Published on April 16th, 2013 | by Elton Townend Jones4
030 The Power of the Daleks
On the human space colony of Vulcan, a coup is being planned by rebels who want independence from their current masters, while factions within the rebel camp are making plans for their own gains. Meanwhile, the colony’s leading scientist has unearthed a long-hidden space capsule from the mercury swamp – a capsule containing Daleks who have their own, secretive ambitions. Into this chaotic struggle for ultimate power, stumble Polly, Ben and the Doctor…
Hang on a minute. Did I say… the Doctor?
Last week on Doctor Who, the Doctor defeated some men whose old bodies had worn thin and been replaced with medical-mechanical parts, only to slump to the floor of his TARDIS in an op art frenzy of light and sound and be replaced by a complete stranger. Gone is the elderly, white-haired grandfather we have come to love over the last three years (the original, the greatest, the definitive Doctor, William Hartnell) and in his place lays a slightly younger-looking imposter with a Beatle haircut and a craggy, mysterious-looking face. The credits and posterity will tell us that this is the Doctor, now played by Patrick Troughton. We have to believe it’s the Doctor because we saw him change with our own eyes, or we think we did, but our viewer-identification characters of the last three months – Ben (Michael Craze) and Polly (Anneke Wills) – really have no idea who he is.
‘What was that the Doctor said in the Tracking Room,’ asks Polly. ‘“This old body of mine is wearing a bit thin…”?’ Ben makes the logical deduction that the Doctor’s made himself a new one… somehow. ‘I’ve been renewed,’ says the newcomer. ‘It’s part of the TARDIS. Without it I couldn’t survive.’ But even his clothes have changed! The dusty Edwardian garb of our lovely, reassuring, bumbling Doctor have transformed into a gaudy, scruffy, clown’s interpretation of that familiar attire.
And this new Doctor doesn’t play by the usual rules. He’s far more oblique than the man we thought we knew. He is unsettling, infuriating and, at first, often frightening. He cannot control his new body at first, but soon he is dancing jigs, playing the recorder (amateurishly and annoyingly) and cultivating an obsession with hats (as evidenced by his sporting of a stovepipe hat and his new catchphrase ‘I should like a hat like that.’) He also has conversations with himself, which might be an affectation or perhaps he is talking to the old Doctor, active somewhere still in his mind? However this change occurred, it is not merely a change of features, height or clothes, it is a change of everything.
This is an entirely different person (even if he sees his former features looking back at him from an old mirror). He no longer needs the Doctor’s reading spectacles and he even speaks of the Doctor as someone else. So it seems we did not know ‘our’ old Doctor quite as well as we had thought. That this ability to renew himself was a secret previously unshared (almost the final punch line to three years of asking ‘Doctor … who?’) as was his keeping of a 500 year diary…
But just like ‘our’ Doctor, this new one soon finds himself at the centre of political shenanigans when the TARDIS lands on Vulcan. By episode two, he is more avuncular, playful and naughty (he even fluffs his lines just to make us feel at home) – but he’s still impishly annoying. By pretending to be the Examiner from Earth (tasked with surveying the efficacy of the colony), he gains access to the seemingly impenetrable space capsule only to find a dark chamber occupied by eerily dormant and cobweb-coated Daleks – and, worse still, a slithering Dalek mutant scuttling about in the shadows. Even independent of their travel machines, it seems the Dalek mutants can create havoc. And, as more Daleks appear, fooling the colonists into blindly assisting them in their bid for power (both literal and figurative) with child-like cries of ‘I am your ser-vant!’, it is disturbingly clear that they immediately recognise this new Doctor for who he is. Proof then, if we needed it by episode three, that this man is exactly who he claims to be.
These Daleks – there appears to be but three of them initially – want to set the colonial factions against each other in a fight to the death, after which they will use the colony to provide materials and power for their building of an army in their hidden factory, deep inside their dimensionally transcendental capsule. They profess to know how the human mind works and seem to have concluded that it is fuelled by greed – indeed, the bulk of the guest cast falls victim to its own schemes and desires. Complementing this Dalek vision of humanity is a nice moment in episode five, wherein a puzzled Dalek asks, ‘Why do human beings kill human being?’ – a damning indictment of what these colonists have become.
In terms of realisation, director Christopher Barry hopes to achieve much on famously limited budgets. Derek Dodd’s mercury swamps are a little one dimensional (but no worse than many other planet-scapes in this period of the series’ history); the colony is functional but effective with its long metallic corridors (perfect conditions for Daleks oddly still reliant on static electricity – well, odd until you realise that this is a David Whitaker story); and the capsule is impressive but also relatively functional.
The film sequences of the Dalek factory are classic, legendary and scary Doctor Who (if perhaps too brightly lit). The masses of wobbly mutants are very much welcome three years after the Daleks’ debut, but while the voices screaming in unison is a triumph of sound design (as is the use of sound cues from their original 1963 adventure), the factory conveyor filled with toy Daleks and the capsule control room filled to bursting with blatantly cut-out/cardboard/standee Daleks aren’t as effective as they should be. This is a shame because these sequences undermine much of the rather sparse tension and threat that the actors have been building for the previous month. I won’t say they’re not still lovely sequences, though. They’re just not as good as you might be expecting them to be. And this could be true of the story as a whole…
The Power of the Daleks has become very fashionable in Who circles in recent years, and I must admit that, until late, I had fallen prey to its cold glamour. It is, of course, the first Second Doctor story and for episode one alone it is of inestimable historical importance, but episodes two – five, while full of solid Doctor Who, do amble along a little slowly and are nowhere near as tense as they could be. The story is now much lauded for its ‘scheming’ Daleks, and scheme and plot they do, but when you watch it – and the Daleks POV shots are a brilliant idea, I admit – they do shout rather a lot. In particular, the ‘I am your ser-vant!’ thing wears thin very quickly (though the pay-off when barmy scientist Lesterson uses the same phrase in episode six is wonderfully chilling).
It is also currently fashionable to suggest that having ‘scheming’ Daleks that watch and wait is the best way to utilise the Doctor’s most legendary foes. I’m not sure I agree with this anymore, particularly when the humans in this story manage to do quite enough of that on their own, thank you. It strikes me that the Daleks didn’t become the Doctor’s greatest enemy by serving drinks and supressing their feelings – surely they’re far more effective when chasing you and shooting at you and screaming that they’re going to kill you – preferably through some space jungle. Isn’t that what monsters are supposed to do? Isn’t that what the Daleks are for? And that they are almost incidentally defeated here by the Doctor’s accidentally pulling out the right wire to withhold their power is an insult to them and the Doctor himself.
On the plus side, episode six is an exciting shoot-out with Daleks up against machine-gun carrying colonists. It’s all rather macho, but still very impressive and perhaps more visceral than many other Doctor Who stories of this time. The death count is very high and even ‘innocent’ colonists (one seen carrying a swaddled baby on production photos) die in the conflict. The murder is wholesale and Polly is particularly distraught by the carnage. Indeed, both companions do a brilliant support job throughout this story, as do guest cast members Bernard Archard (Bragen), Robert James (Lesterson), Pamela Ann Davey (Janley) and Peter Bathurst (Quinn)…..