Davros, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying And
Love The Daleks
Originally published in Tides of Time
One of the reasons for the continued popularity of "Genesis of the Daleks" is generally said to be its elegantly simple portrayal of one of the key themes of the twentieth century: the horrors of fascism and the necessity of resistance. In the story, the Kaled regime are seen to parallel the Nazis in many ways, from the soldiers' uniforms to Davros' Hitleresque rants to Nyder's obsession with racial purity. However, while it is unquestionable that "Genesis" was intended as Terry Nation's allegory of the fall of the Nazis, it can also be taken as an allegory of another, equally crucial, period in twentieth-century history.
So much has been written by writers of various degrees of professionalism about the Nazi/WWII elements in Dalek stories that it is often overlooked that these are as much anti-nuclear-war as anti-Nazi parables. The very premise of "The Daleks" is that the Daleks and Thals are the products of a nuclear holocaust: the Daleks, who cannot survive without a high level of background radiation, are thus in a sense the embodiment of nuclear weaponry. The Thals can also be said in some ways to resemble the youth of the post-war, pre-Vietnam generation, in that they loathe the Daleks while depending on them for survival, and prefer to live in denial rather than to confront the foe directly. Later, the early episodes of "The Dalek Invasion of Earth" resemble after-the-bomb stories even more than they resemble what-if-Hitler-had-won stories, with images of ragged survivors, familiar London monuments left intact but untenanted (as opposed to bedecked with swastikas), and peculiar mutant creatures roaming the moors. Nation was not the only writer to make use of this connection: "Day of the Daleks", by Louis Marks, explicitly revolves around the fact that, if (the presumably nuclear) World War III is unleashed, the Daleks will be able to take over the Earth a hundred years too soon. In short, then, while this theme is ignored or understated in later stories, it is clear that, early on at least, the Daleks were as much an analogy of nuclear as of Nazi terror.
To return to "Genesis of the Daleks", we find that, just as the story draws parallels with the last days of Nazi Germany, so it also echoes a certain scientific controversy unfolding elsewhere in the world at the same time. The Kaled scientists, for instance, find themselves in the same position as the researchers featured in many of C.P. Snow's Cambridge novels. Like the atomic scientists of the mid-century, they have been working on a problem of great theoretical and practical interest. However, it is also becoming obvious--perhaps too late--that their research has deadly implications: that, while it will bring victory to their group, it will do so at the cost of killing everyone in it. Davros comes across as a sort of Doctor Strangelove figure; like Kubrick's wheelchair-bound megalomaniacal scientist, and like his real-life counterpart Werner von Braun, he is too caught up in the scientific implications to think about the moral ones.
The other Kaled scientists, for their part, evince a growing disturbance with their own work, as did Einstein and many others. Much as these scientists' reaction was deliberately nonviolent and limited, too, the Kaleds' protest takes the form of bloodless complaints, trying to reason with Davros, and forming an alliance with the anti-Dalek movement going on elsewhere in the bunker. Finally, much as the real-life protests accomplished little beyond their proponents being branded as communists by the FBI, the Kaled scientists find themselves on Nyder's list of enemies of the state. The situation of the Kaled scientists thus resembles that of the developers of the nuclear bomb even more than it does that of scientists working under the Nazi regime, most of whom were too steeped in party ideology--and frightened of party security--to question its eugenicist policies.
Similarly, the Kaled military's reactions have parallels with movements in NATO countries of the 1950s and 60s. While it may seem unlikely to us that fully indoctrinated soldiers would protest against the use of the ultimate weapon, we are seeing the situation from a decidedly post-cold-war perspective. During the Cold War, a significant minority of soldiers had questions about the morality of war, as is highlighted in novels such as M*A*S*H and Joseph Heller's Catch-22; one may recall that the pilots responsible for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed evidence of deep psychological disturbance after the act. Despite later mythologising about the antiwar movement, many of the Americans who dodged the Vietnam draft did not object to being called up for military service in defense of their country, but had objections to engaging in that particular bit of warfare; there are many accounts of soldiers in Vietnam and Korea firing their weapons into the air or on their own NCOs.
Similarly, in "Genesis", we see a military force which is obedient to its commanders until the implications of the new weapon become apparent. Gharman, like the American GIs of the 1950s and '60s, is an idealistic and politically naive man driven to the point where he foments rebellion against the society he should have been defending, and even Ravon, the fanatical boy soldier, is at a loss to answer the Doctor's allegations against the Kaled regime. Again, the situation of the military is less as it was in the late-fascist state, than in the early-nuclear one.
The extremes of behaviour fostered by the postnuclear state also find parallels in "Genesis". Nyder, Davros' Chief of Security, resembles Senator Joseph McCarthy at least as much as he does Heinrich Himmler; like McCarthy, he keeps a list of traitors, and, like McCarthy's agents, he poses as a sympathiser to the resistance in order to learn the names of its members. Like the FBI agent in the Cold War parable The Iron Giant, Nyder believes that the total destruction of his own society is a necessary evil in the interests of not allowing the enemy to win. Similarly, Davros' conviction that the Daleks will spare him, even if they kill everyone else, echos the attitude of the Cold War politicians who firmly believed that they, at least, would survive the holocaust, constructing shelters and developing plans to ensure their survival at the expense of that of their fellow citizens; much as Davros lived to discover his mistake, also, none of the shelters could actually have allowed these politicians to survive for very long after the blast. Finally, at the end of the story, the nuclear parable is carried to its logical conclusion as, in a scene perhaps reminiscent of the mushroom-clouds-and-Vera-Lynn sequence at the end of Doctor Strangelove, the ultimate weapon destroys everybody, philosophical scientists, idealistic soldiers, nasty psychopaths and twisted geniuses alike; while the viewer can take some comfort in the fact that some Thals survive, it is the Kaleds, much more than the Thals, whom the viewer has come to know as (admittedly two-dimensional) individuals over the course of the story, and whose pointless deaths consequently have more symbolic value in bringing home the allegory of total nuclear destruction.
In sum, while "Genesis of the Daleks" undeniably works well as an allegory of fascism and of resistance thereto, another allegory is taking place at the same time: that of the dilemmas, delusions and ideologies of the early Cold War period. This theme, while overshadowed by others in the story, is one which was of central importance to viewers of the 1970s, and may go some way towards explaining its continued popularity in a world which is experiencing the revival of the "Star Wars" programme.