Let’s get the back-story out; I’m not really a Who-vian, as they term it, and my credentials are weak. When I was a kid, this BBC show utterly terrified me; the first one I remember watching was The Green Death, in which a Welsh mine is infested with giant slime-spitting maggots that develop into horrific flying insects. The joke about Dr Who was that it left kids hiding behind the couch, but after watching this, my mother found me hiding under a table in a pitch dark room and requiring considerable assurances that it was safe to come out. But emerge I did, and I tuned in for the rest of Jon Pertwee’s era (sontarans, giant spiders, dinosaurs) and then followed the Tom Baker reign with some enthusiasm. That hunger never returned, although a long chat with Russell T Davies led to me tuning in for the excellent Christopher Eccleston reboot, but nothing else has grabbed me since.
So I’ve never returned to the vintage world of Dr Who, but finding abridged versions of some classic Baker stories sparked a re-watch. At 30 minutes a shot, breezing through The Arc in Space, The Deadly Assassin, The Masque of Mandragora and a few others rekindled my affection. Sure, the sets are primitive, the effects are cringe, and even at a truncated 30 minutes, there’s plentiful padding, but there’s also remarkable wit and invention that used to deservedly draw 16 million viewers a week to this time-ravelling sci-fi institution.
With writers like Terrence Dicks, Robert Holmes, Phillip Hinchliffe and Douglas Adams, this was a golden age for Dr Who, and the peak was Genesis of the Daleks, pitching the doctor against his oldest and deadliest adversary, and their creator, Davros. ‘The best is yet to come’ shrieks Davros, foreshadowing Kimberley Gilfoyle as the Daleks are born, yet it’s the way that the origins of authoritarianism are broken down for a family audience that’s so extraordinary here. ‘Davros is never wrong’ is a popular mantra in the Skaro bunker where Davros hides his experiments, and with plenty of enablers, Davros uses disinformation to manipulate the war between the Thals and the Khaleds to his own selfish ends.
So leaving aside some of the technical issues, Genesis of the Daleks still holds today as sci-fi that asks and answers difficult questions, With the doctor sent back in time to strangle the daleks in their crib, or a rather manky looking lab where their gelid forms await transplanting into their robot bodies, we run headlong into big existential questions’ The doctor wires the lab to explode, as requested by the officious Time Lords who set his mission, but the good doctor balks at the last minute. ‘Have I the right to do this?’ he asks, knowing that connecting two wires will set the Daleks cause back immeasurably. It’s a startling, resonant moment; it’s also notable that the doctor tries to talk Davros round and persuade him of the power of good rather than just blow up his enemy. It’s Dr Who, the BBC, and sci-fi at its very best, and something of a relief to find this series every bit as gritty, thoughtful and mind-blowing now as it was back in 1975.