“I stepped from the TARDIS onto a bleak planet; all around the ground was ravaged, no vegetation, banks of chilling fog swirling through the air – why had I been brought here?” Anyone of a certain age will certainly recognise this opening passage from the 1979 BBC Records and Tapes release of Genesis of the Daleks and it will send a chill down their spine. In an era before commercial videotape (though not long before – Revenge of the Cybermen was released on VHS and Betamax just 4 years later), this was the only way that you could enjoy a Doctor Who story at your leisure without picking up a Target book and reading. For many young fans, this was an essential part of the Doctor Who experience at that time: kneeling in your parents’ sitting room and listening to Genesis of the Daleks on your Dad’s stereo. If he heard to skip back to re-listen to a good bit, he’d shout: “Don’t do that! You’ll damage the needle!”
Genesis of the Daleks wasn’t the first Doctor Who story LP; in 1976, Argo Records had produced Doctor Who and the Pescatons under license, drafting in Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen to recreate their TV roles. It’s a fun listen, but the script by Victor Pemberton is paper-thin and it’s no real substitute for the TV series. It was sort of inevitable that the BBC would eventually release a TV serial in this mode, because there was a brief period before videotape really hit big that movie producers started releasing more mature ‘The Story of’ records and tapes. For a long time, companies like Disney had produced ‘Read Along’ records, with a storybook rendition of a popular movie performed by actors who were not in the original cast. Somewhere along the line, these were supplemented by long-playing records for slightly older kids with no storybook and dialogue from the actual film.
I had (and in fact still have) The Story of Tron and my friend had The Story of Return of the Jedi, both of which worked surprisingly well, but I’m aware that there were lots of these things available in the late 70s and early 80s. Doctor Who was at the height of its popularity with Tom Baker in the lead and the Daleks were about to return to the TV series for the first time in 4 years in Destiny of the Daleks, so it seems an obvious choice for BBC Records and Tapes to jump on the story LP bandwagon with the Fourth Doctor’s only previous Dalek adventure Genesis of the Daleks. The problem was, Genesis was 6 episodes long, a total of 150 minutes of screen time and LP records could hold a maximum of approximately 60 minutes of material, so even with the theme tune and cliff-hangers removed, it still required a great deal of pruning.
Considering it’s less than half of its original running time, the adaptation of Genesis of the Daleks works surprisingly well. Script writer Terry Nation was never one to shy away from padding and his Dalek origin opus is no exception. If anything, it’s a much tighter story for its judicial trim and rolls along nicely as 2 30-minute episodes, with no loss of coherency. A criticism often levelled at Terry Nation is that his stories have a tendency to fall into a pattern of capture-escape-capture-escape and it’s hard to disagree with that observation. Genesis, in its original form, certainly contains a lot of the main characters being captured and escaping and although some of it remains in the LP adaptation, it’s much less noticeable.
Tom Baker steps in to do the linking narration and it’s a suitably dramatic reading. One thing about Tom Baker is that he really can’t hide boredom in his voice, so there are some audio performances where he just sounds like he’d rather be anywhere else; track down, if you can, the recording of him reading the story of Gremlins for a 1984 cassette and you’ll hear exactly what I mean! Fortunately, Genesis of the Daleks finds Tom in buoyant mood and giving a really excellent performance. The audio description does not swamp the actual audio from the TV show, as it did on some of the mid-90s BBC Audio Missing Stories releases, but allows the sound effects and the listener’s imagination to do a lot of the heavy lifting.
Because the story has to be split into 2 parts for the 2 sides of the record / cassette, it creates a new cliff-hanger that isn’t in the original serial. On television, episode 3 ends with the Doctor being caught on an electrified fence in the Thal Dome, but that was a very visual threat that doesn’t really work on audio, so they push it forward a little. As a deadly missile strike hits the Kaled Dome, the Doctor, a prisoner of the Thals, desolately states, “I sent Harry and Sarah in there,” with the sound of the dome exploding in the background, followed by the Doctor Who theme screaming in. As a kid, I loved the electric fence cliff-hanger and used to re-enact it wherever I saw a chain-link fence, but looking back, I think the missile strike ending is better and helps to demonstrate what a strong performance Tom Baker was giving throughout his first season.
The other really strong performance in Genesis of the Daleks is Michael Wisher as Davros. The character is so immobile that it’s virtually a voice-only performance even on television, so it works extremely well on audio. It’s also not bogged down by muddy vocal effects that would have made some Doctor Who ‘monsters’ impossible to listen to, so you can hear every clever intonation of his voice. The classic ‘capsule’ sequence between Tom Baker and Michael Wisher comes over incredibly well in this version and they wisely choose not to spoil it with vocal direction when the Doctor springs forward and pins Davros’ arm – you can quite clearly discern from the audible movement what is going on, so there’s no need to spoon-feed the information to the audience. A great many more recent audio releases could learn from this.
The album’s sleeve design is by BBC in-house designer Mario Moscardini and is a high-contrast black and white photo collage which has then been hand-coloured. BBC Records and Tapes were renowned for covers that were often quite sloppy and haphazard; to be honest, this is one of the better ones, for at least it captures the dynamism of the content. It’s frequently criticised, but for my money it’s a lot better than the cover for the BBC Radio Collection twin cassette (with Slipback) re-release from 1988, which was eye-catching but bland, or the 2001 CD release (with Exploration Earth), which was ghastly. A facsimile edition released on CD and vinyl in 2011 through the Vintage Beeb label, which restored Moscardini’s artwork and sounded better than ever before thanks to a restoration by Mark Ayres.
In today’s world of instant gratification, with all of classic Doctor Who available at a few clicks of Britbox (right now… watch this space) the importance of the Genesis of the Daleks LP might be lost on younger fans. There was no internet, so things like this, Target books and Doctor Who Weekly were how you stayed connected with the show when it was off the air. But it’s not all about nostalgia – Genesis of the Daleks is a well-produced, entertaining piece of audio drama that was undoubtedly an influence on the fans who went on to produce the Audio Visuals, which eventually became Big Finish. It shouldn’t be viewed as an inferior take on the television version, but as a vital entity in its own right. I watched the TV serial once as a child (maybe twice, if I saw the repeat) but I listened to the LP hundreds of times, so in a way, it’s more the version that sticks in my mind more than the original.