“The Kaled race is ended, consumed in a fire of war, but from its ashes will rise a new race, the supreme creature, the ultimate conqueror of the universe, the Dalek!” – Davros
Terry Nation’s masterwork and often considered the best episode of the entire classic series of Doctor Who. There are a number of reasons for this consideration—a script that creates an entire backstory for an established enemy, the excellent portrayal of mad Davros, nice touches of direction or design, several key dialogues and internal struggles–but above all is simply the depth of the story itself as it wallows in the evils of war, ultranationalism, fanaticism, and the folly of two sides who each consider themselves so right in destroying the other that they both are easily fooled by a ruthless opportunist seeking his own power.
The story starts out with an oddly artful direction with the slow motion deaths of soldiers in olden gasmasks. The arrival of the Doctor is then quite beautifully done—just as the soldiers disappear into the white mist all around, the Doctor is suddenly there stepping out of it. Then, as the camera pans around a barren and empty landscape, it’s suddenly jerked back to reveal a grandly robed Time Lord standing where nothing had been. This direct intervention by the Time Lord’s in the Doctor’s life had not been used for a while so it’s an interesting start to the story. Making Skaro a battleground so worn out by never-ending war that technology has devolved into a mix of modern and ancient is also quite a good idea.
Pivotal to the episode is the characterization and portrayal of Davros. His ruthless pursuit of power and living on through his creations allows him to insanely twist even the concept of good—proposing that the Daleks’ ultimate destruction of all things but themselves is the equivalent of peace—and revile the virtuous (“They talk of democracy, freedom, fairness. Those are the creeds of cowards. The ones who will listen to a thousand viewpoints and try to satisfy them all. Achievement comes through absolute power, and power through strength. They have lost!”). Yet at times no one can see it because he suddenly goes from clawing and sputtering in anger to a measured and calm tone that seems utterly reasonable to those that hear it. In a famous and brilliant dialogue, however, the Doctor highlights Davros’s madness by hypothesizing the use a virus that would wipe out all life in the cosmos; Davros’s unabashed glee at the thought of having such godlike power confirms his utter depravity and it’s made more than clear he is basically turning his race into creatures without a soul.
Events seem to happen around our heroes in this story despite their best intentions but they are given some nice moments. The Doctor’s constant and unheeded cries to reason and mercy are quite impactful. Harry is quite brave—refusing to leave the Doctor to his own chances with the mine. The desperation of Sarah and the other workers in their escape attempt is palpable and it’s so gutting when she is recaptured in the end. But I love that when the Kaled leader reports of a girl who “gave the Thals a lot of trouble” that Harry and the Doctor can both nod and say “That’ll be her”.
As the story goes on, we’re introduced to such casual cruelty on both sides that no one seems in the right nor do they seem entirely wrong in their hatred of the other either. The Nazi parallels are always evident in a Dalek story, and there are not only mentions of racial purity but a visual evocation in the uniform of sycophant Nyder. However, the tragedy in this story seems to fall more on the failure of others to speak out—selling their souls for easy victory. Most of the scientific and military elite of the Kaleds gave in to Davros because he got results no matter what the means, letting his power go unchecked until it was too late. Meanwhile, the Thals foolishly place all their faith in an obvious traitor because they too are “hungry for a victory”.
All this comes to a head with the awful destruction of both sides, brilliantly paced in this story as one group mournfully watches the destruction of their entire population and the other celebrates, only to see the tables turned as their destruction comes as well.
The moral of the whole tale comes through by the end—we can never be righteous victors if we crave the utter destruction of our enemies. Only the Doctor shines through in the story as he too has to make the seemingly obvious choice to destroy his enemy and chooses not to. His anguished scene questioning “Do I have the right?” is one of the things that make this story a classic.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
The cruelty of humankind (as shown by Thals and Kaleds here) is highlighted at both a national and individual scale. The idea of entire civilizations being wiped out, particularly through betrayal by their own leaders, is bleak. But even more disturbing is the scene where a soldier shoves Sarah of the gantry on the pretense of helping her, letting her dangle with just his slight grip keeping her from death. As this simple soldier revels in her fear and the absolute power it gives his small life, it’s chilling because it exposes a truth that this desire to matter is in all of us—and sadly comes out in the bullying of the innocent all over the world
[Does this story subvert the original Dalek tale of the First Doctor’s arrival on Skaro? I think not. It is already a radioactive wasteland just as we see in that story. Presumably the Daleks the Doctor meets then are descendents of these buried in the bunker. They later emerge and reclaim/recreate the Kaled (now Dalek) city. The Thals meanwhile, reduced to a handful of survivors, go on from their progenitor Bettan (and perhaps the Mutos like Sevran) to cycle through their own mutation and eventually become the fair-haired village-dwelling pacifists we meet later.
What’s more I find it quite interesting to see it noted that Davros actually has some of his Daleks subject to a “computer programme that will limit their actions.” While they are released from or ignore these constraints, the capacity for it is apparently inherent in the Dalek machine. This to me answers a common question about why the Daleks sometimes seem to follow absolute logic like a robot and sometimes are independent actors.]
The weakest part of the story by far is the Doctor and Harry’s foray through the tunnel under the Kaled city as they tangle with the giant clam and other creatures (supposedly byproducts of Davros’s experiments). It seems a bit silly and out of place.