Sunday, 28 April 2013

The Power of the Daleks written by David Whitaker and directed by Christopher Barry

This story in a nutshell: The Doctor seems to have transformed into an impish trickster and the Daleks are at their devious best manipulating a colony of fools…

Oh My Giddy Aunt: Thinking back it was at this point that the Doctor was at his most fascinating because the transformation that has occurred had simply never happened before and the idea of a new actor stepping into the role was so exciting and dangerous. What's interesting is how much the Daleks have become embedded in the public's psyche because all it takes is for the Doctor to defeat them for the audience at large to embrace and accept him as the same man. Certainly as far as Ben and Polly are concerned there is no question of his identity come the beginning of The Highlanders. Wouldn't it have been glorious if at some early stage that this had all turned out to be a lie and Hartnell steps out of the shadows and revealed that the new Doctor was a decoy? The audience is initially as unconvinced as Ben and Polly as he does some extremely un-Doctorish things (or at least things that you could never see Hartnell indulging in) like dancing a jig, playing an instrument and apparently walking out into a mercury swamp without checking the readings first. He feels at his face as if he is discovering himself and when he looks into the mirror he sees his old self appear. If nothing else this powerful visual should convince the audience of the truth of his identity but the truth of the matter is that rather than easing them into the idea, both David Whitaker and Patrick Troughton have fun being evasive in asking the question 'Doctor Who?' There's none of the gentle hand holding that would be offered to a brand new child audience in The Parting of the Ways as Eccleston turned into Tennant. The writer and actor seem to go out of their way to suggest that this might not be the Doctor, that he might be an imposter. It must have felt exciting and unpredictable at the time. There probably isn't this uncertain a tone around the new Doctor until Colin Baker's Doctor arrives on the scene and attempts to murder his companion. We do get a slight explanation that life depends on change and renewal and that is metamorphosis is part of the TARDIS and without it he wouldn’t have survived. There’s a very telling still that sees the Doctor, Ben and Polly putting their heads together to conspire, suggesting an intimacy which perhaps wasn't there with Hartnell.  His first moment of gravity comes when he spots the Daleks and questions Lesterson furiously at his lack of surprise at finding them in there. He orders them broken up or melted down, showing a surprising menacing streak. ‘Fools, stupid fools’ he agonizes  as they take no heed of his words and continue with the Dalek project. Whereas Hartnell was such an external performer and throws all of his weight behind the scenes where the Doctor confronts his opponents, Troughton is a much more internal character, his Doctor always thinking, always observing. Ben describes him as a right little delinquent which does sum him up rather nicely. I love the sequence where the Doctor charms Lesterson into letting him get close to the Dalek in order to sabotage it because this is far more devious and underhanded than the first Doctor would have ever been. I'm quite pleased that 'I would like a hat like that!' was filtered out quite quickly, it's one of the few tics that feels quite forced. He’s very modest about his abilities and shrugs ‘did I do all that?’ once he has defeated the Daleks. Hartnell would be clutching his lapels and basking in the praise. Troughton is clearly initially uncertain in the role but this proves to be a helpful because his uncertainty mirrors our own but at the end of six episodes of Doctor Who magic full of excitement and suspense I was completely convinced that he was the Doctor. Just a very different sort of Doctor.

Able Seaman & Lovely Lashes: I could forgive Michael Craze anything because I fancy the arse off him! Ben is almost violently suspicious of the Doctor in the opening scenes, wanting to know how these new developments will affect them. When he was a kid he used to leave opposite to a brewery where you could go for a walk and have a drink at the same time! He’s furious, almost obstinately so with the Doctor’s playful attitude during a crisis. Showing that he is still a newbie at all this he thinks the Daleks are ‘not very lively’ but soon learns otherwise. I like how Whitaker has Ben using genuine cockney rhyming slang. Ben votes they go back to the TARDIS because he has had enough of this dump! Whilst Anneke Wills has a two week holiday it is down to Troughton and Craze to hold up the show and what is interesting is to see Troughton acting against a male who isn’t Hines and there is a very different (and not entirely unwelcome) chemistry between them. Polly isn’t quite as distinctive as Ben in this story but when they are all together there is no denying certain chemistry between the three actors. Polly is almost instantly convinced that this is the Doctor and you can tell how much Will is getting off on the introduction of Troughton to the show. I love how rude she is to Janley, Polly is always at her most intolerant when she is clashing with other women (see also Kirsty in The Highlanders). In the later episode when Polly emerges and Ben is written out (this time it's Michael Craze's turn to head to the Bahamas) she expresses genuine disgust for the horror that the Daleks spread around the colony. Writing out both characters for a handful of episodes each gives them both a chance to show how successful they would have been as solo companions but this is one pair that work at their absolute best when they are together. That this isn't the case for the most part is another unique point in this story's favour.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It will end the colony’s problems because it will end the colony!’
‘I am your ser-vant!
‘We will get our power!’
‘Why do human beings kill human beings?’
‘Yes, you gave us life’ says a Dalek as it murders Lesterson.

The Good Stuff: What a great way to get us involved with the new Doctor, stepping out of the TARDIS to face murder and mistaken identity, Whitaker not wasting a second by dragging us straight into a gripping story. The fearsome looking capsule which is spent 200 years in a mercury swamp is a great mystery to hook the audience and the opening of it, suggesting ominous dangers within helps to work up some early tension. All of the characters are instantly defined from resistance stirrer Janley, power hungry Bragen and desperate for a break Lesterson. Whilst everybody has secrets, their personalities are instantly recognisable thanks to the well expertly chosen guest cast. The Daleks draped in cobwebs hidden in the shadows of the capsule is a really chilling and a memorable image to close the first episode on. Whitaker is thinking outside the box, not relying on Terry Nation's usual shock tactics of a Dalek emerging from the ground/sea/air but thinking of a genuinely fresh and chilling way to re-introduce the creatures. Who doesn't have that morbid curiosity to see what resides inside a Dalek? The Doctor's assertion that it would only take one Dalek to bring down the entire colony is very exciting, it astonishes me that when you take away their firepower and their strength in numbers (basically all the things that made them such an instant hit) and they become something even scarier because suddenly they are an alien intelligence relying on their wits. Not just robots with twitchy guns but something dark and menacing plotting away inside that stifling shell. Another thing I love about this story is how David Whitaker takes the ridiculous looking creatures and gives them some real credibility, having Lesterson trying to understand what the various arms and lens are for. When they started talking about rolling out the Daleks on Earth for manual labour I actually said ‘you fucking idiots’ out loud. The hubris and over confidence of this colony is unbelievable and as early as episode two you can see a rude awakening built into the script that the leaders are going to face, and by extension their people. Anybody who thinks they can exploit the Daleks has got a world of pain coming to them. Whitaker reminds you what a great character writer he is and the power games between Bragen, Quinn, Hensell and Janley create a fascinating backdrop of internal politics to the tale. Everybody is so busy trying to be top dog that nobody can see the revolution that is taking place under their very noses. ‘This could win us the revolution!’ says Janley of the Daleks and it is a perfect demonstration of how everybody is trying to exploit the creatures whilst quietly they are beautifully exploiting them, building their forces and waiting to make their move. ‘We understand the human mind’ one Dalek intones and it’s terrifying. It's isn't often that the Daleks are shown to be masters of human psychology (or at least this perceptibly) but on the few occasions that they look into our minds and see something of kindred spirits I find it utterly chilling. Janley does not conform to any of the cliches that I have come to expect from female characters that appear in sixties stories (think Carol, Dyoni, Cassandra, Kitty) - she's always plotting, always thinking how she can twist the situation to her advantage and not above using her feminine wiles to exploit the stupid men that run the colony. I loved the scene where she asked them to try the Dalek gun on her to prove that it was safe, whether she believed it was or not is a moot point, it shows that she is willing to risk the possibility of death to further enhance her takeover of the colony. Bragen turning out to be the rebel leader is a great surprise, although given his apparent hatred of their cause should have been an obvious pointer in that direction. There are few sequences that excite the mind more than the Dalek production line - we've been teased for four episodes with the knowledge that they are up to something behind the scenes but the idea that they have stolen enough materials to create a new race of Daleks is absolutely terrifying. Once again Whitaker has looked at the absurd design of these creatures and given it some credibility but actually showing them being assembled. Lesterson's horror matches out own, never in his wildest dreams did he ever imagine his slaves would have exploit him to this degree to build their own army and takeover the colony. The sound designers deserve a round of a applause because the Dalek voices have rarely been deployed as effectively as they are in this tale. In the early episodes they sound like children learning to speak, slurred and tentative but as each episode progresses they regain their confidence and reveal their dark intelligence. Come the final episode there is a Dalek army ready to be deployed, chanting their violent mantras in an hypnotic soundscape. It is rare to be this frightened of the Daleks but seeing them built up from a powerless shells to a merciless army has been a step by step process to elevate them back to claim the status of biggest badasses in the universe. It's such a terrifying process of evolution it almost makes Lesterson's violently psychotic reaction the only reasonable one. Bragen is so drunk on power that when the governor returns and he utilizes one of the creatures to remove his political opponent he still thinks that he has some control of them. He fingers a gun twitchily as though he is a Dalek himself waiting to see what side Janley will take before he decides whether he will murder her or not. His journey has perhaps been even more satisfying than Lesterson's breakdown, a lesson in hubris that we could all do with learning as he adopts the mindset of a Dalek to gain power. The scene where he screams over the intercom to the dead citizens of the colony, proving that his allegiance with them has been an entirely exploitative affair, is very powerful. He's governor of nobody and he was never going to be as soon as he decided to get in bed with the Daleks and try and murder his way into power. The five-episode build up of tension is so effectively achieved that when the Daleks swarm from the capsule and massacre the colonists it is disturbingly quite satisfying because that tension is finally set loose, the breath is finally released. The Daleks murder their way through the colonists, the rebels and the guards, it is an indiscriminate slaughterhouse of dread and fear. Whitaker has effectively taken these creations and handed them their formidable representation.

The Bad: My only complaint are a few aesthetics that don't quite come off (lava lamps, fake backdrops and an army of Daleks represented in cardboard) but looking back on sixties television from the 21st Century is always going to judgmental affair because the standards television now are so masterful.

The Shallow Bit: Polly and Ben. I'll say it again and again and again. Add Jamie to mix in the next tale and I don't know if I can take much more.

Result: Astonishingly good, The Power of the Daleks is my personal favourite Dalek story. If you were going to kick start the show and give it a new lease of life with a spanking new lead actor then couldn't do much better than handing him a story as gripping as this one to prove what he is made of.  The Power of the Daleks is another lost classic, a masterpiece of character drama and suspense building from David Whitaker, one of the master craftsmen of Doctor Who.  He takes Terry Nation’s creations and breathes new life into them. No longer are they just an army of killers but instead formidable tacticians and psychological manipulators and they prey on the weaknesses of this colony until they have enough strength to burst from the capsule and slaughter the lot of them. Less is somehow more and relying on their intelligence rather than their usual habit of strength in numbers and kill first, think later is far more effective expression of their tenacity. By the end of the story there is an argument to be made that the colonists have killed themselves, important figures all planning to utilise the Daleks in different ways and having their wishes granted and then twisted upon themselves. You can't make a bargain with these creatures because they will always demand payment and there is only one reward they seek. The way the story is structured with each episode raising the stakes is superb; the Daleks are revealed in a decrepit state, they are broken into service, they gather resources, they kick start their own production line, they build up an impressive fighting force and finally they break free of the capsule and set off to massacre the people that have made their resurrection possible. The Daleks hold their fire for five episodes so when they are finally let off the leash they are relentless. Tension grips from episode one, builds exponentially and climaxes in an unforgettable bloodbath in the final installment. This is all a powerful backdrop for the new Doctor to establish himself against, Patrick Troughton emerging from this drama as a impish, awkward, intelligent and modest version of the hero we have adjusted to. He gets some time alone with Polly and Ben (both Wills and Craze taking a holiday) and they both get the chance to evaluate the man and arrive at the same decision come the conclusion. This is the Doctor, but an exciting, fresh version of the man. Memorable guest performances abound, the direction is top notch (the telesnaps and few seconds of footage we can watch make this look mouth-wateringly tense) and as a opening to a new era the bar has been set impossibly high. My number one 'I wish this could be discovered' story: 10/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @


Audrey the Leviathan Vampire Girl said...

If there was one story I could wish back into existence then this one would be it.

Paul said...

I've wanted this one back for YEARS! One of my absolute favourites

Anonymous said...

The animation for this DVD release was very good (apart from a few problems), but I would love to see this story recovered. It is an amazing debut story for Troughton, and I'd rate it 10/10