“Courage isn’t just a matter of not being frightened,” the Doctor once said, back when he looked like Jon Pertwee. “It’s being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway.” It’s the expression of a theme which writer Terry Nation often explored: people under pressure, finding the courage to make choices which challenge them to the core, but which they know are the right thing to do.
When asked to revisit the origins of the Daleks, Nation came up with this titan of a story, a mythic struggle where the Doctor (now looking like Tom Baker), fights to prevent his deadliest enemies from ever being born. But amongst all the bombs and bombast, he included a courageous choice at the story’s heart.
After five hard-fought episodes and with victory only the touch of two detonator wires away, our hero suddenly questions the moral basis for his actions. He asks himself, in a now famous speech, whether by destroying the Daleks he becomes no better than them. He has in his hands the power to save countless future victims, but when he finally has the means to destroy these heinous creatures, he asks himself, “do I have the right?
It’s the payoff to a choice made back in Part One, when an enigmatic Time Lord (John Franklyn-Robbins) asked the Doctor to go on this deadly mission in the first place. The Doctor wasn’t forced to say yes; he agreed to go. Sure, the Time Lord correctly anticipates his agreement and transports him to Skaro as a fait accompli, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Doctor makes a choice to attempt genocide. There’s something of the special contempt the Doctor reserves for the Daleks in this decision. It’s difficult to imagine him agreeing to wipe out any of the other species he’s encountered. But whether it was a choice clouded by hatred or made in haste or made without full appreciation of its implications, the “do I have the right?” moment tells us it was wrong.
Genesis of the Daleks repeatedly shows us people making difficult moral choices. Often this is presented as the choice to rebel against the fascist regime in the bunker. Members of the scientific elite like Ronson (James Garbutt), Kavell (Tom Georgeson) and Gharman (Dennis Chinnery) carefully reveal their allegiances in urgent, conspiratorial whispers, in the style of so many WW2 films where people plot against the Nazis from within. They find the courage to resist, even though their lives are in immediate danger.
The choices they make are made on moral grounds – they abhor the lack of conscience in the Daleks – but they also present a direct challenge to the viewer. Would we, under similar circumstances, have the courage to speak up? Their choices are made even more striking by the moment when Nyder (Peter Miles) mimics their concerns in order to trap Gharman. His famous fake out (“Thank you! That’s what I wanted to know!”) shows us how dangerous speaking up is, but it’s also an example of Nyder’s unflinching devotion to Davros. In the whole story, Nyder’s the only character whose moral stance, twisted though it is, remains unquestioned.
Outside of the bunker, others make choices which set them at odds with those around them. Sevrin (Stephen Yardley) for instance, chooses to save Sarah, when the rest of his Muto mates want her killed. Thal soldier Bettan (Harriet Philpin) has to make the choice about closing the bunker’s doors and potentially trapping the Doctor inside. And throughout, the Doctor finds himself trying to convince people to change their behaviour on moral grounds: appealing to Mogran (Ivor Roberts) to stop work in the bunker, appealing to the Thals to abandon their rocket launch and, most critically, appealing to Davros (Michael Wisher) to stop the entire Dalek project.
Davros too, is confronted with choices to make on moral grounds, which he mostly rejects. He does so because his worldview is antithetical to the Doctor’s. He sees the Daleks as a force for good, not evil. He sees democracy as a utopian delusion and totalitarianism as the only way of achieving peace.
In another moment for the clip reels, the Doctor proposes a hypothetical moral choice to Davros: would he use a biological weapon to kill everyone? Davros, seduced by the idea, says emphatically, yes. But he’s not above using the same moral challenges to point out the hypocrisy of others. Later, he uses a similar trick on Kaled opponent Kravos (Andrew Johns): “I saved your life once,” he icily points out to the young man. “In your chest is a tiny instrument which I designed. It keeps your heart beating. Will you now turn that heart against me?” He neglects to mention that he would, and later does, kill Kravos without a second thought.
It’s a clear indication that moral choices work only in relation to your own moral framework. And Davros’ moral framework is particularly perverted. It’s oddly underplayed in the story itself, but when confronted with a threat from the Kaled government to investigate his work, Davros retaliates by helping the Thals use their rocket to kill everyone in the Kaled city. Then, he sends the Daleks to kill all the Thals. It’s Doctor Who’s greatest act of ruthlessness: a double genocide. And in Davros’s twisted philosophy, these are moral choices worth making to ensure the survival of his Dalek children. Again, it’s not mentioned specifically, but this act of mass murder must surely be on the Doctor’s mind when he’s hesitating to connect those two explosive wires.
Davros only sees the error of his ways in the story’s final minutes, when he realises his Daleks have started managing their own affairs. With his life in danger, he suddenly switches tack and makes a moral choice to destroy the Daleks… but his wizened hand never lands on that big friendly “total destruct” button. Finally Davros has joined the legion of characters in this story having the courage to do what’s right, although it’s far too late.
My point is that we rightly praise the Doctor’s “do I have the right?” speech in Genesis of the Daleks (even though it’s effectively neutralised about 15 minutes later, when he decides to go back and have another go). But in fact, the whole story is a series of events in which characters have their convictions challenged, find the courage to act despite their fear and make choices based on what they see is right. Perhaps difficult choices are simply the building blocks of all drama. Perhaps all Doctor Who stories contain them to a greater or lesser extent. But Genesis is infused with them.
But to return to “do I have the right?”, it underlines what Nation had the Doctor say back on Spiridon about being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway. A future with the Daleks frightens the Doctor – initially enough to want to kill them. Instead, he has the courage to do what he has to do anyway, and let them live.
LINK TO Planet of Evil: same Doctor, companion and production team. Links abound!
NEXT TIME… we’re taking a big space truck with a bunch of strangers across a diamond planet called Midnight. What could possibly go wrong?