The ethical dilemma is fairly obvious: Do you pull the lever or not. But, before you ponder, let me present you different dilemmas.
1)An out of control trolley is barrelling out of control towards five people. You could pull a lever, which diverts the train to another track and kill the one person standing there, letting the other five live.
2) An out of control trolley is barrelling out of control towards five people. You could pull a lever, which diverts the train to another track towards one man, or you could not pull it and kill five people.
Now all I’ve done is reworded it slightly by adding the word ‘kill’ in there. But that makes all the difference, doesn’t it? Do you kill one man, or let five people die? Do you sacrifice one man, to let five other people live? Do you directly murder, or do you murder by inaction. Do you sacrifice one life for the greater good, or five in order not to be a direct killer? Naturally there’s no right or wrong answer. But for the Doctor, there is.
The Doctor wouldn’t pull the lever and let the five other people die in order not to be a killer. While he’ll always look for a way around, he ultimately doesn’t believe that the ends justify the means. He can’t directly shoot someone. He can manipulate the situation where someone else pulls the lever (or, preferably, the one person on the other track pulls the lever for themselves). But he can’t do it himself. He has his morals set out very clearly: While he can manipulate a situation, or his enemy, he could never just shoot them. It’s part of what makes him such a tragic hero. But does the Doctor make the right call? Is his justification good enough, or is it weak pandering in the hopes of dodging the responsibility? Well I think that, before we judge the Doctor so harshly, we need to bring up one very important part of this story.
While Davros quickly outstayed his welcome (to the point where he’s only come back once in the New Series, with his return a deliberate attack on how he was portrayed in the Classic Series), the reason why he had such lasting power was this episode. Now people have written many essays on how the Daleks are the opposite of the Doctor and how that defines him (hell the show itself did that in Into the Dalek). But people often forget how Davros is designed to be the anti-Doctor, far more than the Master. The Doctor is a brilliant scientist, open-minded and eager to experience new cultures. Davros wants to destroy all that is different and rule over it. At least the Master doesn’t care what skin colour you are, just as long as you grovel. Davros, on the other hand, wants to destroy everything that is different. Which, obviously, is the exact opposite of how the Doctor feels. And while the Daleks are also like this, it required Davros to think this up. Now the other famous scene from the serial goes as so:
- Davros: Now, future errors will be eradicated! Defeats will become victories! You have changed the future of the universe, Doctor!
- The Doctor: I have betrayed the future. Davros, for the last time, consider what you are doing. Stop the development of the Daleks!
- Davros: Impossible. It is beyond my control. The workshops are already fully automated to produce the Dalek machines.
- The Doctor: It’s not the machines, it’s the minds of the creatures inside them. Minds that you created! They are totally evil!
- Davros: Evil?! No! No, I will not accept that. They are conditioned simply to survive. They can survive only by becoming the dominant species. When all other life forms are suppressed â€” when the Daleks are the supreme rulers of the universe â€” then, you will have peace. Wars will end. They are the power not of evil, but of good.
- The Doctor: Davros, if you had created a virus in your laboratory, something contagious and infectious that killed on contact, a virus that would destroy all other forms of life; would you allow its use?
- Davros: It is an interesting conjecture.
- The Doctor: Would you do it?
- Davros: The only living thing… The microscopic organism… reigning supreme… A fascinating idea!…
- The Doctor: But would you do it?
- Davros: …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 on 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!
Why do I bring it up? Well because the Doctor and Davros are given the same choice. Or, the Doctor’s choice is almost the same, but slightly different. The Doctor talks about creating something that would destroy everything else. What he has to do is destroy this thing. So why can’t the Doctor destroy this virus (as Sarah Jane brings up, even though she wasn’t there for the conversation)? Because, as he feels, that makes him no better than Davros. Davros is more than happy to destroy life in order to be on top. This world-view is in direct contrast to the Doctor’s, so when the Doctor is given the choice like that, he has to got he other way. To do so wouldn’t make him as bad as the Daleks, it would make him as bad as Davros. Which to him is even worse. The Daleks don’t have an excuse for how they see the world. They were made bad. But Davros has a choice, and he chose evil. So for the Doctor, to choose that same evil is just as bad. So while he may not have been right to let the Daleks live, he would have felt too wrong to let them die.
But perhaps there’s a third, often overlooked reason for why the Daleks were allowed to survive. I mentioned before how the Doctor was defined by the Daleks. They helped him become the man he is today. But there’s more to it than that. He isn’t merely the man he is because of the Daleks, his entire reason d’etre is because of the Daleks. Lets imagine the Doctor had never gone to Skaro to start with. He wouldn’t have seen the true evil in the world, nor would he have realised that it needed fighting. He would have stayed that coward. Since it was his bravery that let him get exiled to Earth rather than permanently locked up (or worse), his non-meeting with the Daleks wouldn’t give him the excuse for why he tolerated so much. Now on the one hand it might have meant he meddled less, in turn being of less concern to the Time Lords. But they don’t take kindly to renegades to start with, so it’s unlikely he’d have allowed to stay free. But not only is his life tied with the Daleks, so is his companions. If he wasn’t chased by the Daleks, he wouldn’t have been able to get Ian and Barbara home. He wouldn’t have befriended Victoria. He would have been even more lost when it came to his Second incarnation. Sure, people wouldn’t have died, but his personal timeline would have been forever changed. It’s like going back in time to kill someone, when doing so could mean you were never born to start with. Perhaps this was the Time Lord plan all along, a ‘two birds with one stone’ method. They get rid of both the Daleks and a troublesome Time Lord. At this point the Doctor had yet to save Gallifrey, so their survival didn’t rest on the Doctor’s existence. It’s a cunning plan when you think about it. Either the Doctor fails and they can get rid of him, or he succeeds and they’ve solved a major issue facing the universe. What they got was an ugly compromise. The Daleks were weakened but not stopped. While some were saved, many more were killed. It was this event that set off the Time War, since now the Daleks had a reason to go after the Time Lords. The Time Lords, being the cowards they are, didn’t want to get their hands dirty, so instead sent their stooge. Now it’s possible the Doctor knew this all along. He knew the Time Lords were using this as an assassination attempt on him, and chose to take the middle path. Weaken the Daleks, but not enough to wipe out his own timeline. A risky move indeed, and one that most people would treat canon. But lets look at the last line of the serial, as spoken by the Doctor: â€œFailed? No, not really. You see, I know that although the Daleks will create havoc and destruction for millions of years, I know also that out of their evil must come something good.â€ Now, is he talking about the greater good the destruction will cause… or is h talking about how the Daleks made him good? That the Daleks created him, and in turn he went on to help the universe so much. Is the ‘good’ he’s talking about ultimately himself?
So there you have it. My look at one of the greatest Doctor Who stories and an examination of one scene. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Till next time.