I, Davros 4: Guilt
This is not the end. This is only the beginning,
says Tony Fyler.
The I, Davros story from Big Finish charts the story of the man who became the creator of the Daleks, from his teenage years to just before we first met him in Genesis of the Daleks. Over the course of the first three hours, we’ve seen him choose his own destiny on a world where choices were made for young people, break out of the mediocrity of the day-to-day, lead a team in battle, play ghastly politics, deny the idea of love, and we’ve seen him endure the horrible injuries that turned him from a walking, talking man to a scarred relic in a life-support chair, fueled by nothing but an indomitable will to survive and to overcome. The final hour-long disc in this series takes us from Davros’ rebirth as the creature we know to the development of the first Dalek.
On Skaro, the effects of the endless war for supremacy are destroying the Kaled people. No-one dies of old age on Skaro – that’s been the same since Davros was a boy. But increasingly, childbirth is a shattering, fragile, terrifying prospect, as radiation causes birth defects or stillbirths among the new generation of Kaleds so desperately needed to fight the war.
Davros has been interested in embryos for some years – even before the accident that put him in his chair, he had realized the potential of changing Kaleds at the embryonic stage to adapt them for survival in the radiation-rich environment of their scarred planet. Separated as he has been by his accident from the natural cycles of Kaled birth, life and death, he is able to take a uniquely long view of Kaled development and evolution over time. By the time we see him in Guilt, he’s far from the man he was, and very much in the mould of how we meet him in Genesis – the monomaniac scientist, knowing what must be done, and doing it or getting it done.
But just as an attack changed Davros’ life beyond all recognition when it put him in his chair, so another attack in this episode threatens to end it before he can complete his research into the final genetically pure form of the Kaled, or the travel machine that will define its future. He’s isolated, blown and pulled from his chair, and captured by Thal agents, while another infiltrates the Kaled city. It’s here in Scott Alan Woodard’s closing script that the final pieces of the Genesis puzzle are slotted neatly into place, because who among the Kaleds is sent to rescue their chief scientist and de facto leader? None other than a young lieutenant by the name of Nyder (Peter Miles doing an astonishing job of sounding significantly younger forty years on from Genesis than he did in that story). By saving Davros’ life, and by the unswerving personal loyalty he displays afterwards, Nyder becomes Davros’ missing-hand man as the work to develop the mutant for the travel machines progresses.
Throughout the four episodes, Davros has maintained a frankly shocking amorality when it comes to other people’s bodies – from using the dead bodies of friends and family members for his experiments before they’re cold to refusing to help people attacked by Varga plants, being eager to study the transformation of animal matter into plant matter. But here, Davros comes into his own, bringing a heavy dose of Doctor Mengele to his otherwise Hitleric nature as he makes all Kaled babies property of the State, so as to be able to ‘protect’ them better against the vicissitudes of a Skarosian birth. Giving pregnant mothers shots of ‘medicine’ that will make their babies ‘stronger and more healthy’ is sick and creepy (not to mention a gift for the Anti-Vaxx movement), when you consider the changes he really wants to promote in the foetus, and the resultant deaths of the mothers (Very pro-life, Davros – just very pro-particular life). It’s in this stage that Davros makes the important decisions that will determine the outlook of the eventual Dalek, tweaking the Kaled genetic code to gear it for ‘survival’ – which he regards as possible only when all other forms of life are destroyed. If you think about that for any length of time, he engineers foetuses in the womb that will, as soon as they gain any sense of awareness, regard the mother than nurtures them as something to be exterminated. Normally it’s the Cybermen who are kings of Doctor Who body horror, but by showing us what lies behind the ‘bubbling lump of hate’ cliché, Woodard reclaims some ground for the screeching mutants. It’s additionally creepy in this episode to see Davros as the expectant father of his new species, cooing to the mutants, talking almost baby-talk to them. Again, in terms of delivering a disturbing underlying narrative for the development of the Daleks, Woodard scores some serious points with this image of the decrepit, terminally impotent mutilated old man, playing daddy to other people’s babies, turned into weapons of silently screaming, universe-hating aggression just waiting to get their tentacles on anything that isn’t like them – even their own mothers.
And in a final nod to Genesis of the Daleks, Woodard delivers Davros as mastermind of a coup that finally tips the balance in favour of the Scientific Elite, a move that seems like the natural pre-cursor to the moment in Genesis when he summarily orders that all other research will now be stopped and all resources focused on the Dalek project. The story of I, Davros may have been inspired by I, Claudius, but it has nodded respectfully to many other sources along the way, and this is a touch of the hat-brim to any of the Godfather movies, as Davros takes care of the necessary business to ensure nothing can come between his work and its apotheosis.
The final scene is thrilling in and of itself, and you’ll gasp when you hear it (no spoilers on that one), but the only thing wrong with Episode 4 is that it ends where it does, at that moment in Dalek history, abandoning the framing premise of the I, Davros storyline, with Davros on ‘trial’ by the Daleks, looking to the past for ways to help them in their present predicament. We never find out exactly how these memories are likely to deliver Dalek victories going forward, and while on first listening that doesn’t matter, because the tour de force of imagery and moments that makes up Episode 4 carries you right off the sudden cliff-edge of that ending, on repeated listening, you might find yourself thinking ‘Yes…and?’ Just a warning – the ‘and’ doesn’t come.
I, Davros is four hours of audio that ranks among some of Big Finish’s finest, both in the scope of what is attempted, and the punch of what is achieved. If you are a Davros fan (and who, to be fair, isn’t?), and you’ve never listened to this very special storyline, do yourself a favour and open up a new window right now. Head to the Big Finish website. It’ll only cost you £20 for four hours of intoxicating, heady, occasionally nauseating but always compelling listening. Do it.
Do it now.