"Do I have the right?"
-The Doctor on determining to end a cycle of violence led by The Daleks or permit them to live despite their sole objective to exterminate the living-
"He didn't just do it as written. Everything stopped in rehearsal and he said, 'Just a minute, let's take this seriously....' He was actually agonizing over the dialogue. That scene was terribly important to Tom, very important."
This comes as a supplement to my coverage of Season Twelve, Episode 78, Genesis Of The Daleks.
There are always moments in classic television that require reassessments and further reflection. My latest immersion of late of all things Doctor Who, particularly the Tom Baker years, opened the door to revisiting the single most powerful moment of the six-part Genesis Of The Daleks (1975) - the critical, time sensitive moment The Doctor must decide whether one of the universe's most deadly creations, The Daleks, must live or die. In effect, The Doctor is placed in a very powerful and unenviable decision - the same position many leaders are often faced with.
This singular moment, penned by Terry Nation has consistently has landed Fourth Doctor Tom Baker's Genesis Of The Daleks, not only among the greatest of Daleks episodes, but among the best episodes of Doctor Who ever written. Certainly there are other tremendous moments whereby writer Nation provides some strong exposition for both The Doctor and the evil Davros further enhancing this strong story.
My assessment in previous coverage is that Genesis Of The Daleks begs some terrific philosophical questions and poses the kind of great moral debate that enters into great science fiction, but that the story is agonizing in its generally slow pace across the span of six parts. Certainly judicious editing was required at the very least. While the writing is clearly good Genesis Of The Daleks nevertheless suffers from its long serialization to deleterious effect. Genesis Of The Daleks, if shorter, would conceivably have packed just as powerful a wallop and perhaps even moreso.
Genesis Of The Daleks landed itself at number 3 among the best Doctor Who episodes of all time in Doctor Who Magazine #474. It's undeniably a potent piece of the Doctor Who legacy, but certainly doesn't sustain the kind of enjoyment that can be found in more recent tales like Ninth Doctor Chris Eccleston's Dalek (2005). Genesis Of The Daleks is indubitably influential securing an important place in history, a place which rests largely upon the shoulders of Nation's dialogue penned in Part Six. Unfortunately it's a bit of a slog to get there.
In that segment the age old question of whether evil should be repelled and destroyed or allowed to fester at tremendous cost is once again posited and given a new look. If you glimpsed the terrible future and the role of evil and its affect, would you stop it if you could?
You can certainly think of a number of other examples. One such strong example executed to great effect is David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone (1983). Christopher Walken's Johnny Smith sees the future of a dark politician with diabolical plans and given that information Smith takes action to prevent catastrophe.
In Doctor Who, The Doctor is faced with the same dilemma, but responds quite differently.
Which decision would you make? Could you make that decision? Would you have stopped Hitler or appeased his advancement? Do you bomb ISIS terrorists now? Or do you wait for that evil to grow? It's not going away. Closing your eyes and wishing for peace won't stop ISIS. It didn't stop The Daleks.
These are always difficult propositions and while we do not see the future like the good Doctor, we do have history at our disposal. The actions of Hitler, Al Qaeda and other acts of intentional evil had to be met with choices. Act now or be forever damned.
Great science fiction has a way of reflecting back our realities. Genesis Of The Daleks delivered a genuinely thought-provoking piece of television then and asks those equally relevant questions of us today. No one wants violence as a solution, but sometimes it is required. Did The Doctor make the right choice in Genesis Of The Daleks? Will we, the human race, make the right choices today and tomorrow?
Here is the scene that continues to spark the imagination and resonate with us with a chill today.
The Doctor: "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: "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 the Daleks will 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 hesitate."
The Doctor: "But if I kill, wipe out a whole intelligent life form - then I become like them. I'd be no better than the Daleks."
Intelligence is the word in question and certainly irrelevant when that intelligence actively seeks to destroy us. If only our own decisions were as simple as two wires then the answer would be easy. In contrast to our own problems, the Doctor's choice seemed relatively clear and I think Sarah Jane was the right voice of conscience.
Genesis Of The Daleks had some wonderful philosophical components regarding the right to life. It also enjoyed ethical and scientific questions involving genetic experimentation and more. The serial raises a good deal of pensive speculation.
In the end, we may not have the right. None of us, but we do have the free will to execute a decision. If there are those in this world willing to exercise their free will to terminate life or "exterminate" the living, then we are required to stamp it out, end it and mollify it, and essentially do whatever is necessary to stop evil. Of course, we exercise that free will only if we have the courage and resolve to stand up to it in the face of adversity. The Doctor did not have that resolve and evil and death persist as a result.
To quote Tom Baker himself from Doctor Who Magazine #258, "everything had to be resolved by violence, simply because everything has ultimately to be resolved by violence - the violence of death generally." It is indeed a necessary evil in itself. And here in Genesis Of The Daleks the choice not to use violence to end it allowed evil and violence to flourish.
If free people with a desire for peace wish to retain it hard decisions will inevitably have to be made. The Doctor is a reflection of those difficult choices which is why it can be such great television series posing such quandaries. The reality of it is- real evil is left for us. Should the right to choose life be that hard, because the alternative is unimaginable. What tomorrow will the choices we make today bring?