Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Children of the Bunker

This is part of 50 Posts About Cyborgs.

The Mark 3 Travel Device.

The end of a thousand-year war. Two races locked in the embrace of murder-suicide. Technology in reverse. Attrition on a planetary scale: every living thing, every scrap of life-sustaining environment, must be destroyed to deny it to the enemy. The triumph of nihilism, genocide as business-as-usual. Few Doctor Who serials have even come in sight of the creative peak represented by Genesis of the Daleks, Terry Nation's 1975 story. Throughout its 47-year history, Doctor Who has continually shown a frustrating lack of economy with its own reserves of imagination, flinging away fascinating concepts after only the briefest examination and then eking out unoriginal stories far beyond their natural life. The series had a routine disregard for its own continuity even before the baroque absurdities of the post-2005 "New" series. Genesis of the Daleks is different. An extraordinarily powerful scenario is thoroughly explored, and the existing Dalek timeline is enriched and extended with what is essentially a super-prequel.

As the name suggests, Genesis is the beginning of the Daleks. What's striking about it is that it feels like an ending. The Doctor, played by Tom Baker, arrives on the planet Skaro at the tail end of a millennial war between the Thals and the Kaleds, two sets of humanoid aliens. The world is devastated by centuries of atomic and chemical warfare. The armies of the two races are reduced to ragged bands of skirmishers with mismatched, salvaged equipment, the detritus of a technological civilisation that has all but totally unravelled. The combatants are in regression, on the path back to the bow and arrow. The exhaustion is palpable.

Technology in retreat.

On arrival in this apocalypse, the Doctor is informed by a senior Time Lord that, in the distant future, the tyrannical cyborg race known as the Daleks has come to dominate the universe. This outcome must be prevented, so he has been sent back to the moment of the Daleks' creation to interfere with their development - either he must snuff them out at birth, or intervene to steer the race in a less belligerent direction. There have been too many times when the Daleks were thought to be defeated and came back stronger than ever, like a hospital superbug. The Doctor has been sent ad fontes to pre-empt a Dalek universe. Even the possibility of a Dalek universe is too great a risk to take.

This might sound like Dick Cheney's One Percent Doctrine, but a viewer familiar with the Daleks' later exploits is immediately on the Doctor's side. The Daleks are near-perfect villains, "gliding like priests, talking like Nazis, chimerical yet simple, and with that unpleasantly ambiguous relation to the ground beneath them" in Jenny Turner's beautiful description from 2006. They don't just talk like Nazis, they talk like the angriest, barking, spittle-hurling Schutzstaffel creep; they are Nazis reduced to their perfect essence, in a wheeled tin can. Tinned extract of Nazi. At the moment the Doctor arrives on Skaro, we already know a little of their origins - inside their armoured shell, the "real" Dalek is a degenerate mutant, just a ball of squealing, mucus-covered malignancy. If you had one under your foot, your instinct would be to stamp down, hard. They are bad news. Wipe them out before they do any harm? Sure.

But our trip to the nursery with a flamethrower can also be educational. What could cause that kind of debasement? What sort of florid developmental trauma could lead to that sort of galaxywide psychopathy? If this is the child, what are the parents like?

Trekking across the devastated surface of Skaro, the Doctor and his companions see, in the distance, the first sign that civilisation of some kind is still operating: a domed city. They encounter a network of trenches - manned by corpses - and the entrance to a bunker. They are surprised by a raiding party, captured, and led into this underground world: the Kaled headquarters.

Inside the Kaled bunker.

Terry Nation does not play down the parallels with the Nazis. Although the Kaleds are exhausted, near total defeat, down in the bunker they're still bleating on about huge offensives and Wunderwaffe that will bring about victory. Armies are confidently moved about a situation map, although from the depopulation we've seen on the surface it's clear they represent handfuls of soliders, if they exist at all. Peter Miles plays the security chief Nyder, an SS officer down to his Iron Cross, licking his lips over lines like "The Kaled race must be kept pure!". Great faith is placed in the charismatic chief scientist Davros, promiser of the Wunderwaffe, the man whose genius has kept the Kaled war machine going, and apparent source of the Kaleds' racial rhetoric.

Nyder. The parallels with the Nazis are not subtle.

This is the first appearance of Davros, a recurring character in later Doctor Who serials, inextricably tied up with the Daleks. We, the viewers, know that the wonder-weapon he is promising is the Dalek, and his appearance tells most of the story of this creation. Davros is crippled, confined to a transport device that resembles the lower half of a Dalek; he is blind, able to see only through an artificial eye mounted on his forehead; a single withered arm operates the switches on the chair that allow him to interact with the world around him. The Daleks are, it is immediately clear, simply elaborations of the cyborg technology that has kept their creator alive. He introduces the Daleks as the "Mark 3 Travel Device" - obviously he is sitting in the Mark 2. The Dalek is presented to the Kaleds as the only possible way to survive: it is designed to travel over the toxic surface of the planet, and will accommodate the "ultimate" form of the Kaled race - what the race will mutate into when the chemicals and radiation in the environment have completed their work. Davros has, for experimental purposes, hurried this process of mutation along on a few test subjects, and the results are not pretty. The Kaleds only have Davros' word that his test subjects are really the genetic destination of their race, but their chief scientist has brought them this far, and his own state (ruined, but alive and pugnacious) is a kind of guarantee - a sort of Hitlerian brinksmanship, which says "I'm prepared to go this far, to sacrifice this much, why aren't you?"

Davros: proto-Dalek.

The Kaleds are quite captivated by Davros, and impressed by the obvious potential of his creation to wreak victory, but they are not yet so far down the step-free path to Dalekhood. There are qualms, doubts, power struggles. Some of the scientists, quite understandably, don't much like the idea of ending up as one of Davros' future-slugs. It's not necessary to relay the entire plot here: there is much (too much) toing and froing across the wasteland between the Kaled dome and the Thal dome, many captures, escapes and recaptures, a lot of intrigue and moral calculus, some unintentionally comic encounters with giant polystyrene clams, and eventually the Daleks are unleashed and do what they do best: Ex-ter-min-ate, Ex-ter-min-ate. What's fascinating about Genesis is the way it explains so much about the psychology of the Daleks and how they ended up as such compelling villains, simultaneously terrifying and pathetic, "utterly evil and utterly childish" in Turner's phrase: "What is ‘Ex-ter-min-ate! Ex-ter-min-ate!’ but the most notorious command of the 20th century, done as a comic turn?"

The Daleks confer with their creator.

The childish edge is key: the Daleks are erratic, hyperactive, prone to tantrums. Their debasement could also be seen as under-development. In Genesis, Davros orders chromosomal alterations to the mutant Kaled test subjects. A scientist objects that the change will mean significant defects: No compassion, no conscience. Not defects, says Davros, enhancements! Deficiency is passed off as improvement, just as a slimy residue is being passed off as the apogee of the Master Race. Alongside under-development, the Daleks' hysteria and insanity also has an edge of claustrophobic panic, almost a horror at its own situation, trapped in a metal shell. Their superiority compex is Napoleonic, based on inferiority.

The Kaled super-race.

So they are trapped - just like the Kaleds, just like the Thals, confined to their bunkers, unable to venture out onto the planet they're fighting over without gasmasks, radiation detectors, helmets and other technological enhancements. The bunker can be seen like a kind of super-Dalek, the dome of the head poking above the surface of the planet, while the remains of each race desperately operates the controls inside. The Daleks are the products of the psychosis of the bunker.

Going further back into the rear of the fortification, you meet once again the system of staggered nearby defenses, with its small firing slits—one along the entrance axis, the other on the flanks—with low visibility, through which the immediate surroundings can be seen, in a narrow space with a low ceiling. The crushing feeling felt during the exterior circuit around the work becomes acute here. The various volumes are too narrow for normal activity, for real corporal mobility; the whole structure weighs down on the visitor’s shoulders. Like a slightly undersized piece of clothing that hampers as much as it enclothes, the reinforced concrete and steel envelope is too tight under the arms and sets you in a semiparalysis fairly close to that of illness.

That's Paul Virilio describing a Nazi-built fortification on Europe's Atlantic Coast ("The Frightening Beauty of Bunkers", The Morning News 2 February 2009, an article distilling the ideas laid out in Virilio's classic Bunker Archaeology) - the kind of structure that the Third Reich put its faith in as its manpower dwindled and defeat started to press in on all sides. Internal volumes too narrow for corporal mobility, the structure weighing down on the shoulders, semiparalysis close to illness - it's inescapably Dalekoid. The Dalek vehicle, the "Mark 3 Travel Device", can be seen as a sort of mobile, personal bunker, complete with its own raging, raving Hitler inside, screaming and commanding. It even looks like a pillbox, with the slits at the top, the swivelling weapon, the domed top.

The Doctor does not destroy the Daleks in Genesis. They keep coming back, again and again - hardly a surprise, as they are in many ways a more powerful creation than the Doctor himself, a perfectly tied knot of 20th-century pathologies, one that is for the time being quite at home in our own century as well. They're a warning about desperation, about wonder-weapons, about giving away too much for victory. Genesis of the Daleks is full of destruction and evil, but it ends on a resoundingly humane note. The Doctor plants explosives in the Dalek nursery , among the specimen jars containing the Kaled mutants. But when given the live wires that will trigger the detonation, he can't bring himself to do it. It's a striking moment - the Kaled blobs are after all, helpless, no matter how bellicose they might be. The Doctor agonises, and chucks away his chance, endangering the whole universe just to prevent himself sinking to the Daleks' level.

Genocide anxiety.

Rather than destroy the Daleks, the Doctor settles for blowing up the entrance tunnel to the underground complex, setting back their progress a few centuries, hopefully enough to tilt the scale of history against them. The Daleks are left to trundle about the Kaled bunker on their own, shrieking and plotting. Even after they dig their way out, they will never, ever escape.


Charles Holland said...

Fabulous post Will, especially the point that the Dalek is its own paranoid bunker of the mind made manifest.

Dan said...

great read Will.

Simon Bostock said...


I watched this when I was about seven or so and this was the first time I asked my Dad a question that he really couldn't answer - why didn't he kill the Daleks, eh, Dad, why?

I've never seen it since then (nor would I want to) but I have a vivid memory of the Doctor refusing to blow up the Daleks and crying out that he can't because they're 'magnificent'. You know, in that Tom Baker way hammy way of his.

I know he doesn't do this, but it demonstrates the power of Davros' Nazi pronouncements on my tenderly febrile imagination.

Like I say, lovely. Thanks.

Harry Giles said...

Thanks for this; it's a really useful analysis.

But isn't there another really significant aspect to the Dalek genesis theory? -- especially if we're thinking of cyborgs in general. That the Daleks don't just represent "the bunker of the mind", but are also an emergence from fears of disability and physical intrusion? Body horror is obviously a huge aspect of cyborg-horror, but the evil Davros? He is our fear that terrifying, crippled people will do awful things to themselves and to us in order to gain power, that they will reduce everyone else to their crippled, hating state, that the disabled are a threat. It's a common enough myth, but the Dalek-cyborg is its apotheosis, no?