Thursday, April 29, 2010

 

Free Doctor Who – Genesis of the Daleks CD Today

Amongst the smears and hysteria in today’s Daily Telegraph, if you can bear to pick up a copy, there’s a voucher for a Doctor Who CD. Just cut out and present it at WH Smith and they’ll hand one over; if you don’t already have Genesis of the Daleks on DVD, go for it. Like the Daily Torygraph’s election coverage, the CD edit is highly selective, doesn’t give you the full picture, and is full of fascists. Unlike their ‘news’, it’s still rather brilliant – one of the best and most fiercely political of all Doctor Who stories, intriguingly abridged.
“Today, the Kaled race is ended, consumed in a fire of war, but from its ashes will rise a new race, the ultimate conqueror of the Universe, the Dalek!”
The Torygraph’s been giving away Doctor Who CDs all week – tomorrow’s is Mission To the Unknown, a Doctor Who story without the Doctor where the Daleks are in control (if that grabs you, buy the much longer CD of The Daleks’ Master Plan, which brings in the Doctor and continues the story).

Genesis of the Daleks, though, is perhaps the most natural choice: it stars Tom Baker as the Doctor, the high point of his superb first season; as the title suggests, it introduces the Daleks’ creator, Davros; it’s one of the best-known, most-repeated Doctor Who stories, and in every ‘favourite story’ poll among fans comes either close to or at the very top. When I wrote my mini-guide to all the Dalek stories a couple of weeks ago, I picked it as one of my favourites, too. But it’s not just for its importance in Who history or its undoubted popularity that’s made it a natural choice for a CD giveaway. It’s that 31 years ago, it became the first Doctor Who story you could enjoy at home whenever you felt like it.

A couple of years before the home video revolution, and to coincide with the sequel being broadcast on TV, the BBC released Genesis of the Daleks on LP. It’s difficult to grasp how exciting this was at the time – even though a two-and-a-half-hour story was cut down to one hour, with no pictures, it was the first ‘proper’ home Doctor Who experience, and after I bought the LP in the Blackpool Exhibition I listened to it until I virtually knew it by heart… So often, in fact, that (before I became such an obsessive collector) it was also the first piece of Doctor Who merchandise I deliberately bought a second copy of, so I could switch discs on the record player as I came to be familiar with exactly where the scratches were on each copy. After listening to theirs so many times, many fans of a certain age still can’t help saying “This seems an opportune moment to end this session” at appropriate moments. And it’s that LP version, in effect – some of the cruder editing cleaned up, which is a blessing, but the thrilling cliffhanger in the middle removed, which is a pain – that’s being given away on CD today.

The Politics of Genesis of the Daleks
“Brilliant. Brilliant! It has detected the non-conformity.”
“Aliens! I must exterminate! Exterminate!”
Appropriately for the General Election campaign, this is one of the most political of all Doctor Who stories, and in at least three crucial ways. It’s a story about politics and political machinations, as characters outplot and outmanoeuvre each other – centrally, it’s about the rise to power of a charismatic fascist, and how he holds the seeds of his own destruction. Davros is in a strong position when the story opens, but he doesn’t have absolute power: most of the plot is about how he gains it, and the Pyrrhic consequences. While this is something that works far better on DVD – when there’s time to let the plot breathe – even in the truncated version it feels almost like an historical drama, clearly taking inspiration from Hitler’s rise to power, and ending in the bunker.

The political speeches that pepper this story are also striking. I’ve listened to (and, indeed, given) so many speeches that most I hear in fiction seem to have a tin ear. This, though, has real oratory, with both the script and – particularly – Michael Wisher’s superb portrayal of Davros knowing just how speechmaking works. While the Doctor and many others declaim effectively, what’s really impressive about Davros is that, for a charismatic fascist to work, the story realises that he actually has to be both charismatic and persuasive, rather than mistaking just ‘speaking at length’ for ‘making a speech’. His arguments are horribly logical, passionate and resounding, not just a cardboard stereotype, and they’re properly structured, too – if you’re familiar with speechwriting, you’ll probably be aware of how to build up a phrase with the ‘rule of three’. Davros certainly is (even the Dalek’s speech at the end does it).

Perhaps most important of all is not just the political infighting, or the brilliant speeches, but that the story hinges on real, urgent political issues. Blatantly – and even more so on the DVD, where you can see the uniforms – the Kaleds from whom the Daleks grow are Nazis, and the essence of the story is to pit fascism against free will. The Doctor and the few sympathetic people tend to be characterised by doubt; Davros and all the others who do terrible things by absolute, chilling certainty, with the Daleks themselves conditioned to obey unquestioningly. And it’s the Doctor thinking for himself, asking what right he has to perform the mission he’s been sent on, that provides the story’s central moral dilemma. Notably for Liberal propagandists, the Dalek’s instinct to destroy is encapsulated in a hatred of non-conformity; perhaps disturbingly, some of the story’s weaker moments come with a ‘nice’ Kaled who lurches erratically from weapons developer to proto-pacifist revolutionary and tends to be rather more a walking, wooden plot function than someone who’s as electric in defence of compassion as Davros is on removing it. Then, three quarters of the way through the story, the Doctor and Davros discuss science, morality and the Daleks in a scene so gripping – aided by a brilliant score – that it’s still for me the single most quotable speech in the history of the series.

CD Versus DVD
“Daleks? Tell me more.”
When you cut out more than half the running time and lose all the pictures, obviously you lose rather a lot, but strangely enough I still listen to my own CD from time to time for pleasure anyway (the LP long since having given way to cassette and then CD versions even before today’s giveaway). The sixty-minute edit has charms of its own; you can listen to it when out and about, of course, or simply when you have much less time, and it rattles along at a great pace, with Tom Baker providing an appropriately doomy narration (if with the occasional oddity). The DVD, of course, not only has the full, beautifully remastered TV version, but a host of special features – notably a lively commentary and two pretty solid documentaries.

Though there are many fewer speeches on the CD, some of them have a greater immediacy when you’re just listening to them – Davros turning on a scientist he’s framed as a traitor, for example, is a gripping scene on screen, with terrific direction and music building up to blazing effects as the brand new Daleks make their first ever extermination. Brilliantly, those watching cover their eyes, both communicating the scorching power of Dalek death-rays and symbolising the way they’re closing their eyes to what Davros is doing. And yet… Somehow, for me, when the scene is carried just by Davros’ escalating denunciation and the horrible sound of blasts and screams, the bareness of the sound alone is still more chilling.

The script jumps unevenly on CD, but it’s exciting; on screen, things have time to build, but there are a few longeurs (notably, for me, the odd scene where Davros and one of his scientists have rather stiffly written moral arguments about conscience, laying it on with a trowel). You miss the eerie power of the shattered, war-torn landscape that grounds the early part of the story, establishing its seriousness, and you miss the moody direction, with its war story power overlaid with medieval symbolism (a robed Death sending the Doctor on a mission; tattered, bound plague-carriers stalking the hills…).

Perhaps the most obvious losses are seeing Davros’ performance enhanced by a terrific mask, and the inspired lighting – or, rather, turning the lights down low – that frames so many scenes. Less predictably, the outstanding musical score works much better in the full TV version, simply because it’s allowed to play out and build up, rather than chopping and changing, though there are still striking moments on the CD – Davros’ ‘march’, for example, works perfectly on his first full ‘appearance’. I’m still torn, too, as to whether the edited version presenting Davros first as a commanding leader in front of the Doctor gives him the best entrance, or whether I prefer the DVD introducing him first in tantalising glimpses, whispering orders to destroy and announcing the beginning of the Daleks… Or, indeed, whether it’s better to pick up the Nazi analogy through Davros and the Kaleds’ actions and philosophy, or whether to see them smack in the middle of the screen wearing black uniforms and iron crosses!

Which you prefer comes down, really, to the time you have to enjoy it on any given day. The DVD’s certainly the best for me – but I still love the CD, too, and not just for nostalgic reasons. Sometimes it just seems to work better to finish the story with a Dalek shriek of triumph rather than the Doctor drifting away on a cloud of hope; sometimes it’s more satisfying to breeze through at speed and miss out everything to do with the hilariously unconvincing giant clams. Most of the time, I’d rather be spellbound by the whole thing and struck by the story’s most memorable image, as a dark metal Dalek looms, tank-like, against a violet sky. But either way, if you don’t have Genesis of the Daleks to start with, pick up today’s Torygraph. It’s worth it – and if it whets your appetite, you can always buy the DVD later.


Oh, and make sure you’re listening to Tom Baker reading the novelisation of Doctor Who – The Creature From the Pit on BBC7. It’s the third part today, but you can catch the first two on the iPlayer, and hear each day’s instalment at 2.30, 6.30 and 0.30. It’s a witty fable with a remarkably Liberal message – both in how to treat people, and in economic policy. I might even write a piece about that, too, but I’ve only got so much energy at once…

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Comments:
As I am stuck watching Doctor Who on BBC America I can only read blogs like this and weep. Thanks for keeping me abreast of things on that side of the pond. There is an ardent desire from some of us in the states for all the news we can get about our favorite show. One of closest friends actually made a video for this website about obsession because his love of the Doctor is borderline insane, check it out: Tim is obsessed with Doctor Who
 
Hi Bort

Shame you don't get the freebies - but, then, they're not often around here, either! So hope you manage to get hold of a few Who goodies without paying *too* much...

Thanks for the link, too - you're the second I've had to it, and I enjoyed Tim's guide to the series immensely. What's wrong with obsession?
 
Oh lord. I bought the Genesis double LP too. Listened to it so many times at night that, whenever I watch it, I know exactly what line is coming and the inflection it'll be spoken with.
 
The other line I can't resist using at opportune moments is: "Thankyou, that's what I wanted to know!"
 
Thanks, Steve - you and me both! And, yes, that line in particular ;-)

Apologies for month-long wait; unpleasantly ill, just doing a bit of catching up.
 
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