Tony examines the great dictator.
When Steven Moffatt launched Series 9 of on-screen Doctor Who with a two-part story that involved a philosophical discussion of Davros, his origins, his nature and the possibility of his redemption in a universe where definitions of good and evil are no longer rigid, not only was it seen as a staggeringly original move, but the showrunner was careful to frame his story and its discussion so as not to disturb a single thread of the Big Finish four-story epic that was I, Davros, which had shown us, in as much detail as I, Claudius, the youth, the steps along the path to the dark side and the eventual apotheosis of Davros, creator of the Daleks. I, Davros was a masterwork, released in 2006, the year after Doctor Who made its triumphant return to the screen, and it gave eighties TV Davros Terry Molloy the chance to put flesh on Davros’ psychological bones.
But three years earlier, and before the show returned to TV, Molloy faced off against Sixth Doctor Colin Baker in a story simply entitled Davros, one of three unconnected stories challenged to take a deeper look at key villains in the show’s history from a different angle.
The set-up is simple – Davros has been thought ‘dead’ for over a hundred years. Humanity’s perspective on the Daleks and their creator has shifted somewhat, especially given the fact that the impetuous pepperpots of death immediately turned on their creator almost every time they worked together, and Davros spent a lot of time in between those engagements in suspended animation, entirely unable to influence their development. Now, humanity is filling up the galaxy and needs a genius du jour to help them develop the technology to cross intergalactic space, and especially to solve the problem of galactic famine.
Humanity needs a hero. Davros could be it. He’s offered the chance for ‘redemption,’ and, encouraged by the idea of humanity’s aspiration to greatness and in particular by one woman’s interest in what made him the man he is, he seems enthusiastic to take it.
The Sixth Doctor, always something of a hothead, argues passionately that ‘Daleks can’t change their bumps,’ that Davros is the way he is because he’s made his choices, because he’s a scorched-Skaro philosopher who cannot accept the idea that his bleak view of the universe can be wrong. He’s evil because he’s evil, essentially, and for Davros there can be no such thing as redemption, because he cannot envisage any higher authority that could grant him such a thing.
Davros was written by Lance Parkin, and it mostly takes the form of a series of conversations between Molloy’s Davros and other characters – Baker’s scornful, spiteful Sixth Doctor; Bernard Horsfall’s businessman, Arnold Baynes, who offers Davros his redemption in the eyes of humanity by virtue of humanitarian action; Wendy Padbury’s Lorraine Baynes, Arnold’s wife and the pro-Davros historian who wants the story of his life straight from his age-blackened lips; and Eddie de Oliveira’s Willis, an anarcho-syndicalist journalist who’s come to pen a destructo-piece on Baynes and gets way more than he bargained for. In between the conversations though, which rehearse the arguments of Davros’ youth on a planet at total war, we get glimpses, snatches of his memories, played out for us by a full cast, and the Parkin vision of Davros’ youth plays directly into I, Davros three years later – in fact, we had to double-check the release dates to make sure the dream sequences were not simply re-used recordings from the I, Davros series. Whether they were in production at the same time and the four-episode Davros biography was simply released at a later point or whether the I, Davros scripts were in development and were available for use for Davros, we’re not sure, but what’s certain is that the memories Davros replays for us in this release go forward to form part of his ‘official’ biography – including the shocking truth about the real genesis of the Daleks, and what Davros did to the only woman to ever threaten his psychopathic self-isolation. We also learn a lot about what it’s like to be Davros from Parkin’s script. We learn of the physical pain, which torments his every moment and drives him endlessly, relentlessly to survive, not to let himself be beaten by it, and not to take the easy way out, whatever that means – the simplicity of death or the complexity of a cloned, pain-free body to replace the eternal life sentence in which his genius is trapped - and we learn his psychology, that has that scientific, black-and-white ruthlessness and applies it to every living thing in the universe, including himself, for all he skews the ruthlessness in his favour by virtue of his ego. There can only be one supreme scientist of Skaro, and it will be him. There can be only one supreme power in the universe, and it will be him, but within that paradigm, he’s quite capable of analysing himself, his strengths and frailties with psychopathic clarity – the same clarity with which he judges the universe of his inferiors.
The tragedy framed in Lance Parkin’s script is that redemption could have been a possibility for Davros if he’d only encountered a different Doctor at this point in his life – he honestly admits to considering it, to hoping for it even, and maybe the Fifth Doctor, or the Seventh, or the Eighth, might have given him the benefit of enough doubt to allow him to take the small steps of trust in a new direction that could have led Davros onto a new path (a motif used in The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar, where the Twelfth Doctor’s compassion leads him to give Davros the benefit of that doubt). But it’s the Sixth Doctor, his judgment, his scorn, his certainty that Davros, alone among all organic creatures in the universe cannot change, cannot ever make atonement for what he’s done to the universe, that acts like the devil on Davros’ shoulder, that convinces him that he is in fact what the Doctor says he is, that he is incapable of change. And, as in Genesis of the Daleks, when Davros makes his move in this story, without a Dalek anywhere to be seen, it’s still ghastly and breath-taking and pulse-pounding. Even after everything we learn about Davros in this audio, and that’s a lot, when he makes his move to achieve power here, it’s still shocking. We still don’t entirely see it coming, and there’s a brutality to it that punches us in the face. Parkin cleverly lulls us into Davros’ confidence, shows us the young Davros, unscarred, unmutilated, a Davros flirting with the idea of love, and then slams us against the wall of expectation with the reality of Davros now, a Davros for whom other people are nothing but pawns and players, pieces on the board of his game of universal domination. It’s clever writing, because when a villain has returned time and time again, it’s tempting to think we know how things will go when they appear, so by subverting all those expectations and letting us into the world of the younger Davros, and indeed, the older Davros considering mending his ways, to be punched in the face with the sheer brutality of his ultimate nature makes him a fresh evil again, making Davros, the story, something that will remain special as the decades roll on. It’s also something that plugs directly into on-screen Davros and the future development of the character at Big Finish – we learn here about the way in which Kaleds were fed in their cities and bunkers, and how Davros, faced with the intellectual problem of galactic hunger, could have devised his Great Healer plan from Revelation of the Daleks. There’s mention made here of the beginnings of a sensory illusion that makes its presence felt in The Davros Mission and in Terror Firma. There’s even a plan outlined here that eventually surfaces as a crucial plot element in The Curse of Davros.
Clearly, from the names we’ve already mentioned, there’s some top flight Who talent in Davros – Molloy and Baker are on blistering form, their conversations very much a precursor to The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar’s intimacies between the Time Lord and the Kaled. Bernard Horsfall is in full command of his performance here, convincing as a man who rules his own empire, but one who’s not stupid enough to be unnecessarily dogmatic or rigid. Padbury turns in a very different performance to her usual Zoe, part corrupted historian, part schoolgirl crush. It makes for a closed-in, claustrophobic environment, in which the mesmeric personality of Davros can work its magic, poisoning everything it touches with its shocking reasonablenesss.
Davros is a very special audio story. If it’s in your collection, play it again today. If not, it’s the best £2.99 you could spend. Get it now.