If there was one serial in Doctor Who which has been remembered above all others it would easily be Genesis of the Daleks. Recognized by both fans new and old, remembered even by the general public, it was a story which really changed the direction of the Doctor's old foes.
Set in the latter half of season twelve, the story saw the Doctor and his companions transported unwillingly through time. Contacted by the Time Lords to do their dirty work once again, they speak to him about the possibilities of the future. Telling him of a time they foresee when the Dalek Empire will have conquered all, even the higher races such as themselves. Having transported the Doctor back to the place and time of their origin, they task him with performing one of three acts to try and ensure a better future:
Given how the Time Lords themselves have repeatedly refused to intervene in the affairs of others or risk altering history, it's clear how important this mission is. They're willing to alter hundreds, potentially thousands, of years of history to prevent a major galactic power from rising. Even as the Doctor considers how to go about this task, he finds himself beset by enemies on all sides. Caught between a long war of attrition between the imperialist Kaleds and Thals. distrusted and opposed by all, his every act to try and end the war and have them face the growing threat of the daleks is thwarted. A task made no easier by the cold intelligence of the Kaled chief scientist, Davros...
Right from the opening shots it is clear that this was going to be a far darker episode than usual. Rather than seeing the Doctor, Harry and Sarah arrive, the introductory shots are of a group of Thal soldiers being gunned down by Kaleds. Even the previous serial The Ark, which had a plot many consider to have been a major influence on Alien, felt brighter as it lacked the bleak environment and utterly immoral characters Genesis featured.
Along with Davros, a name any fan will likely recognise instantly, are the characters of the Thals and Kaleds. Before going into specifics, it needs to be stressed that the story made full use of the degeneration of society and the long war. As a result each side saw nothing wrong with the complete genocide of the other, it was what they had been working towards for generations. Even the few who seem to be morally upstanding among them have no interest in peace talks and are more concerned with wiping out the opposition.
The specific figures used to highlight this are often military officers, something used to enhance the less than subtle allegory for Nazi Germany with the Kaleds, and tend to fall into one of two categories Either bombastic, propaganda spouting figures who wholeheartedly believe in their cause, and are usually on the receiving end of jokes via the TARDIS crew, or more effectively cold, stern characters. The latter is mostly displayed by a single character, Nyder, but Peter Miles' performance more than strong enough enough to balance out the scenery chewing of others. Serving as contrasting presence with Davros himself, he gives a better indication of what the Kaled military is like among the higher ups: Cold, ruthless, loyal and utterly devoted to an objective of victory at all costs.
The episode knows which character to introduce when and how to contrast them with one another. Shifting and juggling between multiple locations and as the episode follows the scheming of Davros, the Doctor and Harry's efforts, and Sarah's attempts to survive amid the irradiated wastelands populated with mutant life. Along with providing the scale of the war and trying to include every factions affected by it, it prevents the episode from dragging at manys points you'd expect. As much as people might like the classic Doctor Who serials, there's little denying that for many pacing is not a strong point. It's filled with activity and as soon as one objective has been accomplished either the problem has altered into something they cannot deal with or a new one has arisen. This is likely endure the years and remain so well regarded.
An interesting point within the tale is that the daleks are always in the background and never the real focus until the end. It's about the power struggles between the humanoid factions, the infighting, scheming and battles between others. Focusing upon how Davros plays each to his own benefit and ultimately how all of them are reacting to the daleks as a weapon of war. The daleks themselves only make their move in the closing episodes, seemingly having been biding their time until all who could oppose them are dead. This is a decision which works for the stories as it allows the actors to fully utilise all the expressions, actions and performances the daleks would be incapable of, but for the mutants to retain their iconic menace. They're a growing problem, the only thing which will arise from the ashes of the war, but it's the actions of others around them which helps the most.
Genesis of the Daleks is ultimately an extremely effective anti-war story because of these bleak traits. It's been analysed repeatedly as having an anti-nuclear message because of the radiation causing the daleks' origins. However, when you look beyond it into the tale as a whole it's an examination of the death, misery and desperation widespread prolonged conflict causes. With only greater horrors and more devastating figures, weapons and ideologies emerging from the carnage. You could even argue that the latter is the strongest given how the daleks would emulate their creator, and occasional leader, Davros in every way imaginable.
The only real weaknesses in the tale come from two things:
The first is the traditional limitations of classic who such as ham acting (mostly from the aforementioned bombastic officers) and obviously limited special effects. It comes with the territory obviously but when a giant clam is used as an enemy it needs to be brought up. It can take more than a few viewings to get over come to the more over the top elements and at times the subtleties and themes of the story can be hard to see as a result.
The second is that the story feels like it has been stretched out for more episodes. It's hidden well and unless you're looking for it the chances are you won't notice the problems. However, things like how it takes half an episode to travel from one city to the next then only a fraction of that time later do feel like they've been done to insert more scenes elsewhere. It was most likely done to include the minor revolt Sarah leads in the Thal city as minor points in that sub-plot are unceremoniously dropped. Does it significantly detract from the tale? Hardly, but a tighter story wouldn't be a failing either.
As is the case with the DVD releases for the series, Genesis of the Daleks contains enough behind the scenes details and bonuses to keep obsessives happy. Along with commentaries by the late Elizabeth Sladen, Tom Baker, Peter Miles and director David Maloney, are photo galleries and production subtitles. There are also two extensive documentaries outlining the road to Genesis of the Daleks. The first one from a production standpoint and consisting of the making-of segments of the series, the second then providing the in universe history behind the daleks across the serials.
The sound and image quality has also been enhanced fro the DVD release which is always a good bonus, especially considering the lack of improved SFX. Something which, while not needed as much as in comparison to Destiny of the Daleks or other tales, would have been nice to see at points.
This is definitely a release which can be recommended to fans of the show both new and old. It's not one which i'd recommend introducing people to the old series with, but it's definitely one worth showing them sooner rather than later. Especially as an example of what the show was capable of and of its moments of depth amid the bubble-wrap aliens, limited sets and budget problems. Definitely seek out and buy this one if you can find it.