In comics, books and in long-running action-oriented television shows, there are some great rivalries. Superman had Lex Luthor; Batman had the Joker, the Enterprise faced the Klingons. Occasionally, there a temptation to show how such great rivalries developed. Readers are flashed back to the very beginning to see how nemeses were born.
Origin stories can be told in flashback, or writers can get fancy, conceive a time travel device, and give our heros the opportunity to actually prevent the events that brought the rivalry into being. Generally, origin stories are tragic, because the outcome is almost always pre-ordained; few writers are willing to take the risk of reversing their entire canon, and besides, there is a lot of dramatic potential to be mined in the characters working to prevent tragedy. We know they're doomed. Though the hero can achieve some small victory, by and large he or she will fail. The young, enthusiastic boy will lose his hair and turn evil; it's like fighting God's will.
But not all origin stories are created equal. In Doctor Who, the good Doctor had the Daleks. These creatures, with their ruthless plots, their grating inflections and their charming art-deco design were one of the major reasons why this television show ran for twenty-six years straight. It was only natural that the television show would be tempted to go back to the creation of the Daleks and, given the time-travel nature of the program, that the Doctor would be given the opportunity to end the Dalek threat before it ever started.
Despite being the Doctor's most successful enemy race, the Daleks are not without flaws. They are fascists in robotic clothing; ruthless, inhuman killers and nothing more. They are the force of nature to threaten the huddled masses. They succeed largely on their looks and their action. When they are given a good script, they gain devious intelligence to go with their ruthless brutality, but can you tell one Dalek apart from another? No. Some have ranks, but none have names. In the hands of lesser writers, Dalek stories become tired retreads of the old standards.
Erin put it best when she reviewed a Dalek story I'd written entitled Storm on the Island, which paired and contrasted the Daleks with a band of Nazi holdouts hiding in the Canadian arctic: "Storm on the Island could be a manual on how to avoid cliché. Take the Nazis (please). I'm not sure what it is about Nazis that makes them irresistible to writers of (semi)historical fiction, but they seem to come up a lot, and I usually cringe to see them. Not this time. Storm on the Island avoids the clichéd monolithic evil, and actually makes the characters seem like real individuals; human beings in a cold, tight corner. Backing them into the corner are the Daleks, who, I think, are what the we wish the Nazis were: insane, inhuman machines. The Daleks are the undisputed rulers of the tin-plated plot line."
Genesis of the Daleks, written in 1974, remains one of the best Dalek stories in the canon, and its certainly one of the most popular Doctor Who stories among fans. In it, the newly-minted fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) is pulled out of time by his people, the Time Lords. They tell him that they foresee a time when the Daleks will have achieved domination over the universe (not much of a stretch given the prominence the Daleks have had in years past), and they want him to put a stop to it. They've brought him and his human companions Sarah and Harry to the Daleks' home planet of Skaro, just before the Daleks' "birth" with the mission to destroy them, or alter their development into something more benign.
The Doctor reluctantly agrees, and the TARDIS crew discover themselves in the crossfire of two rival races, the Kaleds and the Thals, at the end of their thousand-year-long struggle for planetary dominance. The blood-feud is intense, but the resources have started to run out and the planet is a single huge battlefield. The two races reduced to two rival domed cities laughably close to one another (barely a dozen miles) and the TARDIS crew gets split up and mixed up in the politics. Who will create the Daleks? Will it be the fascistic Kaleds, or the kinder, gentler (and suspiciously British-looking) Thals? The answer comes easily to those who know their anagrams.
Author Terry Nation didn't work very hard crafting a deep and interesting script. The story succeeds largely because of script-editor Robert Holmes' writing and David Maloney's direction. The story looks good (although the action flags slightly in parts 3 and 4 of this six-part serial) and it contains some interesting sequences of script. It's Robert Holmes, I think, that mines the origin story's rich vein of tragedy. For all its faults, Genesis of the Daleks boasts two scenes which are among the best Doctor Who has to offer. Intriguingly, the strength of characterization comes not from the character-less Daleks, but the humans around them.
The main villain of Genesis of the Daleks is the Kaled Chief Scientist Davros. When he realized that the thousand year war was mutating the Kaled race, he accelerated the process to find out what the final form the mutation would take. For this blob, he built a travel machine/tank which he called a Dalek. When the Doctor is taken prisoner, Davros learns that the Doctor has future knowledge of the Daleks, and he demands the Doctor tell him everything he knows. The Doctor tries to reason with Davros, and we get to see just how much of a mad scientist Davros really is:
DOCTOR: 'Davros, if you had created a virus in your laboratory. Something contagious and infectious that killed on contact. A virus that would destroy all other forms of life... would you allow its use?'
DAVROS: 'It is an interesting conjecture.'
DOCTOR: 'Would you do it?'
DAVROS: 'The only living thing...the microscopic organism... reigning supreme... A fascinating idea.'
DOCTOR: 'But would you do it?'
DAVROS: 'Yes... Yes... (turns away, his thumb and forefinger a test-tube length apart) To hold in my hand, a capsule that contained such power. To know that life and death on such a scale was my choice. To know that the tiny pressure on my thumb, enough to break the glass, would end... everything... Yes! (hand snaps closed) I would do it! That power would set me up above the gods! And through the Daleks I shall have that power!'
The mad scientist has never been done better than here, not in Doctor Who, not anywhere.
The second classic scene comes later, when the Doctor has rigged the Dalek incubation chambers to explode. He has the Daleks right where he wants them; just touch two wires together and the Dalek threat is finished. But at the last second, he hesitates:
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: '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!'
DOCTOR: 'Do I have the right? Simply touch one wire to the other and that's it. The Daleks 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: 'Then why wait? If it was a disease or some sort of bacteria you were destroying, you wouldn't hesitate.'
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.'
In the end, the Doctor was able to delay, if not defeat, the Dalek threat. He and his companions escape, and the audience have been treated to six episodes of entertaining television. All in all, not bad. But years later the program was able to up the ante.
As monsters go, second only to the Daleks in Doctor Who canon is the Cybermen. They've dogged the Doctor's footsteps since 1966 and have been responsible for a lot of mayhem, including the death of a companion (the Daleks have two companion deaths under their belts). Fans have long fantasized about crafting a "Genesis of the Cybermen" story to go with Genesis of the Daleks. It wasn't until a couple of years ago that one such story entered the official canon.
On paper, the Cybermen have more of their origin story worked out. The 1966 4-part serial The Tenth Planet established that the Cybermen were human once, living on the planet Mondas, a twin of Earth that, in prehistoric times, shared Earth's orbit around the sun. A disaster occurred to send Mondas skittering out of the solar system and the Mondasians were forced to replace their biological bodies with mechanical body parts in order to survive. When their minds were replaced with computers, they lost their souls, turning into emotionless, vampiric beings on the level of Star Trek's Borg (but twenty-two years older and without a Paramount budget).
Ignoring the extreme scientific implausibilities of this scenario, you end up with an unsubtle (but effective) cautionary tale. Initially the Cybermen were presented as a road that humans could follow if they weren't careful, until the action-writers moved in and turned the Cybermen stories into your typical monster thrashes. However, the tragic tension of the partly described origin story remained: a doomed planet, desperate human beings sacrificing their souls for survival. Who wouldn't want to examine that further?
In 2002, Big Finish Productions commissioned Ghostlight scriptwriter Mark Platt to write an audio play entitled Spare Parts (thanks, Cameron, for lending us a copy), with Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton reprising their roles as the fifth Doctor and Nyssa respectively. The Doctor and Nyssa stumble upon Mondas in the throes of its disaster, and get caught up in events. The Doctor has been given no mission to end the Cyber threat, and he has no desire to interfere, but soon the option of non-interference is taken away from him. He is bound to this planet both literally, and by the constraints of historical curiosity. Both characters watch in horror as tragedy unfolds.
And tragedy does unfold. Like Skaro, Mondasian society functions as a police state. The population is kept under rigid control for their own survival while scientists work desperately to try and save civilization. Already limb replacements are common. Cybernetically enhanced police-officers ride cybernetic horses and speak with mechanical voices. Lost travellers run the risk of being kidnapped and their organs harvested.
The production elements of this story are wholly in tune with this tragedy. The pace is tight, the actors give gripping performances, and the music is doom-laden. There are moments of genuine horror and pathos to go with the action (especially in the scene where a daughter goes through the conversion process to become a Cyberman before the power cuts out and the conversion stops half-finished. Partially converted and certifiably insane, she manages to return home to her family to show herself off to her "proud" father). For continuity fans, there are numerous tips of hat are given to the best Cybermen stories, including the distinctive Cyber voices of The Tenth Planet and Tomb of the Cybermen.
Rather than a monster arising from nowhere to destroy the Kaleds and the Thals, the embattled Mondasians are pushed into a very cold and very dark corner. The sun is going out. The planet is freezing over. The population has dropped from billions to just a few thousand living in a single underground city. The experiments designed to preserve the race have gone awry, and the power has just gone out. What do you do?
Genesis of the Daleks thrives on the strength of a director and the skills of a script editor. It's an action oriented story with tips of the hat to the tragedy of the setting. Spare Parts is a tragedy in the full sense of the word: it has no monsters, only characters pushed to the very limits of their humanity. The Cybermen were not born out of the twisted mind of a mad scientist but out of the desperation of the Mondasians. With Spare Parts author Mark Platt achieved something most origin stories do not: given all that the Mondasians have gone through and given the stark choices they're confronted with, the decision to give birth to the Cybermen comes across as more than tragic... it comes across as logical.
Take that, Dalek fiends.
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