This is probably the most misinterpreted scene in Doctor Who history. Many consider it an endorsement of pacifism, i.e. all disputes should be settled by peaceful means, and if one kills a killer, they become as bad as the killer (even though they are not the aggressor). If we were to ignore the rest of the serial and just view the Doctor (Tom Baker) and Sarah’s (Elisabeth Sladen) debate, then this is perhaps understandable. To fully appreciate the scene, it must be contrasted with this earlier debate between the Doctor and the Daleks’ creator, Davros (Michael Wisher).
It is clearly intended that these two scenes be contrasted to display Davros’ and the Doctor’s conflicting philosophies; Sarah even compares the Daleks to a disease in reference to the previous debate. Once we do this, it becomes apparent that it is not simply the taking of life that the Doctor is rejecting, but the power to take away people’s free will, to take their lives in his hands, to give them no choice but to obey his will. Davros has not only created life in his image, he wishes this life to be the only one in existence, for all creation to fit his single vision, believing his will is more important than anyone else’s. If the Doctor were to change history to fit his vision, he would be accepting Davros’ philosophy, giving himself the power to ‘play God’ and control people’s destinies. It is this ‘right’ that the Doctor is questioning.
If we look at the Doctor’s dialogue during the debate with Sarah, he is constantly considering the bigger picture, the effect his actions will have on others, and the right of one man to decide the fate of the universe. Eventually, he decides he would be as bad as the Daleks – the creatures that consider mastery over all races their right – if he were to decide another race’s fate. He talks of future worlds becoming allies because of their fear of the Daleks as a positive. Presumably, these worlds will form rebel fighting forces, much as he encourages the Thals and the Mutos to do when he instructs them to destroy the bunker: actions and words at odds with pacifism.
Through Sarah’s dialogue, we are reminded that the Doctor is on a mission for the Time Lords, and it is they who have guided him to carry out these actions. Robert Holmes, script editor for this serial, who it is suspected was responsible for much of the dialogue, is greatly responsible for the series’ depiction of the Time Lords as an oligarchy of self-appointed custodians of time and space. Moreover, as underhanded manipulators who are happy to exploit others – including the Doctor on multiple occasions – to serve their own interests. In this way, their philosophy is much akin to Davros’, and the Doctor’s failure to complete their mission adds weight to the argument that it is this philosophy he is rejecting. The beginning and end of the scene, which are often cut when it is discussed on clip shows, documentaries and Doctor Who nights, reveal a great deal about its true intention. Firstly, it begins with the companions killing a Dalek mutant that is attacking the Doctor. An odd way to start a scene if you intend to portray a pacifist message. Secondly, and even more importantly, it ends with the Doctor being saved from having to make his decision by Gharman (Dennis Chinnery), who has found a ‘democratic’ solution by calling a meeting, in which the remnants of the Kaled race will decide their own destiny.
Genesis of the Daleks depicts a horrific world ruled by a strict dictatorship, by a man with “a fanatical desire to perpetuate himself in his creation”, who is willing to conspire to wipe out his own race so his single vision can be fulfilled. The rejection of this world and Davros’ way of thinking, in favour of real democracy, is the true purpose of this scene and the entire serial. Sadly, the Kaleds’ meeting is disrupted by a group of Daleks that Davros has already activated, who kill all those who oppose them. The Doctor is then forced to return to the incubation room and destroy the remaining mutants. So much for pacifism.