Tuesday 19 October 2010

Genesis, Genes, Histories, Holocausts and Hiroshimas

And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stol'n out of holy writ,
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.

- William Shakespeare, Richard III

Science-fiction is the reiteration of myth and legend in the age of science and technology, i.e. the capitalist age, which is also the age of industrialised imperialism and fascism, of assembly line genocide and nuclear warheads dropped on civilian population centres. No wonder then that sci-fi often retells the history of the 20th century in terms of apocalypse and revelation; that’s to say in terms of Christianity, the dominant mythological schema of Western culture. ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ fuses various Christian myths (most especially, the myth of the creator who creates in his own image, endows his creation with free will and is then turned upon by them… but also the fiery last judgement) with a stream-of-consciousness semiotic representation of Nazis, holocausts and Hiroshimas.

We are shown a world in which the Daleks become possible. A world reduced to two decaying cities fighting each other to extinction for no reason that either seems to understand (which reiterates the myth of Greece and Troy). The Kaleds and the Thals are practically indistinguishable (except for their hair and colour schemes... who knows, maybe it all started as a war between the blondes and the brunettes?). The Thals are just as brutal, just as racist. Who's to say they didn't start it? Does it even matter? There is clearly no right or wrong here, no goodies and baddies. The Thals plot genocide, dirty war and the slaughter of those they consider inferior. As such, the Daleks are almost a just punishment upon them. In fact, since Davros and his creatures kill nearly all the Kaleds too, you can look upon these monsters as a kind of judgement visited upon both races for their thousand year war. Divine justice or the revenge of history; it depends if you look at this as history or myth. Of course, it’s both – just like a Shakespeare history play.

A. P. Rossiter called Shakespeare's Richard III an "angel with horns", pointing out that his devilish crimes bring down a kind of divine purification upon an England sullied by usurpation and war. In his evil, he's almost a force for good. Davros is like this. He's very like Richard. Twisted and deformed but able to turn his deformity to his advantage; charismatic and commanding despite being lame and crippled; able to charm and trot out professions of duty while inwardly seething with malice; narcissistic and vain; thirsty for power; driven by a fierce and implacable intellect; driven through ambition to self-destruction. There are even echoes of Shakespeare in some of the dialogue. "Conscience is a word that cowards use" says Richard. To Davros, conscience is an affliction amongst other "creeds of cowards".

I wonder if it's entirely an accident that at least one bit of Davros' dialogue sounds like it's in iambic pentameter:

"That power would set me up above the gods
And through the Daleks I shall have that power."

In ‘Genesis’, Davros is possibly the greatest Doctor Who villain. This has nothing to do with him being “iconic” (oh God, how I am starting to hate that word) and everything to do with the fact that he seems like a person, like a man with a plan that has grown from his ideological convictions and his twisted psychology, rather than just a monster. One can debate him and get intelligible answers. He has an outer shell of rationality. He’s an intellectual, with philosophical views rather than just crazy schemes. He has a delusional but internally-consistent viewpoint. He’s a proper psychopath rather than just a run-of-the-mill mad scientist. He displays behaviour that would be recognisable to a criminal psychologist: narcissism, lack of empathy, paranoia, grandiosity, mood swings. He isn’t the kind of snickering nutcase that usually crops up in Who. He isn’t Soldeed.

The key thing about him is that his motivation is ideological and his ideology is not simply the pseudo-fascism practiced by so many Doctor Who villains. When Davros speaks, he sounds like the real Nazis did (at least when they were giving speeches). Somebody (Robert Holmes I suspect) gave him credible dialogue that genuinely echoes the Nazi mindset. Davros certainly rants, but his rantings are also eloquent statements of ruthless social-Darwinism and political opportunism, of crackpot but internally-consistent Nazi conceptions of universal racial struggle. Davros is a sign that the series’ long-running fascination with Nazis has finally come of age. At no point (in this story anyway) does he let out any maniacal laughter. He is more than just another Morok.

Aside from Shakespeare’s Richard III and the Hitler of pop culture, the other mytho-historical monster whom Davros resembles is God; the terrifying, capricious, vindictive tyrant of the Old Testament. He engineers his own version of the flood to wipe out a world that refuses to obey him, apart from a bunker/ark of obedient Noahs. 'Genesis' is an appropriate word for a story about a megalomaniacal control freak who creates creatures (interesting etymology there) in his own image, imposes his own authority upon them, gives them free will ("they will be entirely independent of all outside influences...") and is then stunned when they rebel.

Just as the Kaleds are destroyed by their pitiless creations - the war, the mutos, Davros (who, if you think about it, is a muto himself) - so is Davros destroyed by his own pitiless creations. Why are the Daleks pitiless? Because he made them that way. He didn't even teach them the word for pity. Suddenly, we see the Daleks as victims of their upbringing, slaves to their origin – their original sin. The Daleks are a product of their pitiless world. You can almost feel sorry for them.

There is a problem here, however, which is that the story represents the Daleks as prisoners of their genesis, and, most specifically, of their genes.  Gharman's great objection to Davros is that he has altered the Daleks genetically so that they are no longer capable of conscience, or understanding right and wrong.  By doing so, it is implied, Davros has condemned the Daleks to always be "unfeeling" and "heartless" by nature.  If the tacit idea of this story, which it keeps worrying at silently, is that we are the Daleks, then this genetic destiny chimes with the Christian notion of original sin, which holds that mankind is inherently fallen and that we all carry this taint from birth by nature of our humanity.  In a watered down version, this is true enough.  We're all, essentially, chimpanzees, with all the limitations that this implies.  We're not blank slates upon which the world inscribes morality any more than we're perfectly free to choose our every impulse and action uninfluenced or unrestrained by any innate tendencies.  Moreover, it's possible that altruism (and, by extention, morality) owes something to complex survival strategies which were naturally selected.  But the idea that morality is something genetically coded in our genes, and that the removal of this coding leaves us without the ability to comprehend morality, is far too reductionist.  Few biologists these days are quite so openly biological-determinist, just as very few theologians or preachers (at least in Britain) are quite so fierce and uncompromising on our supposedly fallen nature.  However, such notions bubble along, somtimes submerged and/or implicit.  These related ideas stem from ideology which seeks to legtimate hierarchy, war, xenophobia etc. by making them innate and unalterable products of 'human nature'.  But human behaviour - and, by extension, the behaviour of any similarly big-brained, sentient, foresight-posessing, tool-using creature - comes about because of immensely complex dialectical interactions between genotype, phenotype, environment, society and history.  Morality may have its roots in naturally selected altruism, but it is also a series of learned social behaviours and personal choices.

Of course, we can say that the Daleks represent not us exactly, but our potential to sacrifice such freedom by reducing ourselves to machine-like automata, to tank-driving warriors who 'just obey orders'.  And, in the end, the Daleks rebel against their creator.  Their programming creates eddies and currents within them that Davros did not intend or foresee.  It doesn't take too much of a stretch to see this as representing emergent properties within their consciousness, brought about by complex dialectical interactions between their inherited mentality and their experiences.  It's a shame that this was never picked up by subsequent stories.  It might have been interesting to see the Daleks emerging even further from their genetic destiny (or original sin, if you prefer) to, perhaps, change for the better.  It would certainly cast the Doctor's refusal to exterminate them in a new light.  As it is, we must now look at that refusal through our retrospective knowledge that this mission was the opening salvo of the Time War, beginning a process which would lead the Doctor to genocidally destroy (or so he thought) both the Daleks and his own people.

The great "do I have the right?" scene is now impossible to watch without thinking about what consequences the decision will have for the Doctor personally.  But it's brilliant in itself because the story deliberately leaves the question unresolved in its own terms. The Doctor dreads the decision, unable to make an ethical choice in which there does not seem to be a right answer. He takes the first opportunity to chicken out. Horrified by the murder of the rebels he makes an emotional decision to go through with it... but a Dalek interrupts him. In the end, the Dalek accidentally makes the decision for him... or does the Doctor lure it over those wires? In any case, by that time, the Doctor has already realised that the destruction of the incubator chamber will only delay the Daleks. He leaves when he's done all that he can do. He's optimistic, and his closing speech invites us to feel the same, but clearly no moral conclusion has been reached. This isn't a cop out; it's a rare recognition that sometimes ethical questions are irresolvable in easy terms.

Of course, it’s hard for me to be objective. Like many of us (I suspect) I spent my childhood playing and replaying the edited-down audio version. It’s probably the primary reason why I’m a fan. That probably goes for lots of us, I’d guess. Which is odd, when you think about it… because this is a highly politically charged story about racism and genocide, laced with irresolvable moral quandries. It’s not the sort of thing that little kids are *supposed* to be listening to. In this, it’s emblematic of the way Doctor Who has often been a ‘smuggler’, bringing queasy and (relatively speaking) hard-hitting, complex political stories to generations of very young chidlers, all under the noses of the sophisticated adults who consider it nothing but a lot of nonsense about monsters.

‘Genesis’ proves that Doctor Who is a children’s programme, and must always stay a children’s programme… but a children’s programme haunted by concentration camps, nuclear warheads and trenches filled with barbed wire and corpses. And quite right too. Children are, in many ways, more equipped to deal with such things with intellectual and emotional honesty than adults. Children don’t have the filters that adults acquire in order to deceive themselves about the true obscenity of war and conquest.

No comments:

Post a Comment