The Power of the Daleks

The Power of the DaleksAnother from DWM #474 and genuinely one of my favourite Doctor Who stories. In as much as one can tell.

DWM #474Stop. Stop. Concentrate on one thing. One thing!

Envisage a distant planet. It’s years and years from now. Conjure, upon its surface, a mercury swamp. And then a container that’s retrieved from its depths. We don’t need to address how it got there, it’s what’s inside: six 16mm film canisters. The stock seems fragile but… but, yes, it can be brought back to life. There are moving images, sound. Friends, this is The Power of the Daleks!

Our rescuers make the presumption they’ve surfaced a servile piece of entertainment. But as they scan and image-process and whatever else, they’re actually pouring life back into a monster. Unknown to them, the story has devastating potential. Not only is this solitary adventure equipped with the firepower to enflame a generation’s nightmares, it’s also coded with the information to make and replicate more Doctor Who!

Unless you were there for those six Saturday evenings over November and December 1966 – and I wasn’t – it’s surely impossible to appreciate the true power of Patrick Troughton’s debut story. Not just because we can never recapture the original context, but also because of the inconvenient truth, that, in the mid 1970s, the BBC junked their copies of it.

Now all we have are audio recordings, tele-snaps and brief reels of footage taken from assorted sources. Inside the TARDIS, captured in two solitary frames by John Cura, the new Doctor grapples with the console and hauls himself onto his feet. And then, if you sequence in one of the clips, he moves! It’s a minor miracle. Some chap in Australia, apparently, thought to point his cine camera at the screen and we have three seconds of Troughton rolling his eyes like a silent movie blackguard. “It’s over!” he says before breaking into a chuckle. And already it is. “It’s over,” he breathes again, back behind Cura’s immobile images.

This compromise between scraps of different media is like looking at Power through a zoetrope. Luckily, the sheer clout of such an exemplary, such an epically good story, cannot be contained.

Really, what was it like to see at as new? I’m guessing unsettling. No concession is given towards reassuring the Doctor Who audience during this most tumultuous transformation. Even two decades later, when producer John Nathan-Turner teased the fans with an unhinged incarnation in The Twin Dilemma, his Doctor – “Whether you like it or not” – was still afforded a comforting smile at the very end of the tale, underlined by the incidental music quoting the theme tune. But in Power, our hero (if he still is that; he seems to be) remains evasive, referring to “The Doctor” in the third person. Hartnell’s ring is discarded, and later, so are his glasses. Whenever given the chance, this chap refuses to clarify who he is… No, let me rephrase that. He refuses to clarify what his identity is.

Because who he is, is something explored over the six episodes. He’s a watcher. He stays in the sidelines, appreciatively noting Polly’s inquisitiveness. “She’s interested. I like that”. He’s also mercurial. One moment he’s browbeating security chief Bragen, the next he’s flapping his hands prettily (probably) at light refreshments. “Ah ha!” He exclaims. “Fruit!” And he’s a man who’s given to gnomic utterances. Upon facing a Dalek, he quietly vows: “I shall stop you. I will”.

Is he the Doctor? Later orthodoxy makes that clear, but at the time… “Doctor, you did know what you were doing, didn’t you?” asks Polly as the travellers return to the TARDIS. He makes no answer. Just another chuckle.

But they most certainly are the Daleks, even though this is the first time their creator, Terry Nation, hasn’t contributed to the script. Instead it’s Doctor Who‘s original story editor, David Whitaker. Although much of Power was re-written by Dennis Spooner (two story editors – little wonder the end result is so solid) to take into account eleventh hour vacillations about Troughton’s portrayal, Whitaker stipulated his characterisation of the Daleks must remain intact.

It feels like he’s been waiting forever to get his hands on the pepper pots. Too often Nation had painted them as batty and blustering. Here they’re stripped back to basics, a quiet, more assiduous menace. A Dalek minus its gun-stick may be emasculated, but it more than compensates with guile. It means Peter Hawkins gets to enjoy himself with unconventionally gentle lines, such as the celebrated: “I am your ser-vant”. And there’s a brilliant scene in Episode Five where Lesterson and a Dalek are hauled up in front of new governor Bragen, the Dalek fibbing abominably, dropping a colleague in it with the boss.

But it’s probably the creatures’ understanding of humanity – something Whitaker would return to in Evil of the Daleks – that really chills. They’re able to anticipate what humans will do and, like quicksilver in a maze, flood through all the possible routes. They know our default response to any new resource is to assume it exists for our exploitation, and they have the political nous to align themselves with Janley as the colony breaks into civil war (“We will fight for you!”). When one asks Bragen: “Why do human beings kill human beings?” it does so with no expectation of an answer.

It’s Lesterson – a towering, vanity-free performance from Robert James – who hammers home the theme: “They’re the new species, you see, taking over from Homo sapiens. Man’s had his day. Finished now.”

So much about Power is so nuanced that the multiple episode endings featuring choral Daleks chanting like Kwik Fit fitters seems shockingly out of place. A clumsy adjunct to a chamber piece about revolution which, rarely for Doctor Who, depicts neither the regime nor the rebels as being morally right.

This is a story simply told, but threaded with complication. Zoom in, and you’ll discover the DNA of Doctor Who. Submerged under mercury, waiting one day to return. Renewal, regime-change, humanity at the fringes of existence. Daleks! Power! Power enough to fuel the series forever…

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