Whenever the current season of Doctor Who ends, I always feel a kind of withdrawal. I blame it on the peculiarities of British television scheduling: a long mid-season hiatus coupled with a smaller number of episodes per season.
Fortunately, there's no shortage of Doctor Who to be had in the meantime—the program has, after all, been broadcast (on and off) since 1963. So this year I've been feeding my hunger pangs with the old Fourth Doctor episodes, broadcast 1974–81. It's often said that a Doctor Who fan's favourite Doctor is always the first one they saw, and that's certainly true in my case (though David Tennant and Matt Smith did give Baker a run for his money!). I first discovered Doctor Who on Sunday afternoons on PBS, where the producers edited the episodes of each serial into a single program. Later, the same PBS station moved the Doctor to Saturday late-night. In the spirit of Serial Saturdays, watching Doctor Who was my weekend ritual from the age of about 13 to 20.
One of the first serials I saw was the six-part "Genesis of the Daleks." It was my personal introduction to the Daleks, the Doctor's most formidable enemy. It was also the in-series introduction to Davros, the Daleks' creator. Until the 2005 episode "Dalek," in fact, the Daleks were never again featured without Davros, so for me they were largely insperable.
In this story, the Doctor has been sent by the Time Lords to the planet Skaro, home of the Daleks, to destroy them at their point of origin. Since the Doctor is generally averse to taking life, he has an ongoing internal debate about the ethics of erasing the Daleks from history. At one point, he wonders whether he has the right to commit genocide by blowing up an incubator full of Dalek embryos; at another, he threatens Davros himself with death if he will not stop his research. Given the Doctor's general pacifistic tendencies, this scene is particularly shocking: he holds down a control on the crippled Davros' mechanical wheelchair, stopping his life-support system temporarily. Davros cannot survive "thirty seconds" without it—and indeed he weakens and passes out in only five.
At thirteen years of age, and again at nineteen, I saw this scene exactly the way I think the scriptwriters wanted me to: the Doctor is so desperate to rid the universe of the Daleks that he is willing to commit cold-blooded murder of Space Hitler to accomplish his goal. But now that I'm more than twice that age, watching the serial a third time, I have to wonder . . .
What exactly is the intended function of that control?
The easiest answer is the obvious one: it turns off the life-support system on Davros' wheelchair. But if the wheelchair needed repairs, you wouldn't waste a free hand holding the power switch down—you'd have a switch that kept the power off until you were finished. And you definitely wouldn't put a dangerous button in a location where it was easily accessible. It wouldn't do for Davros to cut off his air merely by accidentally dropping his calculator.
It turns out that this simple plot device is a little more nefarious: Davros has a conveniently located suicide button on the control panel of his wheelchair. I guess being the progenitor of the most powerful military force in the universe can't buy you happiness.
But then I thought about it a little more. Basically, this button is the opposite of a dead-man's switch. If Davros weakens and passes out after only a few seconds, then he won't have enough strength in his one good hand to keep his suicide button depressed. And when the Doctor released the switch, he revived fairly quickly. So it's really not much use if Davros actually wants to off himself.
And that means that Davros doesn't hae a conveniently located suicide button.; he has a conveniently located auto-asphyxiation button. It seems that when he's bored, he plays the choking game on himself.
This is why you shouldn't think too hard about what you see on TV.
Next week: Superman returns!